Listen to this track by jazz piano innovator and famous eccentric Thelonious Monk along with his equally celebrated musical partner by the time this was recorded, John Coltrane. It’s “Monk’s Mood”, a cut that would appear on the bona fide buried treasure Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane Live At Carnegie Hall.
This rendition of the song was cut live at the famous venue (how do you get there? Practice, man, practice …) at the tail end of 1957 in two sets on the same night. During several months that same year, Monk and Coltrane collaborated in a quartet along with bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson. Monk had cut this tune in trio form in the studio with Coltrane (along with bassist Wilbur Ware) on his otherwise-solo piano album Thelonious Himself earlier that same year in April.
By the time they recorded the Carnegie Hall date, the band had Monk’s famously idiosyncratic composition style down pat, with amazing clarity and precise musical alignment particularly between him and Coltrane. This piece is like a dance between sax and piano, with steps that may be odd in places, but are always elegant. The most amazing part of all of this was that this music was almost not heard at all outside of the live audience who attended the date, and certainly not because the music isn’t absolutely sublime. Before a wider audience could hear it, it needed to be found – literally. Read more
Listen to this track by jazz-rock innovators with a rotating line-up Weather Report. It’s “Birdland”, a bona fide hit single as taken from their 1977 album Heavy Weather. The record was a smash success, selling loads while also impressing the reviewers at Downbeat at the same time.
In particular, the album showed off the dynamics of the band and where they’d pushed the boundaries of jazz as a form, coupling it with many strains of music that included rock, funk, and electronic music. This is perhaps a reflection of the group’s leadership under keyboardist Joe Zawinul and his “partner in crime” saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Both men had come up in other bands in the sixties under Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis respectively, with each of those being musicians who also sought to escape the rigidity of jazz as a form in order to put across musical visions using a wider palette. This certainly set the stage for Zawinul and Shorter to do the same.
Here on this song and on the rest of the record, this is evident. But it’s not just about redefining the boundaries of jazz in terms of texture and style. It’s also about form, with a specific element for which jazz is known largely left out of the equation. Read more
Listen to this track by powerhouse jazz-pop crooner Tony Bennett, and impressionistic ivory-tinkler Bill Evans. It’s “Waltz For Debby”, an original melody written by Evans that turned into something of a jazz standard from when it was first recorded in the mid-fifties.
This version appears on the pair’s 1975 collaborative effort, The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album, which was the first of two albums from them. It represents a high watermark in the catalogues of both men, which considering the calibre of talent at work here, is really saying something. In some ways, the likelihood of this record being as transcendent as it is seems unlikely on paper. As dextrous as Bennett has always been as a vocalist, by this time in his career he was a traditional pop singer, and not noted for a pure jazz style. In contrast to that, Evans was known for his complex and even cerebral approach to jazz. Although like Bennett, he’d traded in the interpretation of jazz standards for a good deal of his career by this time, Evans’ tendencies to deconstruct those melodies stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the vocalist.
With all that said, this album works anyway, and gloriously so. And this rendition of Evans’ tune, with lyrics written by Gene Lees is one of the most powerful. This is down to the strength of the song as interpreted by Evans for this duet. But, Bennett does more than his part to bring it to life, a story about childhood, adulthood, and the bittersweet process of seeing one fade to make room for the other. Read more
Listen to this track by South African horn master and jazz crossover champeen, Hugh Masekela. It’s “Part Of A Whole”, the opening track on his 1972 landmark album Home Is Where The Music Is.
This cut is practically seething with joy, full of his own lilting trumpet, the energetic and versatile drumming of Makaya Ntshoko and the playful alto sax lines of Dudu Pakwana, along with American jazz musician Larry Willis on Fender Rhodes, and Puerto Rican-born bassist Eddie Gomez filling out the lineup.
It’s hard to imagine this kind of joie d’vive coming out of musicians that hailed from a region of the world that suffered under the oppression of Apartheid. As a musical figure, Masekela rallyed against this dangerous and oppressive political climate that also housed a hotbed of musical delights. In this way this is music that is, in its own way, very political. Further to that, I think that political reach extends outside of South Africa to regions closer to home, too. Read more
Listen to this track from Avant garde tenor player with a soft side Pharaoh Sanders. It’s “Astral Traveling”, a track as taken off of his 1971 LP Thembi. This record catches Sanders during what many consider to be his prime period. But, instead of stretching out for side-long excursions into tempestuous and ferocious whirlwinds of sound, this record is more varied, and with more bite-sized track lengths, not to mention moments of serenity and lyricism. Maybe it was because the record was named after Sanders’ wife. But, it largely deals in subtlety and sonic variation, as opposed to the crashing assault for which much of his work is generally known.
This album is actually the product of two different sessions. Like many jazz records toward the end of the sixties and into the seventies, these sessions were edited into a whole at the production stage instead of being recorded right off of the floor as is. This doesn’t mean that the record was without spontaneity or the spirit of experimentation. In fact, this very track can certainly be considered experimental, even if it is pastoral in equal measure. Read more
Listen to this track by James Dean-meets-Sinatra-meets-Bix-Beiderbecke jazz amalgam and legend in his own right Chet Baker. It’s “Almost Blue”, a latter-day standard for Baker as featured prominently in the film Let’s Get Lost and also featured on the live album Chet Baker Live In Tokyo, recorded in 1987 and released posthumously the next year.
That movie was a documentary about Baker, who had risen in prominence in the fifties, initially in his associations with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and with the West Coast jazz scene in general. But, Baker had also played with east coast musicians, too, including Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Baker had even caught the eye of the movie industry, thanks to his almost supernatural good looks. In addition to all of that, Baker was a gifted trumpeter, and hauntingly nuanced vocalist. He was known for his melancholic tone with both voice and instrument, making his name by playing standards that were tinged with tragedy; “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, “The Thrill Is Gone”, and “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, being prime examples.
Maybe that’s why this tune, written by Elvis Costello with Chet Baker in mind, fit so well into his musical wheelhouse, eventually becoming a stalwart concert favourite during the last phase of his career. Yet, the theme of dissatisfaction and loss seemed to go beyond the material. Baker seems to embody it, and for good reason. By the eighties, Baker had seen it all. To many, it was a miracle that he would be able to tell about it, probably including Chet Baker. Read more
Listen to this track by boundary-pushing jazz trumpeter and genre-defying sonic visionary Miles Davis. It’s “Shhh/Peaceful”, the first track and indeed whole of side-A on his 1969 landmark release In A Silent Way.
The album gathered some of the greatest jazz musicians of the day into one space, with the music recorded during a single session on February 18, 1969, after almost a year on Davis’ part of working up ideas, and experimenting with new textures and instrumentation. Joining jazz luminaries like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Chick Corea, were European jazz players including bassist Dave Holland, Joe Zawinul on organ, and electric guitarist John McLaughlin.
Besides Davis’ creative vision supported by producer and engineer Teo Macero, perhaps it was this cross-cultural exchange that helped to move this project into another dimension. Likely too it was the addition of electric instruments that made this record the harbinger of Davis’ foray into what would become known as jazz fusion, wherein he would employ electric wattage to his instrumental excursions that paid no mind to traditional melodic frameworks, making critics wonder if Miles Davis was even interested in jazz any longer.
But, when it came to the critics, this piece of music, and In A Silent Way in general, much of it stemmed from a significant paradigm shift when it came to how jazz was understood, and that which was very common in the recording of rock music at the time; studio trickery undertaken after the musicians went home. Read more
Listen to this track by jazz-enthusiast and singer songwriter Joni Mitchell. It’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” as taken from her 1979 LP Mingus named after her artistic patron at the time, the incomparable Charles Mingus.
This song is a jazz standard, first appearing in its original instrumental form on Mingus’ 1959 album Ah Um, and a tribute to saxophone legend Lester Young, the wearer of the signature headwear who died that year at the age of forty-nine.
Mitchell had veered into jazz territory on a number of albums previous to this one, working with several jazz musicians who were skilled enough to work within the framework of her penchant for open tunings. Despite its very experimental and non-commercial nature, the Mingus album still managed to peak in the top twenty on Billboard. This is possibly due to the fact that Mingus himself had died after contributing to six new songs on the album, plus two others from his existing portfolio, including this one. After a career of pushing the envelope musically speaking, this was his last musical pursuit.
Perhaps it’s fitting that “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” was the closer of this record, originally a tribute to one musician becoming something of a tribute to another years later, complete with lyrics by Mitchell especially for the project. But, I think this song evokes something else, too.
Listen to this track by great American composer and supreme jazz immortal Duke Ellington. It’s “Diminuendo” and “Crescendo in Blue”, two compositions dating back to 1937 and re-positioned here from the band’s book (aka their catalogue of songs) on the 1956 “live” release Ellington At Newport.
This was a game-changing date for Ellington and his guys, and I put the quotation marks around the word live because it was pieced together after the fact, supplemented by studio recordings and with audience applause. Duke felt that the band wasn’t properly prepared for their appearance to the point that he felt it might not make for a good recording. He made the suggestion of a studio album and live album hybrid to paper over what he felt were some of the cracks. But, that’s not the big story here.
The big story is what happened to the real audience, and how it became a vital chapter in the career of one of the greatest American composers of all-time, actually ensuring his success for the remainder of his life – including a cover shot in Time Magazine.
Listen to this track by jazz saxphonist, arranger, and latter day TV soundtrack composer Oliver Nelson. It’s “Stolen Moments”, an established jazz standard covered by many since, and the centerpiece to his celebrated 1961 album The Blues And The Abstract Truth.
Nelson is joined on this song by a selection of some of the greatest musicians in jazz at the time; Paul Chambers on bass, Roy Haynes on drums, Eric Dolphy on flute, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and Bill Evans on piano. Nelson’s septet is rounded out by George Barrow, who holds down the low end on baritone sax, even if he doesn’t take a solo. With this tune, it’s the voices of the horns working together to bring out the harmonic beauty found in the theme of the song that makes it such a work of note.
Much in the same way horns would be tightly arranged later in the decade on significant jazz releases like Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder”, and Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father”, the horns here on this piece are interlocked in the same way they are on a lot of R&B tunes. Perhaps this sheds some light on where Nelson had come from as a musician, and perhaps pointed to where he was going, too. Read more