October 30: Jazz special – John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd, Keith Jarrett, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk

Jazz is kind of the final frontier in non-classical music. It was the genre all the hip cats loved in the 1950s (Kerouac vividly describes how exciting he found it in ‘On The Road’), but in my lifetime, it’s been either a staple of TV backing music or a fringe genre of avant-garde experimentation. I know little about the genre and own none of it (unless you count Fela Kuti) so time to learn some more about it.

John Coltrane, ‘A Love Supreme’

Coltrane was Miles Davis’s sax player before becoming a band leader in his own right. Here, him and his quartet play a suite which is essentially just one long song, characterised by discordant piano, clattering drums and soloing from Coltrane. The best part of the album is the opening of ‘Acknowledgement’, where the main riff climbs out of a swarm of cymbals only to be submerged by a chaotic sax line. Mike Garson (among many others) was taking notes on the piano style here, but it’s a deliberately obscure piece. While it’s certainly a striking album, it wasn’t one that I feel compelled to revisit.

Miles Davis, ‘Kind of Blue’

‘Bitches Brew’, which I listened to at the very start of the project, was pretty much unfathomable to me, so time to try and approach him from a different angle. ‘Kind of Blue’ is more accessible, essentially allowing Davis and Coltrane to solo over Satie-ish piano rumblings and rhythm section. It’s an easy introduction to the modal jazz style which Davis lost interest in later in his career.

Duke Ellington, ‘At Newport 1956’

Ellington and his band were on their downers at this point, reduced to playing ice-rinks, but turned their career around with this exciting live album. Well, I say “live album”: 40% of this album does indeed come from the live performance, the rest was clandestine studio fixing and counterfeiting. Hey, look at the big fat phoney! Anyway, big band style jazz like this must have been incredibly exciting to the audience who were there (or who weren’t there as the case may be), as much as it doesn’t seem desperately thrilling now. Some of the atonal trumpet squeals sound like something off a Public Enemy backing track: I was surprised to learn the Bomb Squad hadn’t sampled them.

Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, ‘Jazz Samba’

This does-what-it-says-on-the-tin album launched a bossa nova craze in the early 1960s United States, and features saxophonist Getz and guitarist Byrd recording Brazilian standards with two bassists and two drummers as if they were a stadium rock band. The augmented rhythm section doesn’t overpower the set, though, as this is led by Getz’s husky tenor sax. It’s easy enough on the ear, which explains this style of music’s later devolution into muzak: Getz would later record ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, practically the dictionary definition of lift music. Best track here is a melancholy cut unsurprisingly named ‘Samba Triste’.

Keith Jarrett, ‘Koln Concert’

The second of two live albums on today’s list, this one is a recording of a concert of solo piano improvisations played on a knackered piano (due to a venue flub). This doesn’t exactly sound like the most exciting thing ever, right? Yet I found this album pretty charming. It has jazzy and bluesy sections, of course, but there’s also flavours of classical (shades of Rachmaninoff) and almost new age. Surprisingly, as much as it’s non-confrontational, this is one of the albums I enjoyed most this week.

Charles Mingus, ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’

While many jazz albums have the band leader front and centre, this is less the case with Mingus, a double bass player and occasional pianist who leads from the back, meaning that the solos are democractically split between sax, trumpet, guitar and piano. Partially composed as a ballet (!) and recorded as an octet, this album features horn section cacophonies, whiplash transitions of themes and mood and a raunchy strip-joint vibe throughout characterised by the wah-wah trombones. This is a bizarre album which is not for the faint of heart, so of course I loved it. I also checked out ‘Mingus Ah Um’ but while good it lacks this album’s unpredictable weirdness.

Thelonius Monk, ‘Brilliant Corners’.

Monk was a pianist whose tricky compositions were a pain for his band to perform and record: the title track here took 20+ takes for the poor musicians. The complexity of that track is the most interesting thing here, followed by the celeste on ‘Pannonica’. It’s hard to judge this on its own merits given the ubiquity of hard bop, though.

Next week will be REQUESTS WEEK so if you’d like me to enjoy (or ‘enjoy’) an album of your choosing, pick from the list here

Progress update: 323 listened to (32%), 678 remain

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Author: JT Wilson

Listening to all of the albums in the '1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die' book (2006 edition).

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