October 1: Blood Sweat & Tears, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Smith, Weather Report

Jazz was one of those genres I had hardly any relationship with prior to this project. It’s been pleasant working through the list and finding some albums that I thought were really cool (Herbie Hancock and Charles Mingus for example). This is the final all-jazz week, though, as we’ve listened to nearly all the jazz representation on the list: so a few names this week that you may or may not be familiar with.

Blood, Sweat and Tears, ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ (link)

The nontet’s second album, and their only appearance on the list, this combines late 60s rock with a regal-sounding horn section, occasional jazz organ solos and two versions of Satie’s ‘Gymnopedies’ which bookend the album. ‘Spinning Wheel’ is the most famous original song here, written by husky vocalist David Clayton-Thomas, used for years on a British TV advert, and a fairly routine rocker before it interrupts itself for a Miles Davis section. This album certainly kept me guessing – most of the songs are very different from the one that preceded it – but I don’t expect to come back to it.

Dave Brubeck Quartet, ‘Time Out’ (link)

Brubeck is best known for ‘Take Five’, which appears here and is probably the most famous song in 5/4. The number of musicians in his band seems to be the only even number in his repertoire, as we also have songs in 9/8 and 7/4 – and the album finishes on track 7. It’s the sort of cool jazz you hear in 70s cartoons (indeed Brubeck himself scored for Charlie Brown), but the Rachmaninoff interludes, time signature shifts and other spooky wanderings mean that it never recedes entirely into the background. Already nearly 40 when this came out, Brubeck carried on releasing albums as late as 2005, when he was in his mid-80s.

Miles Davis, ‘Birth of the Cool’ (link)

The earliest Davis album on the list is technically a compilation album, a 1957 culling of his 1954 78rpm releases. All of the releases seem to have a different running order: I listened to the ‘Complete’ version. Davis is accompanied by eight musicians in this version of the band, which (despite the name) often sounds more like hard bop or a tricky, polyphonic take on Duke Ellington’s sort of sound than the stripped down cool jazz of ‘Kind of Blue’. The slow motion horn pile-up of ‘Moon Dreams’ is an early highlight, but this became background music more than once.

Bill Evans, ‘Sunday at the Village Vanguard’ (link)

Evans’s line-up on this live album is him on piano accompanied by a rhythm section, so the album mostly comprises of him leading with Satie-ish plinking, Thelonius Monk chord clusters and Ellington melodies, and a whole load of bass solos by Scott LaFaro, often with the audience audible in the background. Perhaps the intervening 60 years has dulled its impact somewhat, but this didn’t really leap off the speakers for me. Alas, this was LaFaro’s final recording: he died in a car crash less than two weeks later.

Ella Fitzgerald, ‘Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook’ (link)

Opening up Spotify and seeing one of these classic albums with a three-hour running time is standard fare these days given the amount of additional dross that gets added onto, say, ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ (six-hour version on Spotify including Nico’s ‘Chelsea Girls’ album in full). On this occasion, however, there’s not much extra dross: the original album is indeed 54 tracks long and three hours. It’s in no hurry either: the first thirteen minutes are instrumental easy-listening orchestrations which don’t even feature Fitzgerald! There’s certainly nothing wrong with Ella’s voice, or George’s compositions, which incorporate Latin rhythms, rag-time, sassy big band and showtune-ish ballads. Ira’s lyrical approach, on the other hand, gets wearisome after… well actually straight away, as the routine of clever-dick rhymes and “here’s a thing, here’s how it relates to our relationship” formula is a bit too pleased with itself for its own good. I mean, the guy rhymes “hour” with “Schopenhauer”. Highlights include ‘Just Another Rhumba’, ‘Somebody from Somewhere’ and ‘He Loves and She Loves’, but ultimately the sheer quantity of music is overwhelming. This isn’t even Fitzgerald’s only three-hour album: she also recorded the Duke Ellington songbook and took just as much time to do it.

Jimmy Smith, ‘Back at the Chicken Shack’ (link)

An artist about whom I knew nothing going in, Smith was an organist whose line-up was an unusual ensemble of organ, sax, guitar and drums, with Smith’s Hammond B-3 serving as lead instrument, accompaniment and bass. The sax and guitar are mainly used as solo instruments, and the musicians deliver with aplomb. Smith himself is a restrained backing musician and a skilled soloist. But it all kind of sounds exactly the same. More muzak in a big week for it.

Weather Report, ‘Heavy Weather’ (link)

The latest album of the week (and possibly the most recent jazz album on the 1001, depending on where you categorise Amy Winehouse), this came out in 1977. Its most famous song is its opener, ‘Birdland’, which paves the way for a lot of synths, fretless bass wankery from Jaco Pastorius and soprano saxophone solos. There’s a percussion duet called ‘Rumba Mama’, a bit of steel drum, some mandocello and a lot of stuff that sounds pretty awful. A lot of component parts that I don’t like combining to Frankenstein’s Monster effect. This album was credited for showing there was life in the flagging jazz-fusion scene; to me it just begs for the genre to be put down.

Next week: we’ll be looking at some of the best late-career and comeback albums on the list.

Status update: 644 listened to (64.3%), 357 remaining.

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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

February 7: Beatles, Kate Bush, Can, ‘Bitches Brew’, DJ Shadow, Eno, Iggy and the Stooges, Incredible String Band

I’ve been working through the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Luckily I had a head start, having listened to 130-odd already, but that still leaves 871 that I hadn’t. While this means I will listen to a lot of good music, there also appears to be some total dreck: I am particularly reluctant to listen to three Def Leppard albums, a Bees record and ‘Slippery When Wet’. Sarah-Beth suggested I write about them, so here are some.

The Beatles – ‘With the Beatles’.

All the famous ones are on the list too but I’d already heard them. This one is from the point where things like ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ covers were still acceptable choices for album tracks. The only famous Fabs song on it is their cover of ‘Money’ (not the Pink Floyd song obv). Okay, not great, still a couple of years away from the real game-changers.

Kate Bush – ‘Hounds of Love’.

Hits on the A-side, dull concept stuff on the B-side. The hits have dated better than the Fairlight jams. Bat for Lashes was taking notes.

Can – ‘Tago Mago’.

Starts off as a normal enough 70s Krautrock album, but changes shape with the 18-minute ‘Halleluwah’, which adds curious sound effects and edits over the funk-trance jam like a King Tubby record or something. Everything on the second disc is abstract experimentation, often without a clear melody line. Pretty good in places.

Miles Davis – ‘Bitches Brew’.

I’d never heard this, but Angelo Badalamenti obviously has – the cumulative discordance and noisy horn blasts often present in his work clearly originate from this album. I’m a total jazz philistine so the wild cacophonies were beyond me; ‘Spanish Key’ is the track that made most sense to me.

DJ Shadow – ‘Entroducing’.

Too long, but still sounds fresh and holds up well even after 20 years or however long it is. I’d heard Shadow’s stuff with UNKLE and Quannum Projects but never his solo work. Good album.

Brian Eno – ‘Before and After Science’.

Eno’s 70s were pretty great all in all. This isn’t as good as ‘Another Green World’ or ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’ but is more of the quirky, off-kilter rock he did that decade. Also surely the only album of the 1001 to use the phrase “not a sausage”.

Iggy and the Stooges – ‘Raw Power’ (Iggy Pop mix).

The album’s always criticised for its mixing and production: Iggy’s mix was so rudimentary that the label insisted Bowie remixed it; there wasn’t much Bowie could do with it though as the recording was so poor. This is, however, the original Iggy mix. The guitar is too loud, Iggy is too loud, the rhythm section is often inaudible. This must have sounded fantastic at the time – it does have melodies and structure, despite initial appearances – but bloody hell.

The Incredible String Band – ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’.

Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci were always compared to ISB in their day; it’s possible that this was a derogatory reference. The ISB were a weird psych band from Scotland, so are contemporaries of the Canterbury lot. Without a rhythm section, these songs drift around and last forever, often sounding like extended sitar jams. Pretty dull.