Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Top 5 Greatest Cuts From (Maybe) the Greatest Year in the History of Jazz: 1959

Cover of "Miles Davis - Kind of Blue: Del...
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By Jamie Dubberly

While jazz still continues to evolve today, it seems hard to imagine any other year, past, present, or future producing so many divergent new styles at once.

From the introspective, modal musings of Miles Davis on Kind of Blue, to the intense, relentless search for new harmonies and sonorities from John Coltrane on Giant Steps, a wealth of very diverse music was being imagined, created, and recorded by several different jazz artists in 1959.

This list of tracks offers but a small taste of the aural treasures that fascinated, soothed, excited, surprised (and even outraged some) listeners in the post Korean War-era United States. In addition to showing such a diverse range of jazz styles, the music discussed here offers (at least to this author's ears) a set of songs that ranges greatly in mood, tempo, and emotion.

From the cool swing of Dave Brubeck (in 5/4 time, no less), to the somber, gut wrenching, blues-drenched tribute to a former tenor saxophone giant by Charles Mingus, to the frenetic, awe-inspiring collaborative efforts of Ornette Coleman's quartet, pushing the boundaries of jazz in every way, and introducing a style called "free jazz" that has been the topic of lively discussions for decades (which still continue), regarding exactly what jazz is and isn't.

1. So What (Miles Davis) 9:22 - from Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Columbia)

We begin with a track from, arguably, the greatest jazz record of all time. Miles Davis' Kind of Blue introduces a sound that is in direct contrast to much of the hard, aggressive bop that was popular at the time. Indeed, some of the "hard bop" school's most well known practitioners are on this Davis date, but here the focus is on an entirely different aesthetic.

Davis had begun to stray away from the bop practices, that he had helped to innovate on sessions with Charlie Parker in the mid 1940s, most notably on a series of sessions for the Prestige label. These sessions, Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, and Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet show a Davis that is progressively turning more inward in his approach, and creating solos that have a more subdued and relaxed feel than many of his hard bop contemporaries.

The collaborations with Gil Evans, beginning in 1957, likewise highlight a Davis sound that is stark, poignant, vulnerable and decidedly romantic, in sessions such as Miles Ahead with Columbia (after his contract with Prestige had ended).

In Kind of Blue, Davis, for the first time, began to experiment with an approach that emphasized a modal-based improvisation, instead of the functional bop harmonies that were ubiquitous in the jazz world at the time. These modal harmonies, in which often a single chord would support the melody for several bars, were a perfect fit with Miles' concept of understated, and almost minimalist improvisations.

This is evident in our opening track, "So What," right from the start. A freely played piano/bass intro, by Chambers and Evans, featuring modal-based harmonies, leads into a Paul Chambers riff that is answered by Davis, Coltrane, and Adderley, and Evans with a simple 2 note rhythmic figure. The tune harmonically is based on only 2 modes, or chords, for the entire track!

Brilliant soloing by another pioneer in search of his own musical identity (and finding it), John Coltrane, and an alto saxophonist mostly identified with the hard bop movement, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, two master saxophonists with equally creative approaches to Davis' material.

Yet it is Davis' solo, that sets the tone, not only for this opening track of Kind of Blue, but indeed for the entire album. A mature, supremely confident, intentionally reserved and beautifully paced solo that offers a wildly different approach to not only the trumpet, but on any instrument. One that favors economy over excess, offering a musical parallel to the phrase "less is more".

2. Take Five (Paul Desmond) 5:24 - from Dave Brubeck Quartet,Time Out (Columbia)

Continuing with an approach that offers a "cool" concept (as opposed to the fiery, and aggressive bop and hard bop) is our 2nd cut.

Dave Brubeck, being inspired from travels to Turkey, Greece, and the Middle East, wanted to record an entire album of music that explored different time signatures than the standard 4/4 that identified most American music, and especially jazz and popular music.

What resulted was the album Time Out, which went on to become one of the top selling jazz albums of all time (3rd only to Davis' Kind of Blue, and Coltrane's A Love Supreme). We offer here the most famous track from that album: "Take Five".

The title is, of course, a play on words, offering us a clue into the time signature of the tune, which is in 5/4 time. A swinging groove starts the track from drummer Morello, joined by Brubeck on piano, and finally bassist Wright. Desmond states the melody and embarks on a swinging solo, over the A "section" of the tune (which is essentially the opening vamp) followed by a heated drum solo from Morello, and then Desmond returns us to the head of the tune, closing on a repeated vamp that opened the track.

A personal anecdote/story from Brubeck (from Ken Burns film: Jazz) sheds light into the compositional/arranging process of this tune. Paul Desmond, Brubeck's alto saxophonist, had written the tune and brought it in for rehearsal. The song was in ABA form, and when he heard it, Brubeck suggested that he Desmond switch the "A" and "B" sections, as originally Desmond had the tune beginning with what we now know as the bridge or "B" section.

Brubeck's instincts regarding this appear to have been "on the money" as the tune subsequently became one of the most beloved jazz standards of all time!

3. Giant Steps (John Coltrane) 4:43 - John Coltrane, Giant Steps (Atlantic)

The next cut also became a jazz standard, but of a completely different sort.

From John Coltrane's landmark album Giant Steps, this is the title track. Again, as was the case with "Take Five", the title is somewhat of a play on words. Coltrane had begun experimenting with finding new ways to approach harmonic progression, even as a sideman, substituting chords in his improvisations over standard tunes.

He found a new way to approach harmonic progression, by using the interval of a minor third, combined with the motion of the 5th, into a sequence that forever changed jazz harmony, and has been often considered the "benchmark" by which jazz musicians today are judged.

The title,"Giant Steps", many have written, could refer to these unorthodox chord changes ( the interval of the minor third, which contain three steps, being a "giant step", as a normal "step" in musical terminology, is a major 2nd, containing two steps).

Along with this revolutionary idea of harmonic progression is an absolutely blisteringly fast tempo, which makes the harmonic progression even more of a challenge for the musicians on the date (except for Coltrane, of course, who had been living, and breathing these particular chord changes).

Indeed, on this date, the pianist Tommy Flanagan appears at times to simply give up during his solo, and who can blame him, really? Coltrane was known for bringing new, unrehearsed material often to recording sessions, and in this case, his new ideas of harmonic progression are not easily mastered "on the spot", even by musicians as brilliant as Flanagan!

In any case, the track remains an iconic song that has befuddled, and inspired many a jazz student. Coltrane's solo here exemplifies his forward thinking approach, as he seemingly flies through the chord changes effortlessly, arpeggiating them, and offering a solo that has become studied and a model of modern tenor saxophone playing that is marveled by musicians, fans, and jazz enthusiasts everywhere.

4. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (Charles Mingus) 5:44 - Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um (Columbia)

Following Giant Steps is yet another beloved jazz standard, this time coming from bassist/composer Charles Mingus.

Mingus had been at the forefront of innovation in jazz for some time, having played with bop pioneers Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Max Roach during the early 1950s, and had established himself as one of the premier bassists in jazz.

Mingus had, by the mid 50s, also formed an ensemble that was, in size, between a big band and a typical combo - usually 8-10 pieces. Dubbed "The Jazz Workshop", Mingus wrote many pieces for various permutations of this ensemble.

The music was not bop, per se, but also didn't fit neatly into other categories that were concurrent ("cool jazz", "modal jazz", "hard bop"). Mingus' music was strikingly original in concept and form.

Like Ellington, Mingus knew his musicians well, and liked to write for specific musical personalities in the group, and also encouraged them to improvise parts of his music on the spot, together - taking an almost collective approach to improvisation that was similar to the approach Ornette Coleman had been working on.

In 1959, after having recorded many albums as a leader, Mingus recorded his most well known album, Mingus Ah Um which featured the musicians from his "jazz workshop", including saxophonists John Handy, Booker Ervin, pianist Horace Parlan, and drummer Dannie Richmond.

The track we selected for this album, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" was written as tribute to the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who had passed earlier in the year. It is one of Mingus' most well known tunes, and is a poignant ballad that features an unusual front line horn combination of 3 tenor saxophones (Handy, Ervin, and Shafi Hadi) who play the melody mostly in unison (occasionally harmonized briefly).

It's blues drenched melody, and melancholy feeling are powerfully striking. John Handy plays a mournful solo, in which, at one point employs a flutter-tongue sound, which is echoed by Mingus on bass - imitating Handy's effect. Handy's solo is a highlight, although the overall haunting sound and vibe of this track is just astonishing.

5. Lonely Woman (Ornette Coleman) 5:02 - Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic)

Somewhat similar in direction and concept to Mingus,was the path alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and his colleagues were embarking on, although Coleman's approach was more radical, severe, and revolutionary perhaps than Mingus'.

Coleman was interested in collective approaches to improvisation, as was Mingus, but in a much more liberated manner. Coleman rejected the standard practice of improvising over a set of chord changes, rejected even improvising over a constant tempo at times, and rejected even having a pre-set key in which to improvise over (or having a "key" at all!).

The album, The Shape of Jazz to Come, is an early example of Coleman's radical new concept, which became known as "free jazz". Coleman's collaborators on the album include cornetist Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer, Billy Higgins.

The music from this album sparked a debate, and controversy that still rages on, even today, regarding what jazz is. Compared to a lot of "free jazz" that followed in later years, the music from this record could be considered fairly conservative!

In "Lonely Woman", there is, for the most part, a steady tempo being provided from drummer Higgins (a fairly fast one), and there is a melody that is stated at the beginning and end of the performance, which had been a standard practice in jazz for many years by this point.

The melody itself, stated by Coleman and Cherry, is a bluesy statement that floats rather freely over a frenetic beat from Higgins, while Haden provides a grounding double-stopped pedal point, repeated throughout much of it.

Coleman's following solo draws heavily on blues melodic language, while Haden holds down the pedal point. This is followed by another statement of the melody from Cherry and Coleman, and Higgins and Haden close the track, vamping on the opening material. The stark, and radical sound of Coleman's quartet in these recordings truly announces "The shape of jazz to come" for many.

Jamie Dubberly teaches jazz history, jazz combos, and low brass at CSU Stanislaus, and also works as trombonist in many of the top bay area (CA) jazz and Latin bands. He has also recently released his first album as a leader - "Road Warrior". If you enjoy jazz and Latin jazz, you will probably dig his debut album.For more information, visit

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