Every year our writers vote for the recording that they think most deserves the accolade 'Album of the Year'. And here they are in all their glory - from 1997 to today. If you're looking for a great new jazz album to add to your collection - this is the perfect place to start...
The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings
What comes across to an overwhelming degree is what a powerhouse group this was, working its determined way through its new-minted repertoire. Coltrane’s own tenor style was balanced nicely between the swashbuckling approach of the later Atlantic studio dates and the more intense, ferocious storms of notes and contrastingly tender ballad essays of the years ahead. He drives the rhythm hard, pacing Elvin Jones every inch of the way and essaying singular odysseys into the new improvisatory trails he is discovering for himself. Dolphy, by contrast, seems often to be watching from a distance, approaching the band from oblique, almost playful angles. He rarely solos for any length of time but seems to scatter a whole range of ideas and suggestions to Coltrane, who responds with renewed vigour in his pursuit of his own personal demons and goals. None of this would have been possible without the staggering input of Jones and the two bassists, Garrison and Workman (Workman eventually left the band, exhausted by the physical demands of playing so long and so hard). Tyner is the least central figure here, his role yet to develop from a purely supportive one, often dropping out entirely when Coltrane or Dolphy are at their most vocalised and charged.
Yet the band is a wholly focused one, whatever variations in personnel Coltrane wrought from night to night, tune to tune, version to version. Of all the music made available here, only the raggedly executed "Brasilia” could never have been seriously considered for initial release, such is the consistency of the band’s performances.
One final point: in an edition which is supposed to be definitive in every respect, I’m surprised to find that author/Coltrane analyst David Wild in his tracing of the history of the tune "Impressions”, while noting the "So What” parallel, makes no mention of the source for the Coltrane melody itself - Debussy’s "L’isle Joyeuse”. Perhaps that’s why the tune was initially called "Excerpt” by Coltrane, for that’s precisely what it was. The later title hardly attempts to obscure the issue, either, considering Debussy’s usual musical pigeon-hole. Be that as it may, live jazz recordings just don’t come any better or more engrossing than this. Keith Shadwick
Tunisian classical oud player Anouar Brahem was introduced to Dave Holland’s playing through Angel Song, and the Wolverhampton-born bassist performs a function here - his lithe propulsiveness is the rhythmic heart of the band - almost identical to the one on the earlier ECM recording. Woven around his rock-steady centre are Brahem’s mellow oud improvisations and John Surman’s plaintive skirling (at times almost miraculously Middle Eastern-sounding) on soprano, plus his deliciously woody bass clarinet. Overall, a typically meditative, tranquil and beautiful ECM album with enough improvisational power to please jazz fans, and an album that also continues a recent run of fascinating collisions between jazz and the music of the Maghreb. Chris Parker
Songs for Wandering Souls
Winter and Winter
Trumpeter Dave Douglas is one of the most consistently intriguing musicians working in contemporary jazz, and has an invaluable capacity for turning up something strikingly different with almost every project.
Good Morning Susie Soho
Fantastic, they’re back! EST - pianist Esbjörn Svensson together with Dan Berglund on bass and Magnus Ostrom on drums, the most inventive piano trio to arrive on the scene in years - deliver the follow up to last year’s outstanding From Gagarin's Point Of View. EST are redefining the art of the piano trio. Impossible, I hear you cry; well, listening to their new album makes me realise that the impossible has been achieved. This is an awesome work of immense power, beauty and futuristic musical vision. This is an unbelievably essential album - from the beautifully reflective opener ‘Somewhere Else Before’ to the mind-blowing nine-plus minutes epic ‘The Wraith’ you know you are listening to important music (and how often can you say that these days?). The Esbjörn Svensson Trio was formed in 1993, a constant lineup for this forward-thinking trio has aided the development and success they strive for and so richly deserve. With this latest instalment of their musical vision, EST have definitely established themselves as the forward thinking contemporary piano trio. Mike Chadwick
This album is drawn from music composed and improvised for Jean-Luis Bertuccelli’s film of the same name. The film was originally released in 1970 and focuses on the lives and struggles of the people of the Algerian-Tunisian Sahara. In 1999, Bertuccelli decided to incorporate a live performance of Texier’s trio and weave this into and around the film’s minimal soundtrack. My guess is that the combined impact of the visual image with this music must be very powerful indeed. However, without even seeing the film , it is still clear that this record derives from a truly inspirational source. To his credit, Texier has avoided the obvious and cliched choices that could have damned this project. He uses themes and forms that reflect the music of North Africa, but without trying to invade that culture or pillage its music styles. Compositions aim to suggest and compliment the visual image not appropriate it through some fake, stylistic contrivances. So, at various times, the music can be allowed to swing in those ways we associate with African-American music or explode in an Aylerish outburst of rage or instead hint at more evidently North African modes. There’s a good example of this in the way Tony Rabeson’s drums are used in the music. They are certainly central to the sound and placed far up in the mix. Drums are important in the music of the region but there is intention to imitate. Rabeson’s approach is quite different. Often he suggests something that is not immediately influenced by either jazz or Arabic music but which is nevertheless touched by both. In a similar way, altoist/clarinettist Sebastien Texier will weave serpentine, snake-charmer lines over a more obviously jazz-based performance from the rhythm section. Post-modern perhaps but far more than bricolage.
Texier’s playing is astonishing. It must help that he is so clear about Bertuccelli’s vision for this project but he actually has such a profound sense of purpose here that it is positively transcendental. He thunders, drums and pounds out the pulse behind this music like a man with a mission. On this form, he must be quite inspirational to play alongside. By all accounts, Bertuccelli produced a film that reflected the sadness and joy of its subjects. Their suffering is not to be patronised or treated to the voyeurism of some kind of cultural tourism. We should only be left with the impression of their dignity and integrity. I suspect this is what Texier has sought to achieve here and he may just have surpassed his best hopes for the project. Duncan Heining
An intriguing prospect on paper. The legendary 67 year old saxophonist surrounded by a young, stellar acoustic band (drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci, pianist Danilo Perez) revisiting the classic mid-60s material that assured Wayne Shorter a place in jazz history. The cynics would say that it's a sign of his creative stasis; the return to an acoustic format is a soft option for an artist whose recent electric albums never quite hit home. Or that his prolific writing has finally dried up. Wrong on both counts. Footprints Live, has anything but comfort zones or complacencies; it is a bold, impassioned on-the-edge work that shows that Shorter’s original recorded versions of ‘Footprints’, ‘Juju’ and 'Go' were far from closed chapters and that if anything the spirit more than the structural bones of these pieces has endured; the tunes themselves have become clues to new puzzles, points of departure for new explorations. As engineer Rob Griffin pointed out, this new band is almost like "an advanced string quartet” and the muscular intricacy of the music requires absolute concentration from the listener. The centre of gravity is constantly changing and just when the band appear to be settling into a recognisable framework, they puckishly shift metre or harmonic sphere, stretching to the avant-garde or coming back in to more accessible post-bop. Perez's impassioned latin phrases and Brian Blade’s inventive percussive fills stand out but it's Shorter’s tender and turbulent playing that holds it all together. There is nothing remotely nostalgic about this record; it is more a testimony to Wayne Shorter's ability to blur perceptions of the known and unknown, past and present, old and young. Surely that is a mark of greatness. Kevin Le Gendre
Let Freedom Ring!
It was a serene afternoon turning into evening. Dark times were ahead the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. Since then he has been hailed as a universal inspiration for anyone in the world who believes in civil rights and peace and justice for all. Saxophonist Denys Baptiste has worked out what the man means in this suite originally commissioned by the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival and the Jerwood Foundation.
He is joined by a 12-piece group that allows the ebb and flow of jazz to coalesce with the foaming swell of Ben Okri's voice reading from his epic poem ‘Mental Fight'. Highlights? Well, Okri’s calm yet compelling voice speaks volumes; Robin Banerjee's chattering guitar is a vital presence but above all the community at work is what makes the wounds that cut so deep for so many, heal. Stephen Graham
Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd
In What Language?
’The airport is not a neutral place.’ This is the clef de voute of the short, incisive and thought-provoking sleeve notes that accompany this fascinating album. Indeed anyone who’s been the object of customs officers’ ire for possessing seditious skin tone, dangerous hair or a beard of mass destruction, will relate. Airports are places where power is exerted and Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi, travelling from a festival in Hong Kong, found himself on the wrong side of the gate when he was detained by INS officials at JFK. He was shackled to a bench for several hours and then sent back to Hong Kong. This was before 9/11. In What Language is Iyer and Ladd's musical response to this infamous incident; it is a treatise on the airport as a place of 'conflict and quarantine, reception, departure and detention.' Iyer is one of the most interesting young American improvisers that you probably haven't heard of, a gifted pianist who's played with Steve Coleman and Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar project. Mike Ladd is the maverick MC and spoken wordsmith who you should have heard of. Flagship artist of the important alt-hop Ozone label, he is idiosyncratic, bombastic, complex, surreal and cerebral - everything that mainstream hip-hop isn’t.
Iyer and Ladd’s collaboration slides almost directly into the lineage of Thirsty Ear's important bridge building between the worlds of the avant-garde and electronica. It’s sonically exciting, idiomatically blurring. Most of all In What Language is a political lour de force; a vivid, cogent, at times arresting 17 piece song cycle that becomes a powerful evocation of the immigrant experience at zero hour, where predatory paranoia poisons race relations to the core. Iyer and Ladd, who wrote all the lyrics even though he didn't voice the entirety (Ajay Naidu brilliantly plays a range of immigrant characters), come across as two hemispheres of the same brain. The pianist has written in an agitated and agitating fashion, using semi-classical motifs and spooky spirals of chords as the flickering lights that illuminate the runway of Ladd’s texts. At times Iyer’s compositions float as statically and oppressively as those customs queues that never move, at times they shuttle into intense, intrepid propulsion, like the blue touch paper arguments that break out over ‘ID’. In each piece there is light, shade, ebb and flow in the music that sketches out drum & M-base or haunted Asian-inflected laments where Iyer’s harmonic subtleties come to the fore. Imagine this inconjunction with penetrating Ladd lines such as ‘We are the vegetation that will subdue the lobby in the airport’ and you have a profound, potent work whose range of characters and scenarios makes a stage adaptation a logical next step. I for one hope that this important, moving meditation on the destructive static of discrimination takes off in theatres around the world for this is an artistically accomplished protest piece from two brave, uncompromising players. With excellent production from Medeski, Martin & Wood/Wu Tang’s main man Scotty Hard and fine input from up and coming guitar slinger Liberty Ellman and Steve Coleman’s fly young trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, the electricity crackles without respite. The airport is not a neutral place. And this is not a neutral album. Kevin Le Gendre
Last Chance Disco
While last year's Camouflage documented their early re-imaginings of Jimi Hendrix, Last Chance Disco shows a working band that has blossomed into an angry teenager. On this, their second album, Acoustic Ladyland ditch Hendrix to storm through 11 beautifully outrageous, X-rated jazz-rock creations. How refreshing their lack of respect for convention and tradition is and how unusual it is to hear a jazz group, especially a British one, that sounds so utterly original.
While most of its members are in their late twenties or early thirties, Acoustic Ladyland have the energy of hormonal high school rockers on this album. A tenor sax jazz quartet in appearance only, equally, if not more, a product of The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs and Franz Ferdinand than any jazz tradition.
Musically, Last Chance Disco veers from sweet to sour: the hardcore, new-wave jamming of 'High Heel Blues' and the whirlwind, ska-drenched 'Deck Chair’, that morphs into free form grindcore rock by the end, versus the tender 'Nico’, a tribute to The Velvet Underground. Wareham screeches as if he’s Albert Ayler reborn, mimicking vocal lines and guitar riffs rather than sax solos. Underneath it all is the relentless, quick-witted rock drumming of Sebastian Rochford (outrageous on ’Of You’); the rip-roaring keys of Tom Cawley and Tom Herbert’s masterful electric basslines.
If rock critics fail to pick up on Last Chance Disco, then they’re missing out. Sonically adventurous and damn loud, this is music to give Wynton a heart attack. But the album isn’t aimed at jazz audiences anyway. As Wareham defiantly sings on the album's only vocal number (‘Perfect Bitch’): "now I'm leaving you/thank you all the way/l’ll tear up all the rules/not going to play.” He could be saying “adios" to the jazz scene - but ironically, he has also created one of its most irresistible albums in years. Tom Barlow
From the opening track ‘Jack Baker’ which pins your ears back with a level of intensity that is magnificently sustained from the first bar to the last, it is clear that Marsalis has made the transition from eternal wunderkind to artistic maturity with playing here that demonstrates the gravitas and profundity few musicians of his generation or the current generation in any style of jazz possess. Unmistakably in the tradition of the tenor giants of jazz - Coltrane, Rollins, Johnny Griffin at their peak - Marsalis remains deliciously apart from his legion of contemporaries through the sheer force of his musical personality. He can be powerful and compelling (‘Black Elk Speaks’, ‘Blackzilla’), hauntingly beautiful (‘Hope’, ‘Fate’and '0, Solitude’) and mysterious (‘Sir Roderick Aloof'). This broad expressive range is matched by a desire to be heard, after all he is surrounded by like minded musicians who have coalesced into one of the finest ensembles in jazz. Stuart Nicholson
Empirical could turn out to be one of the most important bands in UK jazz history. Their debut album is outstanding. It's not just another jazz quintet, but a proper band, encompassing jazz’s past, present and future. You can feel the strong influence of Ornette throughout the entire project, but the freedom is structured. There’s a constant African undercurrent, especially on ‘The Deep' and the Ali Farka Toure composition, ‘Tulumba’. There’s even a section of Forbes’ haunting ‘Kite’, which wouldn't sound out of place on an ECM record. Phelps’ 'Clapton Willow’, on the other hand, has an almost Ellingtonian dignity. Facey’s passionate playing, with occasional hints of both Colemans and (on ‘Blessings') even Cannonball, still has its own sound. Phelps, too, has a sound of his own. It’s peppery in places, very variedly rhythmic with glimpses of Booker Little, perhaps and Don Cherry. Charles and Forbes have their own things going and adapt so quickly to whatever direction the soloists and/or arranged passages take, often where you least expect them. One of the many highlights is the lengthy, multimood ‘A Tyrant’s Tale’ by Phelps, with tender then Cherry-like trumpet over sombre chords from Downes, whose playing is so fresh on every track. British Album of the Year!
Dave Holland Sextet
Pass it on
Well, this has to be my CD of the year. It is surely one of Dave Holland’s best albums in a long and distinguished career as a musician and as a composer. The best are always immediately recognisable – Ellington, Mingus, Brubeck, Ornette, Coltrane.
And Dave Holland is definitely another for that pantheon. Everything combines perfectly here, there’s nothing wasted or out of place. Performances, arrangements and compositions all make perfect sense. I’ve never been a fan of Mulgrew Miller but in this setting he’s a revelation. His introduction to ‘Equality’ is simply gorgeous. Eric Harland on drums is already one of the greats and the three horn frontline combine beautifully, especially in that interlocking, New Orleans derived counterpoint of which Holland is so fond. Listen closely and there are so many delightful touches here – like the way the trombone doubles the piano or bass line or the way woodwind or trumpet background figures comment upon or tell a different tale from the main theme. ‘Rivers Run’ – the most abstract piece here – heads off into dark and uncharted waters, while the title track closes the record in fine, funky style. This is the most honest record, emotionally and artistically, you will hear in a long time. It’s all in the groove. Duncan Heining
Testament Paris / London
Keith Jarrett is one of a handful of artists in jazz who gives evidence of almost continuous artistic growth, refining and improving not only his approach to the piano in terms of touch but to his melodic and harmonic conception as well. Throughout he has striven to exile cliché and gratuitous gesture so that his solo discography from Facing You in 1972 to this, quite possibly the finest representation of his solo art to date, is one of a style, conception and approach continually evolving. For example, he is critical of his touch on Köln Concert, well aware that through his exacting process of self examination and self improvement it is now something that is admired and even envied by the piano playing fraternity in jazz.
What Radiance (2002) and The Carnegie Hall Concert (2006) made plain was that he was past the long, uninterrupted solo improvisation seeking instead spontaneously conceived episodes that were sufficient in themselves, shorter blocks of material that said everything Jarrett wished to say in the moment. If this rigorous self-editing resulted in episodes of five or 15 minutes, so be it. With Testament – a three CD set of his concerts at Salle Pleyel in Paris and the Royal Festival Hall in London at the end of last year – the creation of these episodes has become more refined, and also more expansive with Jarrett inclined to draw on a wide range of musical inspiration rather than the more focused creation of a single mood. This approach is best illustrated by the London concert, where over 12 musical episodes Jarrett moves from an introspective, requiem-like opening to moods that rock with such exuberance it delighted his audience. It is a fascinating document of what those who were present on 1 December last year say was an occasion charged with electricity, with Jarrett delivering at the very top of his form. Stuart Nicholson
To a larger extent than many of their contemporaries, Danish-born double bassist Jasper Høiby's Phronesis make music not only for the mind and heart but also for the body. This is their third album to date but the first for Cardiff-based label Edition who have recorded the piano trio in their natural habitat: in front of a live audience.
It's a selection of material culled from two consecutive nights at the Forge in Camden Town. Live recordings are usually unmanageable but this one has been put together with a lot of TLC, meaning attention to detail in every area. It has paid healthy dividends, with a live sonic that reflects the band's ability to join together intimacy and energy, the tender and animalistic. It's all in spite of regular member, the Copenhagen-based swedish drummer Anton Eger, having to be replaced in a lastminute.com-type line-up change. Høiby couldn't have got a better replacement if they'd had all year to find one. New York-based drummer Mark Guiliana is a real scoop. Best known for his tenure with bassist Avishai Cohen, who's the main role model for Høiby's virile, percussive bass style, Guiliana also works with excellent New York pianist Jason Lindner and vocalist Gretchen Parlato. Here, the drummer's explosive polyrhythmic palette is always tempered by a great pair of ears. There have been comparisons with EST, and although Phronesis shares with them a pulsating sense of groove there is less of an emphasis on any contemplative Nordic roots as such. Rather Høiby's wonderfully sensuous, memorable Mediterranean and eastern folk-flavoured themes tend to resonate more with Avishai Cohen's. At the same time there's a classic piano trio jazz heritage that's mainly down to the ever-improving pianist Ivo Neame. Though he sometimes recalls Chick Corea's Spanish-tinged percussive fluidity, Jarret's rhapsodising, McCoy Tyner's trancey Trane period and even Mehldau's pastoral folk-pop piano in places, Neame has his own way of doing things. Alive is about as exciting as it can get without actually seeing this band live and in the flesh. Selwyn Harris
New African-American male jazz vocalists are thin on the ground to say the least, so the arrival of New York based Californian Porter is definitely something worth raising a hallelujah for. Gospel and soul are indeed also part of the deep well of black music from which he draws and there is as much Donny Hathaway as Lou Rawls or Bill Henderson in both the impassioned fire and technical finesse of Porter’s performance. While he has the pipes to really make a song, especially those of the soul jazz or swing persuasion, come to life, Porter is also capable of tremendous subtlety elsewhere, no more so than a crystalline reading of ‘Skylark’, in which he holds languorous, long tones to perfectly capture the wistful nature of the piece. Powerful social commentary such as ‘1960 What?’ lend further substance to the programme, but intelligent lyrics aside, it is the quite startling voice and well marshalled charisma of Gregory Porter that mark him out as a substantial addition to the canon of jazz singing. Kevin Le Gendre
House Of Legends
Unquestionably one of the most joyous albums Pine has ever made, this is music to be listened to on several levels. On the surface, it’s just brilliantly effective dance music, and it is to be hoped that when the band tours in the spring, they’ll clear the chairs and leave space for everyone to take to the floor. But underneath the carefree surface is both a living and a thoughtful exploration of the Caribbean heritage, with nods to South Africa, and towards London.
One track above all typifies the record, and that is ‘Liamuiga: Cook Up’. The title is both the Kalinago Carib Indian word for ‘fertile land’ and an indication of the heady mixture of sources (or musical sauces) that have gone into the piece. The title was given to the tune as the result of a competition organised for listeners to Winn FM 96.9 on St Kitts and Nevis. The most effective element of the record is the accomplished rhythm playing that absorbs a series of different rhythms and pulses from the islands, but never loses touch with a jazz sensibility. This gives Courtney the ideal backdrop for his personal exploration of the possibilities of the soprano saxophone, wistful and melodic on the Zouk Love pieces and aggressively involved on ‘The Tale of Stephen Lawrence’. Additionally, a real delight for fans of ska or soca is the way that guests such as Rico Rodriguez or Bammi Rose have been drawn into the album’s heady mix. Rico’s laidback behind-the-beat phrasing adds swagger and style to ‘Kingstonian Swing’ while Rose’s gently passionate flute brings sophistication and intricacy to ‘Song of the Maroons’. Plenty of review records command fine words and then get consigned to the shelves never to be played again. I can guarantee this one will be providing the backdrop to energetic extrovert dancing for years to come. Alyn Shipton
Wayne Shorter Quartet
Without A Net
It was 44 years ago that Wayne Shorter made his debut on the Blue Note label, as a precocious 26-year-old tenor saxophonist in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1959. Now in his 80th year, he has re-signed with the label that was scene of some of his great triumphs of the 1960s, when label founder Alfred Lion invited him to record as a leader in his own right in 1964 that resulted in classics such as Night Dreamer, Juju, Speak No Evil, Adam’s Apple and Super Nova. It’s been a long journey since then, worldwide acclaim as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet and with Weather Report, and in more recent times with his own quartet, which made its debut on record in 2002. But Without a Net is something special, comprising eight tracks recorded during the quartet’s 2011 European tour and the ninth track, the 23-minute ‘Pegasus’, recorded at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles with the Imani Winds. The result is Blue Note’s finest recording since its reincarnation in the 1980s under EMI and quite possibly the finest album of Shorter’s career. The starting point of this group is the abstracted improvisational forms explored by Miles Davis in the 1960s that culminated in one of the great classics of recorded jazz, Live at the Plugged Nickel from 1965, its precepts carried forward through subsequent Miles groups, such as the lost sessions of 1969, through into his abstract jams of Bitches Brew and beyond. This is the key that unlocks the door to this remarkable album, where Shorter’s maxim of “rehearsing the unknown,” with everyone responding to the impulses of the moment, results in some inspired music making that represents jazz at its finest, not just in the here and now, but of the past and the future as well. Stuart Nicholson
Michael Wollny Trio
With regular bassist Eva Kruse taking a sabbatical following the birth of her second child, the critically acclaimed piano trio [em] is reconfigured with addition of the American bassist Tim Lefebvre and emerges as the Michael Wollny Trio. Weltentraum – rough translation, ‘we search the dreamworlds’ – is an album of standards, but not your usual standards, these are pieces by the likes of Alban Berg, Gustav Mahler, Paul Hindemith, Edgard Varese, Wolfgang Rihm, Friedrich Nietzsche and Guillaume de Mauchaut which are morphed into intense, personal statements by Wollny that are revealing of his artistic growth, musical curiosity and growing stature as an artist. The themes are linked by Wollny’s initial idea of creating an album of ‘night’ songs – music with a mysterious aura of darkness and intrigue. This ‘dark’ theme enabled songs such as ‘Little Person’ by Jon Brion and Charlie Kaufman from the film Synecdoche, New York and ‘In Heaven’ by Peter Ivers and David Lynch from the film Eraserhead to be included in a remarkable, yet subtle, tour-de-force where less is more and the resources of melodic invention are craftily exploited. The odd-tuneout comes at the end – a version Pink’s ‘God is a DJ’ with a vocal by Theo Bleckmann recorded live at the Philharmonie, Cologne in March 2013. Its message of optimism is a fitting epilogue to an album that already is a serious contender for the Critic’s Picks of 2014. Stuart Nicholson
The title is not to be taken lightly. In numbers it translates as: 3CDs; 17 songs; 32-piece orchestra; 20-piece choir; 10-piece band. With scale being such a defining feature of this music it is also worth noting that there are 172 minutes to contend with, and it is to Washington’s credit that the output is justified, first and foremost because the artistic ambition matches the sweeping production.
Known for his work with producer Flying Lotus and a member of the Los Angeles aggregation The West Coast Get Down, Washington is a player and composer with a penchant for long-form pieces in which melodic lines are ornate anthems wrapped in finely shaded orchestral threads. Although music industry marketeers will inevitably tag this as ‘spiritual jazz’ the dominant aesthetic thankfully avoids any of the sub-genre’s clichés, such is Washington’s desire to draw together references that are refreshingly disparate. In real terms that means that the all-important choral basis of the music – mostly sleek soprano lines that soar around the themes like a volley of flutes and piccolos – blends Horace Silver and Pharoah Sanders from the 1980s rather than 70s (think the former’s The Continuity Of Spirit and the latter’s Heart Is A Melody), while some of the rhythmic and harmonic content has the authoritative, dark-tolight stance of the great Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra. Washington’s own playing, with his dry, stark tone and concise, clenched phrasing is impressive, but the greatest achievement of this work is the newness that springs from a deep historical root.
Moving from hard swing to funk to some of the digital age sensibilities scoped out by Thundercat, this is an album of progressive present day thinking that willfully acknowledges its debt to the past, as befits the ongoing relationship between the two. So if there is a sample of a Malcolm X speech it is relevant to the current political debate: There’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim. There is something very right about the premise and execution of this work. Kevin Le Gendre
A new group and a new beginning for Tim Garland in what is the finest album by a British jazz musician for quite some while. First, a word about Garland’s virtuoso playing on tenor and soprano saxes, which has reached a level of excellence and maturity that is truly world class. On soprano he offers an evenness of tonal density throughout the registers of the instrument; nothing sounds pinched or forced, and while his articulation is precise and accurate, each note rings through with remarkable clarity even in legato passages. Expressing himself in melodic, rather than pattern-based, improvisation, his playing is virtually cliché free, often using ‘compositional’ devices such as the use of the rising line to create a feeling of tension. This feeling is also reinforced by the occasional use of side-slipping.
On ‘Bright New Year’ he plays with such freedom within form it represents a striking example of exemplary contemporary jazz improvisation. Equally, on ‘Colours of Night’ he exhibits a degree of both technique and taste (the two rarely go hand in hand) that few in jazz can equal. On tenor saxophone he retains this melodic lucidity, evenness of tonal density (from bell tones to false-fingered high notes at the extreme of the saxophone’s range) and on ‘The Eternal Greeting’ he gives a virtual master class in manipulating the rising line to potent and dramatic effect.
Garland has developed the story-telling privilege that is the province of the great jazz improvisers – a Garland solo is not a breakneck bunch of notes thrown at listeners for them to try and make sense of, but solos of architectonic construction that have a beginning, a middle and an end and take the listener on an absorbing journey. But even mastery of your chosen instrument at the level Garland has achieved (and which few in jazz can match) is not enough in jazz today. The challenge is to create an effective context to give expression to the improvisers art. Here again Garland scores, with an ensemble that has done away with the traditional piano-bass-drums role of the jazz rhythm section and placed the rhythmic role in the hands of keyboards, Ant Law’s eight-string guitar which covers the bass notes and Asaf Sirkis’ innovative drums/ percussion. This fresh approach – a development of the rhythmic approach adopted by his previous group Lighthouse – is integral to Garland’s compositional ingenuity with pieces written in a way that shows this unusual approach to rhythm to best advantage. Here, Asaf Sirkis emerges as an unsung hero with a performance that is surely world class. Rebello and Law are exemplary too, offering maturity and flair in both ensemble and solo that contribute significantly in making this album special. Stuart Nicholson
Jazz in the 1960s: the ultimate guide to the greatest albums
The quantity and diversity of great jazz albums recorded in the 1960s means that any list of great albums that claims to be in any way 'definitive' is on very shaky ground. Nonetheless, the albums highlighted below are benchmarks in the history of jazz on record and if you are discovering jazz for the first time then you've just found the perfect place to start. You can also enjoy tracks from each of these albums in our Apple Music playlist 'Jazz in the 1960s' as you read. Reissues of classic albums are reviewed in every issue of Jazzwise, so do check out our latest subscription offers. Let's start with a masterpiece...
A Love Supreme
John Coltrane (ts, v), McCoy Tyner (p), Jimmy Garrison (b) and Elvin Jones (d). Rec. 1964
No matter how many times you approach this album it’s always greater than the sum of whatever parts you compile. Yes, it’s perfect, yes, it’s ambitious, yes it crosses over far from the usual jazz conceptions, yes it is couched as a suite of meditations-in-kind that give it a formal design way beyond 99 per cent of jazz albums. Yes, Coltrane plays like a man inspired by something more than the job immediately to hand, as do the other three musicians involved, and yes the themes are unremittingly sober. But that only scratches the surface of this album’s achievement. You can’t lay it at the door of Coltrane’s aspirations, because good intentions often lead to artistic disasters in music as well as every other aesthetic discipline, but it is possible that his own complete commitment to his testimony of spiritual re-birth happily coincided with a day in the studio where he was truly touched to open his soul through the medium of his saxophone, for his playing on this record is almost terrifyingly open, intense and soul-shattering, even when he is simply stating a theme.
This is a very powerful part of the album’s pull, as is the tautness of each selection’s form, and it must also account for the hold it has sustained magically over listeners who otherwise venture rarely into any form of jazz, including the progressive rock fans of the late 60s and onwards. Within jazz itself, the album ensured that the music could no longer be considered a social or cultural also-ran, the spiritual and humanistic concerns that made up its inspiration demanding that it be treated in the same way as the master creations of the art-music of any culture. Nothing could be the same again. It still isn’t. Keith Shadwick
Sunday At The Village Vanguard
Bill Evans (p), Scott LaFaro (b) and Paul Motian (d). Rec. 1961
Sadly terminated by the demise of LaFaro in a car crash only 10 days after the two Village Vanguard albums (this album and Waltz for Debby), this group did more than any other at the start of the 1960s to loosen the bonds of the Peterson/Jamal traditional trio approach, and its effects are still being re-interpreted. Sunday and Waltz are totally live and together they contain all 21 issued takes that were recorded in the afternoon and evening of the group’s last day at the Vanguard. The individual performers play with astonishing freedom, as well as listening intently to each other. Evans is bursting with energy and invention, even in the ballads, while LaFaro’s work is challenging yet melodic, provided you can follow his flights of fancy. It’s hard to choose between the two live albums although Sunday, the first to be issued, includes LaFaro’s originals (‘Gloria’s Step’ with its 5-bar sections and the 5/4 ballad ‘Jade Visions’). Brian Priestley
Miles Davis (t), Wayne Shorter (ss), Bennie Maupin (b cl), Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea (el p), John McLaughlin (g), Dave Holland (b), Harvey Brooks (el b), Lenny White, Jack DeJohnette (d), Don Alias (perc) and Jumma Santos (shaker). Rec. 1969
“Listen to this,” urged renowned jazz writer Ralph J. Gleason in the liner note of the original 1970 release. “How can it ever be the same?” And clearly it wasn’t. From Mati Klarwein’s warped Afro sci-fi artwork and Gleason’s Beat-influenced sleeve babble to the brain-melting, barrier-crunching music inside, Bitches Brew ripped up the rule book and redefined the parameters of jazz for the next three decades. And then some. A colossal, unruly combination of electric jazz impressionism, dense funk rhythms, psychedelic rock flavours and Stockhausen’s dark soundscapes, topped by some of Miles’ most stunning and evocative trumpet work. A jazz-rock volcano that spat controversy with every eruption. Jon Newey
Out to Lunch
Eric Dolphy (f, as, b cl), Freddie Hubbard (t), Bobby Hutcherson (vb), Richard Davis (b) and Tony Williams (d). Rec. 1964
This famous 1964 set made if anything more impact than Dolphy’s debut album. He’d found a stimulating environment and the active involvement of a youthful cast - Tony Williams now gone, Freddie Hubbard out of action, Richard Davis out of jazz and only Bobby Hutcherson out there, the session is a historical artefact that’s belied by the freshness of its music. Items like “Gazzelloni” and the stunning “Hat and Beard” have achieved immortality, but also held out a huge promise for the future. Four months and four days later, Dolphy was dead. Brian Priestley
Albert Ayler (ts), Gary Peacock (b) and Sunny Murray (d). Rec. 1964
Spiritual Unity was Albert Ayler’s first recording for New York lawyer, turned record label owner, Bernard Stollman’s ESP-Disk. Over 40 years on it remains a landmark recording. In the company of bass player Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray, Ayler lays down his new testament of jazz with a set that sent the engineer famously scurrying out of the studio. The power, ecstasy and originality of Spiritual Unity remains as fresh, exciting and new as the day it was recorded with Ayler pouring out his soul through his instrument while Peacock and Murray provide powerful, unobtrusive back up that adds extra colour and dimension to the proceedings. Although it has been reissued numerous times before, if you still don’t own a copy of this seminal date then now is most definitely the time. Edwin Pouncey
Ornette Coleman (as), Freddie Hubbard, Don Cherry (t), Eric Dolphy (b cl), Scott LaFaro, Charlie Haden (b), Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins (d). Rec. 1960
Taken together, the five sets that start with 1959’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come and conclude with 1962’s Ornette! still make for something of a shock to the system decades later for two simple reasons: the cast iron strength of character of Coleman as a soloist, which also holds true for his accompanists, who are actually more like co-pilots; and the absolute boldness of the writing which both confirms the vitality of the “avant-garde” or “new music” and makes the crucial point that its central development away from bebop’s clearly mapped chords and set meters took it “back” to early blues and country as well as forward to an undefined idiomatic space. Ultimately, Coleman’s talent is for making music that is as complex as it is primal. And not affected. The Free Jazz album by the double quartet is striking for the increased sonic range provided by such as Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard as well as the sheer drama of its collective whoop and holler, though the performance arguably has less appeal than the music by the smaller groups. Kevin Le Gendre
The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery (g), Tommy Flanagan (p), Percy Heath (b) and Albert Heath (d). Rec. 1960
The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, with Tommy Flanagan and the brothers Percy and Tootie Heath, was the album which introduced Wes to the world. It was recorded in New York in January 1960, when Wes was already 35 and with all his astounding skills in full working order. He would sometimes claim that he had been a much better player ten years earlier. Nevertheless, the wisdom of his soulful thumb-picked lines and the technical mastery of his chordal and octave choruses shook the jazz world rigid, the guitar community in particular. The silken speed of ‘Airegin’, the sumptuous balladry of ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’ and the waltztime funk of ‘West Coast Blues’ are impressive still. Jack Massarik
Cecil Taylor - At The Café Montmartre
Taylor (p), Jimmy Lyons (as) and Sunny Murray (d). Rec. 1962
Such is the overwhelming idiosyncrasy of Taylor’s language it’s easy to overlook the fact that it was not created in a vacuum. He had to come from ‘somewhere’ and draw on established sources. Like all originals, he had influences and inspirations. Hence these performances from an early 1960s European trio tour are vital in affording that insight and do not disappoint. Although the incessantly probing, poundingly percussive approach to the keyboard is already a signe particulier, Taylor’s debt to the founding fathers, from Johnson and Tatum to Nichols and Powell, is clear in the more conventional rhythmic-harmonic moments where swing and changes are relatively easy to follow, though they are like flashes such is the speed of execution. In any case there is something deliciously subversive about hearing Taylor’s riptide interpretation of an American songbook staple such as ‘What’s New?’, in which the romanticism is inflamed rather than extinguished, whereas the wider point about the pianist’s aesthetic – melody is as effective in the bass as it is in the treble or mid – is consistently made throughout the set. Alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray stake a claim as some of the best accompanists Taylor ever had, especially the former for the sheer pungent strength of his tone, while bassist Kurt Lundstrom is an effective guest on the bonus track from a gig at the Golden Circle. Kevin Le Gendre
Freddie Hubbard (t), George Coleman (ts), Herbie Hancock (p), Ron Carter (b) and Tony Williams (d). Rec. 1965
All the way through his time with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock continued to record under his own name, (as well as with other leaders such as Bobby Hutcherson, Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter). This was his first true concept album, designed - as Herbie wrote at the time - to 'capture the vastness and majesty’ of the sea, including 'the graceful beauty of the playful dolphins, the constant struggle for survival of even the tiniest sea creatures, and the awesome destructive power of the hurricane.' Maybe most of us have forgotten that liner note, and Nora Kelly's specially written story that went with it, but we all know the music - ranging from the title track to 'The Eye of the Hurricane’ and 'Dolphin Dance’. Alyn Shipton
Stan Getz (ts), Joao Gilberto (v, g), Antonio Carlos Jobim (p), Tommy Williams (b), Milton Banana (perc) and Astrud Gilberto (v). Rec. 1963
We’re talking Stateside in the early 1960s and in much the same way that The Beatles’ first album spawned a whole generation of American wannabes, the unprecedented success of Getz’s foray into the realms of bossa nova (‘jazz samba’) not only motivated almost as many bandwagon jumpers, but added a whole new genre to the contemporary jazz vocabulary. This official remastered 50th anniversary reissue (containing both mono and stereo versions) confirms that half-a-century on his bossa nova recordings have never been bettered and still sound freshly minted. As with Miles’ Kind Of Blue, there can hardly be any Jazzwise devotees who aren’t familiar with both this sensuous material and the equally sensuous sound of Stanley’s saxophone. End of commercial. Roy Carr
The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady
Rolf Ericson, Richard Williams (t), Quentin Jackson (tb), Don Butterfield (tba), Jerome Richardson (fl, ss, bar s), Dick Hafer (fl, ts), Charlie Mariano (as), Jaki Byard (p), Jay Berliner (g), Charles Mingus (b, p) and Dannie Richmond (d). Rec. 1963
The Black Saint is widely acknowledged as a Mingus masterpiece. Part of Mingus’ compositional plan involved hidden repeats of various taped sections and covert (i.e. unadmitted) overdubbing, largely consisting of bringing back Mariano to add a further improvised line to roughly one-third of the album. The overall achievement, however, combined some of Mingus’ most distinctive preoccupations (Ellington, Afro-Spanish music, improv and collective improv) into a set unlike anything else he ever achieved. Of course, it relied hugely on contributions from the sidemen – Richmond, Mariano (who perhaps never played better), Jackson (with plunger mute) and the surprise choice of finger-style session man Berliner. Brian Priestley
Tony Williams (d), Larry Young (org) and John McLaughlin (g). Rec. 1969
This bold attempt to expand the boundaries of jazz in a dramatic jazz, blues, rock, Hendrix, MC5 amalgam left temperate listeners shell shocked and critics speechless. Today, the mere mention of jazz-rock prompts cries from establishment critics of “sell-out,” but if this is selling-out, then maybe they should consider another line of work. This is jazz, rhythm and electricity writ large in a tumbling roller coaster of ideas. No wonder the album was called Emergency, with every member of the band having so much to say but so little time to say it. Stuart Nicholson
Stan Getz (ts), Roy Haynes (d), chamber string group and Hershey Kay (cond). Rec. 1961
Focus was always Getz’s favourite album and it’s easy to see why. From the opening drama of ‘I’m Late, I’m Late’ with Roy Haynes’ scurrying brushes, Getz is on his mettle, inserting his sublime extemporisations into Sauter’s attractive structures. Getz had commissioned Sauter, an arranger best known for his work with the Benny Goodman orchestra, to write what amounts to a seven-part suite. Although there is no obvious linking theme, Sauter said he saw the individual pieces as individual stories or fairy tales.
As Dave Geliy makes clear in his biography of Getz, nothing quite like this had been done before by anyone, let alone by Getz himself. Armed only with a basic score, Getz was to improvise what amounted to his own commentary on Sauter’s music, offering far more than mere embellishment, way away from the conventional re-shaping of a 32-bar popular song or a 12-bar blues. Nor is this kind of orchestral collaboration to be compared to the ‘with strings' approach typified by Bird’s dalliances, for that also was based on re-workings of popular songs. Nor, for that matter, is there any sense here of ennui, of the strings cluttering up the place.
Focus is a true collaboration, operatic in its scope, between composer and performer, and between orchestra and soloist. It marks the moment when Getz transcended the normal workaday world of the jazz soloist and confirmed his status as an artist of consequence. Jaunty at times, tender at others, there is beauty in every bar. A must-have. Peter Vacher
Sketches Of Spain
Miles Davis (t, flhn), orchestra and Gil Evans (cond, arr). Rec. 1960
1958’s Porgy And Bess was the jazziest of the Miles-and-Gil collaborations, while its predecessor Miles Ahead was the most innovative and groundbreaking, in its concerto format and breadth of material. Sketches Of Spain is the masterpiece that leaves all possible comment falling short and the contents falling outside of most categories before or since. In the second half of the 1950s, a lot of talk and work went into trying to create the “third stream” of jazz-meets-classical-and-lives-happily-after. Compared to its few relatively acceptable remnants, Sketches dwarfs the theory and stands on its own. It’s also one of the great incarnations of “modal jazz”, both in parts of the ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ and the rest of the more folk-derived material. Best of all, you don’t think (except during the majestic ‘Saeta’) in terms of tourist-image Spain. Brian Priestley
John Coltrane (ss, ts), Eric Dolphy (bcl, as), McCoy Tyner (p), Reggie Workman, Art Davis, Jimmy Garrison (b) and Elvin Jones (d). Rec. 1961 and 1963
This was Coltrane’s second scoop into the Aladdin’s cave of music he’d made at the Village Vanguard in November 1961. The first, released as At The Village Vanguard in 1962, had whipped up a storm of criticism and, through the blues ‘Chasin’ The Trane’, served notice to a new generation about the music to come. This one went even further – India threw open the floodgates to the east in jazz, while ‘Impressions’ is 14 minutes of solid gold inspiration from Trane and Elvin. The 1963 studio fillers, ‘Up Against The Wall’ and ‘After The Rain’, are two exquisite musical punctuation points. Keith Shadwick
Point of Departure
Andrew Hill (p), Kenny Dorham (t), Eric Dolphy (f, as, bcl), Joe Henderson (ts, f), Richard Davis (b) and Tony Williams (d). Rec. 1964
Andrew Hill's masterpiece is one of the genuine classics of 60s jazz. On paper, Eric Dolphy looks the most naturally suited of the three hornman to interpreting Hill’s original vision, but Kenny Dorham and Joe Henderson find their own highly effective ways into the music, while Richard Davis’ subtely wrought (and now rather more cleanly reproduced) bass work and the late Tony Williams’ polyrhythmic drumming round out a fabulously uncompromising session. Michael Kelly
Sonny Rollins (ts), Jim Hall (g), Bob Cranshaw (b), Ben Riley and Harry Saunders (d). Rec. 1962
Recorded in the same year as What’s New with some of the same personnel this marked Rollins' return after a three year sabbatical. 'I was getting very famous at the time,’ he explained ‘and I felt I needed to brush up on various aspects of my craft. I felt I was getting too much, too soon, so I said, wait a minute, I’m going to do it my way. I wasn't going to let people push me out there, so I could fall down. I wanted to get myself together, on my own. I used to practise on the Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge because I was living on the Lower East Side at the time.' Later in the decade Rollins would begin to experiment in ways that he had not undertaken before but here he confines himself to pushing the envelope in terms of expression rather than technique or form. Hence he invested in emotional terms on 'God Bless the Child' for example, producing one of his most heartfelt improvisations. The collaboration with Jim Hall also adds texture and improvising complexity to this record, which has helped this album remain fresh to this day.
The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Volume 1
Sun Ra (p, mba, cel, perc), Chris Capers (t), Teddy Nance (tb), Bernard Pettaway (b tb), Danny Davis (f, as), Marshall Allen (picc, as, perc), Robert Cummings (bcl, perc), John Gilmore (ts, perc), Pat Patrick (bs, perc), Ronnie Boykins (b) and Jimhmi Johnson (perc). Rec. 1965
Heliocentric Worlds Volumes 1 and 2 steps beyond the border of accepted jazz playing to enter into another musical realm. There, the influence of such 20th century contemporary composers such as Edgar Varese, Stockhausen and Harry Partch can be distantly heard shuffling around in the mix. At the helm of these incredible sessions, however, is Sun Ra himself who, in his role as cosmic band leader and orchestrator, pushes and pulls his assembled Arkestra through a series of challenging and innovative musical hoops without ever losing direction or purpose. The playing throughout still sounds incredibly futuristic and exciting with Gilmore, Allen, Patrick and Boykins burning bright over Ra’s super-nova keyboard explosions. Edwin Pouncey
John McLaughlin (g), John Surman (bs, ss), Brian Odges (b) and Tony Oxley (d). Rec. 1969
The 1960s was a decade when British jazz emerged with a strong identity with classic albums from the likes of Mike Westbrook, Michael Garrick, Don Rendell-lan Carr Quintet and Mike Gibbs to name but a few. But Extrapolation is the most prophetic, not only as a stepping stone in McLaughlin's career - from Extrapolation to Tony Williams’ Lifetime to Bitches Brew to the Mahavishnu Orchestra are indeed surprisingly small strides - but for how change in jazz in the late 1960s and early 1970s would shape up. This mixture of freedom (often “time, no changes”) and structure as well as the increasing sense of identity in McLaughlin's playing framed by Surman and Oxley make for compelling listening. Stuart Nicholson
Pharoah Sanders (ts) Leon Thomas (v, perc), James Spaulding (fl), Julius Watkins (Fr hn), Lonnie Liston Smith (p), Richard Davis, Reggie Workman, Ron Carter (b), Freddie Waits, William Hart (d) and Nathaniel Betis (perc). Rec. 1969
What a sleeve! The saxophonist’s meditative pose against a hazy burnt orange sun posits Karma as a healing sound for love children alarmed by the bomb, the bullet and the ballot. Coming out of the universal consciousness of mentor John Coltrane and borrowing some of the celestial majesty of his widow Alice, Sanders gets modal-hymnal on the enduring ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ and dazzlingly abstract on ‘Colors’. These heady cosmic grooves fed the creative fire of anyone from Roy Ayers to Lonnie Liston Smith in the 1970s and inspired the more discerning purveyors of pro-tools instrumental music such as The Cinematic Orchestra in the millennium. Kevin Le Gendre
John Coltrane (ts), Freddie Hubbard, Dewey Johnson (t), John Tchicai, Marion Brown (as), Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders (ts), McCoy Tyner (p), Jimmy Garrison (b) and Elvin Jones (d). Rec. 1965
Still an unruly, flawed, controversial, and deeply divisive album 40 years after its initial release, Ascension set the pace and the tone of the avant-garde music debate right through the back of the 1960s, quickly becoming a cutting-edge touchstone across the arts - even John Lennon told interviewers “of course I’ve heard Ascension" when asserting his late 1960s intellectual credentials alongside Yoko. Today, the music remains testingly difficult, the hell-hot fire and chaos from Trane’s supporting musicians a clear indication of the times it was made in, yet it’s a titanic date that changed jazz forever. Keith Shadwick
A Jackson in Your House
Art Ensemble of Chicago: Lester Bowie (t, flhn, perc), Roscoe Mitchell (ss, as, bs, cl, fl, whistles, steel drum, perc), Joseph Jarman (ss, as, cl, oboe, mba, siren, g) and Malachi Favors (b, el b, banjo, log drum and perc). Rec. 1969
Sometimes the torrent of recordings from the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Archie Shepp, all made in France in the summer of 1969, seems to be a race to see who can make the most records. The AEC won, but only because there were four or five of them (depending on whether Don Moye had joined or not), so they not only made records as the AEC for at least four labels but appeared on a multitude of records led by other players. Jackson includes some typical AEC nonsense and clowning, the three tunes that madeup the original vinyl first side reaching slapstick levels at times. Side two of the vinyl original, however, is very powerful, combining into one unbroken performance of Jarman reading of one of his best poems, 'Ericka', with a deeply felt lament for Charles Clark, phenomenal bassist with Jarman's original Quartet who died suddenly in Chicago that summer of a brain haemorrhage. Don't miss this one. Keith Shadwick
Song For My Father
Horace Silver (p), Blue Mitchell, Carmell Jones (t), Junior Cook, Joe Henderson (ts), Gene Taylor, Teddy Smith (b), Roy Brooks and Roger Humphries (d). Rec. 1963-64
Long in the making but even longer in its outreach of influence, this classic, made in 1963-4, oversaw Silver’s change from the Mitchell-Cook and to that fronted by Joe Henderson with, firstly, Carmell Jones and latterly Woody Shaw. So many flashpoints on this one but it’s still worth remembering that the title cut was good enough to attract Steely Dan to its flame for ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’. Keith Shadwick
Far East Suite
Duke Ellington (p) and his orchestra. Rec. 1966
With Sony giving the RCA Victor catalogue the same treatment as the Columbia/ Legacy series, there could hardly be a better place to start than the Far East Suite (or indeed Mingus’s Tijuana Moods, see below). It’s music that can be seen as capitalising on the modal and world-music trends of 1960s jazz, which Ellington had already done much to foreshadow, but it manages to balance this aspect with archetypical sounds from the band and its soloists. The vehicles for Gonsalves, Hodges, Hamilton (‘Ad Lib on Nippon’), Carney (‘Agra’), Brown (‘Amad’) and the pianist himself are among the best they were ever offered, and they respond in kind. You could say this reviewer is too close to the Far East Suite for objectivity – heard much of it in concert before it was even recorded, transcribed all of it, frequently played it live and facilitated other live performances – but all that convinces me the album is one of the jewels of Ellington’s late period. Brian Priestley
Peter Brötzmann (ts, bar s), Evan Parker, Willem Breuker (ts), Fred Van Hove (p), Peter Kowald, Buschi Niebergall (b), Han Bennink and Sven Johansson (d). Rec. May 1968
To say Machine Gun is a heavy session would be somewhat more than understatement. Even now its untrammelled power and audacity are breathtaking and barely rivalled even by the most extreme ‘noise’ or rock. Barging shoulder-first through the door Coltrane had opened three years earlier with his ecstatic blow-out, Ascension, Brötzmann assembled an all-European octet including fellow improv pioneers Evan Parker, pianist Fred Van Hove and drummer Han Bennink, and laid down not only the first major European free jazz record but also the blueprint for all subsequent slash-and-burn skronk. Daniel Spicer
Four For Trane
Archie Shepp (ts, arr), Alan Shorter (flhn), Roswell Rudd (tb), John Tchicai (as), Reggie Workman (b) and Charles Moffett (d). Rec. 1964
Shepp was a member of Cecil Taylor’s 1960/1 unit that cut sides for Candid and Impulse!, but his first mature playing on disc is on the virtually unobtainable 1962 Archie Shepp - Bill Dixon Quartet album released on Savoy. Four For Trane demonstrates not only a shift in allegiance to Coltrane but a real gift for arrangement and a thoroughly original approach to his own playing at a time when everyone was copying Trane or Rollins. He may have got more radical later, but this was a 100 per cent proof shot of the new on its initial release. Keith Shadwick
The Individualism of Gil Evans
Gil Evans (p, arr, comp) with, among others, Johnny Coles, Ernie Royal, Thad Jones, Bernie Glow (t), Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland (tb), Julius Watkins, Bob Northern (Fr h), Bill Barber (tba), Steve Lacy (ss), Eric Dolphy (f, as, bcl), Wayne Shorter (ts), Garvin Bushell, Jerome Richardson (reeds), Kenny Burrell (g), Milt Hinton, Paul Chambers, Gary Peacock, Ron Carter (b) and Elvin Jones (d). Rec. 1963-4
A diffident self-promoter, Evans was only rarely coaxed into the recording studios to deliver albums that reflected fully his own musical visions away from the stars he wrapped in his sonic delights. This album is his most ambitious and deeply satisfying, covering his love of Kurt Weiil, the blues, Spanish music and swaggering self-penned pieces, all of them dripping in the translucent arrangements that make you feel you’ve entered a uniquely magical musical land the moment the orchestra makes a sound. Seamlessly featuring soloists like Wayne Shorter, Johnny Coles and Phil Woods, this album is pure musical alchemy from a total original. The CD is a happily expanded version of the original vinyl, adding 27 minutes of excellent previously unreleased new music. Keith Shadwick
John Handy - Live At Monterey Jazz Festival
John Handy (as), Mike White (el vn), Jerry Hahn (g), Don Thompson (b) and Terry Clarke (d). Rec. 1965
This was Handy's breakthrough album. After slaving at the pit-face in New York, playing with Mingus then heading back to San Francisco in 1963, he built a local reputation that included headlining gigs at the Fillmore and which came to a head at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1965. The tapes of the set were eventually released on Columbia and made an instant impression. Handy was of the moment and spent a few years in the sun internationally before it all went pear-shaped around 1968 and he lost his band, record deal and profile. Handy in those years had rare qualities that combined to make him unique and nothing has changed to deprive him of that uniqueness since. He has a beautiful tone, faultless technique, great expressive range and a very inquiring musical mind. In 1965 this led him to the sax-violin-guitar front line that made this band so special at the time and so prophetic of the jazz of later decades. He also had sufficient formal training to sustain large structures like the two pieces here from the festival, one 27 minutes long, the other just short of 20 minutes. These are not simply long, rambling improvisations by guys lining up in an orderly queue; they are properly thought-through performances of considerable sophistication. This is why they were such a hit at the time: they had drama and they told a gripping musical story. Keith Shadwick
Jazz Suite Inspired By Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood
Stan Tracey (p), Bobby Wellins (ts), Jeff Clyne (b) and Jackie Dougan (d). Rec. 8 May 1965
Stan Tracey’s timeless tour de force Jazz Suite – Inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood is for many the pianist’s finest hour, and has often been described as one of the greatest British jazz albums ever made. Its release in September 1965, to a tremendous reception, helped steer British jazz towards a wider, more mainstream audience, its mix of rich lyricism and small hours ambience crackled like an unofficial soundtrack to 1960s London, and it still resonates as strongly today. It’s widely acknowledged that Tracey always played down his achievements, but Under Milk Wood is an album that refuses to be played down, a record that will resonate for another 50 years, and beyond. Mark Youll
Speak No Evil
Wayne Shorter (ts), Freddie Hubbard (t), Herbie Hancock (p), Ron Carter (b) and Elvin Jones (d). Rec. 1964
In tandem with his contemporaneous contributions to Miles Davis’ 60s Quintet, Wayne Shorter’s sequence of albums for Blue Note produced the most satisfying music of his career, and threw up two or three bona fide classics of 1960s jazz. This quintet session is pre-eminent among them, capturing Shorter’s enigmatic compositional genius and highly original delivery on tenor saxophone (it predates his later predilection for soprano) in superb fashion. As on Out To Lunch, Freddie Hubbard works against the standard stereotype of his style to great effect, and the rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones is unimpeachable. Kenny Mathieson
Rip, Rig & Panic
Roland Kirk (f, mzo, stritch, ts), Jaki Byard (p), Richard Davis (b) and Elvin Jones (d). Rec. 1965
Possibly Roland Kirk's best album, helped by a rhythm section to die for - Jaki Byard on piano, the great Richard Davis on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. This is a record that everyone should own. It’s unbelievably powerful and any lingering doubts about Kirk as an improviser dissipate over its seven tracks. The closing track ‘Mystical Dream’ features him on three horns, this time including oboe. Can you imagine the embouchure problems that would present? Rahsaan gives a history lesson and masterclass in jazz saxophone playing. Trane’s in there, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Bechet and Lester Young. A truly wonderful album.
Oscar Peterson (p), Ray Brown b) and Ed Thigpen (d). Rec. 1962
Night Train has long been regarded as a high water mark in the pianist’s recording career. Recorded in 1962, it finds these three men at a pinnacle of mutual understanding and simulation, and Peterson at his most inspired when it comes to converting a disparate collection of material into a homogeneous and affectionate look back to a previous era. Keith Shadwick
Charles Lloyd (ts, f), Keith Jarrett (p), Cecil McBee (b) and Jack DeJohnette (d). Rec. 1966
Voted "new star” by Downbeat in 1965, the emergence of the Charles Lloyd Quartet took jazz by storm in 1966, expanding musical horizons with a challenging eclectic amalgam of modal and free jazz with Eastern textures and Spanish soul. Dream Weaver also introduced Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette to the world before Lloyd's subsequent LPs Forest Flower and Love-In became two of jazz’s biggest sellers. However, this was the album that first got tongues wagging, echoing the free spirit of the psychedelic 1960s and landing them an early slot at The Fillmore. Miles noticed too, quickly snatching Jarrett and DeJohnette for his own jazz/rock experiments that ushered in the dawn of a new era. Jon Newey
The Blues And The Abstract Truth
Oliver Nelson (as, ts), Freddie Hubbard (t), Eric Dolphy (f, as, bcl), George Barrow (bar s), Bill Evans (p), Paul Chambers (b) and Roy Haynes (d). Rec. 1961
Perhaps, only with the passing of time is it possible to evaluate the true value of great works of art – in this instance, Oliver Nelson’s personal masterpiece 1960’s The Blues And The Abstract Truth. Along with Miles’ Kind Of Blue, Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Ornette’s Change Of The Century and Mingus Ah Um, Nelson’s The Blues And The Abstract Truth remains one of the truly indispensible albums of that era… and well beyond. While not quite so memorable as a stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks tenor sax titan, Nelson’s true gift was as a composer/arranger of extraordinary ability. Here, utilising just three solo horns – Hubbard, Dolphy and himself (George Barrow’s baritone was only employed in ensembles), Nelson created an abundance of uniquely rich textures on such diverse compositions as ‘Hoe Down’ , ‘Cascades’ and the title track which often gave the illusion of being performed by a far larger unit. Throughout, both Hubbard and Dolphy turn in virtuoso performances while surprisingly a somewhat subdued Bill Evans only occasionally makes his presence heard. Down in the engine room, Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes drive each performance with the utmost tact and discretion. Roy Carr
Anthony Braxton (as). Rec. 1969
While the song titles - dedications to innovative musicians such as John Cage, Cecil Taylor and Leroy Jenkins - gave a clear indication of where the Association For The Advancement Of Creative Musicians iconoclast was coming from, few could have seen where, or rather how far, he was going on this landmark solo recital. Braxton’s alto saxophone is like the sound of acid dripped from the beating wings of hummingbirds, a charmingly corrosive caress. Through brilliant dynamics, lyricism, harmonic invention and pure sound trickery, Braxton showed a single horn could be a complete orchestra, paving the way for similar undertakings by Sonny Rollins among others years later. Kevin Le Gendre
Polskie - Nagrania Muza
Krzysztof Komeda (p), Tomasz Stanko (t), Zbigniew Namyslowski (as), Gunter Lenz (b) and Rune Carlson (d). Rec. 1965
Having formed the first modern jazz group in Poland, Komeda was to become the godfather of what we can now call European jazz. Besides his career as a film composer, he would go on to release just one studio album in his lifetime, but Astigmatic recorded in 1965 is commonly heralded as a ‘classic’ of jazz from Europe, a poetically progressive modernist recording that created a new Polish School of Jazz with its use of Slavic lyricism and elements of native classical and folk traditions. Selwyn Harris
Joe Harriott (as), Kenny Wheeler (t), Pat Smythe (p), Coleridge Goode (b), Allan Ganley (d), John Mayer (vn, harpsichord), Chris Taylor (f), Diwan Motihar (sitar), Chandrahas Paiganka (tambura) and Keshan Sathe (tabla). Rec. 1965
On Indo-Jazz Suite’s release in 1966 its four tracks – ‘Overture’, ‘Contrasts’, ‘Raga Megha’ and ‘Raga Gaud-Saranga’ – freeze-framed something in Indo-jazz fusion that was unique to Britain. The States may have had ‘happening’ notables like Don Ellis but never a John Mayer or a Joe Harriott. Mayer was a Calcutta-raised composer-violinist as equally at home in Hindustani classical and Indian vernacular forms as he was in Western classical and popular music forms. Kingston, Jamaica-born altoist Harriott was a jazzer who took the jazz path rather than the jazz-into-ska route. Ken Hunt
Let Freedom Ring
Jackie McLean (as), Walter Davis (p), Herbie Lewis (b) and Billy Higgins (d). Rec. 1962
Doubtless this is the first Blue Note album to reflect the 1960s avant garde. But it’s equally important to remember some of the portents in McLean’s own late-50s recordings, such as the Ornettish ‘Quadrangle’ from Jackie’s Bag or the modal blues of New Soil's 'Hip Strut’. Here, without any other front line instrument, he lets it all hang out in four long pieces, with the epic ‘Melody For Melonae’ lasting more than 13 minutes. Not possessing the fluency of Coltrane, the inspiration for such a piece, McLean mirrors Trane's intensity with bluesy intonations, high register screams and, at one point, a honk on the alto’s bottom note - not so easy or so often heard as on tenor. It’s true that incoherence beckons, as on the intriguing 'Omega’ which has Herbie Lewis in possibly unconscious imitation of Yusef Lateef's bassist Ernie Farrow playing a north African instrument. However, the drive and invention of Davis and especially Higgins keep the pressure on and in addition, the feelingful performance of a Bud Powell ballad, ‘I’ll Keep Loving You’, rounds off an unforgettable session. Brian Priestley
Liberation Music Orchestra
Charlie Haden (b), Don Cherry, Michael Mantler (t), Roswell Rudd (tb), Bob Northern (Fr hn), Howard Johnson (tba), Perry Robinson (cl), Gato Barbieri, Dewey Redman (ts), Sam Brown (g), Carla Bley (p, arr), Paul Motian and Andrew Cyrille (d). Rec. 1969
Jazz and politics have always been entwined, but rarely in the music’s history have the links spelt out on record. The 1960s was a decade when that orthodoxy was reversed, with Charlie Haden's debut album at the decade's end being one of the most explicit endorsements of leftist sentiments to be found in the entire jazz world. Sentiments of any persuasion are no proof of quality, but the compositions - from Haden, Bley and Ornette Coleman, among others - are uniformly strong and the supporting cast fiercely inspired. For 40 minutes you could believe, if you wanted to. Keith Shadwick
Jazz På Svenska
Jan Johansson (p) and Georg Riedel (b). Rec. 1962-64
In the 1960s Jan Johansson recorded a series of jazz versions of Swedish folkloric material that were subsequently released as Jazz på Svenska (‘Jazz in Swedish). It would provide the inspiration for a significant area of Nordic jazz and to this day is the best selling jazz album in Sweden. Its release was timely. Since the end of the Second World War, Sweden had eagerly followed the American model of consumerism, from white goods to movies, from jazz to literature. The Vietnam war brought on an identity crisis – was Sweden an American state marching towards urban conformity or was it a proud nation in its own right? Jazz på Svenska fitted in with this new national mood, and is still played regularly on the radio today. It also defined Johansson, who was Stan Getz’s accompanist of choice when he lived in Sweden then Denmark, able to play in a forthright bop style favoured by the saxophonist. However, on Jazz på Svenska we hear a different Johansson where his melodic construction, space, intensity and an unhurried approach to improvisation would help shape a Nordic sensibility in jazz known as the Nordic Tone. Stuart Nicholson
...And His Mother Called Him Bill
Duke Ellington (p) and his orchestra. Rec. 1967
Only a fool can afford to ignore the commercial basis that underpins reality in the recorded music industry. But let's suspend such reality checks for a moment and indulge in a spot of jazz Utopianism. Why? Well, this is one of those records that would ideally be continually available for the world to wonder at, learn from and come to love.
It is always in the process of being deleted or reissued somewhere or other in the world, and the fact that it elicits a small but steady demand must be some consolation for the idealist buried inside us all. Ellington made a great many records in his long career, not all of them memorable or even hits. But this 1967 tribute to, and lament for, Billy Strayhorn is indisputably a latter-day peak. Charged with freshly felt grief - Strayhorn had died just three months prior to these sessions - and focused on some of his late musical partner’s greatest contributions to the Ellington book, this record builds up an intensity and character that represents all the best elements of Duke's orchestra in its final glory. Ellington was more than just an elegant, urbane figurehead: throughout his career he was a vital creative force in the music. Here's the proof. Keith Shadwick
Jazz in the 1950s: the ultimate guide to the greatest albums
If you are discovering jazz for the first time then you've just found the perfect place to start. And if you are a true aficionado then this list is sure to remind you of some albums that you will rush to rediscover. The 1950s saw the release of some of the greatest albums, of any genre, ever made. If you've never heard any of these albums and are wondering where to start, you could do a lot worse than by starting at the top, with Kind of Blue, and working your way down the list. This is all truly great music, music for a lifetime's enjoyment. You can also enjoy tracks from each of these albums in our Apple Music playlist 'Jazz in the 1950s' as you read. Reissues of classic albums are reviewed in every issue of Jazzwise, so do check out our latest subscription offers. And so we begin...
Kind of Blue
Miles Davis (t), John Coltrane (ts), Cannonball Adderley (as), Wynton Kelly (p), Bill Evans (p), Paul Chambers (b) and Jimmy Cobb (d). Rec. 1959
How does one properly gauge impact? There’s no smouldering crater in the case of Kind of Blue. Miles’ melancholy, modal-jazz masterwork. The 1959 disc didn’t arrive with a thunderous clap, yet four decades later, at the end of the millennium, there it was at the top of any and all “best of” lists, nudging aside so many rock, pop and hip-hop recordings.
Today, there it is on Hollywood soundtracks, an incontestable signifier of hip. There it is near the sales till, still moving up to 5,000 copies a week worldwide, outselling most contemporary jazz recordings. And there it sits in at least five million CD collections. Often it’s the one jazz title owned by a metal head or a classical enthusiast, not just the jazz-focused.
But perhaps Kind of Blue is better measured by the sum of the constituent parts. Five tunes, exceedingly simple in construction, exceptionally deep in evocative power, played by seven post-bop masters, all in their prime. A once-in-a-lifetime line up that makes the term “all-star” seem inadequate: trumpeter Davis, plus sax men John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb.
Certainly, Kind of Blue must be measured by musical influence. Ask any number of influential music-makers who have been around, such as Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, and the like, they all agree. At a time when the music had “gotten thick” as Miles said. Kind of Blue distilled modern jazz into a cool and detached essence. Stuart Nicholson
The Shape of Jazz To Come
Coleman (as), Don Cherry (t), Charlie Haden (b), Billy Higgins (d). Rec. 1959
Although his work for Impulse, Blue Note, Columbia, Flying Dutchman and his own Harmolodic label should be by no means be discounted, the Atlantic recordings are arguably the backbone of the saxophonist’s oeuvre. Taken together, the five sets that start with 1959’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come and conclude with 1962’s Ornette! still make for something of a shock to the system decades later for two simple reasons: the cast iron strength of character of Coleman as a soloist, which also holds true for his accompanists, who are actually more like co-pilots; and the absolute boldness of the writing which both confirms the vitality of the “avant-garde” or “new music” and makes the crucial point that its central development away from bebop’s clearly mapped chords and set meters took it “back” to early blues and country as well as forward to an undefined idiomatic space. Ultimately, Coleman’s talent is for making music that is as complex as it is primal. And not affected.
The mercurial nature of Coleman’s thinking led him to reshape structures more daringly than the average musician could imagine and his conception of harmony and tempo as a kind of modelling clay rather than rigid building blocks upon which to graft layers of sound still provides an invaluable lesson for contemporary players. Alternatively, one might argue that the immense appeal of his songs is their mesh of polyrhythm with a form of polymelody so that the whole ensemble acts as a contrapuntal choir singing from different hymn sheets without falling into discord. Kevin Le Gendre
Rollins (ts), Tommy Flanagan (p), Doug Watkins (b) and Max Roach (d). Rec. 1956
For once, an album title that doesn’t misrepresent the artist. And like so many classic albums of the period, it was taped in a single session, in the summer of 1956. The playing of all four musicians concerned: Rollins, Tommy Flanagan, Watkins and Roach is of the highest order to where the passing of 54-years hasn’t in any way diminished its sheer vitality. Truth: it sounds even more contemporary today than way back then with recordist Rudy Van Gelder faithfully capturing the sheer depth of Rollins’ delivery. Though ‘Saint Thomas’ and ‘Moritat’ (‘Mack The Knife’) are this album’s best known tracks a knowing interpretation of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ is surely the jewel in this crown. For budding saxophonists, your first lesson starts here. Roy Carr
Monk (p, celeste), Ernie Henry (as), Sonny Rollins (ts), Oscar Pettiford/Paul Chambers (b), Max Roach (d) and Clark Terry (t). Rec. 1956
An album which, each time it's reissued, seems to get better. Although they’re lauded today, Monk’s recordings from the previous nine years on Blue Note and Prestige hardly sold, and were not even particularly well received by critics or fellow musicians, except for a tiny minority. Producer Orrin Keepnews, in his new notes, reminds us that his “plan to make Monk more acceptable began in mid-1955 with an all-Ellington set [and] an album consisting entirely of standard tunes”. The immediate follow-up was Brilliant Corners, not only an exceptional piece of work but the one that finally saw him embraced by everyone who could hear past his unconventional technique.
The title composition was a unique concept, and the combination of Monk’s commanding execution with Rollins at his early peak – they’d recorded together before, but never like this – matches the mastery of Sonny’s employer at the time, Max Roach. There are numerous details to discover for yourself, including Monk’s only recording on celeste (‘Pannonica’) and Roach’s first on timpani (‘Bemsha Swing’). This music just has to be heard. Or re-heard. Now. Brian Priestley
Mingus Ah Um
Mingus (b), Jimmy Knepper/Willie Dennis (tb), John Handy (as, ts), Shafi Hadi (as), Booker Ervin (ts), Horace Parlan (p) and Dannie Richmond (d). Rec. 1959
One of the distinguishing factors in Mingus’ 1959 recordings is that, unlike the five- or six-piece working groups of the previous few years, he was allowed to expand his personnel in the studio. That obviously includes Atlantic’s rough-and-ready Blues And Roots which, in a couple of tunes, functioned as an alternate version of Ah Um but which was not released for over a year. By then, Ah Um had made its impact, not least because of sidemen such as Knepper, Ervin and Handy – none of them “names” until chosen by Mingus – and, similarly, the great Richmond. Another factor in its success was a killer selection of nine tunes. A programme starting out with three remarkably different blues – ‘Better Git It In Your Soul’, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ and ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’ – could hardly fail to grab Mingus fans, but the performances were tight enough to convince many doubters as well. Brian Priestley
Coltrane (ts), Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton, Wynton Kelly (p), Paul Chambers (b), Lex Humphries, Art Taylor and Jimmy Cobb (d). Rec. 1959
Today, Coltrane continues to be a musical inspiration for both fans and musicians alike, and his recorded legacy is essential study for any aspiring jazz musician. ‘Giant Steps’ and the underlying harmonic movement of Coltrane’s 16-bar composition – often called “the Coltrane Changes” – have long been a settled module in jazz education pedagogy. So with almost all professional jazz musicians under the age of 40 having enjoyed at least some degree of formal jazz education, it is not unreasonable to suggest that among jazz musicians, and so within jazz itself, Giant Steps may well be the most influential jazz album of all time.
Coltrane’s solos have been transcribed and analysed by countless scholars, he has been the subject of hundreds and hundreds of academic dissertations and there have been seven biographies of him in the English language alone. Indeed, so much has been written about Coltrane that it might appear you need a doctorate of music to go anywhere near his recordings.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as Giant Steps demonstrates so eloquently. His music contains universal values that still speak to us now – the essential humanity of the his work, the sheer joy of music making and the power and energy of his playing that even today can be both moving and uplifting. These are values that that can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone, just as Coltrane intended. Stuart Nicholson
Brubeck (p), Paul Desmond (as), Eugene Wright (b) and Joe Morello (d). Rec. 1959
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond were an odd couple! Chalk and cheese: Brubeck’s frequently thunderous, bombastic pianistics being in stark contrast to Desmond’s unruffled pure toned alto sax. But it worked. Never more so than on Time Out, one of probably just half-a-dozen albums on the shelves of those who don’t admit to liking jazz.
It was an album that prompted even more controversy than Ornette Coleman’s emergence the previous year. While, perhaps, not the first group to explore compound time signatures, Time Out (a million-plus seller that also produced two jukebox hits ‘Take Five’ and ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk’) proved a major breakthrough in that it captured the public’s attention by offering up a clear blueprint of future possibilities in jazz as opposed to being misconstrued as an attention-grabbing gimmick. Though the singles are the best-known tracks, ‘Kathy’s Waltz’ and ‘Three To Get Ready’ are their equal in terms of genuine inspiration. But then the entire original album remains unaffected by the passing of time. Roy Carr
Ahmad Jamal At The Pershing: But Not For Me
Jamal (p), Israel Crosby (b), Vernell Fournier (d). Rec. 1958
If this album had been recorded for Blue Note or Riverside, I wonder if it would now be universally acknowledged to be the widely influential masterspiece that it most surely is? Although it is fashionable nowadays to pay lip service to the attention paid Jamal by Miles Davis at this time, it is also still fashionable to presume that others aside from Jamal himself went on to make significant music with his devices. Well, I beg to differ. This is significant music, if one can forgive Jamal selling (he claims) a million copies of this record by developing a seamlessly cool style of playing not beholden to Powell, Monk, Oscar Peterson or any other icon. It has its own message, its own story to tell. It endures. Enjoy it without shame. Keith Shadwick
Songs For Swingin’ Lovers
Frank Sinatra (v), Nelson Riddle (arr, cond) and big band. Rec. 1955-56
Sinatra the jazz singer? There are vast swathes of Sinatra recordings that could never be remotely described as jazz, but the man himself credits Tommy Dorsey and Billie Holiday as his musical mentors and, when he put his mind to it, he could phrase and swing with the best. Additionally - and crucially - he influenced just about every jazz singer and musician worthy of the name between the 1940s and today, including such people as Lester Young, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, all of whom had listened very closely indeed to Sinatra's balladry. This classic mid-50s session puts Frankie’s jazz credentials perfectly in order and throws down the gauntlet for everyone else. Keith Shadwick
John Lewis (p), Milt Jackson (vb), Percy Heath (b) and Connie Kay (d). Rec. 1956
Fontessa was the Modern Jazz Quartet’s first for Atlantic, and both it and Pyramid together with the European Concert constitute their best work for the label which is to say, their best apart from the early Prestige/OJC albums.
To be sure, parts are highly redolent of the period in terms of their ‘classical’ counterpoint, and a couple of brief episodes that don't quite come off stick out rather uncomfortably at this distance. Nevertheless, this is minimised by Fontessa's well-ordered programme of two new Lewis compositions, two jazz standards and three of what Lewis used to call American ballads, including a remake of ‘Willow Weep For Me‘ which Milt had first recorded with Monk's quartet (on Genius Of Modern Music Vol.2). The key item in the programme, however, is Lewis’ title suite which, without any obvious breaks, lasts 11 minutes and covers many moods and tempos. As well as the literary allusion explained in Lewis’ note, it tells a compelling musical story. There’s something both intelligent and often highly emotional going on in these albums that stands the test of time. Brian Priestley
The Genius of Bud Powell
Powell (p), Ray Brown (b) and Buddy Rich (d). Rec. 1950-51
Two Herculean trio tunes – ‘Tea For Two’ and ‘Hallelujah’, both taken at breakneck speeds – make up the 1950 contribution here. With the benefit of extra CD space we get treated to two extra takes of ‘Tea For Two’, giving us an object lesson in how Powell developed his material as well as maintaining his incredible improvisational creativity. The level of invention Powell achieves puts this recital on equal par with anything in the recorded annals of jazz piano and makes it basic required jazz listening. Keith Shadwick
Blakey (d), Lee Morgan (t), Benny Golson (ts), Bobby Timmons (p) and Jymie Merritt (b). Rec. 1958
This marked The Messengers return to Blue Note and a new line-up. Originally issued as Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers, the title was quickly changed to Moanin’ to capitalise on the public’s instant response to the LP’s opening track and also ‘Blues March’. Acknowledged as one of the all-time hard bop classic albums.
A New Sound, A New Star
Smith (org), Thornel Schwartz (g), Bay Perry and Donald Bailey (d). Rec. 1956
It’s that simple: Jimmy Smith invented modern jazz organ and this is the album (in fact, volume one of two quickly-released volumes recorded at the same February 1956 sessions) where he announced his arrival. From the off, Blue Note was looking for commercial success and his version of 'The Champ', though not the first Jimmy Smith Blue Note single (on Volume two rather than Volume one), delivered big time. By then the first album had delivered a blues-plus-bebop blueprint for the jazz organ trio that Smith would subsequently develop, refine and occasionally revise, but that stayed remarkably consistent in content and quality over the next decade. Keith Shadwick
Ellington At Newport
Ellington (p), Willie Cook, Ray Nance, Clark Terry, Cat Anderson (t), Britt Woodman, Quentin Jackson, John Sanders (tb), Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope (as), Jimmy Hamilton (cl, ts), Paul Gonsalves (ts), Harry Carney (bar s), Jimmy Woode (b) and Sam Woodyard (d). Rec. 1956
Ellington often acknowledged that the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival offered him a virtual rebirth in terms of his in-person and recording career but there is little doubt as to why. Apart from the on-site near-riot after the conclusion of 'Diminuendo And Crescendo in Blue', this is a well-paced record for a lounge-chair audience wanting to know what the excitement was all about. The fact that 60 per cent of the original (including just about all of The Festival Suite) was recorded in the studio in the following days due to onstage microphone problems was only confirmed decades later. The original vinyl had just three tracks: this was also the original CD configuration. A later two-CD version combines much improved sound with the complete festival appearance, plus studio extras. Keith Shadwick
Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook
Fitzgerald (v) and the Buddy Bregman Orchestra. Rec. 1956
Norman Granz had long cherished the ambition to have Ella recording for his label but had to wait until 1956 to make the signing. His first project for her was to record as many Cole Porter songs as they could lay their hands on in large ensemble style and release them (initially as volumes one and two) on an unsuspecting but quickly enraptured public. The idea caught on and Ella kept doing composer songbooks well into the 1960s. Nobody did it better, even though it could be said that Sinatra’s studious avoidance of such anthologies produced the greater individual legacy. Keith Shadwick
Adderley (as), Miles Davis (t), Hank Jones (p), Sam Jones (b) and Art Blakey (d). Rec. 1959
Being sandwiched between Miles Davis and John Coltrane is bound to up anyone’s game. It certainly didn’t do Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley any harm who joined Miles in October 1957, three months prior to wayward John Coltrane’s return to the fold, and remained until September 1959 when he departed to be reunited with his brother Nat. Cannonball’s arrival in New York from Florida in 1955, coincided with Charlie Parker’s death in March, at which point he was unfairly heralded as the New Bird. Fortunately, Adderley possessed sufficient strength of character to sidestep such comparisons, being more blues than bop, more sanctified than speed crazy, more commercial than contrite. To a whole new generation, Cannonball was a touchstone whose joyful noise reached out to a much wider audience than most of his contemporaries. More a populariser than innovator, his soulful sound was much easier to assimilate and thus connected instantly with fans of both straight-ahead jazz and R&B/ soul.
Having spent a month in Europe where he supplied the soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Lift To The Scaffold the next occasion Miles was in a recording studio was on February 4, 1958 when Cannonball made an impressive debut on Milestones. Just one month later, Miles adopted the role of sideman on Somethin’ Else, Adderley’s one-off album for Blue Note. Often billed as Cannonball’s Five Stars, this was not, as some suggested, a surrogate Miles album, (he wrote the title track) but a bona fide Cannonball date, exquisitely recorded tight and close-up by Rudy Van Gelder – most notably on ‘Autumn Leaves’. Overall, one of the leader’s best ever accounts of his virtuosity. Roy Carr
George Russell – The Jazz Workshop
George Russell (comp, arr, boombams), Art Farmer (t), Hal McKusick (as, f), Barry Galbraith (g), Bill Evans (p), Milt Hinton, Teddy Kotick (b), Joe Harris, Paul Motian and Osie Johnson (d). Rec. 1956
This record has been reissued so many times that it may even be approaching acceptable sales figures at last. Russell is as well known as a theorist as he is a practising musician, and it is not meant as an insult to say that his music is probably more often paid lip service to rather than his records listened to. His music is not easy, being complex and angular, even at this distance his 1956 sessions for Victor giving the listener few points of comfort. This is fully intentional on the part of Russell and points up both his integrity and his lack of a substantial popular audience. The presence of Art Farmer, Bill Evans and Paul Motian on this record helps pull in the uncommitted listener, but everyone here plays for Russell, not for themselves, making this a pure dose of Russell’s musical personality. Once the astringency of his sonics and his methods are assimilated, this music delivers many pleasures, not least the solos of the then-little-known Bill Evans. Give it a few listens in a row and you’ll hear what I mean. Keith Shadwick
Tristano (p), Lee Konitz (as), Peter Ind, Gene Ramey (b), Jeff Morton and Art Taylor (d). Rec. 1955
Theorist, teacher, creative thinker and virtuoso pianist, Tristano had advanced and very firmly held views about what constituted good playing practice. He expected his musicians to adhere to such views and accept whatever discipline he imposed. That it worked for others can be heard in Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, and that it was influential can be discerned through Bill Evans's absorption of Tristano's methods. But Tristano’s own audience remained tiny, this Atlantic album containing his moving elegy to Charlie Parker, 'Requiem', and his controversial multi-tracking of his own piano lines, 'Line Up’, providing a brief moment when everyone sat up and took notice. Keith Shadwick
Clifford Brown and Max Roach
Brown (t), Harold Land (ts), Richie Powell (p), George Morrow (b) and Max Roach (d). Rec. 1954
For whatever reason the Brown-Roach Quintet was never quite as universally lionised as say, the Jazz Messengers or the Horace Silver Quintet were. Yet, they had everything going for them and as this selection by the pre-Rollins line-up proves that one of their great strengths was a pad of marvellous material that embraced Brownie’s unforgettable ‘Daahoud’, ‘The Blues Walk’ and ‘Joy Spring’ plus original takes on ‘Delilah’, ‘Jordu’, ‘Parisian Thoroughfare’ and Duke Ellington’s ‘What Am I Here For.’ Though Brownie and Max Roach deservedly grabbed the plaudits, it’s time to turn the spotlight on that truly underrated tenor player Harold Land plus Bud Powell’s ill-fated piano playing younger brother Richie who really goes for broke on two takes of ‘The Blues Walk’ as does Land. Some may have had reservations about Land’s tone, but as with Hank Mobley, he couldn’t be mistaken for any other horn player, though I can detect elements of Land in the work of mid-period Tubby Hayes. Overall, a pretty well faultless account of one of the greatest of hard bop bands, which remains just as relevant today as the day it was first minted. Roy Carr
Birth of the Cool
Miles Davis (t), Lee Konitz (as), Gerry Mulligan (bar s), JJ Johnson (tb), Kai Winding (tb), Junior Collins (Fr hn), Gunther Schuller (Fr hn), Sandy Siegelstein (Fr hn), Billy Barber (tba), John Barber (tba), Nelson Boyd (b), Joe Shulman (b), Al McKibbon (b), Al Haig (p), John Lewis (p), Kenny Clarke (d), Max Roach (d), Gil Evans (arr), Johnny Carisi (arr) and Kenny Hagood (v). Rec. 1949-50
It’s certainly possible to overrate these recordings (as is true of Kind Of Blue) and, while that was widespread during the 1950s-60s, the reverse seems to be the case today. The 12 original studio tracks were initially baffling to everyone except fellow musicians, who hastened to copy their surface characteristics but, when reissued in the wake of Miles Ahead, they underlined the advanced thinking of arrangers Mulligan and Evans. Miles too is heard not only playing excellent lead trumpet but soloing in a way that, though bop-influenced, is already pre-modal, and Konitz hits the forward gear from a quite different angle. Brian Priestley
The Atomic Mr Basie
Count Basie (p), Thad Jones, Joe Newman, Wendell Culley, Snooky Young (t), Benny Powell, Henry Coker, Al Grey (tb), Marshall Royal (as, cl), Frank Wess (as, ts), Frank Foster, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (ts), Charlie Fowlkes (bar s), Freddie Green (g), Eddie Jones (b), Sonny Payne (d) and Neal Hefti (arr). Rec. 1957
Basie’s great career-reviving 1957 album, the finest achievement of his dynamic, “modern” sound-boasting New Testament big band, is a seemingly never-ending and ever-expanding story in the era of CD reissues. The LP, featuring 11 tracks largely written and entirely arranged by the great Neal Hefti, was originally released on the infamous Morris Levy’s Roulette Records label. In the early 1990s that epoch-defining set was reissued with five out-takes tacked on from the same sessions, but this time showcasing the capable arranging skills of Jimmy Mundy. In all other respects, though, the composition of the band was unchanged: which is important because ‘Lockjaw’ Davis’ improvisations are crucial in adding a little splintering volatility to the otherwise sturdily muscular, well-marshalled sound honed by Hefti. Robert Shore
Gerry Mulligan Quartet
Gerry Milligan (bar s), Chet Baker (t), Bobby Whitlock (b) and Chico Hamilton (d). Rec. 1952
Mulligan first made a significant contribution to recorded jazz through his arrangements for Miles’ so-called Birth of the Cool sessions for Capitol, but it was the 1952 piano-less quartet that hit the headlines and made him (as well as trumpeter sidekick Chet Baker) virtually overnight jazz celebrities. This album covers the initial (and best) sides the Mulligan Quartet cut, for Pacific Jazz, including ‘Bernie’s Tune', ‘Freeway’ and ‘Walkin’ Shoes’, where the uncanny empathy between Mulligan and Baker is constantly underlined by the firmly resilient beat of Chico Hamilton. West coast jazz in its infancy and at its most joyously infectious. Keith Shadwick
The Genius of Art Tatum No.1
Art Tatum (p). Rec. 1953
For decades Tatum was every jazz pianist's first choice as the greatest piano of all but by the early 1950s his public profile was still minute compared with some of his contemporaries. Norman Granz decided to fix that: between 1953 and Tatum's death in 1956 Granz recorded well over 200 selections and issued them on Clef and Verve. Tatum’s popular and critical reputation has been secure ever since, his baroque creations simultaneously exciting and terrifying the listener. This first of the series is a solo recital. All the Tatum Clefs and Verves are now available on Granz’s last-owned label, Pablo. Keith Shadwick
Sarah Vaughan (v), Clifford Brown (t), Herbie Mann (f), Paul Quinichette (ts), Jimmy Jones (p), Joe Benjamin (b) and Roy Haynes (d). Rec. 1954
Vaughan was a by-word for vocal worship among her peers and musical associates by the late 1940s, but little she recorded before this album consistently showed her true worth to jazz. Nestled in a sympathetic small-group setting, Sassy simply blossoms into an overwhelmingly seductive artist whose complete abandonment to her own idea of line and sound gives the listener a level of ecstatic pleasure delivered only by - well, by Sassy, Ella and Billie, truth be told. She may later have equalled this in other settings, but here the gauntlet was well and truly thrown down. Keith Shadwick
Charles Mingus (b), Jackie McLean (as), , JR Monterose (ts), Mal Waldron (p), Willie Jones (d). Rec. 30 Jan 1956
Mingus’ first two Atlantics (this album and The Clown), heard complete, excited and appalled their initial listeners. Pithecanthropus introduced deliberately distorted saxophone tones, bits of collective improv and even sound effects describing ‘A Foggy Day (In San Francisco)’, “adapted” from its Gershwin source. If you’re unaware of this album, get up to speed now. Brian Priestley
Stan Kenton: City of Glass
If the new and different were Kenton’s guiding lights then no piece of music exemplified this more than ‘City Of Glass’, comprising three movements composed and arranged by the delphic Robert Graettinger. To say the piece was ahead of its time is an understatement. Debuted at the Chicago Civic Opera House in 1948, a capacity audience greeted the piece in stunned silence until Kenton, with remarkable presence of mind, leapt in front of his band and with a dramatic gesture signalled for his band to take a bow. The baffled audience responded with a huge ovation. ‘City Of Glass’ is one of the great, if misunderstood, extended compositions in jazz. Neither middle-brow or highbrow, but aimed well over the heads of most of Kenton’s fans, it was berated by the critics for its “classical” aspirations. But this uniquely conceived piece of music had no precedent in either classical music or jazz so there was no context in which to situate it at the time. In fact, the endorsements of many great jazz musicians − Coleman Hawkins was one − made tart contrast to the critic’s instant dismissals. Stuart Nicholson
Weather Report: the life and times of the group on record
The March 2017 issue of Jazzwise features a fascinating new article about the legendary electric bass player Jaco Pastorius (subscribe here). To celebrate, we present a comprehensive profile of the band with which Jaco made his name: Weather Report. Bill Milkowksi charts the life and times of the group on record
Co-founded by Miles Davis alumnae Wayne Shorter and Josef Zawinul, Weather Report forged a new direction in instrumental music with an exhilarating hybrid of styles that drew heavily on jazz while also incorporating elements of rock, funk, free flowing group improvisation, electronic abstraction and pan-global exotica. A perennial poll-winner, the group reached enormous peaks of worldwide popularity while also establishing itself as one of the most vitally creative and influential units to come out of the volatile 1970s.
A series of key, interconnected events led to the ultimate formation of Weather Report in the early part of December, 1970. Indeed, it was a musical concept that gestated over time during the late ’60s through various recordings before finally manifesting as the super group that would become indisputably the premier fusion band of the 1970s and 1980s. Zawinul hinted at this forward-thinking, harmonically open direction as early as 1967 in his capacity as keyboardist for the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. Two other key recordings, both released in that pivotal year of 1970, were important precursors to Weather Report. Zawinul, the keyboardist composer's third and most ambitious album as a leader for Atlantic, marks a decided stride into the new, and away from the soul-jazz and hard bop tone of Joe's two previous Atlantic outings, 1966's Money in the Pocket and 1968's The Rise & Fall of the Third Stream. The more progressive-sounding Zawinul features Joe's very personal take on his own evocative composition 'In A Silent Way', which he had originally written to convey his impressions of his days as a shepherd boy in Austria. Also noteworthy is ‘Doctor Honoris Causa', a tune that Joe dedicated to Herbie Hancock and which would later become a regular concert-opener for Weather Report. The bassist on that breakthrough, self-titled project was Miroslav Vitous, the gifted Czech musician who would become a charter member of Weather Report and along with Joe and Wayne form the nucleus of that great band. Zawinul would reciprocate later that same year by appearing on Vitous' second album as a leader, the excellent but currently rare Purple, an important early fusion project which also included John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham in the lineup.
Meanwhile, Shorter pointed to a similarly adventurous path in his last few recordings for the Blue Note label. His 1969 outing, Super Nova, was a startling departure from his previous Blue Note output. With John McLaughlin and Sonny Sharrock on guitars, Walter Booker on bass, Airto on percussion and Chick Corea on drums (!), it launched Shorter into another musical zone. The transitional Odyssey of Iska and Moto Grosso Feio provide further linkage to the subsequent formation of Weather Report, as did an unissued recording entitled Creation. That triumvirate of recordings from 1970 helped to forge the rhythm tandem chemistry between bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Alphonse Mouzon, both of whom would appear a year later on Weather Report’s self-titled debut from 1971. Percussionist Barbara Burton, who made a significant though uncredited appearance on Weather Report, also contributes to Creation (which at this point exists only in bootleg form). Curiously, in the liner notes to Odyssey of Iska there is a reference to Wayne's new band, Weather Forecast.
Though Shorter and Zawinul had actually met years earlier the galvanizing event that brought these two kindred spirits and creative forces together was Miles' groundbreaking In A Silent Way, the big bang that launched the fusion movement and ultimately spawned such groups as Weather Report, Return To Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. One track in particular from tha fusion landmark predates the quintessential Weather Report sound. Zawinul's mysterious and pastoral sounding composition 'Ascent' (recorded on November 27, 1968) is a definite precursor to such early atmospheric Weather Report offerings as ‘Badia’ and 'Jungle Book'. With Shorter in his first-ever recorded performance on soprano sax blowing incredibly lyrical lines on top of the three-keyboard cushion supplied by Zawinul, Hancock and Corea, this piece also foreshadows the uncanny rapport that Joe and Wayne would further develop in Weather Report’s future line-ups.
(Columbia) rel. 12 May 1971
The eponymously titled debut includes the Vitous compositions ‘Seventh Arrow’ and 'Morning Lake’ along with Shorter's 'Tears' and ‘Eurydice’ and Zawinul's 'Waterfall' and ‘Orange Lady'. All three collaborate on ‘Umbrellas’ while Shorter and Zawinul get co-writing credit on ‘Milky Way'. Managed by Robert Devere, the superband Weather Report was introduced at a debut party on May 26, 1971 at the CBS Studios in the heart of midtown Manhattan. A summer tour ensued, documented by at least one bootleg. On 3 September, the core group was joined in a broadcast from Berlin, Germany by British saxophonists Alan Skidmore and John Surman, performing Shorter’s ‘Moto Grosso Feio’ and 'Eurydice’ and Zawinul’s 'Early Minor', ‘Directions’ and 'Doctor Honoris Causa'.
I Sing The Body Electric
(Columbia) rel. 24 May 1972
Recorded between October and late December of 1971, Weather Report's anxiously-awaited follow up features a new drummer (Eric Gravatt replacing Alphonse Mouzon), a new percussionist (Dorn Urn Romao replacing Airto) and a host of special guests including Hubert Laws on flute, Ralph Towner on acoustic 12-string guitar, Andrew White on English horn and Wilmer Wise on trumpet. Named for a Walt Whitman poem, it includes Zawinul's ominous anti-war tone poem ‘Unknown Soldier' along with his proto-New Age anthem ‘Second Sunday in August’. Shorter contributes the Oregon-flavoured piece 'The Moors' and Vitous offers his own evocative musical journey in the seven-minute rubato centerpiece ‘Crystal', which travels from gentle lyricism to a freewheeling three-way improv conversation with Zawinul on Fender Rhodes, Shorter on soprano sax and Vitous on nasty, fuzz-inflected electric bass. The remainder of this second Weather Report offering captures the band in positively killer mode at Shibuya Kokaido Hall, burning with the kind of raw abandon that characterized the early fusion movement on a medley of Zawinul's adrenaline-pumped jam 'Vertical Invader’, Vitous’ 'T.H.' and a highly interactive rendition of 'Dr. Honoris Causa', featuring some spikey call-and-response between Zawinul’s distorted electric piano and Shorter’s seething tenor sax.
Live in Tokyo
(Sony Japan) 1972
Released in Japan only, this is the complete document of the 13 January concert at Shibuya Kokaido Hall in Tokyo. Along with the opening medley and the other live material that appeared on I Sing The Body Electric, it also includes freewheeling, edgy renditions of Shorter's ‘Eurydice', 'Tears', ‘Lost’ and 'The Moors’ along with Zawinul’s 'Early Minor’ and ‘Orange Lady'. Rare but highly recommended to hardcore WR fans, just to hear them push the envelope on these familiar set pieces.
(Columbia) rel. 27 April 1973
Recorded in early February at the CBS Studios in Manhattan and Connecticut, Weather Report’s third album features the drumming tandem of Eric Gravatt and Herschel Dwellingham creating intricate polyrhythmic textures alongside percussionists Dorn Urn Romao and Muruga on Zawinul's funky ‘125th Street Congress' (which may be the first authentic hip-hop beat on record) and on two Shorter compositions, the lyrically haunting soprano sax showcase 'Manolete' and the throbbing closer 'Non-Stop Home’. Andrew White provides some tasty English horn on Vitous’ exotic 'Will' then switches to electric bass and grooves in ultra-funky Motown fashion on Zawinul's percussive opener 'Boogie Woogie Waltz’, a hypnotic 13-minute vamp which sets the template for all of Joe's future groove-meets-improv experiments from early Weather Report.
(Columbia) rel. 24 May 1974
With Weather Report heading down a more groove-oriented path, Zawinul became more interested in acquiring a funky bass player to hold down the bottom. Miroslav Vitous' inability to capture this kind of earthy, pared-down approach is what inevitably set the stage for Philly bassist Alphonso Johnson coming into the band in November of 1973.
The powerhouse lineup for that fourth Weather Report album (recorded at Devonshire Sound Studios in North Hollywood) also featured the drum tandem of Ishmael Wilburn (a cousin of Wayne Shorter) and Skip Hadden. More collaborative in nature than subsequent releases, Mysterious Traveller has Zawinul sharing composer credits with Miroslav Vitous (making his final recorded appearance with the band) on the lilting ‘American Tango', with Johnson on the funky vehicle ‘Cucumber Slumber' and with both Shorter and Johnson on the spacious and eerie soundscape 'Scarlet Woman'. Joe was particularly pleased with the direction of ‘Cucumber Slumber', a piece that originated from a funky bassline that Johnson brought in and which Zawinul then orchestrated into a fully developed piece with clavinet and synths. Shorter is prominently featured here stretching on soprano sax.
(Columbia) rel. May 1975
The second studio album that Weather Report recorded at Devonshire Sound Studios in North Hollywood and the fifth overall is propelled by the crisp, power precision drumming of Ndugu Chancier and underscored by the bubbling, Mu-Tron-inflected basslines of Alphonso Johnson. In a departure from the much looser approach of Sweetnighter, the tunes here are more thoughtfully composed and deliberately arranged, as exemplified by Zawinul’s ebullient opener 'Man in the Green Shirt’ and his mercurial suite 'Between The Thighs’ or Shorter's gradually evolving bolero 'Lusitanos'. Other highpoints include Zawinul’s ethereal world beat anthem 'Badia’ and Shorter’s kinetic 'Freezing Fire’, which features some extended expressions by Joe on synth and Wayne on soprano sax. Shorter’s 'Five Short Stories' is an intimate duet that features his poignant tenor playing in the company of Zawinul’s piano, organ and ARP 2600 synth string ensemble textures.
(Columbia) rel. March 1976
A transitional album, it marks the changing of the bass guard from Alphonso Johnson to Jaco Pastorius. While Johnson had announced his intention to leave Weather Report by December 75 in order to join the Billy Cobham-George Duke band, he nevertheless recorded five tracks for this album. He cut Zawinul’s 'Gibraltar', Shorter’s 'Elegant People’ and 'Three Clowns’ and his own 11/4 excursion 'Hernandu' on a 22 December session and added Zawinul's ambient piece 'Black Market’ in an early January 76 session. Jaco makes his debut with the band on 'Cannonball', Joe’s poignant tribute to his friend and mentor Cannonball Adderley, who had died on August 8, 1975. Pastorius’ fretless electric bass guitar work on 'Cannonball' and on his own funky original 'Barbary Coast' helped fuel the growing legend which had been unleashed earlier that year with the release of Jaco's astonishing self-titled debut on Epic Records. Shorter again relies on lyricon to fatten up the tracks in doubling Zawinul's synth lines. The album, recorded at Devonshire Sound Studios in North Hollywood, also introduces two new faces in the drum chair in Narada Michael Walden, who played on 'Cannonball' and the title track, and former Frank Zappa drummer Chester Thompson, who played on the remainder of the tracks. The percussionists were Peruvian Alex Acuna and Don Alias. For a Stateside tour, which commenced on April 1, 1976 at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the new Weather Report touring lineup was Pastorius on bass, Acuna on drums and Manolo Badrena on percussion.
(Columbia) rel. March 1977
A breakthrough record for Weather Report, the group's seventh studio album launched them to a new level of record sales and visibility in the marketplace. The final piece of the puzzle was the addition of bassist Jaco Pastorius, who brought an unprecedented facility on his instrument along with a kind of showtime appeal, an earthy real-deal R&B sensibility he inherited from endless roadwork on the chitlin’ circuit with Wayne Cochran & The C.C. Riders and a macho swagger to match Zawinul's own.
A natural extrovert as well as a gifted groovemeister, Jaco used his unprecedented technique to thrill other musicians while relying on his showtime skills to entertain audiences. With his wild stage antics and South Florida beach bum persona, Jaco struck a demeanor that was decidedly outside the suit-and-tie realm of the conservative jazzbo. And yet, he was as well-versed in the music of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane as he was with the funk of James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Sly Stone, the rock of Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles or the reggae of Bob Marley. And not only would Jaco entertain audiences with his outrageous behavior on stage but he would also invariably open some ears to new sounds, providing a bridge between the rock and jazz camps.
Recorded in December of 1976 and January of 1977 at Devonshire Sound Studios in North Hollywood, it instantly grabbed ears on the strength of Zawinul's catchy, radio-friendly hit single 'Birdland’ (Joe's ode to the legendary New York jazz club from the heyday of 52nd Street). Shorter’s Latin-tinged ‘Palladium’ (his ode to another legendary New York nightclub, located just across the street from Birdland, which was the focal point of the burgeoning latin jazz scene of the 40s and 50s) would become a powerful Weather Report set-opener on tour. Pastorius makes a startling impression with his haunting tone and melodic approach on Zawinul's beautiful ballad 'A Remark You Made’ and then rips it up on his own turbo-charged 'Teen Town’, a kind of electrified updating of a chops-busting bebop riff set to a disco beat. It was the beginning of a new era in the band's history - the Jaco years.
(Columbia) rel. early September 1978
The commercial success of the gold-selling Heavy Weather set the tone for an even more electrified phase of Weather Report, which was played out to its crossover conclusion on Mr Gone. Acerbic critics and other wags opined that the album title was a reference to Wayne Shorter, who seemed to have faded into the background of a synth-layered sheen that permeates the arrangements. Even Zawinul himself, who clearly dominates this studio project (recorded in February and June of 1978, once again at Devonshire Sound Studios in North Hollywood) admits in retrospect that the album was an experiment.
What it was was a collection of well-crafted confections like Jaco's discofied 'River People' and Zawinul’s blatantly buoyant 'Young And Fine’ and the cloying ballad 'And Then' featuring some pleasantly soulful vocals from Denise Williams and Earth, Wind & Fire's Maurice White. Shorter's atmospheric composition 'The Elders’ seems more like moody filler here while the band’s stylised remake of Wayne's classic ’Pinocchio’ crackles with juggernaut intensity for a clipped 2:25. Zawinul’s walking synth bass line that dominates the title track makes Pastorius' presence moot. Jaco does make his inimitable presence felt, however on 'Punk Jazz’, an aptly-named Pastorius anthem that brilliantly showcases his unparalleled bass virtuosity. Shorter also gets in some lyrical tenor licks at the intro of ‘Punk Jazz' before switching to soprano and wailing during the (dated) discofied middle section. The revolving drum chair for this studio project rotated from Steve Gadd to Tony Williams to Peter Erskine, who would join the band that summer of 1978 for tours of Japan and Australia and then throughout South America and Europe that fall. An interesting note: Jaco is credited as co-producer for the first time.
(Columbia) rel. September 1979
From the outset, Weather Report had always been a phenomenal band in concert, which can be readily heard on the live sections from I Sing The Body Electric. This live recording captures some exhilarating moments on the road with the fearsome and flexible foursome of Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorius and new drummer Peter Erskine. One can sense both the camaraderie and friendly competition between the players on urgent, go-for-the-throat renditions of Jaco’s 'Teen Town' or Zawinul’s ‘Black Market’. Both Jaco and Wayne project with a depth of emotion on Joe’s tender ballad ’A Remark You Made’, and Jaco goes into heavy showtime mode on ’Slang', his standard solo segment in which he engages the audience in a clap-along to his funky looped bass motif before stomping on the distortion box and launching into quotes from Jimi Hendrix’s 'Third Stone from the Sun' and 'The Sound Of Music’, then inevitably lying his bass guitar face up on the stage and leaping onto it from atop his Acoustic 360 amplifier. A gentle duet rendition of Zawinul’s 'In A Silent Way' with Wayne on soprano sax and Joe providing orchestral synth accompaniment lends a brief bit of breathing room before a loose, lively shuffle rendition of the crowd favorite 'Birdland’. Elsewhere in the live segments, Shorter delves into a rare unaccompanied solo tenor sax showcase on a cubist extrapolation of Bob Hope’s longtime theme song, 'Thanks for the Memories.’
Havana Jam/Havana Jam II
(Sony Japan) rel. June 1979/November 1979
These two compilations captured a historic meeting of American and Cuban musicians who came together on March 2, 3 and 4 of 1979 at the 5,000-seat Karl Marx Theatre for an extended weekend of jazz, latin and pop music. The brainchild of Bruce Lundvall, then president of CBS Records, it involved transporting a number of artists on CBS's roster at the time, including Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, John Mclaughlin, Tony Williams, Hubert Laws, Eric Gale and Weather Report along with popsters Billy Joel and Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett to Havana to share the bill with such Cuban all-stars as Orquesta Aragon, Irakere and the Cuban Percussion Ensemble.
(Columbia) rel. November 1980
Zawinul’s swinging, boppish title track, paced by Pastorius' insistently walking basslines and Erskine's ride cymbal groove, opens this powerful outing, immediately setting the tone for what is easily the ‘jazziest’ of Weather Report's Jaco-era recordings. Tracked on 12 and 13 July at George Massenburg's The Complex sound stage before a live audience, it features the addition of a fifth man in percussionist Robert Thomas, Jr., whose syncopated approach to hand percussion is decidedly more bebop than AfroCuban. Again produced by Zawinul and with coproducing credit going to Pastorius, it also features Shorter in a far more prominent role. Night Passage is also distinguished by some of Jaco's most emotionally wrenching and technically astounding bass playing on record. Shorter plays quite expressively on both tenor and soprano on Zawinul’s mournful ballad ‘Dream Clock’ before bearing down on tenor and blowing in unrestrained fashion on his own highly-charged composition 'Port of Entry', which also turns Jaco loose for an explosive bass solo against Erkine's driving backbeat and Thomas’ percolating conga work. Zawinul's 'Forlorn' is an affecting tone poem while his aggressive, synth-laden orchestration of Duke Ellington's 'Rockin' In Rhythm’ is his heartfelt ode to a lifelong jazz hero. Shorter blows with more unbridled tenor conviction on Zawinul's aptly-named ‘Fast City' - a mad burner fuelled by Erskine's brisk ride cymbal sizzle and Jaco's blazing bass lines - than on all of his contributions to Mr. Gone and 8:30 combined. Pastorius' gorgeous, bittersweet waltz ballad 'Three Views of a Secret’ (perhaps his most profoundly affecting composition ever) and Zawinul's ominous suite ‘Madagascar’ round out what is ultimately Weather Report's strongest statement since Mysterious Traveller.
(Columbia) rel. January 1982
Recorded on July 13 at the Power Station in New York and on 14 August, 1981 at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, this offering marks the last appearance of Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine, who announced their intentions to leave Weather Report shortly after these recordings. Jaco would go on to form his Word of Mouth big band, of which Erskine played a significant part, before the onset of his manic-depressive condition would take him on an increasingly downward spiral toward doom. Jaco’s swan song with Weather Report is unique for his relatively scaled back input. Gone was Jaco's coproduction credit and, more tellingly, he contributed not a single composition to the proceedings, though he plays his ass off on Joe's opening burner ‘Volcano For Hire' and throughout Zawinul's three-part 'N.Y.C.' suite while also demonstrating his hauntingly beautiful, ‘singing’ fretless approach on two affecting Zawinul ballads, 'Current Affairs' and the evocative 'Speechless'.
In Performance at the Playboy Jazz Festival
(Columbia) rel. 1982
In the beginning of their summer tour, Weather Report had a stop at the Hollywood Bowl on 19 June as part of the Playboy Jazz Festival. Their performance with a new lineup included 'Volcano For Hire', a medley of '8:30/Black Market/Elegant People/Badia/A Remark You Made’ and 'Fast City'. For an encore of 'Birdland’ they were joined, unannounced, by the Manhattan Transfer, who had recorded a vocalese version of the song a few years earlier.
(Columbia) rel. February 1983
By June 1982, Zawinul and Shorter had revamped the band, recruiting drummer Omar Hakim, percussionist Jose Rossy and 22-year-old Philly bassist Victor Bailey for a brief Stateside tour. In July and August 1982, the new edition of Weather Report went into the Power Station in New York to record material for Procession. Additional recording took place at The Music Room in Pasadena, Fantasy Studios in Berkleley, Sound Castle in Los Feliz and Lion Share Studios in Los Angeles. What they inevitably came up with was a formula that dealt with the bass in a bottom-heavy, groove-oriented role rather than Jaco's soloistic approach and allowed for less of the interactive group dynamic that the band had been founded on. This more tightly orchestrated concept can readily be heard on Zawinul's title track and his big production number 'Where The Moon Goes’, which utilises the heavily effected voices of the Manhattan Transfer and features some explosive give-and-take between Hakim's drums and Zawinul's synths. Shorter stretches out a bit on Joe's 'Two Lines' and also on his own poignant 'Plaza Real’, named for a memorable spot in Barcelona, Spain.
(Columbia) rel. February 1984
Retaining the same lineup from their previous album, Weather Report went into the studio in July of 1983 to record Shorter’s 'Predator' and 'Swamp Cabbage’ along with Zawinul's ‘Domino Theory' and the sentimental ballad ‘Can It Be Done’, composed by New Orleans pianist Willie Tee and featuring vocalist Carl Anderson. The real show-stopper here is a live performance of Zawinul's surging ‘D-Flat Waltz’, which features some intense drumming from Omar Hakim.
(Columbia) rel. Aprii 1985
A groove-oriented affair that also featured a wealth of world beat influences, Sportin' Life was recorded in August and September of 1984 at The Music Room in Pasadena and also at the Crystal Room in Hollywood. Weather Report's 14th album is distinguished by the vocal daring of special guest Bobby McFerrin on a few tracks as well as some healthy stretching by Wayne Shorter. Zawinul’s surging drum machine-fueled closer 'Ice-Pick Willy' is a portend of things to come from Joe. Subsequent to its release, there was no follow-up tour as Zawinul and Shorter declared that Weather Report was 'on hiatus’. A month later, Zawinul and Shorter each went back into The Music Room to begin work on their respective solo projects. Meanwhile, drummer Omar Hakim signed on for a tour with rock star Sting while bassist Victor Bailey joined Mike Mainieri’s band Steps Ahead.
This is This
(Columbia) rel. 1986
Contractual obligations forced this 15th and final Weather Report album, which was recorded during Christmas tour breaks at the end of 1985. Predictably, it sounds largely like an afterthought, despite the presence of Carlos Santana laying out blistering, toe-curling blues-rock licks on Zawinul's title track and his funky ‘Man With The Copper Fingers.' The album includes a quirky bit of world beat funk in 'Face The Fire' and Mino Cinelu’s 'Jungle Stuff, Part I.' Bassist Victor Bailey contributes the lovely ballad 'Consequently' which features his expressive bass soloing. Joe delivers a melodramatic ballad in 'I'll Never Forget You’, dedicated to the memory of his parents, while his ferociously swinging 'Update' has all the forward momentum of a runaway freight train. The album is distinguished by the return to the lineup of drummer Peter Erskine, who receives a co-producer credit and swings his ass off on Zawinul's 'Update' (that title being a portend of things to come). It is further distinguished by the glaring lack of any Wayne Shorter composition and his decided non-participation in a couple of the synth-dominated Zawinul productions like the meandering bolero 'China Blues’. Indeed, Wayne really was Mr. Gone on this one.
Live & Unreleased
(Columbia/Legacy) rel. September 2002
All the power and mystique that surrounded Weather Report concerts through the 70s and 80s is captured on this exhilarating two CD set. Produced for release by Zawinul, his son Ivan and longtime Columbia archivist and reissue producer Bob Belden, Live & Unreleased spans Weather Report's glory years from 1975 to 1983 and includes previously unissued performances culled from concert halls around the world. Rather than proceeding in chronological order, Live & Unreleased plays like a two-hour Weather Report show, following the typical flow of tension and release that the band was noted for in concert. CD One opens with Shorter's ‘Freezing Fire’, a regular Weather Report concert-opener, circa 1975. Buoyed by Alphonso Johnson’s bubbling basslines underneath and propelled by Chester Thompson’s ferocious drumming, this surging number highlights some soaring, unbridled soprano sax work by Shorter. This tension sets up for the release of Shorter’s poignant ballad 'Plaza Real' with the rhythm tandem of Bailey on bass and Hakim on drums and featuring Jose Rossy on concertina. From the sublime to all-out burn, the 1980 band featuring Pastorius, Erskine and Thomas then kicks into high gear on Zawinul's boppish 'Fast City’, which features some heroic stretching from Wayne on tenor sax. Release next comes in the form of Pastorius’ stunningly beautiful unaccompanied showcase ‘Portrait of Tracy’, a landmark piece of bass virtuosity from his 1976 self-titled solo debut on Epic.
An intense reading of Shorter’s ‘Elegant People’ takes the excitement level up a couple of notches in a 1977 performance with Pastorius on bass, Acuna on drums and Badrena on percussion. Again, Shorter stretches liberally on this throbbing vehicle, which takes on an infectious rumba flavor in concert. The 1975 touring band hits a serious groove on 'Cucumber Slumber’, Alphonso Johnson's funky contribution to the band, while an explosive live version of Pastorius’ anthemic 'Teen Town’ is a mad, macho sprint to the finish line. And CD 1 closes in ebullient fashion with Zawinul’s 'Man in the Green Shirt'.
CD 2 opens with some dramatic stretching from Shorter on tenor in a spirited, calypso flavoured rendition of Zawinul's ‘Black Market’ featuring Pastorius on bass, Acuna on drums and Badrena on percussion. Next up is a scintillating version of Joe’s ‘Where The Moon Goes’ which features an explosive duel between Omar Hakim's drums and Zawinul’s synths. This track also marks Joe’s early use of vocoder, which he would explore in more depth on his 1986 solo outing, Dialects, and subsequently with his Zawinul Syndicate band. A swaggering rendition of Jaco's ‘River People’ highlights the pared down quartet of Shorter, Zawinul, Pastorius and Erskine in peak form in late 1978. Shorter showcases more Herculean tenor work on Zawinul’s ’Two Lines' while his mellow, never-before-heard composition 'Cigano' is the rarest addition to the collection.
The formidable quartet of Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorius and Erskine then reaches back to a jazz landmark for an evocative reading of Zawinul’s ‘In A Silent Way’, the title track of Miles Davis' 1969 album and a piece that Joe had previously recorded on his third solo outing, 1971's pivotal, pre-Weather Report album entitled simply Zawinul. Two blistering renditions of ‘Night Passage' and 'Port of Entry’ showcase the quintet of Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorius, Erskine and percussionist Robert Thomas while Alex Acuna and Manolo Badrena engage in an animated percussive conversation on 'Rumba Mama’, a regular concert attraction from the 77-78 tour. And the collection closes on a wistful note with the 1975 band featuring Johnson, Thompson and Acuna covering Zawinul's classic 'Directions.' Taken as a whole, this retrospective set shows precisely why Weather Report was regarded as the premier fusion band of the 70s and 80s.
And don't forget...
Weather Report: The Legendary Tapes – 1978-1981
(Colombia/Legacy) Rec. 1978-1981
On paper the titles here are very familiar, with numerous live releases covering the ‘Jaco Pastoius years’, and yet there’s never been anything quite like this. Covering the three-year period just after drummer Peter Erskine joined the band, and up to when Pastorius left, he, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter set about a ferocious game of creative one-upmanship. Curated and produced by Erskine from his private soundboard tapes, recorded by Weather Report’s longtime mixing engineer Brian Risner that had only ever been heard by the band, they are of a consistently high quality throughout and run as selected highlights from the period, not as a single concert per disc.
One always suspected that there were nights when the adrenalin-soaked musical sparring between Zawinul and Pastorius would take on Raging Bull proportions, but rarely has it ever sounded as febrile as it does when Jaco drops an almighty double-time bassline bomb halfway through the 10-minute ‘Badia/Boogie Woogie Waltz’, tipping disc one into overdrive. This soon spirals into a twister of a Zawinul solo, the band dropping dramatically to a low simmer, before building to a distorted bumblebee bass onslaught with Erskine going positively death metal with a thunderous bass drum barrage. Is this the same band that was so sensitively swinging through ‘Three Views of a Secret’ just minutes earlier?
Further highlights include Jaco’s Osaka solo spot that, while containing his characteristic take on Hendrix’s ‘Third Stone from the Sun’ and The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’, is suddenly joined by Zawinul’s synth in a beautiful, if brief, micro-symphony. There are vast chasms of space too on an extended yet consistently exciting version of ‘Madagascar’, Pastorius delivering a spicy solo out of the blue, Shorter wandering bluesily, Zawinul interjecting with some synth-fuzz while Erskine and Thomas percolate subtly in an enthralling ever-shifting on-the-fly arrangement. Every track is packed with unexpected twists and turns, and an impeccable sense of dynamics that range from the poetic to the profane. This is a magical motherlode of must-have music from one the great jazz-rock bands at the peak of their powers. Mike Flynn
Dazzling Cuban expat violinist Omar Puente will be performing as part of the Jazzwise 20th Anniversary Special Festival at Ronnie Scott's on 17 March. In a recent interview with Jazzwise, Puente spoke with Kevin Le Gendre about spanning the distance between populism and abstraction while maintaining his identity amid a collision of global cultures
In front of the billboards of branded images bursting into 3D life for the 5G generation in Piccadilly Circus, central London, two buskers, a double bassist and violinist mark out their pitch on a crowded pavement, immobile in the endless stream of smartphones. Omar Puente is momentarily distracted by the smaller of the two instruments as we log out of the hubbub in search of a chillout zone in this hyped and hyper part of town. In the relative sanctuary of nearby Golden Square the genial Cuban expat makes an interesting point about why he does not own an axe similar to the one he’s just hawk-eyed.
“To buy an acoustic violin may cost £20,000 to £50,000… to have a really good one,” he says. “With an electric one I can reduce the costs, I can afford one and I can also compete with the drums, with the trumpet, with the whole band, and it will cost me £2,000-3,000.
“It’s a very different experience playing and hearing the notes on an electric violin,” he continues. “On an acoustic there is the air between the instrument and the microphone. You are the one that creates the quality of the sound. On the electric it is really the soundman who creates the quality of the sound, so you have to know exactly what you want, to then create your own thing with the right engineer.”
Puente is very much true to his word on his new album Best Foot Forward, a thrilling work that is a significant step along the road of his creative development following his auspicious 2009 debut From There To Here. Although the common denominator between both albums is a robust eclecticism this new offering has, for the most part, a heavier, harder character in which a sharply-drilled rhythm section, topped by Al MacSween’s strident keyboards, provides a high energy backdrop to Puente’s violin, which has been so well mixed by Sam Hobbs that it sounds as if he is as close as the street players we just passed.
Although the leader makes liberal use of the kind of pedals, from the whammy to the crybaby, that one would expect to find in a guitarist’s arsenal the quality of his improvisations and the articulation of his phrases serve as a reminder of the enviably high-standard of training available to the vast majority of Cuban musicians. Born in Santiago in 1961 to a mother who was a nurse and a father who was both a doctor and violinist, Puente won a scholarship to study classical music at the renowned Escuela Nacional De Arte in Havana at the age of 12. He went on to join the prestigious National Symphony Orchestra Of Cuba, where he further consolidated his skills as a section player, and Puente eventually found himself drawn to jazz through Irakere, the revered Cuban band led by pianist Chucho Valdes that is defined by its patchwork of acoustic son, bebop, European classical music, electric funk and rock. Furthermore, Puente attended master classes in Havana conducted by trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie, but it was his attendance at a concert by other innovators that proved a turning point in his life.
“In 1979 Weather Report came to Havana,” he tells me, a broad smile lighting up his face as he sips coffee outside the chic Nordic Bakery. “By that time they were touring the world, and this was really another level. Wow! That was something… it had a big effect on us.”
Without pausing for breath the 55-year-old adds that during his formative years the listening policy was access-all-areas, from Nat ‘King’ Cole, an icon in Cuba, to salsa to jazz to pop, but there was something special in the way the Zawinul-Shorter-Pastorius-Erskine vehicle managed to negotiate the highways and byways of numerous folk traditions, be they African, Latin or European, all the while allowing the strength of character of each bandmember to come to the fore.
The combination of populism and abstraction was inspired and inspiring for Puente first and foremost because it brought home to him the necessity of retaining one’s essential identity amid the embrace of music from any culture and era. Whether his own songs have echoes of Senegalese mbalaax, Detroit soul or London techno, the sounds to which he has been exposed throughout his life as a global citizen, Puente is still intent on being a violinist from Santiago De Cuba.
“I can’t pretend to be a Brazilian or African musician. I’m a Cuban musician who has had the opportunity to play, see and learn and experience many things and all kinds of music,” he states emphatically.
“I don’t have to play salsa or guanganco, but there has to be something there that is me as a Cuban. It doesn’t have to be the sound of the clavé [percussion] because that is already inside the music in the overall rhythm. I just try to be as true to myself as I can in my playing and writing, to be honest to my roots. Every time you write you have the influence of other things, different instruments, bands, styles. But there’s still you, if you’re being honest.
“I think there are always elements of religion and belief in the music, not only through instruments like bata drums. One way or another, we as Cubans, well, everybody knows who is Eleggua, Shango and Yemenja… these orishas [deities]. Doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, it’s universally in the culture, you don’t have to be really religious, it’s your culture. The Afro-Cuban religion has made the most impact, everybody knows something about Santeria; they might not know all the details, but they know the basics. It is handed down from generation to generation, like the oral tradition. Unfortunately, our indigenous population was wiped out by the Spanish, so maybe we have just a few instruments or dances from them. But what the Africans brought to Cuba – culture, religion and instruments… that’s one of our foundations. Whether I’m doing Motown or funk or reggae I still have an element of Cuban music because it’s really strong. My first album From There To Here was the journey to Britain. Now it’s 20 years of being in the UK, with the modern sounds you get on the street.”
That move happened in 1995 after Puente had been living the nomadic life of an international touring musician. He had worked with the likes of Orqesta Enrique Jorrin and Jose Maria Vitier and ended up playing an extended residency in Singapore. It was there that he met and fell in love with the woman with whom he returned to England and eventually married, the late journalist Debbie Purdy. They settled in Bradford, Yorkshire but Puente soon came to the attention of saxophonist Courtney Pine in London who asked him to join his regular working group, and then the Jazz Warriors Afropeans big band. Through his association with Pine and other black British musicians he learned more about the folk and popular music of the West Indies. But he also notes that it was an unfortunate incident of racial stereotyping in the Far East that initially brought him into contact with Jamaican music.
“There I am in Singapore doing this residency, and the owner of the venue says to me ‘all the latin music and latin jazz is very nice but I need you to change’,” Puente explains. “What do you want me to play?’ He says, ‘I want you to play reggae.’ I say, ‘But I’m Cuban not Jamaican.’ “Yes, but you’re black, so you play reggae, right?” Puente says with a wry smile on his face. “I rang Debbie and I said to her if I don’t play reggae they’re not gonna pay me, and she sent me Legend, the Bob Marley compilation. So I was introduced to Bob Marley, me a black Cuban guy, by a white British woman… in Singapore!”
A sufferer of multiple sclerosis, Purdy would go on to be a valiant champion of the right for assisted suicide, and a high-profile campaign saw her take her case to the High Court. She challenged existing legislation to ensure that Puente would not be prosecuted if he travelled abroad with her should she chose to end her own life.
“This album is a new chapter in my life. I dedicated it to Debbie, she really named the album, ‘best foot forward’, meaning you have to keep going, no matter what happens. She was like my right hand. I am who I am because of Debbie Purdy. I can play the violin but the person who believed in me and pushed me was Debbie, so it’s really about her.”
Unsurprisingly, her passing in December 2014 had a devastating effect on Puente, who had very little appetite for playing music. “I went through a period where I didn’t wanna talk to anybody,” he recalls. “People wanted to help but I was just on my own, I didn’t practice, I didn’t play. But after a year I came back. Thank god I had the violin, thank god I had the music, thank god for that. Without that I really don’t know. She was a strong woman to have to go through pain all the time… it was tough. She was a young woman, but I’ve been using her spirit, and every single note I play is for Debbie.”