A year in Jazz : 1959

Six albums were either recorded or released in 1959 that had historic importance, arguably more so than in any other single year:

  • Kind of Blue – Miles Davis’s smoldering modal meditation which both broke with the past and set a new course for jazz.
  • Giant Steps – John Coltrane’s last hard bop recording, released at the outset of the hard bop period, but which was followed by his legendary recordings of the ‘60s with his classic quartet.
  • Time Out – Dave Brubeck’s witty and nerdy exploration of odd time signatures which still managed to swing and charm a generation.
  • Mingus Ah Um – Charles Mingus’s intense anger-fueled statement on the racial temperament of the times as well as a homage to jazz mentors Jelly Roll, Bird, Duke and Pres.
  • A Portrait in Jazz – Bill Evans’s first recording featuring his trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. A fragile, shimmering example of cool jazz featuring an uncanny telepathic interplay between these three musicians and which would inspire pianists, bassists and drummers for the next three generations.
  • The Shape of Jazz to Come – Ornette Coleman’s shot across the bow of the jazz tradition. Coleman’s blues inflected free jazz appeared to be so outside the tradition that critics like Stanley Crouch  still argue, over fifty years later, that this record and the entire free jazz enterprise  is not even jazz at all.

Kind of Blue

Kind of BlueThis painterly masterpiece would become one of the most important, influential and popular albums in jazz. But at the time it was made, Kind of Blue was a revolution all its own, a radical break from everything going on. Turning his back on standard chord progressions, trumpeter Miles Davis used modal scales as a starting point for composition and improvisation – breaking new ground with warmth, subtlety and understatement in the thick of hard bop. Davis and his peerless band – bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb, pianist Bill Evans, and the titanic sax team of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley – soloed in uncluttered settings, typified by “melodic rather than harmonic variation,” as Davis put it. Two numbers, “All Blues” and “Freddie Freeloader” (the latter featured Wynton Kelly at the ivories in place of Evans), were in 12-bar form, but Davis’ approach allowed his players a cool, new, collected freedom. Evans wrote in his original liner notes, “Miles conceived these settings only hours before the re­cording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances.” Or as the late critic Robert Palmer wrote, “Kind of Blue is, in a sense, all melody – and atmosphere.” The bass line in “So What” is now among the most familiar obbligatos in jazz, and there is no finer evocation of the late-night wonder of jazz than the muted horns in “All Blues.”  (Rolling Stone, “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”)

Giant Steps

Giant StepsHistory will undoubtedly enshrine this disc as a watershed the likes of which may never truly be appreciated. Giant Steps bore the double-edged sword of furthering the cause of the music as well as delivering it to an increasingly mainstream audience. Although this was John Coltrane’s debut for Atlantic, he was concurrently performing and recording with Miles Davis. Within the space of less than three weeks, Coltrane would complete his work with Davis and company on another genre-defining disc, Kind of Blue, before commencing his efforts on this one. Coltrane (tenor sax) is flanked by essentially two different trios. Recording commenced in early May of 1959 with a pair of sessions that featured Tommy Flanagan (piano) and Art Taylor (drums), as well as Paul Chambers — who was the only bandmember other than Coltrane to have performed on every date. When recording resumed in December of that year, Wynton Kelly (piano) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) were instated — replicating the lineup featured on Kind of Blue, sans Miles Davis of course.

At the heart of these recordings, however, is the laser-beam focus of Coltrane’s tenor solos. All seven pieces issued on the original Giant Steps are likewise Coltrane compositions. He was, in essence, beginning to rewrite the jazz canon with material that would be centered on solos — the 180-degree antithesis of the art form up to that point. These arrangements would create a place for the solo to become infinitely more compelling. This would culminate in a frenetic performance style that noted jazz journalist Ira Gitler accurately dubbed “sheets of sound.” Coltrane’s polytonal torrents extricate the amicable and otherwise cordial solos that had begun decaying the very exigency of the genre — turning it into the equivalent of easy listening. He wastes no time as the disc’s title track immediately indicates a progression from which there would be no looking back. Line upon line of highly cerebral improvisation snake between the melody and solos, practically fusing the two. The resolute intensity of “Countdown” does more to modernize jazz in 141 seconds than many artists do in their entire careers. Tellingly, the contrasting and ultimately pastoral “Naima” was the last tune to be recorded, and is the only track on the original long-player to feature the Kind of Blue quartet. What is lost in tempo is more than recouped in intrinsic melodic beauty.   (AllMusic Review by Lindsay Planer)

Time Out

Time Out - Dave BrubeckDave Brubeck’s defining masterpiece, Time Out is one of the most rhythmically innovative albums in jazz history, the first to consciously explore time signatures outside of the standard 4/4 beat or 3/4 waltz time. It was a risky move — Brubeck’s record company wasn’t keen on releasing such an arty project, and many critics initially roasted him for tampering with jazz’s rhythmic foundation. But for once, public taste was more advanced than that of the critics. Buoyed by a hit single in altoist Paul Desmond’s ubiquitous “Take Five,” Time Out became an unexpectedly huge success, and still ranks as one of the most popular jazz albums ever.

That’s a testament to Brubeck and Desmond’s abilities as composers, because Time Out is full of challenges both subtle and overt — it’s just that they’re not jarring. Brubeck’s classic “Blue Rondo à la Turk” blends jazz with classical form and Turkish folk rhythms, while “Take Five,” despite its overexposure, really is a masterpiece; listen to how well Desmond’s solo phrasing fits the 5/4 meter, and how much Joe Morello’s drum solo bends time without getting lost. The other selections are richly melodic as well, and even when the meters are even, the group sets up shifting polyrhythmic counterpoints that nod to African and Eastern musics. Some have come to disdain Time Out as its become increasingly synonymous with upscale coffeehouse ambience, but as someone once said of Shakespeare, it’s really very good in spite of the people who like it. It doesn’t just sound sophisticated — it really is sophisticated music, which lends itself to cerebral appreciation, yet never stops swinging. Countless other musicians built on its pioneering experiments, yet it’s amazingly accessible for all its advanced thinking, a rare feat in any art form. This belongs in even the most rudimentary jazz collection. (AllMusic Review by Steve Huey)

Mingus Ah Um

Mingus Ah Um - Charles MingusThe Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD calls this album “an extended tribute to ancestors” (and awards it one of their rare crowns), and Mingus’s musical forebears figure largely throughout. “Better Git It In Your Soul” is inspired by gospel singing and preaching of the sort that Mingus would have heard as a child growing up in Watts, Los Angeles, California, while “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is a reference (by way of his favored headgear) to saxophonist Lester Young (who had died shortly before the album was recorded). The origin and nature of “Boogie Stop Shuffle” is self-explanatory: a twelve-bar blues with four themes and a boogie bass backing that passes from stop time to shuffle and back.

“Self-Portrait in Three Colors” was originally written for John Cassavetes’ first film as director, Shadows, but was never used (for budgetary reasons). “Open Letter to Duke” is a tribute to Duke Ellington, and draws on three of Mingus’s earlier pieces (“Nouroog”, “Duke’s Choice”, and “Slippers”). “Jelly Roll” is a reference to jazz pioneer and pianist Jelly Roll Morton and features a quote of Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two” during Horace Parlan’s piano solo. “Bird Calls”, in Mingus’s own words, was not a reference to bebop saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker: “It wasn’t supposed to sound like Charlie Parker. It was supposed to sound like birds – the first part.”

“Fables of Faubus” is named after Orval E. Faubus (1910–1994), the Governor of Arkansas infamous for his 1957 stand against integration of Little Rock, Arkansas schools in defiance of U.S. Supreme Court rulings (forcing President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard). It is sometimes claimed that Columbia refused to allow the lyrics to be included on this album, though the liner notes to the 1998 reissue of the album state that the piece started life as an instrumental, and only gained the lyrics later (as can be heard on the 1960 release Presents Charles Mingus.) (Wikipedia)

A Portrait in Jazz

A Portrait in Jazz - Bill EvansThe first of two studio albums by the Bill Evans-Scott LaFaro-Paul Motian trio (both of which preceded their famous engagement at the Village Vanguard), this Portrait in Jazz reissue contains some wondrous interplay, particularly between pianist Evans and bassist LaFaro, on the two versions of “Autumn Leaves.” Other than introducing Evans’ “Peri’s Scope,” the music is comprised of standards, but the influential interpretations were far from routine or predictable at the time. LaFaro and Motian were nearly equal partners with the pianist in the ensembles and their versions of such tunes as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “When I Fall in Love,” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” (which preceded Miles Davis’ famous recording by a couple years) are full of subtle and surprising creativity. A gem.  (AllMusic Review by Scott Yanow)

The Shape of Jazz to Come

The Shape of Jazz to Come - Ornette ColemanJazz’s version of the famous—or infamous—1913 Armory show that introduced Americans to modern art came on November 17, 1959, when Ornette Coleman began a run of shows at the Five Spot Cafe in New York.

It was an era when giants walked the jazz landscape. Charlie Parker had been dead for four years, but bebop, his brainchild, had propelled jazz to musical peaks, even as the genre’s commercial appeal faded. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, perhaps the greatest jazz record ever, had just been released. John Coltrane’s Giant Steps was about to ship. Then Coleman, a short, eccentric alto saxophonist from Texas by way of Los Angeles, arrived with his band, playing something that sounded nothing like what was on the scene—but sounding quite a bit like a provocation.

New York was baffled by Coleman’s music, a style now known as “free jazz.” As Francis Davis described it in The Atlantic in 1985, “All hell broke lose.” Listeners stormed out. They derided him. Others sat in stupefied silence, unsure whether what they were hearing was charlatanism or genius. Davis pronounced, “The man is all screwed up inside.” Dizzy Gillespie, a founding father of bebop, scowled, “I don’t know what he’s playing, but it’s not jazz.” (Whether Gillespie, whose own bebop had been derided by swing musicians not two decades earlier, appreciated the irony is unclear.)  (David A. Graham, “Ornette Coleman, Still the Shape of Jazz to Come”, The Atlantic, June 11, 2015)

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