Wednesday, January 25, 2012


DUKE ELLINGTON (1899-1974)

Ellington was the most important composer in the history of jazz. He was also a bandleader for more than 50 years and he used his band as a musical laboratory for his new compositions and shaped his writing specifically to showcase the talents of his bandmembers. He created a giant body of work that is still being assessed today. Ellington Uptown was originally released in 1953 with old favorites given extended treatments. These include Take the A Train, The Mooche, and Skin Deep where the young drummer Louis Bellson powered the band with his revolutionary double-bass drum technique. Another excellent session is  Money Jungle (1962) which is a trio meeting between Ellington, Charles Mingus, and the great drummer Max Roach.


Armstrong emerged in the 1920s as a virtuoso cornet and trumpet player, and had a huge impact on jazz by shifting the focus from collective improvisation to solo performance. He was also hugely influential as a singer with his deep and distinctive gravelly voice. The 20s groups The Hot Fives and The Hot Sevens made several groundbreaking recordings that were released by Columbia in the 1980s. Armstrong's beautiful tone, sense of swing, and innovative and melodic improvisations amazed his contemporaries and altered the future of jazz. He is joined by clarinetist Johnny Dodds, trombonist Kid Ory, pianist Lil Armstrong, and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, who all make strong contributions. Other excellent recordings are Louis Armstrong Plays WC Handy that came out in 1954 and includes a nearly 9 minute version of St. Louis Blues, and Satch Plays Fats that came out the next year and features such classics as Honeysuckle Rose, Squeeze Me, and Ain't Misbehavin'.


Thelonious Sphere Monk had a totally unique improvisational style on the piano, and his compositions are full of dissonant harmonies and angular melodic twists. He also combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt and dramatic uses of silence and pauses. He contributed many tunes to the standard jazz repertoire, including Epistrophy, Round Midnight, Blue Monk, Straight, No Chaser, and Well, You Needn't. Monk is the second most recorded composer in jazz history after Ellington even though he only wrote 70 pieces compared to 1000 by the Duke. He made recordings for several labels including Riverside, Blue Note, Prestige, and Columbia. Brilliant Corners (1957) and Monk's Dream (1962) are two of the many excellent albums Monk produced. In 2005, Blue Note released a live 1957 recording from Carnegie Hall that featured John Coltrane.

CHARLIE PARKER (1920-1955)

Along with Ellington and Armstrong, Charlie (Bird) Parker was one of the most influential musicians in the history of jazz. He played a leading role in the development of bebop, that was characterized by fast tempos, virtuoso technique, and improvisation based on harmonic structure. Several of his songs became standards including Billie's Bounce, Anthropology, Ornithology, and Confirmation. He introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas including a tonal vocabulary employing new variants of altered chords and chord substitutions. His tone was clean and penetrating, but sweet and plaintive on ballads. He was also a great blues player. Parker was also an icon for the hipster subculture and the Beat Generation, personifying the conception of the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual, rather than a popular entertainer. He played with and influenced many great musicians including Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. 

CHARLES MINGUS (1922-1979)

Mingus was an excellent jazz composer and bassist. His compositions contained the hot and soulful feel of hard bop and drew heavily from black gospel music, free jazz, and classical music. He forged his own brand of music that fused tradition with unique and new realms of jazz. Mingus focused on collective improvisation and was influenced by the old New Orleans jazz parades where attention was played to how each band member interacted with the group as a whole. As a player, Mingus was a pioneer of the double bass technique. On May 15, 1953, Mingus joined Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach for a concert at Massy Hall in Toronto. This is considered one of jazz's finest live recordings and as the last document of Parker and Gillespie playing together. Mingus recorded many excellent albums for Atlantic, Columbia, and Impulse. One of the great jazz albums of all time is Mingus Ah Um which came out in 1959. It featured the classic compositions Goodbye Pork Pie Hat which was an elegy to Lester Young and Fables and Faubus which was a protest against segrationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus. Other great tunes are the gospel influenced Better Git Hit In Your Soul and the killer Boogie Stop Shuffle.

JOHN COLTRANE (1926-1967)

John Coltrane was one of the most significant saxophonist of all time and along with Charlie Parker the most influential. In 1955, while living in Philadelphia he received a call from Miles Davis which lead to the forming of the first great Davis quintet. They recorded many influential albums in this period including Davis' first Columbia album 'Round About Midnight. Four other albums came out of two marathon recording sessions for Prestige in 1956. These records were titled Cookin', Relaxin', Workin', and Steamin'. The line-up was Davis on trumpet, Coltrane on tenor saxaphone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Also at this time, Coltrane made several recordings for Prestige including Dakar and Soultrane, but the most important recording was made for Blue Note entitled Blue Train in 1957. 

Coltrane rejoined Davis in 1958 and took these innovations into the group that had now expanded into a sextet that included Cannonball Adderly and Bill Evans. This period produced the great album Milestones and one of the greatest and most innovative albums of all time Kind of Blue which experimented with modes - scale patterns other than major and minor. Coltrane as well as Adderly and Davis produce many distinguished solos on these albums and the group dynamics are amazing. 

Also in 1959, Coltrane recorded Giant Steps which was a watershed album and was one of his first albums for Atlantic. Giant Steps exemplifies Coltrane's melodic phrasing that came to be known as sheets of sound and features the use of a new harmonic concept that employed a peculiar set of chord progressions which often move in thirds and became a gateway into modern jazz improvisation. His playing was compressed with rapid runs cascading in hundreds of notes per minute. The ability to play over the Giant Steps/Coltrane cycle remains to this day one of the benchmark standards to which a jazz musician's improvising skill is measured. Giant Steps is also considered Coltrane's farewell to bebop. It contains the jazz standards Naima, Giant Steps, Cousin Mary, and Countdown. 

My Favorite Things was also a great Coltrane album on Atlantic and it included McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Steve Davis on bass. It clearly marked Coltrane's change from bebop to free and modal jazz. The album introduces complex harmonic reworkings of the jazz standards My Favorite Things and But Not For Me, and Coltrane played the soprano saxaphone at a time when it was used infrequently in jazz. The title track is a modal rendition of the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the Sound of Music. The melody is heard several times in the 14-minute version, with both Tyner and Coltrane taking extended solos over vamps of the two tonic chords, E minor and E major. Tyner's solo is famous for being extremely chordal and rhythmic,  as opposed to developing melodies. Coltrane turned the populist song into a hypnotic eastern dervish dance.

In 1961, Coltrane's contract with Atlantic was bought out by the newly formed Impulse! Records. At this time a second horn player Eric Dolphy joined the group. The quintet had a residency at the Village Vanguard in November 1961, and it demonstrated Coltrane's new direction. The stint was extensively recorded and it featured Coltrane's most experimental music up to this point. This new sound was influenced by Indian ragas, and the recent developments in the modal and free jazz movements. This new approach to jazz which was also being played by Ornette Coleman and Dolphy was perplexing and controversial and was not universally accepted by jazz critics.  Eventually, Impulse would release the Complete Village Vanguard Sessions and the music is radical, intense, and powerful, and includes the amazing tunes Impressions, India, and Chasin' The Trane.

The most famous record on Impulse was A Love Supreme which came out in 1964. Coltrane struggled with drug addiction and was inspired to write A Love Supreme after a near overdose in 1957 which lead him to a more spiritual existence. The album also melds the earlier hard bop influence with the more free and modal jazz style of his later periods. The album is a four-part suite - Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm. It is representative of a personal struggle for purity and there is both a gospel and eastern quality to the music. There is a four-note motif that structures the entire movement. Coltrane solos upon variations of the motif and at one point repeats the four notes over and over in different modulations.

John Coltrane produced an amazing and ever-evolving music in a relatively short period of time. He explored the saxophone to its full effect and influenced all musicians who encountered his music and innovative and powerful style. There were many great musicians who played with him and went on to create their own work including McCoy Tyner, Eric Dolphy, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Alice Coltrane.

MILES DAVIS (1926-1991)

Miles Davis was one of the greatest and most influential musicians of the 20th Century. He was at the forefront of several major developements in Jazz, including Bebop, Cool Jazz, Hard Bop, Modal Jazz, and Jazz Fusion. Many great players rose to prominence as members of his groups including John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Gerry Mulligan, Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Joseph Zawinul, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, and Jack DeJohnette.

In March and April 1959, Davis recorded what is widely considered his magnum opus and one of the most influential and popular Jazz albums of all time - Kind Of Blue. The line up included the pianist Bill Evans who along with Davis was interested in the modal jazz of George Russell. They prepared harmonic frameworks for the compositions that gave space for the improvisations. Both Coltrane and Adderly take amazing solos on Kind of Blue. The line-up also included Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums, as well as Wynton Kelly on Freddy Freeloader. The other four classics on this album are So What, All Blues, Blue In Green, and Flamenco Sketches.

In 1965, the second great quintet came together featuring Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. They did a live performance at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago, where they played many of Miles' standards but broke away from the original framework of the songs and played them at a break-neck tempo. This recording wasn't released until many years later. During this period the group released several studio albums including ESP, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, and Nefertiti. Shorter and Hancock were now writing some of the compositions and the band was known for its freebop or time no changes approach to improvisation. They abandoned the more conventional chord-change-based approach of Bebop for a Modal approach.

Miles Davis constantly changed and he had become aware of the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and James Brown. He expanded his band with more players and incorporated funk and acid rock into the jazz, which led to a new music called Jazz Fusion. He added Joseph Zawinul and the guitarist John McLaughlin and produced the stunningly beautiful In A Silent Way, followed by the intense and groundbreaking Bitches Brew. This music was controversial and shocking for jazz purists. There are amazing solos, but now they are taking place within long form grooves of layered shifting funk. Davis had also become aware of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen which led to this new music that was a heavy, dark, intense, and space-like.

Other recordings from this period include Jack Johnson where McLaughlin shines, On The Corner, Dark Magus, Get Up With It, Agharta, Pangaea, and The Cellar Door Sessions that included great work by McLaughlin on guitar and Keith Jarrett on keyboards, and some unique and intensely emotional sax solos by Gary Bartz.


Coleman was one of the major innovators of the free jazz movement of the 1960s. He plays saxophone, violin, and trumpet, and composes most of his own music which has a distinct crying sound that draws heavily from blues music. In 1959, Coleman put a group together with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins and released the groundbreaking The Shape of Jazz To Come. The music is loosely blues based and often quite melodic, but the compositions are harmonically unusual and unstructured. The album laid down the gauntlet and provoked controversy as some were not ready for this new sound, which didn't use a piano and allowed for simultaneous improvisation without any recognizable chord structure.
The album contains the haunting Lonely Woman and the classic Congeniality. His next record Change of the Century is every bit the equal of the monumental first album. The group's chemistry is more developed making for even freer improvisations. Ramblin' has all of the swing and swagger of the blues, and Una Muy Bonita is oddly disjointed and starts and stops in unexpected places. The title cut is a frantic, way-out mixture of cascading lines that clash with brief stabs of notes and jarring angular intervals. Later in 1960, Coleman released Free Jazz which featured a double quartet, which included Cherry, Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Haden, Scott LaFaro, and both Higgins and Ed Blackwell. At nearly 40 minutes it was the lengthiest recorded continuous jazz performance to date. The music features a regular but complex pulse - one drummer playing straight, while the other played double-time, topped with a series of brief, dissonant fanfares. Coleman wasn't totally comfortable with the term free jazz as much of his music was highly composed while leaving room for improvisation. Coleman would go on to many other explorations including using strings, and incorporating electric rock and funk elements into his later work. 

RALPH TOWNER (born 1940)

Towner plays many instruments but is mostly known as a great classical and 12-string guitar player. He has had a rich and varied solo career and has collaborated with many other great jazz artists including Gary Burton, John Abercrombie, Egberto Gismonti, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Gary Peacock, Paul Winter, Weather Report, and his own group Oregon. Towner is classically trained and eschews amplification and tends to avoid high-volume musical environments, preferring small groups with mostly acoustic instruments that emphasize dynamics and group interplay. He is highly influenced by the style of the jazz pianist Bill Evans. Towner was one of the early ECM recording artists along with Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek. In the early 70s he released several records including Trios/Solos with fellow Oregon bassist Glen Moore, a solo album called Diary, and a great collaboration with Gary Burton called Matchbook. In 1975, he released the beautiful album Solstice that was a quartet effort which included Jan Garbarek on Sax, Eberhard Weber on Bass, and Jon Christensen on Drums. The other members of Oregon were Moore, Paul McCandless, and the late Colin Walcott, and they released several recordings during the 70s and 80s. Towner has also produced many solo albums which include Solo Concert (1979), Ana (1997),  Anthem (2001), and Time Line (2006). I had the honor of seeing him perform solo at Carnegie Hall in 2006, where he played an incredible set which included the great song Solitary Woman from Anthem. A recent recording Chiaroscuro is a collaboration with the trumpet and flugelhorn player Paolu Fresu and again I witnessed their performance at the Italian Institute at Columbia University. Ralph Towner is a virtuoso player who also creates beautiful and emotionally moving music.

KEITH JARRETT (born 1945)

Jarrett is one of the most significant pianists to emerge since the 1960s. He gained international fame with his solo concerts, which found him improvising all of the music without any prior planning, but he also led a couple of dynamic quartets in the 70s. He has also recorded classical music and still leads a classic trio that mostly plays standards. Early on, he worked with Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd, and Miles Davis where his most significant contribution can be found on The Cellar Door Sessions. After working with Davis he gave up electric keyboards and devoted himself to the acoustic piano, although on some recordings he also played the soprano sax. He started releasing his own recordings in the late 60s with a trio that included Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. They added Dewey Redman on sax and produced several excellent quartet albums on Impulse including Treasure Island and Death and The Flower in the mid-70s. Jarrett's first album for the German label ECM was Facing You which was an excellent studio effort, and opened the door for his live solo performances to come. These include Bremen/Lausanne in 1973, The Koln Concert in 1975, and the monumental Sun Bear Concerts from Japan in 1976. All of these records  are amazing as they seamlessly morph between various styles including melodic jazz, abstract and free jazz, blues, ragtime, and eastern minimalism. Often a simple figure develops through repetition and subtle variation into a rather complex sequence and eventually evolves into a new figure. During this period Jarrett was also working with his European quartet that included Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielson, and Jon Christensen, and he also produced other experimental projects such as In The Light, Luminessence, and Arbour Zena. In the mid-80s he started working with the bassist Gary Peacock and the drummer Jack DeJohnette and has produced many albums of standards, although one of my favorite records is Changless (1992) where they take an improvisational approach akin to Jarrett's solo work. Over the decades Jarrett has continued to produce classical albums, more records with the trio, and still performs live solo concerts, now creating several shorter pieces in his playing. Other great solo albums include Dark Intervals (1988), Paris Concert (1990), Vienna Concert (1991), La Scala (1997), Radiance (2005), The Carnegie Hall Concert (2006), Paris/London (2009), and Rio (2011).


Braxton is a multi-reedist and composer who takes jazz's essential rhythmic and textural elements and combines them with all manner of experimental compositional techniques, from graphic and non-specific notation to serialism and multimedia. His theoretical approach to composing jazz had as much in common with late 20th century classical music as jazz and thus alienated many and caused him to become a controversial figure. By combining jazz's visceral components with contemporary classical music's formal and harmonic methods, Braxton has created a music of enormous sophistication with a totally unique and original vision. In the late 60s, Braxton joined the Association of Creative Musicians (AACM) which also included Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In 1968, Braxton released the first-ever recording for solo sax entitled For Alto. He also formed a trio with the violinist Leroy Jenkins and the trumpeter Leo Smith. He also lived in Paris for a while and recorded with Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. Holland and Altschul continued playing with Braxton back in New York in the 70s and this is where he created some of his most important work on several recordings for the label Arista. These included New York Fall 1974 and Five Pieces 1975, and Creative Music Orchestra which uses a large orchestra. At times Kenny Wheeler (trumpet) and George Lewis (trombone) would play on the recordings of this period. In the late 70s Braxton did a solo saxophone tour of Europe and I was lucky enough to see the performance in Dusseldorf in March 1979. There are recordings available from Koln and Milano. He also has released recordings of jazz standards - although sometimes with a strong avant-garde bent such as his version of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat on In The Tradition. In the 1980s Braxton formed a quartet with the pianist Marilyn Crispell, the bassist Mark Dresser, and the drummer Gerry Hemingway. He also made many live recording collaborations, including ones with the legendary drummer Max Roach, avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey, and electronic pioneer Richard Teitelbaum, and guitarist Fred Frith. He continues to produce compositions for both small and large scale instrumentation.

JOHN ZORN (born 1953)

Zorn is the ultimate post-modern musical artist. He is an avant-garde composer, arranger, producer, and saxophonist and has created hundreds of albums in a variety of genres including jazz, rock, hardcore punk, classical, extreme metal, klezmer, film soundtrack, and improvised music. Zorn feels that all of the styles are organically connected and the entire storehouse of his knowledge informs the work he does. He established himself in the downtown music movement in the mid-70s. Two of his most well-known projects are Naked City which produces punk jazz, and Masada which in various forms produces jazz and classical work influenced by klezmer and traditional Jewish music. He also created compositions which included game pieces which involved prompters and flashcards and melded structure and improvisation into a seamless fashion. A major early album for Zorn was The Big Gundown which is based around the music of Ennio Morricone where he created radical arrangements of the songs from the Roman composer's themes. Spy vs Spy (1989) featured hardcore punk-informed interpretations of Ornette Coleman's music. Over the decades Zorn has produced many works that are highly experimental and make use of elements from various genres. He also started his own label Tzadik that has produced the music of many other exciting musical artists including Bill Laswell, Derek Bailey, Dave Douglas, Erik Friedlander, Wayne Horvitz, Ikue Mori, Zeena Parkins, and Mark Ribot. The label is dedicated to releasing the best in avant garde and experimental music, presenting a world-wide community of artists who find it difficult to release their music by conventional channels. Many of the Masada albums are my favorites by Zorn. These include Bar Kokhba which came out in 1996 and contains music that is beautiful, spacious, and elegant, and any of the Electric Masada recordings including At The Mountain of Madness which contains live recordings from Europe. These works combine a raw improvisational edge and a spiritual lyricism into a music that is powerful and moving.

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