The Top 5 Greatest Cuts From

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While jazz still continues to evolve today, it seems hard to imagine any other year, past, present, or future producing so many divergent new styles at once. From the introspective, modal musings of Miles Davis on Kind of Blue, to the intense, relentless search for new harmonies and sonorities from John Coltrane on Giant Steps, a wealth of very diverse music was being imagined, created, and recorded speed dating  by several different jazz artists in 1959. This list of tracks offers but a small taste of the aural treasures that fascinated, soothed, excited, surprised (and even outraged some) listeners in the post Korean War-era United States. In addition to showing such a diverse range of jazz styles, the music discussed here offers ( at least to this author’s ears) a set of songs that ranges greatly in mood, tempo, and emotion. From the cool swing of Dave Brubeck ( in 5/4 time, no less), to the somber, gut wrenching, blues-drenched tribute to a former tenor saxophone giant by Charles Mingus, to the frenetic, awe-inspiring collaborative efforts of Ornette Coleman’s quartet, pushing the boundaries of jazz in every way, and introducing a style called “free jazz” that has been the topic of lively discussions for decades (which still continue), regarding exactly what jazz is and isn’t.

So What (Miles Davis) 9:22 – from Miles Davis, Kind of Blue ( Columbia)

We begin with a track from, arguably, the greatest jazz record of all time. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue introduces a sound that is in direct contrast to much of the hard, aggressive bop that was popular at the time. Indeed, some of the “hard bop” school’s most well known practitioners are on this Davis date, but here the focus is on an entirely different aesthetic. Davis had begun to stray away from the bop practices, that he had helped to innovate on sessions with Charlie Parker in the mid 1940s, most notably on a series of sessions for the Prestige label. These sessions, Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, and Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet show a Davis that is progressively turning more inward in his approach, and creating solos that have a more subdued and relaxed feel than many of his hard bop contemporaries. The collaborations with Gil Evans, beginning in 1957, likewise highlight a Davis sound that is start, poignant, vulnerable and decidedly romantic, in sessions such as Miles Ahead with Columbia ( after his contract with Prestige had ended). In Kind of Blue, Davis, for the first time, began to experiment with an approach that emphasized a modal based improvisation, instead of the functional bop harmonies that were ubiquitous in the jazz world at the time. These modal harmonies, in which often a single chord would support the melody for several bars, were a perfect fit with Miles’ concept of understated, and almost minimalist improvisations. This is evident in our opening track, “So What,” right from the start. A freely played piano/bass intro, by Chambers and Evans, featuring modal based harmonies, leads into a Paul Chambers riff that is answered by Davis, Coltrane, and Adderley, and Evans with a simple 2 note rhythmic figure. The tune harmonically is based on only 2 modes, or chords, for the entire track! Brilliant soloing by another pioneer in search of his own musical identity (and finding it), John Coltrane, and an alto saxophonist mostly identified with the hard bop movement, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, two master saxophonists with equally creative approaches to Davis’ material. Yet it is Davis’ solo, that sets the tone, not only for this opening track of Kind of Blue, but indeed for the entire album. A mature, supremely confident, intentionally reserved and beautifully paced solo that offers a wildly different approach to not only the trumpet, but on any instrument. One that favors economy over excess, offering a musical parallel to the phrase “less is more”.