Giant Steps into the 21st Century

Enough energy to power a spaceship

One of the greatest talents among many great talents on Miles Davis‘s seminal album Kind of Blue was tenor man John Coltrane and he also produced an outstanding album which broke new jazz ground in1959: Giant Steps .

Trane” as he was affectionately called, came from Hamlet in North Carolina, where he was born in September 1926. He moved to Philadelphia in 1943 and joined the US Navy in 1945. He played in a Navy band in Hawaii for about a year. He played with Davis from 1955 to 1957, with Thelonius Monk in the later part of 1957 before rejoining Davis in January 1958.

The stint with Monk was critically important for Coltrane as playing with Monk encouraged him to play more riskily, with higher levels of alertness to what was going on around him musically: “I learned new levels of alertness with Monk,” Coltrane told writer Nat Hentoff. “If you didn’t keep aware of what was going on, you were lost.”

It was also during this time with Monk that Coltrane developed the style which critic Ira Gitler would dub “sheets of sound” to describe how Trane would fit many, many notes into each bar, each phrase.

Monk also started Coltrane off on his habit of playing long, long solos.The anecdote about Davis asking Trane why he didn’t stop a solo is indicative. Trane said he didn’t know how to end the solo. “Take the mouthpiece out of your mouth,” said Davis.

Hentoff records how one of Trane’s solos could last an hour. Few other tenor players could keep up the physical demands of such long solos, never mind the ability to produce fresh ideas and sounds over such extended periods. As Gitler remarked: “His continuous flow of ideas without stopping really hit me. It was almost superhuman. The amount of energy he was using could have powered a spaceship.”

Also while with Monk Trane began to explore the limits of music in terms of both rhythm and harmony. With his only album as leader for Blue Note Records, the 1957 release Blue Train , he introduced into jazz the so-called “Coltrane changes” as two of the numbers on the album used this technique, namely “Moments Notice” and “Lazy Bird.” This technique of chord substitution would be a major feature of the Giant Steps album two years later.

The recording sessions

Giant Steps is the first album to contain only compositions by Coltrane and no standards, though five of the original seven tracks could be considered to have become standards by now, i.e. “Giant Steps”, “Naima”, “Cousin Mary”, “Countdown” and “Mr P.C.”

The album was recorded in four sessions on 26 March, 4 May and 5 May, and the final session on 2 December 1959. The personnel on each session was slightly different with Paul Chambers on bass the only constant beside Coltrane. In the original version of the album the takes from 26 March were not released, and were only released as alternative takes on the later re-releases in 1974 (the album Alternate Takes , Atlantic) and the 1995 Rhino release John Coltrane: The Heavyweight Champion, The Complete Atlantic Recordings .

In this Hub I will only be discussing the tracks from the original release. I will also not go into technical detail about the “Coltrane changes” – maybe the subject for another Hub?

The Atlantic album was produced by famed Turkish producer and Atlantic executive Nesuhi Ertegun.

The tracks in order

Track 1: Giant Steps

Animated sheet music for “Giant Steps”

The first track is “Giant Steps”, recorded on 5 May 1959 with Tommy Flanagan on piano and Art Taylor on drums.

The composition is based on a cycle of major thirds from B (it starts with a B triad) through G to E flat. According to some writers Coltrane was interested in this form by the bridge in the Richard Rodgers song “Have You Met Miss Jones?” Whatever, it is a medium tempo romp with wonderful solos first from Trane, followed by Flanagan in a relatively short one.

The next track is “Cousin Mary” recorded in the same session. Longish solo by Trane followed again by Flanagan for a few choruses and then a typically eloquent bass solo by Chambers before Trane comes back to wrap it all up.

The next track is “Countdown” which is based on a harmonic inversion of Davis’s tune “Tune Up” and is rich in “Coltrane Changes.” It is a fast, swinging number which starts with a drum intro which, after a few bars, Coltrane makes into a drum and tenor duet for a few more bars before the bass and piano come in to take the number into a swinging conclusion.

The track entitled “Spiral” is a medium tempo number recorded on 4 May, as was “Countdown.” Again the first solo isTrane’s, followed by Flanagan and Chambers, before Trane re-enters to put a seal on it.

“Syeeda’s Song Flute” is a happy medium tempo composition inspired byTrane’s then 10-year-old daughter. A very accessible jazz tune.Flanagan takes a long, happy-sounding solo, with some wonderful basslines from Chambers, who has his own also longish turn after a chorus or two, and before Trane comes back to round it off.

Track 6 is the gentle, beautiful “Naima”, named for Coltrane’s first wife. Hentoff, in the original liner notes wrote: “There is a ‘cry’ – not at all necessarily a despairing one – in the work of the best of the jazz players. It represents a man’s being in thorough contact with his feelings, and being able to let them out, and that ‘cry’ Coltrane certainly has.”

Naima was recorded in the 2 December session with Wynton Kelly on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

The piece is a quiet rumination in complete contrast to the next number,”Mr. P.C.” which was recorded in the 5 May session. This is an up-tempo tribute to Paul Chambers, of whom Trane is quoted by Hentoff as saying: “I feel very fortunate to have had him on this date and to have been able to work with him in Miles’ band so long.”

Flanagan has a long, sprightly solo before Trane and Art Taylor have a session of trading fours and then Trane re-introduces the theme to bring the proceedings to an exciting end.

Conclusion – the legacy of the album

Of the many great jazz albums recorded in 1959 this is one of the most interesting and certainly has been long regarded by jazz musicians as the “gold standard” in improvisation, both in terms of the beauty of the results and in terms of the technical demands the music makes on the soloist.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

50 Years on and Kind of Blue is still a winner!

The recording date

Fifty years ago this year (2009) trumpeter extraordinaire Miles Davis went into a studio in New York with six of the top jazz musicians of the day and laid down five tracks which have together made up a unique jazz album which is still rated as not only the top selling jazz album of all time, but one of the artistically most influential.

This album, loved by musicians of many different tastes, is Kind of Blue , an artistic text of rare beauty, a soundscape that draws the listener into a space of intense musical collaboration and deep inspiration.

The musicians on the album, which has been re-released many times over the years, were Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, the inimitable John Coltrane on tenor sax, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums, and, on one track, Wynton Kelly on piano.

The musicians went into the Columbia studio on 2 March 1959 and on that day laid down three numbers: “So What?”, “Freddie Freeloader”, and “Blue in Green”. Kelly played only on “Freddie Freeloader”.

The other tracks, “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches” were recorded on 22 April 1959.

The break with bebop

Painting of Miles by Easton Davy The Jazz Cat. Used with his kind permission

The album marked Miles’s decisive break with bebop, at least in studio recordings. Kind of Blue is a triumph of the modal approach to jazz, and, according to his biographer Ian Carr, “brought to even greater heights the brooding, meditative side of his music which had revealed itself for the first time on (Charlie) Parker’s ‘Now’s the Time’ session in November 1945.”

The album is remarkable for many things and one of the most impressive to the listener is the way the music hangs together and makes for a complete artistic whole rather than just a collection of songs, although each song is also complete in itself.

Key to the whole feel of the album is Evans on piano who brought his own sensibilities to the music and built on the ideas that Miles sketched our for the musicians.

The pieces were not rehearsed beforehand and the musicians had only minimal instructions on how Miles wanted the numbers to sound. Which is why, in the liner notes to the original release, Evans wrote, “you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances.”

Track 1: So What

The opening track, “So What”, sets the mood and tone for the whole album, with an impressionistic introduction from Evans which leads into a riff played by Chambers and is answered by the horns in three-part harmony, in a variation on the call-and-response technique. It is one of the most recognised numbers in all of jazz.

The solos on “So What” are taken by Miles first, followed by Coltrane, Adderley and finally Evans again. Evans’ solo is backed by the horns palying a variation on the response in the first section.

Track 2: Freddie Freeloader

The next track, the only one on which Kelly played, is “Freddie Freeloader” which is a true twelve-bar blues with Kelly taking the first solo, a brilliant bluesy romp, followed by Miles, Coltrane, Adderley and then a short bass solo by Chambers with Kelly doing some brilliant comping behind the bass.

Track 3: Blue in Green

Although all the tracks on Kind of Blue are listed as being composed by Miles, the track “Blue in Green” is somewhat disputed, as Evans later recounted: “One day at Miles’s apartment, he wrote on some manuscript paper the symbols for G minor and A augmented, and he said, ‘What would you do with that?’ I didn’t really know, but I went home and wrote ‘Blue in Green'”.

As Carr wrote in his biography of Miles: “This begs the question of what, precisely, the act of composition in jazz consists.” Carr goes on to say that “In a Zen pupil-and-master sense, by pointing Evans in a particular direction, Miles was certainly ‘composing’ himself.”

Whatever, the number is a beautiful ballad which shows up both Evans’ and Miles’s playing in a kind of lapidary clarity. Miles’s use of the Harmon mute, which was to become something of a trademark with him, is almost painfully poignant, dripping melancholy and wistfulness.

Track 4: All Blues

The track which opened side two of the original vinyl LP release, was “All Blues” which Miles composed originally in 4/4 time, but when they got to the studio, Miles said, “it hit me that it should be in 3/4. I hadn’t thought of it like that before, but it was exactly right.”

This number is built up of layers of sound from the drums playing a steady 3/4 rhythm, and the bass a single note per bar, over which the horns play a repetitive harmonised three-note riff with Miles using his Harmon mute again to make interpolations as he wanted to. He then removes the mute to play the first solo, bringing a whole new texture to the playing of the other musicians.

Track 5: Flamenco Sketches

The final number on the album is”Flamenco Sketches” which is another ballad. Again the question of who composed it comes up, but it is generally accredited to Davis.

The piece opens with some sombre bass notes with Evans playing some quiet chords over the bass before Miles comes in with some beautiful melodic inventions using the Harmon mute again. The bass is particularly beautiful in the opening bars, with an understated gravitas.

Coltrane then gets into the act with an amazingly soulful solo mostly in the lower register of his horn, which makes the contrast with the relative sparsity of higher register notes all the more interesting. Adderley follows with an interesting alto solo that keeps the soulful mood going into the higher end of the scale.

Evans’ solo starts off so minimalistically that its almost not there at all. Just a few quiet and well-chosen notes answering the bass, ending with a few rippling chords before Miles come in again with the plaintive sound of the Harmon mute, with long notes stretching almost, it feels, to infinity, until the number just quietly ends.

Summing up

The album was released by Columbia on 17 August 1959 and has been influential ever since. In an All About Jazz review of the album Philip B. Pape in 1999, he called the album “a defining moment of twentieth century music.”

Richard Cook and Brian Morton, in the 1994 Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP and Cassette, wrote that the “steady mid-tempos and plaintive voicings on ‘So What’ and ‘All Blues’ establish further the weightless, haunting qualities of the music, which no collection, serious or casual, should be without.”

So truly an anniversary to be celebrated, these 50 years of superlative and innovative music which still sounds fresh and, even after all that has happened in music in the intervening years, almost daring in its minimalist, modal approach.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2009

Albert Ayler’s September Surprise

“Then along came Ayler. Holy shit! Brash and bold . . . Wailing, parading Albert Ayler – Psalm-swinging, Song-singing to you. Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty free at last.” – Hal Russell

Albert Ayler (pronounced “Eyeler”), the soft-spoken but hard-blowing free jazz saxophonist took many of his devoted fans by surprise in September 1968 when he released the album New Grass (think Bob Dylan fans when he walked onto the stage of the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 with his electric guitar!).

Ayler was a leading proponent of the “New Thing” (or “Free Jazz” or even “Great Black Music” as it was variously called) being explored by fellow-saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, trumpeter Don Cherry and others in the 1960s.

Born into a musical family in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, in July 1936, he played in his mid-teens with R&B singer Little Walter Jacobs and after graduating from High School he joined the US Army and played in the regimental band. While in the army Ayler jammed with other enlisted musicians, in particular with drummer Beaver Harris and sax player Stanley Turrentine. After his discharge from the army his music was already moving out of the mainstream and into very different places.

Albert Ayler. Image via Wikipeida

The difference and perceived “difficulty” of Ayler’s playing meant he got little work, especially in the US. He found a slightly better reception in Europe where he spent a lot of time, touring and playing in Scandinavia and France in particular.

Musically he was both going forward into the spaces indicated by John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and at the same time digging deep into the old roots of jazz in the blues and New Orleans-style group improvisation.

His explorations lead him into experimentation with timbre more than harmony and melody, making his music sound furious, and yet his own tender feelings were injected into the sound, making it simultaneously lonely, sad. Having said that, melody was incredibly important to Ayler and he used it largely for its own sake rather than as a springboard for improvisation, returning again and again to the main lines of any melody, working on them to bring out every nuance of meaning.

Ayler’s commitment to the new sounds was total and his fans, small in number, but growing, were also deeply committed.

Like Coltrane Ayler was deeply spiritual and his songs reflect that. Also like Coltrane, Ayler saw music as a spiritual calling, a way to overcome evil in the world – hence his song “Music is the Healing Force of the Universe.”

Valerie Wilmer quotes Ayler in her book As Serious as Your Life (Serpent’s Tail, 1992):

“My music is the thing that keeps me alive now. I must play music that is beyond this world. That’s all I’m asking for in life and I don’t think you can ask for more than just to be alone to create from what God gives you.”

In his published recordings up to that September of 1968 Ayler was making music more and more “beyond this world,” so the release of New Grass with its R&B flavoured music complete with backing singers was a great shock to his devoted followers.

Because the album seemed to be a retreat in many ways from his explorations of the outer limits of the music the album was quickly dismissed by fans and critics as indicating a “sell out” by the great man.

While it is true the album does not achieve some of the depth of his earlier (and many of his later) albums, I think it is another aspect of the trajectory of his development. After all, he had in his teenage years spent two summers touring with an R&B outfit and the blues were etched into his soul.

The album was also perhaps on a personal level something he had to do. Always spiritually searching he felt he had, as he put it in an interview in 1970, to “give the American people another chance” to appreciate his music.

So when producer Bob Thiele asked him to do an album with pop musicians Ayler agreed, but on his own terms. As he put it in the interview, “if I have to play pop music let me get the men together and play the music.”

New Grass opens with a typical Ayler wail on the tenor and then he does a short spoken introduction in which he says of the music on the album that it is “of a different dimension in my life” and he adds a plea – “I hope you will like this record.”

And he ends with a reiteration of his spiritual message: “We must restore universal harmony … we must have love for each other.”

The six songs on the album were composed by Ayler in collaboration with, among others, his companion of the time Mary Maria Parks.

The musicians on the date were a combination of R&B and rock musicians which gave the album a very different sound than Ayler’s usual output, although his tenor with its characteristic broad vibrato still seems at home.

As for “selling out” to commercialism as has been suggested by some critics, I really don’t think this album would ever be a commercial success – the music is still too raw, the emotion too real and up front, for it to be widely accepted in a “pop” way.

And yes, Mr Ayler, in spite of the critics, I like this record!

The one man jazz university – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

“I’m gonna stay with the youngsters. When these get too old I’ll get some younger ones. Keeps the mind active.” – Art Blakey (1954)

In a career that spanned more than 40 years in jazz master drummer Art Blakey, also known by his Islamic name of Abdullah Ibn Buhaina (Bu), stuck tenaciously to that principle in practise and consequently the “alumni” of his “university” reads like a dictionary of the greatest names in the jazz history of the period from the mid-50s to the mid-80s.

Art Blakey in concert with The Jazz Messengers at Plougonven (Bretagne, France) in 1985. Photo by Roland Godefroy

Especially those musicians associated with the music often called “hard bop” almost exclusively were Jazz Messenger graduates. The names of Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter and others come to mind as players who struck out in a new direction after their experiences with the vitality and dynamism of the Blakey outfit.

One album which stands out for me in this regard is Morgan’s wonderful The Sidewinder, which can be seen as introducing “funk” into jazz.

Blakey himself was known as a sometimes explosive rhythm man who drove his musicians with tremendous energy and commitment.

In an interview with Ben Sidran published in Sidran’s book Talking Jazz (Pomegranate, 1992) Blakey explained his approach:

“I teach musicians to look at it this way. You are, in fact, you’re in the nude. You’re in your birthday suit. People can see clean through you. Your music, your actions and your vibes that you bring forth to the audience come out, and you cannot hide that. It’s got to be right. It’s got to be cohesion, it’s got to be love.”

Blakey was born in 1919 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and by his teens was playing piano and leading a band. His switch to drums came about because he despaired of ever being able to compete with Errol Garner as a pianist.

The great drummer taught himself to play the drums and, some said, went to Africa in 1947 to find out more about African drumming. He indeed used certain techniques associated mainly with African drumming like rim shots and using his elbow on some drum heads to alter the pitch.

Blakey himself said of the trip to Africa:

“I didn’t go to Africa to study drums – somebody wrote that – I went to Africa because there wasn’t anything else for me to do. I couldn’t get any gigs, and I had to work my way over on a boat. I went over there to study religion and philosophy. I didn’t bother with the drums, I wasn’t after that. I went over there to see what I could do about religion. When I was growing up I had no choice, I was just thrown into a church and told this is what I was going to be. I didn’t want to be their Christian. I didn’t like it. You could study politics in this country, but I didn’t have access to the religions of the world. That’s why I went to Africa. When I got back people got the idea I went there to learn about music.” – Art Blakey, quoted by Herb Nolan in Down Beat, November 1979, p.20. (quoted in “Chronology of Art Blakey” accessed 30 August 2011)

Blakey’s attitude to music was one almost of reverence: “… to me the bandstand is hallowed ground,” he told Sidran. “You come up here, you’re supposed to play.”

His advice to new musicians: “You come on the bandstand, look professional, be sharp. They (the audience) see you before they hear you, and don’t come up there looking like something that jumped out of the garbage can, or like you gonna give somebody a grease job. …I think that they must learn to have more respect for the audience.”

As he warned against using the music “to educate” people: “Because the music is supposed to wash away the dust of everyday life. So they’re supposed to come in there and enjoy themselves. So if they start feeling like they need to be educated, then it’s not interesting any more.”

In 1947 Blakey organised a group called the “Seventeen Messengers” as a rehearsal band. An octet grew out of this band and was called the “Jazz Messengers,” and recorded. This name only stuck to Blakey’s group when in 1954 he co-led a group with pianist Horace Silver. In this group were tenorist Hank Mobley, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and bassist Doug Watkins. The group recorded Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, the album recorded and produced by Rudy van Gelder and issued by Blue Note.

Blakey went on to record almost 500 albums, many of them live, a process he pioneered. As he told Sidran, “I went to Blue Note and I asked them. They thought I was crazy. I said, ‘Let’s try it. Let’s do it. Right there with the live audience.’” The wonderful three-record set of A Night at Birdland of 1954 was the result, to be followed by many live albums by the Messengers and other jazz musicians.

In addition to pioneering recordings Blakey also, as mentioned earlier, produced some outstanding “alumni” – musicians who have affected the directions jazz took after the bop era.

These “alumni”, to mention just some, included pianists Wynton Kelly, Joanne Brackeen, Kenny Drew, Keith Jarrett, Mulgrew Miller, Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton; some reed players who were Blakey alumni were Kenny Garrett, Lou Donaldson, Benny Golson, Johnny Griffin, Billy Harper, Branford Marsalis, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, Jean Toussaint, Bobby Watson; among the trumpeters who learned part of their trade with Blakey were Terence Blanchard, Clifford Brown, Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham, Freddie Hubbard, Chuck Mangione, Wynton Marsalis, Lee Morgan, Valery Ponomarev; bassists included Jymie Merritt, Curly Russell, Doug Watkins, Wilbur Ware, Reggie Workman, Stanley Clarke.

Probably no other jazz musician has influenced directly so many musicians who went on to in turn become great jazz influencers, except perhaps for Duke Ellington and Miles Davis who both ran bands that produced great musicians.

Some of the albums

With around 500 albums in his catalogue there are undoubtedly some fluffs as well as some really outstanding works of art. Here are three that I personally like particularly.

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk:

This 1957 album is outstanding for, among other things, the incredible interplay between Monk’s spare and rhythmic piano and Blakey’s artful (to coin a phrase!) drumming. The empathy between the two is remarkable and led the editors of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP and Cassette (Penguin, 1994), Richard Cook and Brian Morton, to call this album “Absolutely indipensable jazz” and to accord it their rare “Crown” accolade. The playing of all the musicians on this date is superb and the album as a whole gives undiluted pleasure to the listener. A real gem of an album. In addition to Monk and Blakey the musicians on this outstanding album are Bill Hardman on trumpet, Johnny Griffin on tenor and Spanky DeBrest on bass.


This 1958 album opens with pianist Bobby Timmon’s great, bluesy number which gave the album its title, “Moanin'”. Thereafter there are four songs by the tenor-player Benny Golson and the album ends with an upbeat version of the lovely Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer son “Come Rain or Come Shine”. An outstanding track is “The Drum Thunder (Miniature) Suite” which gives Blakey wonderful opportunity to demonstrate his skills. All the musicians involved in this album are great, but for me trumpeter Lee Morgan is the star here. Bassist Jymie Merritt rounds off the personnel list. In charge of the recording machinery was the legendary Rudy van Gelder and the producer was Alfred Lion.

Night in Tunisia (the 1960 album):

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers really give Dizzy’s tune, the title track, some superb playing. This incarnation of the Messengers, always the breeding ground for jazz stars, was exceptionally great: Lee Morgan on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor, Bobby Timmons on piano and Jymie Merritt on bass, with, of course, Blakey himself keeping it all together from the drum kit. With a line-up like that, what could one expect besides some of the greatest jazz to be found anywhere? It was recorded and released in 1960. This just happened to be one of the first jazz albums I ever bought, back in about 1965, and I have loved it ever since. Again Rudy van Gelder and Alfred Lion in charge of recording and production respectively.



Happy birthday, Saint John!

Portrain of John Coltrane (2007) BY Paolo Steffan. Image via Wikipedia

Many jazz musicians have been devoutly religious, but only one has been canonised – Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane, who would have turned 85 on 23 September 2011.

The influential tenor player was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in middle class circumstances into a family with deep religious roots.

He started playing other instruments, especially alto, only gravitating to the tenor sax after playing alto with Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band until that broke up. After that Coltrane stayed with Gillespie’s small group and took up tenor.

One of the big breaks in his career came in 1955 when he was called by Miles Davis to join the trumpeter’s famous “First Great Quintet” in the place vacated by Sonny Rollins. Miles at that time was exploring modal scales which had a great impact on Coltrane. Valerie Wilmer in her book about the “New Music” As Serious as Your Life (Serpent’s Tail,1992) wrote that Coltrane had said “…he used to listen to Miles Davis on record and fantasise about playing tenor the way he played trumpet.”

Coltrane was with the Davis group until November 1956 when he rather abruptly left it. He was by this time being badly affected by heavy drinking and his addiction to heroin. In his biography of Davis (Paladin, 1984) Ian Carr writes “Miles may have tried to jolt the saxophonist from time to time to sting him into revolting against the inexorable progress of his destructive habit.” Whatever the reason or process of his leaving the Davis band Coltrane went home to Philadelphia where he managed to clean himself up, kicking the heroin habit cold turkey and having a kind of spiritual awakening with the support of his first wife Naima.

In the liner notes to his great album, A Love Supreme, Coltrane wrote about this episode:

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”

In early 1957 Coltrane was offered a recording contract by Bob Weinstock of Prestige Records which led to the saxophonist’s first recording date as a leader. Recorded at the end of May 1957 it was released as Coltrane in 1957.

Coltrane’s second solo album was Blue Train issued by Blue Note records in 1957 which featured four of Coltrane’s own compositions and one standard.

By January 1958 Coltrane was back with Davis after a six-month stint with the Thelonius Monk Quartet which produced two outstanding albums: Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane and an outstanding date at Carnegie Hall, the recording of which was only discovered serendipitously in 2005 and released as Thelonius Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. Of great interest in the first of these albums is the contrast between an earlier influential tenor player, Coleman Hawkins, who plays on two of the tracks, and his younger counterpart Coltrane.

Wilmer wrote about Coltrane’s technique and musicianship: “Coltrane rewrote the method book for the saxophone, just as Charlie Parker had done twenty years earlier and Coleman Hawkins twenty years before that.”

In 1959 Coltrane was an influential part of the Davis group which made the seminal Kind of Blue album which has become something of a jazz classic, very possibly the top selling jazz album of all time. This session confirmed Coltrane’s interest in modal jazz and set him off on his explorations of other musics, especially African and Indian.

Shortly after completing the Kind of Blue recording was Davis, Coltrane was again in studio as leader to record the first album consisting entirely of his own compositions, Giant Steps, a breakthrough album which showed to the full his playing style dubbed “sheets of sound” by critic Ira Gitler. The complex chord sequences of the title track have been called “Coltrane changes”.

By the time of his recording of the album My Favorite Things in 1961 Coltrane was heavily into his exploratory phase, in part as a result of meeting and studying with famed sitar player Ravi Shankar. Coltrane used a soprano sax on this recording for the first time.

After some personnel changes the so-called “Classic Quartet” was in place by 1962. This group consisted of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison with Elvin Jones on drums.

The Classic Quartet produced increasingly inventive albums, including what is considered by most to be Coltrane’s greatest, A Love Supreme. This 1964 album indicated the increasingly spiritual direction Coltrane was taking. In the liner notes of the 1995 re-release Michael Cuscuna, prolific producer and discographer, wrote: “A Love Supreme is one of the most honest musical performances put to tape. Its beauty and appeal are timeless.”

A Love Supreme has gone on to influence many generations of musicians and fans, in a way as Kind of Blue has done, who would not normally be associated with jazz.

By the time Coltrane died in July 1967 he was a legend with a huge number of high quality recordings to his name. Valerie Wilmer wrote, “In addition to his musical importance, Coltrane exerted a profound spiritual influence on the musicians who followed in his footsteps.”

Icon of St John Will-I-Am Coltrane. Image via Wikipedia

“What he did through his own example, was to give not only the musicians but the Black community as a whole, an example by which they could live,” Wilmer continued. Which is why, perhaps, he was canonised by the African Orthodox Church back in the early 1980s.

As the founder of the St John Will-I-Am Coltrane Church in San Francisco, Franzo Wayne King, said in a sermon reported by the New York Times in 2007: “The kind of music you listen to is the person you become. When you listen to John Coltrane, you become a disciple of the anointed of God.”

I do wonder what Coltrane himself would think of this, seeing that he was determinedly non-denominational?

But the influence for positive, good values is clear.

Coltrane said in 1966: “I hope whoever is out there listening, they enjoy it.” Thank you, St John, we do!

From Antibes to a New York Penthouse with Mingus

The 1960 albums

The year 1960 saw Mingus record five great albums, three released in 1960, one in 1961 and one in 1980. The 1961 release was the result of his collaboration with conductor and musicologist Gunther Schuller and entitled Pre-Bird Mingus. The album released in 1980 was the live set at the Antibes Jazz Festival.

The 1960 release which will not be part of this Hub is the Candid album Reincarnation of a Lovebird, produced by Nat Hentoff, as was the album we will discuss here, Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus.

The other album we will discuss here is the live set recorded at that year’s Antibes Jazz Festival.

Mingus at Antibes

On 13 July 1960 Mingus appeared at the Antibes Jazz Festival, Juan-les-Pins on France’s Côte d’Azur, with Ted Curson on trumpet; Eric Dolphy on alto and bass clarinet; Booker Ervin on tenor; and Dannie Richmond on drums. Bud Powell joined the group for “I’ll Remember April”.

The group’s set opens with an atmospheric, swinging version of “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”, which sounds indeed like a Holiness Church meeting, complete with shouts, moaning and hand-clapping, which generates an incredible emotional energy, especially during Dolphy’s amazing solo. A solo from Richmond is followed by a brief but exciting chorus from Curson before the whole meeting is wrapped up with another short Richmond solo just before the whole group comes together with Mingus chanting “Oh yeah, my Lord” which others take up.

“Prayer for Passive Resistance” opens with a slapped bass figure from Mingus which Richmond quickly echoes, leading into Ervin’s soulful solo.

Next comes that great Mingus number “What Love” which features great solos by Dolphy and Curson.

Bud Powell delivers a typically great solo on “I’ll Remember April”, a kind of bebop revival thing in this context. Powell’s solo is a feat of creativity – the track is 14 minutes long and the solo lasts almost half of that time. The number swings furiously throughout. and features solos by Curson, Dolphy and Ervin besides Powell. There is a long passage of play in which Ervin and Dolphy enthusiastically trade fours, building up to a great finale in which Curson also gets involved in some group improvisation before the head comes back and Powell signs it all off.

“Folk Forms No 1” is introduced by Mingus playing a funky figure before the ensemble comes in equally funkily. Ervin, Dolphy and Curson again do some great group improv with Mingus providing some enthusiastic support and playing off the others. This all generates enough energy to light up New York City, never mind the crowd at Antibes who get enthusiastically into the swing of the whole thing. Mingus’s solo on upright is enough to make any bass guitarist worried. The three horns just keep on going, playing off each other, sometimes with rhythm section and sometimes without. An incredible performance all round.

The final track is that great Mingus number we first met on Mingus Ah Um: “Better Git Hit in Your Soul”, here taken at breakneck speed and with an incredible load of energy pulsing along. It gets so breathtaking at times I keep expecting the band to collapse with exhaustion, especially seeing they had by this time been going for an hour of high intensity music, but they just seem to get higher and higher on the energy. Amazing stuff! Again the gospel feel is heightened by hand clapping and shouting, encouraging the players to ever new heights of expression.

This is an album I return to again and again, an album of really exciting, emotional music, just as Mingus said: “Music is, or was, a language of the emotions.”

Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus

This recording was a relatively rare instance of Mingus recording with a quartet – besides himself there were his current favourite collaborators in the Jazz Workshop: Dannie Richmond on drums, Eric Dolphy on reeds and Ted Curson on trumpet. In spite of Mingus’s interjections and introductions this is a studio recording and there was no audience. Mingus wanted to replicate the ambiance of a club date without the distractions of such gigs, like ice clinking in glasses and cash registers ringing. It was in fact recorded at Nola Penthouse Sound Studios in New York City

The first track is listed on the cover as “Folk Forms No 1”, but Mingus seems to have been a bit unsure about the title in the actual performance, he calls it “Opus”, or “New Series 1”, “Folk Series”. Whatever, it is a swinging vehicle for each of the collaborators to shine, which the leader and Richmond proceed to do, each taking longish solos. Mingus introduced the number as being based on “folk song form” and if jazz can be termed a “folk form” then it surely is.

The next number is listed as “Original Fables of Faubus”, perhaps a wry reference to the banning of the lyrics from the “Fables of Faubus” track on the Columbia album the previous year. Mingus dedicates the piece to “the first, or second, or third all American heel”:

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us!

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us!

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em tar and feather us!

Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!

Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

The next number, “What Love?” featuring a great solo by Mingus and otherwise very similar (with, of course, a smaller force!) to the arrangement on Antibes. It’s a great tune and gives especially Dolphy a chance to really shine on that bass clarinet! Great stuff.

Mingus introduces the next track as “a tribute to all mothers.” I’m not sure if he means “mothers” in the jazz sense, but whatever, it has a ridiculous title (must be one of the longest in jazz): “All the things you could be by now if Sigmund Freud’s wife was your mother.” Yes? Even Mingus admits “it means nothing.”

What it is, is a another Mingusian (how’s that for a made up word?) romp at high speed through the changes. Curson especially makes the most of the opportunity to take some high flying liberties with the whole thing. Then Dolphy just makes mincemeat of everything with some amazing pyrotechnics, to the shouted encouragement of Mingus. It’s great fun and wonderful to listen to. I love the way the solos sound as if they cannot stop at all and then do, very suddenly. The changes in the tunes are not anywhere near those in “All the Things You Are” but Mingus apparently told his players to keep that tune in mind as they played this one. Weird idea but it makes for great fun.

The reviewer of CD Universe ( accessed 21 July 2009) wrote of this album that “The songs here feature a fiery amalgam of blues, gospel, and folk with group improvisation.” Fiery it is, and like things that have been tried by fire, it is very pure Mingus, to my mind one of his best.

Ronnie Lankford, Jr is quoted on the Accoustic Sounds website ( accessed 21 July 2009): “The album accomplishes what the best of Mingus accomplishes: the perfect tension between jazz played as an ensemble and jazz played as totally free.” I totally agree. It’s a blast, it’s thoughtful, it’s angry and it’s fun.

Tijuana to ‘Frisco – more Mingus moods

The albums

This article will look at Charles Mingus albums released in 1962, 1963 and 1964. The first of them was actually recorded in 1957, with Danny Richmond on drums for the first, and most definitely not the last, time with Mingus. This was the ever-popular Tijuana Moods , which Mingus wrote, “was written in a very blue period in my life.”

The second album is one which is very special in the whole Mingus ouvreThe Black Saint and the Sinner Lady , recorded and released in 1963.

The third album is a live album recorded at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco on 2 and 3 June, 1964. This album, called Right Now , is notable, apart from the amazing music, for the contribution of Jane Getz on piano.

Tijuana Moods

“This is the best record I ever made” – Mingus

This album features a little-known trumpeter Clarence Shaw, who, Mingus wrote in the liner notes of the 1962 release, “by now would probably have become as famous as any of our current so-called jazz players if this record had been released six years ago when recorded.”

Shaw shines especially on the opening track, “Dizzy Moods” which is based on the Gillespie composition “Woody ‘n You”. His solo is clearly articulated and swinging, exemplifying Mingus’s comment that Shaw “doesn’t overcrowd his ideas like most improvisers. He’s like a great conversationalist, he stops and rests…” This is a typically Mingus number with frequent changes of tempo.

The next track is “Ysabel’s Table Dance” is Mingus’s successful attempt to capture his experience in Tijuana, whence he had gone to forget a break-up from his wife, and he “decided to benefit musically from this experience and set out to compose and re-create what I felt and saw around me.”

This track “contains the fire, the pulse, and all that I felt as I heard the tune in my head with the movement of her body.” A truly remarkable evocation of place and mood in jazz. The mood is greatly enhanced by the castanets played by Ysabel Morel and her vocal interjections.

Its a driving, swinging and exhilarating choice from the opening bars with Mingus’s bowed riff and the castanets setting up a fabulous rhythm which is maintained throughout. Wonderful piece, altogether.

“Tijuana Gift Shop” is a tightly swinging number with gorgeous ensemble work, featuring amazing unison riffs from Shaw on trumpet and alto player Shafi Hadi. Jimmy Knepper’s trombone growling in the background adds a great feel to the whole thing. Shaw’s muted few bars at the end are things of great beauty.

The CD made to look like the original vinyl LP

In the liner notes Mingus tells of finding himself, after arriving in Tijuana at six in the evening, “wandering through the street followed by local bands of five to ten musicians with bass, sax, guitar, and typical Spanish instruments.” That is the feeling he creates in “Los Mariachis” which, he wrote, “typifies the blues beat.” This is a gloriously atmospheric piece, alternating between hard-driving blues beat and moments of quiet, when typically just two instruments will play. In the first such break there is a superb dialogue between Shaw and Mingus himself. That is worth buying the whole album for! It’s one of those moments of total magic that sometimes happen in great music, when everything else falls away and one becomes lost in that timeless time. There are whole worlds and long beguiling stories told in this number.

The final number on the original album was “Flamingo” which is marked by an absolutely gorgeous solo from Shaw.

The final track on 2000 double CD re-issue is entitled “A Colloquial Dream (Scenes In The City)”, a great spoken poetry with music mix which was recorded in the same session as the rest of Tijuana Moods. It features the voice of Lonnie Elder, who declaims “I love jazz” and “I guess I must be the only man in the world who wakes up with jazz music!” Its a great mood piece and a fine end to the album. The words and the music are wonderfully evocative and supportive to each other. “Beautiful like a woman, a real woman,” as Elder says at the end.

Besides those already mentioned the personnel on this album include Frankie Dunlop on percussion, and Bill Triglia on piano.

The production of the two-disc re-release from 2000 that I have is great for many reasons, not least of which is the sound which is superb.

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

This album has been hailed by critics as having “a special place in Mingus’s work,” and “one of the greatest achievements in orchestration by any composer in jazz history.” It certainly was a very ambitious project on Mingus’s part, to write a ballet for an 11-piece orchestra, a ballet which would capture all the emotions of which his psychologist Edmund Pollock would write in the liner notes: “Mr. Mingus cries of misunderstanding of self and people.” The music does indeed, as Pollock continues, “present a brooding, moaning intensity about prejudice, hate and persecution.”

My contention, though, is that if that were all this music did it would not grab us as it does, with deep emotion, yes, but with that emotion expressed in so “right” a way, and covering a wide range of human experience, fittingly made musical in the adoption by Mingus of themes and modes from many different musics, and blended into an artistically unitary whole of immense power.

The first track “Solo Dance” is introduced by Danny Richmond opens with what Mingus describes in his 1963 notes about the album, as a “written repeated rhythmatic (sic) bass drum to snare drum to sock cymbal figure that suggests two tempos along with its own tempo.” This complexity is maintained throughout the track, through some wonderful ensemble work and a just a few solos, most notably a longer one on the alto, by Charlie Mariano, sounding like a voice “calling to others.”

The second track, “Duet Solo Dancers”, starts with a gentle piano theme, almost classical in feel, at a slow tempo, then the whole ensemble comes in with sonorous harmonies, Ellingtonian in feel (Black, Brown and Beige comes strongly to mind) In Pollock’s words, “The music then changes into a mood of what I would call mounting restless agitation and anguish as if there is tremendous conflict between love and hate.” There is an amazing muted trombone solo which again sounds like a voice calling out in anguish.

“Group Dancers” opens with some interesting piano and features some wonderful Spanish-tinged music played on a classical guitar by Jay Berliner, reminding strongly of Tijuana Moods. There are again multiple tempo changes which mirror the changing emotions. According to Dr Pollock Mingus said that the use of the guitar was meant to mirror the Inquisition and El Greco’s “mood of opppressive poverty and death.”

The final track, consisting of three movements or modes, is an even more complex piece than any of the preceding. the sub-titles of the numbers are revealing of what the music expresses: “Mode D — Trio and Group Dancers” Stop! Look! and Sing Songs of Revolutions! ; “Mode E — Single Solos and Group Dance” Saint and Sinner Join in Merriment on Battle Front; “Mode F — Group and Solo Dance” Of Love, Pain, and Passioned Revolt, then Farewell, My Beloved, ’til It’s Freedom Day. Pollock notes that “the ending seems unfinished but one is left with a feeling of hope and even a promise of future joy.”

Its a “monster” of an album, which required a very special corps of musicians to handle all the music, and Mingus had assembled a stellar cast for the recording. The personnel were, besides Mingus himself, Jerome Richardson on soprano and baritone saxes and flute; Charlie Mariano on alto; Dick Hafer on tenor and flute; Rolf Ericson and Richard Williams on trumpet; Quentin Jackson on trombone; Don Butterfield on tuba and contrabass trombone; Jaki Byard on piano; Jay Berliner on acoustic guitar; and Danny Richmond on drums.

As Steve Huey wrote on All Music ( “The result is one of the high-water marks for avant-garde jazz in the ’60s and arguably Mingus’ most brilliant moment.”

A date in ‘Frisco: Right Now

This just happens to be the first Mingus album I ever bought, back in the days of vinyl and I was living in Durban, in the South African province now known as kwaZulu-Natal and then simply known as Natal, with my family. Not sure why this particular album, but it must have sounded good to me at the time, the early 1970s, and I loved the sound and the feelings of the whole thing.

Had a bit of fun with a rather serious friend who fancied himself as a bit of an expert on classical music (to be fair, he was actually), by playing him the few bars of Mingus bowing his bass in the upper register at the beginning of “Meditation for a Pair of Wire Cutters”, the second side of the vinyl LP, and asking my friend to identify the composer. He was baffled and tried John Cage, Hindemith and a few other of the modernists, and was furious with me when I let him into the secret!

This is a wonderful album, which still sounds good to me. The first track is an updated version of “Fables of Faubus” which really cooks, as the saying goes. John Handy on alto really wails, to the great pleasure of his leader, who shouts his customary encouragement. Mingus’s own solo iks a veritable tour de force, a virtuosic display, with quotes from “Down by the Riverside” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” woven into the swinging flow. Clifford Jordan on tenor is also inspired and uses some Coltranesque “sheets of sound” in his solo. Danny Richmond on drums is fervent and swinging and very supportive. Jane Getz doesn’t get much chance to shine but her presence is nevertheless felt. The blues with which the track ends is simply stunning..

“Meditation” starts with bowed bass introduction with which I teased my friend all those years ago. It then gets down to some serious swinging. The group on this track is without Handy but otherwise the same as the first track. Jordan gets a long solo and so does Getz. Towards the end of the track Getz and Jordan play together, he on flute, while Mingus gets out his bow again, for some interesting, almost modern-chamber music style stuff. It’s really inspired playing by all three and becomes almost atonal until the very last chord. A brilliant piece of music which in its 24 minutes covers a great range of styles and sound.

A musician of powerful originality

This ends my review of what is possibly the most creative decade of Mingus’s career, although there would still be some great albums in the years that followed, more surprises and explorations of what music is all about.

To my mind Mingus is quite simply one of the giants of 20th Century music, not just of jazz. He displayed a range of music that stretched any definition of jazz beyond the limits. No-one interested in music of any sort can really avoid the contribution of this massive genius and he certainly deserves to be taken very seriously indeed, as he demanded during his lifetime.

Nat Hentoff wrote about Mingus: “Charles Mingus was not only the most powerfully original bassist in jazz history, but he was one of the few legendary soloists and band leaders to leave an utterly distinctive body of continually unpredictable compositions. In that respect, he was in the rare company of Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.”

Mingus magnificus Ah Um

A unique and brave musician

“This is the uniqueness of this man: he jolts with the unexpected and the new. He has something to say and he will use every resource to interpret his messages.” – Dr Edmund Pollock, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist. (From the liner notes to the album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady , 1963)

I wonder how many other jazz musicians would have invited their therapists to write liner notes for their albums? Charles Mingus was a unique and brave jazz musician, and the tribute to his qualities by his therapist is both fitting and insightful.

Few jazz musicians could have achieved what Mingus did in terms of taking jazz into a totally new space while maintaining strong, clear roots in the history (and stories) of both the music itself and the people who played it.

Two Charles Mingus albums reach their 50th anniversary this year, both recorded by Teo Macero at the 30th Street Studios of Columbia Records, the same studios which produced Miles Davis’s classic Kind of Blue and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out in the same year. Macero was clearly a busy man! And a very perceptive, sensitive one also, to have recognised and promoted such diverse talents, each of whom could make significant contributions to the richness of jazz, the power of its sound, and its huge emotional content and appeal.

In this regard the two Mingus albums stand as significant and beautiful manifestations: they are rooted in the history and story, yet are individual responses to that history and story, as Dr Pollock wrote, “Mr Mingus has never given up. From every experience such as a conviction for assault or an an inmate of a Bellevue (a New York psychiatric institution) locked ward, Mr Mingus has learned something and has stated it will not happen again to him.”

Listening to Mingus is to experience a person with an intense, almost terrifying, self-awareness and a furious determination to share, through his music, the pain, the anger, the joy and elation of this condition we call being human.

To quote Dr Pollock again, this time writing of the three tracks of side B of the original vinyl LP release of Black Saint , though the words could equally be applied to almost any music Mingus wrote or played: “…repeating and integrating harmony and disharmony, peace and disquiet, and love and hate… one is left with a feeling of hope and even a promise of future joy.”

Mingus was a restless searcher for media, styles, forms of music that would be adequate to convey his urgent emotions about and understanding of life. So he listened with “big ears” to the jazz “old-timers” and the new players bringing their own insights and styles to the music, to the old classical composers and the avant garde , always searching for sounds that would express himself, help him to say what he felt he had to say.

As Dr Pollock wrote, with considerable understatement: “Inarticulate in words, he is gifted in musical expression which he constantly uses to articulate what he perceives, knows and feels.”

Mingus Ah Um

The first of the two 1959 albums is often regarded as Mingus’s greatest: Mingus Ah Um.

The personnel on the album is made up of great musicians, all individualists with their own styles and personalities, who come together brilliantly to blow their hearts out for Mingus. On tenor sax Booker Ervin makes a weighty and soulful contribution. John Handy plays alto, clarinet and tenor on various tracks, the clarinet most notably on “Pussy Cat Blues” which he said was the only time he had played clarinet on a recording. The third tenor seat is held down by Shafi Hafdi, who doubles on alto on some of the tracks. Two trombones complete the horn line-up: Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis. The rhythm section consists of, besides the leader, Horace Parlan on piano and long-serving Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond.

Each of these players is noteworthy in their own rights and play significant roles both as soloists and in ensemble work on the album. Besides Mingus, only Parlan, Richmond and Ervin play on all the tracks, the other tracks having different combinations.

Track 1: Better Git It in Your Soul

This album opens with the bluesy, gospelly “Better Git It in Your Soul” which is suffused with the sounds and rhythms that Mingus grew up with in the Holiness Church he attended with his step mother in Watts – it is a foot-stomping, shouting and moaning declaration of all the “harmony and disharmony, peace and disquiet, and love and hate” that Dr Pollock wrote about.

The hand-clapping and shouts (Halleluia! Oh Yes!) add to the “Holiness” feel of the song, which never lets up in emotional intensity throughout its more than seven minutes duration. It’s a stunning and engaging performance.

Track 2: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

One of Mingus’s best-known compositions follows, his soulful, keening tribute to great tenor sax player Lester ‘Prez’ Young, who had died in March 1959, just two months before this recording date. the title was a reference to Young’s favourite headgear.

The song is a 12 bar blues and, unlike most others of Mingus’s tunes, has been covered by many musicians, including Joni Mitchell who wrote lyrics for it and included it on her Mingus album released in 1980.

Track 3: Boogie Stop Shuffle

Next up is “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, a combination of boogie and shuffle rhythms with stop time. Stop time is defined in Jazz: The Essential Companion (Carr, Fairweather and Priestley, 1988) as “a lengthy series of breaks, so that the rhythm section marks only the start of every bar (or every other bar) for a chorus or more, remaining silent between each of the stop-chords.” On the face of it boogie and shuffle rhythms would seem to be incompatible. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (Kernfeld, 1996) defines boogie as a “percussive style of piano blues” and shuffle as being a “smooth” rhythm “played legato and at a relaxed tempo.” In the hands of Mingus’s group, it makes for exciting and unusual listening, especially with its four themes and alternating backing behind the soloists.

Track 4: Self-Portrait in Three Colours

The next tune, “Self-Portrait in Three Colours”, was originally written for the John Cassavetes movie Shadows, but for budgetary reasons was not used in the film. This is a relatively unusual piece for Mingus in that it is composed throughout, with no solos or improvisations. It starts in a quiet, beautiful way, just piano and bass, but then the horns come in with some clever voicings which give the impression of collective improvisation.

Tracks 5 and 6

The next track is a rollicking tribute to Duke Ellington called “Open Letter to Duke” and the following one is an exciting tribute to Charlie Parker called “Bird Calls.” Of this latter song Mingus wrote, “It wasn’t supposed to sound like Charlie Parker. It was supposed to sound like birds – the first part.”

Track 7: Fables of Faubus

“Fables of Faubus” comes next on the programme. This is a searing, angry meditation on segregation and injustice, occasioned by the attempts of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus who attempted to prevent the integration of schooling in the state in the 1950s by sending the Arkansas National Guard to block the entry of African American students into Little Rock Central High School in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling. This piece was one Mingus returned to again and again in his career, giving voice to his strong feelings about justice and freedom.

Tracks 8 and 9

The next track, “Pussy Cat Dues” is a stunningly lovely down-tempo blues with some brilliant solo work by Handy, Knepper and Handy. Simply exquisite playing and brilliant arranging. Knepper especially stands out on this number, as he does on the next, called “Jelly Roll”.

Tracks 10, 11 and 12

The last three tracks on the 1998 re-issue are bonus tracks not found on the original LP. Indeed many of the tracks on the re-issue are released at full length for the first time as they were edited into shorter versions for the LP. The tracks are “Pedal Point Blues” which features Mingus joining Parlan on another piano, “GG Train” and the only non-Mingus composition on the album, “Girl of My Dreams.”

The rewards of open ears

This album is a great example of authentic, real music. It is definitely not “easy listening” but will reward anyone willing to really listen with some moments of transcendent beauty, deeply spiritual experience and true feeling.

Take Five plus Fifty!

The making of music history

What happened when producer Teo Macero, who had just months before had Miles Davis and his musicians in the Columbia 30th Street Studio to record, brought Dave Brubeck and his quartet into the same studio, was to make more jazz history – the album Time Out with the hit track “Take Five”.

So in three days of recording in the summer of 1959 the Dave Brubeck Quartet, already popular even outside of jazz circles, made an album which would send their popularity into orbit, even gaining them recognition on the Billboard Charts in 1961 in the categories “pop album” where the album reached second spot, “adult contemporary”, where “Take Five” ranked 5th, and “pop singles” where the same number reached the 25th spot. Not bad for a jazz outfit playing some fairly challenging music in time signatures very far from the standard four-in-a-bar pop tunes.

The album is probably the most famous of all jazz albums, especially seeing that it is known by people who are not jazz fans per se .

Time Out is sometimes derided by jazz purists as something like “jazz lite” in spite of the rather awesome intellectual gifts that spawned it.

Brubeck on Time

Dave Brubeck had already appeared on the cover of Time magazine (the second jazz artist to do so -the first was Louis Armstrong) by the time Time Out was recorded. This was in November 1954 when the magazine described him as playing “some of the strangest and loveliest music ever played since jazz was born.” And that was five years before Time Out . (I can’t help thinking about the different meanings of “Time” in the magazine and album titles).

Brubeck himself had studied with Darius Milhaud who advised him to keep on with jazz improvisation. But the modern “classical” training shows through in the way Brubeck handles both harmony and rhythm. Clearly the time spent with Milhaud was very instructive for Brubeck.

Track 1: Blue Rondo a la Turk

The first track, “Blue Rondo a la Turk” is based partly on the Rondo in Mozart’s Piano Sonata No 11 and the Turkish folk rhythms Brubeck and Company heard on the US Foreign Department sponsored tour the group undertook in the 50s. This tour, in the view of some, was a cold war ploy by the US government, as can be seen from this blog comment (I have unfortunately lost the reference so don’t know where this comes from): “The story behind Time Out placed it squarely as a product of the cold war. Dave Brubeck was sponsored by the US government to tour the periphery of the Soviet Union to show how rich American culture was. This tour took the band to such places as Turkey where the indigenous music and time signatures inspired the album. Hurrah for cultural imperialism.”

I guess that point of view is at least debatable.

Track 2: Strange Meadow Lark

Long-tailed Meadowlark. Photo via Wikipedia by Alastair Rae

Brubeck can sound very esoteric one moment and the next be downright earthy. This makes for some very interesting listening, and not always that “easy listening.” Listening to how the piano part develops in the second “Strange Meadow Lark” from the almost cocktail lounge style rather long introduction to the way drummer Joe Morello comes in quietly with brushes to bring in a solo from Paul Desmond which is typically lyrical but swinging. Followed by some Brubeck soloing which sounds almost Monkish with very rapid time and key changes going seemingly all over the place. A piece of rare beauty which has hidden depths, like a shallow pool of clear water which suddenly gets very deep and crystalline cold.

Track 3: Take Five

The third track on the album is, of course, that ubiquitous number “Take Five.” This number, written by Desmond as the vehicle for a Joe Morello solo, has become a standard, and has been played almost to death (I even heard a South African band which managed to play the whole song in good old common time, i.e. four beats to the bar, completely ignoring the original time signature which made the song so irresistible in the first place!).

“Take Five” is so strongly associated with Dave Brubeck that to a great number of people it is a surprise to learn that Desmond actually wrote it. The number itself is five minutes of sheer jazz joy, and the solo by Morello which was its original purpose, is stunning in its build up and complexity. Morellohas been described as the most technical of jazz drummers and in this piece he shows exactly why. It is a tour de force of outstanding drumming which holds the listener’s attention from start to finish.

The Side Two tracks

On the original vinyl LP “Take Five” rounded off Side 1. Side two opened with another interesting Brubeck number, “Three to get Ready” which starts, as the name implies, in a rollicking three four or waltz time, then quickly gets into a pattern of three four alternating after two bars with two bars of common time and the pattern repeats throughout the song. This presents more of a challenge to listeners than it seems to have done to the musicians who seem to be having a ball all through.

The song “Kathy’s Waltz”, named for Brubeck’s daughter, “Everybody’s Jumpin'” and “Pick up Sticks”, another Morello vehicle, follow.

The amazing Paul Desmond’s unique sound and contribution

The quartet was made up of musicians who were each of them outstanding in their own ways, but perhaps the most outstanding was Desmond, who’s sound really gave the quartet its unique timbre, its signature feel.

Many people have not appreciated the Desmond sound or his music, putting it into a category, boxing it in, and then condemning it for qualities applicable to the box or category, but not necessarily to the man and his music.

One who appreciates Desmond is avant-garde readman Anthony Braxton, who said of Desmond: “I have never stopped loving this man’s music. The first thing I recall that struck me about it was his sound. The sound grabbed me.”

Braxton went on to say, in interviews with Graham Lock (Forces in Motion , Quartet Books, 1988): “I think Paul Desmond’s music is widely misunderstood on many levels. He was fashionable for the wrongs reasons and he was hated for the wrong reasons.”

Desmond himself once made the comment, “I have won several prizes as the world’s slowest alto player, as well as a special award in 1961 for quietness.” So Braxton’s next comment is especially rich: “He was far ahead of what you heard: what you heard had been edited completely, only the essence remained. Desmond understood how to get to the point quicker than most players ever learn. This is a lightening-fast improviser, who understood sound logic and how to prepare the event.”

The clarity of both his sound and his thinking certainly shine through on all the tracks on this masterful album, and provide some of its highest moments.

And maybe what has attracted so many to this album, making it one of the most successful jazz albums ever made, is captured in Braxton’s comment: “You can say what you like, but masters can touch your heart and change your life. In the case of Desmond, I know that’s true.” (Emphasis in the original)

So in the somewhat unlikely event that you have not heard this album, may I respectfully suggest you go out and get a copy. You will not be disappointed.

Mingus gets down to the roots of the matter

The album

On 4 February 1959 bassist Charles Mingus took a group of top class jazz musicians into the Atlantic Records studio to record a “barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy” to quote his own words, and the result is the magnificent Blues and Roots, an album which gets me shouting and moaning myself whenever I listen to it (which, I have to admit, is quite often!).

From the opening moments of the first track, “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”, this album is just full of swinging, engaging and earthy jazz with its blues and holiness church roots exposed.

The musicians Mingus assembled for this date were each impressive in their own rights – John Handy and the inimitable Jackie McLean on altos, the soulful Booker Ervin on tenor, Pepper “The Knife” Adams on baritone, Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis on trombone, with Mingus’ favourite drummer Danny Richmond and pianists Horace Parlan and Mal Waldron (who only appears on one track) completing the rhythm section.

The tracks

“Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” starts with “preacher” Mingus setting the tone with some big bass sounds and he’s soon joined by the “congregation” getting right down to it – with some interesting interchanges between reeds and trombone before the swinging, blue-based piano of Parlan starts some preaching of his own. This becomes a wonderful rhythmic interchange between Mingus and Parlan, with Mingus shouting his encouragement behind the music. Parlan keeps a chord pattern going behind the tenor preacher and Mingus and the rest shouting their responses – I think anyone with any soul in them will join in also while listening to this track! Then Richmond gets to add his few bars worth of rhythm before the whole congregation brings it all to an end with a heartfelt “Amen!”

The next track, “Cryin’ Blues”, is noteworthy for the relatively long bass solo from the leader, who quotes from other blues, especially “Blues in the Night” before Parlan gets in on the act with a beautifully-phrased, blues-drenched solo. “Oh yeah! Going home!” Mingus shouts in the background before the whole gang get back into it to bring it all to a great ending, with Adams making it a very deep one indeed. That baritone really strikes home.

“Moanin'” features the baritone from the start. This up-tempo blues is swinging in the most enjoyable way. Many years ago drummer Mel Lewis explained how Adams got his nickname: “We called him ‘The Knife’ because when he’d get up to blow, his playing had almost a slashing effect on the rest of us. He’d slash, chop, and before he was through, cut everybody down to size.” Hearing his solo on this track, which comes after McLean’s and before Ervin’s, gives one some idea of his explosive, “cutting” playing. Mingus can be heard shouting “Yeah, I know …what I know” behind the title for Todd Jenkins and Sy Johnson’s book on Mingus: I know what I Know, published by Praeger Publishers in 2006.

Mingus starts “Tensions” before the rest of the gang put in some spirited ensemble work over the light touch of Richmond. Then come solos from the leader, McLean, Ervin and Parlan before the solos end with what Jenkins and Johnson call “a passionate drum improv” by Richmond.

“My Jelly Roll Soul” features Mingus playing “slap bass” and solos by Knepper, Parlan, McLean, Mingus and Richmond. This tune also featured on the later 1959 album “Mingus Ah Um” where it was simply called “Jelly Roll.”

Mal Waldron replaces Parlan in the final track “E’s Flat, Ah’s Flat Too” to play an incredibly beautiful blues solo. The track is altogether amazingly energy-filled and the players all have opportunities to make their presences felt. Its a hard-driving affair and a great tribute to the stamina and musicality of all involved.

On the CD which I have there follow alternative takes of tracks 1, 4, 5 and 6 which are interesting to listen to but I can hear why they are “alternative” tracks. The tracks issued on the original album are definitely better overall, though the alternative tracks do have some good moments.

Post-modernist tribute to New Orleans

Overall this is an album that stands well with all of Mingus’ output, though perhaps not as great as the later Mingus Ah Um or Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (this album, by the way, is rated by jazz writer Piero Scaruffi, as the number one jazz album of all time), but one which is a favourite of mine for the feel and energy of it all.

Scaruffi described the album as “a post-modernist tribute to the sound of New Orleans, an exercise in disassembling the clichés of a genre and rebuilding it from an analytic perspective (best the gospel-y Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting and the bluesy Moanin’). None of the exuberance was lost, but the harmonic complexity was certainly not what the old New Orleans bands had in mind.” (From, accessed on 5 June 2009).