Album Review #23: Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

time-out-brubeck-quartet

The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Take Five is the final album of the book’s 50’s section, being released in December of 1959, and oh boy, does it end the decade on a high note. This is an excellent jazz album, rivaling the likes of Brilliant Corners and even Kind of Blue. Featuring only four musicians and yet at times sounding like a full orchestra, this album is extravagant, and at the same time subtle, with expert musicianship shining through each and every second. I think it’s needless to say that I enjoyed this one greatly.

The track that pretty much everyone knows this album for (and by extent, Brubeck’s entire oeuvre,) has to be “Take Five.” If you’ve never even heard of Dave Brubeck, you’ve probably heard this song at some point, possibly without even knowing it. It’s a great melody, but what I like the song even more for is the rhythmic, persistent piano that serves as a sort of grounding point for the rest of the band to do its thing. Funnily enough, the iconic saxophone melody that the song is famous for only appears at the beginning and very end of the piece, with the bulk of the song being an extended drum solo, accompanied by piano and bass. With such sparse instrumentation and such a (relatively) long running time, you’d think the song would tire itself out before it ends, but it doesn’t. Joe Morello, the percussionist, is so talented that he easily carries the majority of the song on his own. Although I love the song, I have to admit that it’s a wonder the song became a major hit, being over five minutes long and about %70 drum solo. Good on the public for digging this song so much.

dave-brubeck-quartet-theguardiandotcom

The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Image Source: theguardian.com

But of course, “Take Five” isn’t the whole album. There are six other tracks that make up the record, and all of them are worth mentioning. My favorite of these is track number two, “Strange Meadow Lark.” It has an incredible introduction, with a little over two minutes worth of solo piano that I can only describe as “Gershwin meets Debussy.” Brubeck is truly talented with the piano, and it shines here more so than anywhere else on the album. The rest of the band is great as well, with the four instruments working together excellently to create a soothing, cool and highly relaxing mood for the remainder of the track’s seven minutes. More so than any other track (which is saying quite a lot), this one is simply a goldmine of pure, undiluted ear candy.

Time Out is truly a top-tier jazz album. The playing is masterful, the melodies are memorable and the freestyles are flowing and effortless. The Dave Brubeck Quartet was one of the 50’s greatest jazz combos, and this album is their crowning achievement. Give this one a listen, it deserves it.

Favorite Tracks: “Take Five,” “Strange Meadow Lark”

Next Up: Joan Baez by Joan Baez (1960)

Album Review #22: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins (1959)

gunfighter-ballads-and-trail-songs-marty-robbins

I feel bad for people who don’t listen to country. The genre has such a stigma surrounding it for some reason, which confounds me, with the wealth of great country music that there is. Writing off an entire genre of anything is a terrible thing to do. My personal belief is that there’s great music to be found in every genre, so for all the country haters out there, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins is proof of that theorem.

The title is accurate; every track is either a story-song about outlaws and shootouts, or a campfire folk song about the daily struggle. Marty Robbins has a good singing voice, and his band is a good accompaniment to his lyrics. He’s got a classic country croon, clean and almost never faltering on a tone. It’s simple, but it works. In fact, I’d say that that can describe the album as a whole: simple but good. The melodies are uncomplicated and difficult not to sing along to, and the instrumentation is minimal, with the only instrument other than guitar, bass and drums appearing on the album being a brief fiddle intro to “Cool Water.” He does more than well with what little he has to work with, making each and every track an engaging listen.

marty-robbins-los-angeles-times

Image source: Los Angeles Times

While the music itself is great, the album’s true strongpoint is the lyrics. Marty Robbins himself only has a writing credit on four of the album’s twelve tracks, with the others being either covers of fellow country artists or traditional folk songs, but he still infuses both his own songs and his covers with equal love and attention. My favorite tracks still tend toward Robbins originals, however. “Big Iron” starts the album off on a high note, and “In the Valley” is soulful and moving, with the only negative I can come up with being that it’s too short, at only 1:48. “The Master’s Call” is the only one of the four I don’t like; the lyrics are good, but musically it’s almost identical to “Big Iron,” just in a different key. The best track of the album has to be “El Paso.” With great lyrics, excellent guitar playing, and the catchiest melody of the record, it was his biggest hit for good reason. It’s a truly classic song, and one every country fan should hear.

If you don’t like country, that’s fine. Different strokes for different folks. Heck, I wrote possibly my most scathing review yet on Tragic Songs of Life by The Louvin Brothers, the first country album on this list. But that isn’t to say you should dismiss the entire genre. As I said before, there’s great music everywhere. If you dislike a certain genre, you just have to dig a little more for it. I’m almost certain you’ll find it somewhere. And if you dislike country, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs just might be the one to change your mind.

Favorite Tracks: “El Paso,” “In the Valley,” “Big Iron,” “Cool Water”

Least Favorite: “The Master’s Call”

Next Up: Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

Album Review #21: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959)

kind-of-blue-miles-davis

This right here is a turning point, folks. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is not only the highest selling jazz album of all time (currently at 4x Platinum according to the RIAA), it also had an incalculable influence on almost every other genre of music for decades to come. I’ve been a pretty big fan of this album for quite a while now, and while I still prefer his 1970 release Bitches Brew, it still stands as a hugely important masterpiece in its own right.

With the help of a ridiculously star-studded cast of session musicians, including piano virtuoso Bill Evans and jazz legend John Coltrane, this set of five mostly-improvised jazz compositions becomes absolutely incomparable in performance, melody and sound. The record opens up with “So What,” containing one of the greatest introductions in music history.  The piano and bass play off each other excellently, and the moment where the cymbal crashes and the song goes into full swing is just pure perfection. The following track, “Freddie Freeloader,” continues the great improvised playing and harmonies, but track three, “Blue in Green,” is just indescribable. Evans’ piano playing is at its peak in this track, and gives off a mournful, even otherworldly vibe. My only complaint is that it is the album’s shortest track, at only five minutes. Its a song I definitely wouldn’t mind listening to for longer.

kind-of-blue-session-nprdotcom

Photo from the Kind of Blue sessions. Source: NPR.com

After “Blue in Green” comes the album’s lengthiest track, “All Blues.” This one’s probably my favorite out of the five. It may be long, but the great (as usual) performances, with repeating drum/high hat and bass that persists throughout, providing a sort of base for the trumpet, sax and piano to do their thing. It just keeps going for 11 straight minutes, and doesn’t wear out for even a second. It’s followed by the album’s closing track, “Flamenco Sketches.” An excellent send-off for one of music’s great masterpieces, it’s slow, morose and calming, and takes its time serenading the listener with latin-inspired melodies in some of the most smooth nine minutes of jazz ever put to record.

If you haven’t listened to Kind of Blue yet, do it. Now. I mean it. Simply one of the finest jazz albums ever, it’s something everyone should experience at some point in their lives. Never once feeling flashy or over the top, it remains cool and subtle throughout, making a lasting impression without ever raising its voice. Do yourself a favor and listen to this one.

Favorite Tracks: Uhh… Can I just say all of them?

Next Up: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins (1959)

Album Review #20: The Genius of Ray Charles by Ray Charles (1959)

the-genius-of-ray-charles

The Genius of Ray Charles is an interesting record. Split in half stylistically, with Side 1 containing six Big Band Jazz/R&B tunes and Side 2 six soulful string ballads, it tries (and succeeds) to accomplish a lot of different things. It takes a lot of musical skill to pull off something like this,  but luckily for us Ray Charles possesses such a talent, tenfold.

In my opinion, the highlight of the album has to be its opening track, “Let the Good Times Roll.” It’s almost stupidly catchy, and Ray’s vocals are excellent. In all honesty, it’s one of the best songs I’ve heard on the list so far. Also from Side 1, we have “Two Years of Torture” and “When Your Lover Has Gone.” While he saves all the outright ballads for Side 2, these two songs are still pumped full of the blues. His singing throughout the album is filled with emotion and passion, giving weight and meaning to each lyric he sings.

ray-charles-imdb

Image Source: IMDb.com

Side 2 displays a much different style of music from the first. Eschewing the sometimes-harsh, always-loud brass band in favor of a softer string section (plus oboe and backing vocals), for the album’s second half Ray offers the listener an excellent selection of heart-felt ballads. “Am I Blue?” is the best out of all of these, with “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” being a very close second. As with Side 1, his vocals are excellent, with great amounts of expression in each line.

It may seem a bit egotistical for him to name his album The Genius of Ray Charles. Not so. This album more than justifies its grandiose title. With a perfect 50/50 balance of genres, with each half good enough to be an excellent EP on its own, this record is a true classic that any music lover should hear.

Favorite Tracks: “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Two Years of Torture,” “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “Am I Blue?,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”

Next Up: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959)

Album Review #19: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald (1959)

gershwin-songbook-ella-fitzgerald

Whew. I’ve gone through the book a few times, and I am almost certain that this album, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook, is the single longest album in the entire book. At just over three hours in length, it’s an absolute monster of a record (or rather, five records). It’s packed to the absolute bursting point with catchy pop tunes and Gershwin’s legendary instrumentation (arranged by Nelson Riddle), and it is simply an all-you-can-eat buffet for the ears.

It starts off with about 13 minutes of instrumentals, entitled “Ambulatory Suite” and “The Preludes.” Gershwin’s composing and Riddle’s conducting really get a chance to shine here, with almost every second just emanating Americana. Ella’s singing comes in with “Sam and Delilah,” and her delivery is just great. She sings each line with personality and attitude, and just seems to perfectly encapsulate the era with style and swing.

ella-fitzgerald-historydotcom

Image Source: history.com

Normally I like to make a short list of my favorite tracks from each album. Well, that won’t be easy this time: there are 57 tracks here, and they’re all great. So a few songs that I enjoyed, pretty much arbitrarily chosen, are “The Real American Folk Song,” “Just Another Rhumba,” “By Strauss,” “Stiff Upper Lip,” “Love is Sweeping the Country,” and “Slap That Bass.” I honestly don’t think there’s a single track in this massive album that I didn’t enjoy to some extent. I’ve listened to the whole thing start to finish a couple times now, and each time is just as enjoyable as the first listen. I guess if there’s one negative criticism I have regarding this one, it’s that it is just too overstuffed. I’m not complaining, but I can definitely imagine it being tough to get through for other listeners.

I don’t expect any of you to listen to all three hours of this thing. Even I find it to be best enjoyed when split up into smaller parts. But for those with the time and patience, Gershwin Songbook is a worthwhile listen, and a highly enjoyable one at that. Ella Fitzgerald is ridiculously talented, and this album showcases possibly the highlight of her catalog. So, give it a listen! You might just enjoy it.

Favorite Tracks: “The Real American Folk Song,” “Just Another Rhumba,” “By Strauss,” “Stiff Upper Lip,” “Love is Sweeping the Country,” “Slap That Bass.”

Next Up: The Genius of Ray Charles by Ray Charles (1959)

Book Review #4: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953)

the-adventures-of-augie-march-cover

It’s been far, far too long since my last book review. I’ll definitely try to upload book-related posts with more frequency going forward.

Anyway, The Adventures of Augie March was quite the ride. It covers a pretty large time-span, mapping out our hero Augie’s life all the way from his childhood into adulthood. Augie March truly is the modern-day Dickens novel, taking the reader through a huge string of events throughout the protagonist’s life, as they look for direction and attempt to make a living for themselves in a failing economy. Augie is an incredible character: he’s got so many layers and so much depth that I can barely even scratch the surface of his personality in this review, but I guess I’ll try.

As the brilliant opening line puts it, Augie goes at life as he’s been taught: freestyle. He never sticks in one place for long, and always either loses his job or plain rejects it in favor of some other opportunity, which he will soon do the same with. He finds it almost physically impossible to settle down for more than a couple months at most; he’s always on the move and never looks back. Along the way he tries his best to find some sort of meaning to it all, meeting new people along the way that always manage to challenge his preconceptions and outlook. Saul Bellow has written one of the greatest character arcs I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and with two more books on the two lists I’m reading through, I can’t wait to read more by him.

saul-bellow-new-yorkerImage Source: The New Yorker

If I have any complaints, it’s that the book is just rather disorganized. I can’t really complain though, as that’s pretty much by design. With a concept and plot like this one, it wouldn’t be the same were it well-organized. There are a large amount of characters to keep track of, with Augie’s entire family, his circle of friends, his many, many employers, romantic interests, and the list just goes on. It’s pretty easy to lose track with so many characters and such a loose, intentionally aimless narrative structure. Stick to it, however, and the experience is hugely rewarding.

So, The Adventures of Augie March was an excellent novel. It took me an abnormally long time to get through it, but the time put in was absolutely worth it. Saul Bellow is a brilliant writer, and I greatly look forward to reading more by him in the future. If you’re interested in a long, enthralling journey with great characterization and poetic writing, I’ve got the book for you.

Next Up: Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence (1913)

Album Review #18: Sarah Vaughan At Mister Kelly’s by Sarah Vaughan (1958)

at-mister-kellys-sarah-vaughan

The live album Sarah Vaughan At Mister Kelly’s sadly just left me underwhelmed. I find that the hardest album to write about isn’t the one that you hate, but the one that you simply don’t have strong opinions on. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it either. It had a couple songs that I enjoyed, but for the most part it just didn’t seem to speak to me.

Sarah Vaughan has a great voice. If there’s one thing in particular that I enjoyed, it’s her singing. Her voice just doesn’t seem to have any flaws. She’s mastered the art of singing a completely unwavering, flawless tone. Her backing band is pretty good too; even though they’re only three people, they still manage to create a great mood with just a piano, bass and drums. My favorite track out of the 20 (I’m reviewing the re-release version, which includes the full, unabridged performance) is probably “Willow Weep for Me,” with a good melody, lyrics and piano throughout. In a particularly memorable moment, partway through the song, Vaughan makes a brief mistake and plays it off brilliantly, making the audience laugh a good amount. Some other good tracks include “Alone” and “Poor Butterfly.”

sarah-vaughan-wikimedia-commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

So, this album just didn’t work for me. It’s not bad, I just personally didn’t like it very much. Maybe it’s the minimalist backing band that doesn’t really hold up after 70 minutes, or maybe it just has the misfortune of having to follow up Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin. Either way, it really pains me to say that this album just didn’t do it for me. What did you think? Leave your opinions in the comments, I’d love to hear them!

Favorite Tracks: “Willow Weep for Me,” “Alone,” “Poor Butterfly”

Next Up: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald (1959)