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

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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)

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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)

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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.”

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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)

Album Review #17: Jack Takes the Floor by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (1958)

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While Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is sadly pretty obscure among the general public, his influence among fellow musicians is massive. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Mick Jagger to Paul Mc-Freaking-Cartney has cited this guy as a major influence on their music (listen to “Rocky Raccoon” off The White Album and the influence of his “talking-blues” style is blatant). It’s not hard to see why. His guitar playing is excellent, his songs are catchy, and his stories are entertaining. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott truly is a folk musician only paralleled by Woody Guthrie himself.

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Image source: CMT.com

Jack Takes the Floor is, to say it simply, one of the finest folk albums of all time. It feels like a relaxing afternoon on the back porch with grandpa and his guitar. Jack Elliott’s guitar playing is almost flawless, and his lyrics are engaging and sometimes even funny. Each of its 11 tracks (later 13, when it was reissued as Muleskinner with a couple bonus tracks) are memorable, but “Mule Skinner Blues,” “New York Town,” “Cocaine” and “Dink’s Song” are stand-outs. “New York Town” even has Woody Guthrie himself as a guest performer! “Cocaine’s” guitar is strangely sweet considering the song’s subject matter. “Dink’s Song” is just plain heartbreaking, sung from the point of view of a prisoner singing about his love outside of prison. “Mule Skinner Blues” is the longest song of the album, at over 5 minutes in length, and boasts some great guitar work and singing. Overall, the whole album is great, with wonderful playing and lyricism throughout.

Jack Takes the Floor is one solid folk album. If you’ve got even a passing interest in the genre, or are looking for a good place to start, this is your record. With a set of songs like this, its no wonder an entire generation of musicians to follow were impacted by it. Give it a listen, will ya?

Favorite Tracks: “Mule Skinner Blues,” “Cocaine,” “Dink’s Song,” “New York Town”

Next Up: Sarah Vaughan At Mister Kelly’s by Sarah Vaughan (1958)

Album Review #16: Lady in Satin by Billie Holiday (1958)

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Lady in Satin is truly a haunting record. One of the most raw, emotional and deeply personal musical recordings of all time, it still manages to leave listeners speechless over a half-century later. It was sadly the final album Billie Holiday would release during her lifetime, as she would die of liver cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism, just a year and a half later at the age of 44. Her voice is damaged and weak in this album,  and while you would think that such a thing would detract from the music, in reality it’s exactly the opposite. She gives one of the most profound and emotional vocal performances I have ever heard in this record, singing every line with the entirety of her heart and soul. This album is truly unforgettable.

I can’t help but make comparisons to a previous album on this list, In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra, released 1955. They are incredibly similar in instrumentation, mood and lyrical content, and while I prefer Sinatra’s album (it’s still #1 on my album rankings after 16 albums!), this album is still a masterpiece in its own right. They share three of the same songs, (namely, covers of “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “Glad to Be Unhappy,” and “I’ll Be Around”) but despite the many similarities, they remain wildly different albums. Sinatra’s voice is unwavering and flawless, and Holiday’s voice is tattered and broken. Both singing styles compliment the music greatly, but in much different ways. Personally, I prefer Holiday’s delivery, as I find it conveys a whole world of emotion that Sinatra’s only hints at in comparison. Ray Ellis, the mastermind behind Lady in Satin’s brilliant instrumentation, was originally unhappy with her damaged-sounding vocals, but listening to the master tapes later in production, he heard it in a whole new light. He noted that her delivery and performance didn’t shine in opposition to her voice, but rather the two enhanced each other. I completely agree; she really knew how to sing a lyric, and her decades of musical experience shined through and brought this album from average to unforgettable.

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Photo of Billie Holiday, source: MTV.com

My personal favorite of the album’s eleven tracks is “For Heaven’s Sake.” It’s got the usual great vocal delivery, but there’s just so much nuance and subtlety in the instrumentation, such as the brilliantly understated piano in the opening. I almost can’t even put my finger on just what makes this track so good. One of my favorite parts is this high-register background voice that shows up throughout the record (courtesy of Elise Bretton and Miriam Workman). It sounds almost theremin-like, and grants each track an otherworldly, ethereal vibe that just seems to speak to me on a deep, indescribable level. Holiday’s vocals and Ellis’ orchestra work together absolutely flawlessly, and together they create a borderline perfect atmosphere of both gloom and hope. This is a theme carried throughout the album; almost every track deals in doomed love and broken relationships, ruminating on the nature of love in the face of uncertainty and opposition. Some other highlights include her take on the staple “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” as well as the ultra-downer “You’ve Changed.” The album sure gives you a lot to think about, and is a highly emotional listening experience from start to finish.

So in conclusion, Lady in Satin is a masterpiece, plain-and-simple. Billie Holiday delivers one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever heard on this album, and Ray Ellis’ instrumentation is worth the listen on its own. It’s an album I would recommend to any music lover, and I don’t think I’ll be forgetting about this one any time soon.

Favorite Tracks: “For Heaven’s Sake,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “You’ve Changed”

Next Up: Jack Takes the Floor by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (1958)