Album Review #32: Green Onions by Booker T. and The M.G.s (1962)

Green Onions, Booker T and the M G s

If Jimmy Smith broke new ground by opening the gate for the organ to enter the world of mainstream music, Booker T. and The M.G.s were the ones to truly refine it to its peak potential as an artform. Whereas Jimmy Smith used it as a jazz instrument, providing mostly cool backing to the other performers, The M.G.s used it as a Rock and Roll instrument, bringing it to the forefront of the band and unleashing its full potential as an artistic tool. Coupling the organ with an electric guitar, bass, and drums, they created an iconic, instantly recognizable sound that both ties it to its time period and never grows old.

Although the M.G.s changed their lineup quite frequently, it is their original lineup, featured here, that is most well-known. Maintained from their debut until three years later in 1965, it featured Booker T. Jones on the Hammond organ, Steve Cropper on guitar, Lewie Steinberg on bass, and Al Jackson Jr. on drums. While it’s hard to deny that Booker T.’s organ is the highlight of the ensemble, credit must be given to Steve Cropper’s guitar. He has a distinct playing style that compliments the organ quite well. The band’s overall style is unmistakably theirs, and still holds up very well today. It sounds somewhat like a strange marriage of classic rock and roll and baseball stadium music, and it is absolutely a good thing. Even the covers on this record sound more like M.G.s songs than their original artist’s. You could listen to a song of their’s that you’ve never even heard before, and still easily identify it as their song, and that really is the mark of a band who’s perfected their craft.

Booker T. and The M.G.s rollingstonedotcom

From left to right: Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson Jr., Lewie Steinberg.

Image source: rollingstone.com

When it comes to tracks, boy does this album pack a punch. Right off the bat there’s the title track, their most successful single and one of the most recognizable songs of the first half of the Sixties. The organ on this track is borderline perfect, providing without a doubt the most memorable melody of the entire record. Cropper’s guitar plays with short, chopped-up notes that go excellently with the organ line underneath it. The whole track really is just a joy to listen to, and is absolutely deserving of its enduring popularity. Up next is “Rinky Dink,” a nice, catchy tune with a great guitar hook, and after that is a superb cover of the Ray Charles staple “I Got a Woman” that more than does the original justice. However, with the exception of the final track “Comin’ Home Baby,” Side B kind of just falls flat, at least compared to Side A. It isn’t bad, but just isn’t really as interesting as the first side. “Comin’ Home Baby” is incredible however, with a quiet, subtle mood and strangely sad organ part that wraps up the album quite nicely.

So even if the second side wasn’t the greatest, this album is more than worth a listen. Even if you’ve never heard of the band before, “Green Onions” and to an extent the songs that follow it are so ingrained in American culture that you’ve more than likely heard it before without even knowing it. And their success is deserving: they created their own style and refined it to perfection, further solidifying the organ as an acceptable instrument in popular music. Even regardless of its importance, it’s just a fun listen. I would highly recommend this one.

Favorite Tracks: “Green Onions,” Rinky Dink,” “I Got a Woman,” “Comin’ Home Baby”

Next Up: Jazz Samba by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd (1962)

Album Review #31: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles (1962)

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Ray Charles

Ray Charles’ previous album on this list, The Genius of Ray Charles, was really just a warmup. This is Ray at his peak. Every track is passionate, soulful, and moving, even the fast and upbeat ones. This record is pure innovation at its finest. It’s just bounding with creativity, and each of the twelve tracks on display here are Ray Charles at the absolute pinnacle of his artistic abilities. He takes classic country songs that you would never think would be compatible with his R&B/Big Band style and makes them work beautifully, making the old standards feel new and exciting while retaining the emotion of the original. It’s a perfect fusion of the old and the new, and it holds up marvelously even today.

It was certainly a radical creative decision. His current audience would be averse to the country, and the country crowd would be averse to the jazz/R&B. It seemed, to the record executives at least, to be career suicide. But somehow, against all odds, he pulled it off. It wasn’t chance either. Ray Charles’ genius as a musician turned the album that would never be a success into a cultural phenomenon, winning over the critics, the public, and even his own fans in one fell swoop. Listening to it, his mastery of the artform is impossible to deny. Each and every lyric is sung with emotion and passion so strong you can feel it in your chest, and the arrangements that back his vocals are masterful, perfectly complimenting the lyrics with soul-melting harmony. Most of the album is slow balladry, but the one or two fast big band tunes are exciting as anything on The Genius of Ray Charles. No matter what kind of song it is, Ray just seems to know exactly what to do to make it perfect.

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Image source: kalamu.com

The album’s first track, “Bye Bye Love,” doesn’t pull any punches. It’s explosive, energetic, and so catchy it should be considered a cognitohazard. That said, at the same time it’s bizarrely sad. The lyrics, like the majority of the album, are a pretty depressing tale of lost love, and despite being completely at odds with the tone of the music, it weirdly works. The backup singers will stick in your head for days, and the percussion drives the song along excellently.The next track, “You Don’t Know Me,” is my personal favorite song off the album. Here, Ray trades out the brass band for a string section, and goes full on depressing string ballad with lyrics about unrequited love and isolation. The chords and harmonies are haunting, and Ray’s vocals are just painfully sad and mournful. He sure does know exactly what to do to pull at your heartstrings in a moment, and he doesn’t hold back. The rest of the album keeps up the standard set by the first two tracks, and even though most of the lyrics deal with the same topic, it still feels fresh throughout. He may not have written the lyrics, but the way he performs them with every inch of his soul, he might as well have. The final track, “Hey Good Lookin’,” ends the album on a more uplifting note, dropping the doom and gloom and leaving the record on a happy, upbeat big band tune that’s a welcome shift from the rest of the record, and does a great job of helping your mood recover before it closes.

This album is indispensable. Not only did it help bridge barriers in a time of severe racial tension, but it also broke down the barrier between genres for future style experimenters, all while simply giving the world an excellent album to enjoy. It’s without a doubt Ray Charles’ greatest achievement, and anyone interested in his music should give this record a listen.

Favorite Tracks: “You Don’t Know Me,” “Bye Bye Love,” “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” “Hey Good Lookin'”

Next Up: Green Onions by Booker T. and The M.G.s (1962)

Album Review #30: Sunday at the Village Vanguard by Bill Evans Trio

Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Bill Evans Trio

Now this is a jazz album. Featuring nothing but a piano, stand-up bass, and drums, this album is a masterpiece despite (or, perhaps, because of) its minimalism. Recorded over the course of a day at the Village Vanguard jazz club, this record’s got a distinctive atmosphere, with clinking glasses and background chatter throughout, and the playing is just fantastic. All three of them have clearly mastered their instrument, and put together, they can create pure jazz perfection seemingly effortlessly. Telling, that there was so much good material recorded that day that they had to release two albums worth of it, each over an hour in length. The other record to come out of the day of performance is titled Waltz For Debby, and was released the same year.

Sadly, this record will forever be in the shadow of tragedy. Bassist Scott LaFaro would die in a car accident just ten days after this album’s recording, at the age of 25. As such, the album is a sort of memorial record for him; all of the tracks featured were either written by him, or feature a bass solo performed by him as the centerpiece of the track. And there truly couldn’t be a better way to remember him, as every track is a perfect display of his virtuosic playing. Every solo is gripping and masterful, and in only a single day of performance he established himself as one of the greatest bassists of the 20th century. He is truly the core of this record, and without him, it would be nothing. With his contributions however, it becomes one of the all-time greatest jazz masterpieces.

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From left to right: Scott LaFaro, Bill Evans, Paul Motian. Image source: songbook1.wordpress.com

Picking a favorite track is a little bit difficult, because the album works as more of a cohesive whole than as a collection of separate tracks. Distinguishing track from track as you’re listening to it is a little hard, as the record’s so smooth, relaxing, and chilled-out that it all sort of feels like one extended jam session. Of course, individual tracks still all have their own motifs, usually on Bill Evans’ piano, but picking favorites still just feels futile. I guess I can at least try, though. The opener, “Gloria’s Step,” features some super calming and peaceful piano melodies, and Scott LaFaro’s bass accompanying it is excellent as usual. “My Man’s Gone Now” is sombre and melancholy, creating a cool mood with its piano chords and bass improvisation. Finally, “Jade Visions” is a truly haunting track that’s brilliantly minimal even by their standards.

Sunday at the Village Vanguard is one of my favorite jazz albums. It does an amazing amount with only a piano, bass, and drums, and each of the three performers are highly skilled musical geniuses in their own right. There couldn’t be a better album to remember Scott LaFaro by, featuring some of the best bass playing you’ll ever hear, carrying many songs on its strength alone. Bill Evans isn’t a slouch when it comes to his piano playing, either. His melodies and improvisation are just a joy to listen to, and really compliment the atmosphere the record cultivates so well. So whether you’re a jazz aficionado or are simply looking for something calm to soothe your nerves, this record’s just for you.

Favorite Tracks: “Gloria’s Step,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Jade Visions”

Next Up: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles (1962)

Album Review #29: Muddy Waters at Newport by Muddy Waters (1960)

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Muddy Waters was among the first to bring the electric guitar into the blues, and this live recording is one of the best showcases of his talent. It’s the second live album recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival I’ve reviewed for this list, the first being Duke Ellington’s in 1956, but this album is of course wildly different. Featuring boundless energy, powerful rhythms, and soulful vocal performances, this is a defining album for the genre, introducing blues to a much wider audience than it previously had.

I’m going to be honest: the harmonica makes this album. Something about its mournful, harmonious voice just propels these already good songs into the realm of pure excellence. Without James Cotton’s harmonica playing, this album wouldn’t be nearly as memorable as it is. Its fluttering, unsteady and shimmering tone injects passion into the slow songs and vigor into the fast songs. But it’s not the only virtue this album has. Francis Clay’s drumming makes the uptempo tracks exhilarating, but it’s the slow tracks where the percussion really shines. The drums give slower songs a feeling of sheer power and strength not seen anywhere else in music at the time. Each and every beat is like a punch to the chest, and I mean that in the best possible way. Couple that with Otis Spann’s piano and Muddy Water’s guitar and vocals, and you’ve got a recipe for some of the best classic blues ever put to record.

Muddy Waters telegraph.co.uk

Muddy with his legendary Fender Telecaster. Image source: telegraph.co.uk

When it comes to which specific track is the best, that’s a tough choice, but I’d have to say “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” takes the cake. With a slower tempo, stomping beat, and an absolutely iconic hook, it’s probably the strongest and most memorable track on the entire record. The harmonica, piano, guitar, and bass just seem to kind of meld together into a single sound, and the result is just pure blues bliss. Some other great tracks include the opener “I’ve Got My Brand on You”, “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” and “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” which is so good that the audience makes them play it twice. But, second to “Hoochie Coochie Man,” the highlight of the record has to be the haunting closer “Goodbye Newport Blues.” It’s by far the gloomiest track the album has to offer, and it ends the concert on a high, if depressing, note.

Muddy Waters at Newport is simply put one of the greatest blues albums of the decade, if not of all time. It’s got melodies and rhythms that’ll stick in your head for days, and is possibly the best showcase of Muddy Water’s musical genius of his entire catalog. If you’re not familiar with the blues, this is an incredible place to start, and if you’re a fan of the blues, you’ve probably already heard it, but just listen to it anyway.

Favorite Tracks: “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Goodbye Newport Blues,” “I’ve Got My Brand on You”

Next Up: Sunday at the Village Vanguard by Bill Evans Trio (1961)

Album Review #28: Back at the Chicken Shack by Jimmy Smith (1960)

Back At the Chicken Shack, Jimmy Smith

A new instrument’s in town, and it’s called the Hammond organ. Creating a completely original, fresh sound that no other jazz musician was doing at the time, Jimmy Smith paved the way for a whole new generation of musicians such as Booker T and the MG’s, not to mention later rock bands such as The Doors. It truly is a shame that, despite this record’s huge impact and influence, Jimmy Smith is largely forgotten about when discussing the jazz greats.

This album’s sound is cool, relaxing, and unique, and none of it would happen without Jimmy Smith’s signature instrument, the organ. It is simultaneously a great lead and background instrument, with its smooth, muted chords providing both an excellent centerpiece and a superb accompaniment to the record’s other performers. The other instruments that make up the quartet are drums, sax, and guitar, and they are equally as important as the organ. Donald Bailey’s drum playing is minimalistic but perfect for the music being played. It’s simple, usually playing just a basic rhythm throughout the song for the other three to play off of, but he still gets in the occasional improvised flourish. Kenny Burrell’s guitar is understated, but effective, complementing the organ with quietly strummed chords. Even though it stays quiet and in the background for most of the record, it still adds quite a bit to the album as a whole, working with the organ to create an instantly recognizable sound that’s ludicrously catchy and incredibly soothing at the same time. And of course, Stanley Turrentine on saxophone is absolutely excellent. Almost all the time he appears on the album he immediately takes center stage, getting in solo after incredible solo, with an improvisational skill that is just a marvel to behold. All four of these instruments are excellent on their own, but put together, they create a mood and tone that simply can’t be done justice with words.

Jimmy Smith musicbloodline.info

Jimmy Smith at his fabled keyboard. Image source: musicbloodline.info

The album is composed of four extended tracks, and each one is great. The opening title track kicks off with a hypnotic mix of organ chords and rhythmic guitar strumming, and for the next 8 minutes takes the main melody and puts it through countless improvised variations, never once losing momentum or becoming boring. The saxophone takes the lead on the second track, “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” and goes on a quiet, understated journey over the next 9 minutes that truly showcases Stanley Turrentine’s skill as a sax player. Seriously, how you can be so good at your instrument that you can just step up to the microphone and play a masterpiece on the fly is beyond me. This track doesn’t feature any guitar, and as such has a more minimal, quiet feel to it. The third track, “Minor Chant,” is the shortest of the four, at only 7 minutes in length. What it lacks in (relative) length it makes up for completely in content. It’s definitely the most repetitive of the four, but that is absolutely a good thing in this case. The organ plays a catchy bassline that repeats throughout, while the saxophone and even the drums improvise over it. It doesn’t sound like much, but in execution it makes for probably my favorite out of the four tracks. It’s quiet and yet exciting, and if it doesn’t make you want to get up and move at least a little, then you might just be a little dead inside. And finally, “Messy Bessie” closes out the album with a lengthy jam incorporating all four performers perfectly. Pretty much everyone gets at least a little time in the spotlight on this one, and it’s a great showcase of the pure talent contributed by everyone involved.

Jimmy Smith truly deserves more credit than he gets. Almost single-handedly responsible for introducing the organ into popular music, he created a whole new sound in a near vacuum; the organ had never been used in a jazz ensemble before, let alone made the centerpiece of the group. And even if you take the album as it is, with no consideration of its importance or impact on both contemporary and future musicians, it still holds up as a masterpiece of a jazz album, and is thoroughly enjoyable by the jazz fiend and the complete outsider alike. So if you’ve never heard this one, you have my highest recommendation. Now go give this one a listen.

Favorite Tracks: “Back at the Chicken Shack,” “Minor Chant”

Next Up: Muddy Waters at Newport by Muddy Waters (1960)

Album Review #27: A Date With The Everly Brothers by The Everly Brothers (1960)

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Think about this for a second: without these guys, there’d be no Beatles or Beach Boys as we know them. Would anyone want to live in a world like that? I don’t think so. They were trailblazers in the world of pop-oriented rock and roll, and their influence on future musicians for decades to come simply cannot be measured. All future influence and importance aside, this is a damn strong pop-rock album in its own right. Short and sweet, it crams as many insanely catchy lyrics, choruses and melodies as is possible to fit inside its 27-minute runtime. It’s funny how albums so short can have such huge and lasting impact: Fats Domino, The Crickets and Little Richard, just to name a few, and now we have the Everly Brothers to join those prestigious ranks.

Blending elements of Elvis-style rock and roll with surf rock and Louvin Brothers-esque close vocal harmonies, this record creates a distinctive blend of pop-rock that’s extremely receptive to 60’s prom setlists and extensive radio play alike. Some may use those descriptors as an insult, but I think it really just proves how well the Everly Brothers know their craft. Don and Phil know exactly what to do to hammer a catchy melody or hook into your brain after just a single listen, and their knowledge of the art of pop is immediately evident. Commercially viable does not mean bad, and this album is only one of countless examples.

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Image Source: yourtoojerry.blogspot.com

Despite being a relatively short album compared to typical album runtimes, it actually works in a surprising amount of musical diversity. There’s Surf Rock in tracks like “Made to Love” and one of my personal favorites, “Sigh, Cry, Almost Die.” There’s slow ballads, like “That’s Just Too Much,” “Always It’s You” and one of their most well-known hits, “Love Hurts.” There’s even a hearty helping of blues rock, showcased at its best in “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” with some excellent piano and rhythm guitar. And with all of these suberb tracks, the album isn’t even done yet: there’s still songs like “Lucille,” “Donna Donna,” and of course, “Cathy’s Clown.”

This is an album that simply doesn’t waste a track. Every single one of this album’s 27 minutes is jam-packed with pop-rock perfection, and its short length means that you finish the album wanting more. Don’t be put off by their teenage-heart-throb image or their boy-band aesthetic, because they really do know how to make a good song.

Favorite Tracks: “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” “Sigh, Cry, Almost Die,” “Lucille,” “Cathy’s Clown”

Next Up:  Back at the Chicken Shack by Jimmy Smith (1960)

Album Review #26: Miriam Makeba by Miriam Makeba (1960)

miriam-makeba

The world of African music has been tragically overlooked by the western world. There’s an entire continent rich with musical styles and sounds that many are only vaguely aware of, and that’s just a shame. For those unfamiliar, however, I would highly reccomend this seminal debut from South African singer Miriam Makeba as a starting point. This record was what opened many previously closed eyes to the world of African music, and what a great record it is. Here, she acts as almost an instructor to the western world, providing a sort of gateway to the music of her continent that much of her audience was barely even aware of beforehand. If you wish to expand your musical horizons, this is an excellent album to start with.

Firstly, the album’s background. At the time of the recording, she was in exile. Her South African citizenship and right-of-entry had been revoked in response to her protesting against apartheid, and her longing to return home is palpable on this recording. The songs may sound almost ridiculously happy, but the traditional instrumentation, melodies and African folk tunes and lyrics permeate with an ironic frustration and anger with the current state of her homeland. On this album, I feel like a point is made to showcase her culture, and not the colonialism-leftover segregated culture that ruled at the time. A perfect example of this is “Qongqothwane (a.k.a. ‘The Click Song’),” a traditional wedding song of her tribe, the Xhosa. She seems legitimately joyous singing it, a feeling made even more bitter by her exile. She wouldn’t be able to return home until the end of apartheid in 1990.

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Miriam Makeba. Image source: thegatvolblogger.wordpress.com

Context aside, the album is thoroughly enjoyable in its own right. Almost every song is just an absolute joy to hear, with special mention going to “Mbube,” “The Naughty Little Flea,” and “One More Dance.” The cheer is so strong here, if you don’t at least crack a smile, then you are offically dead inside. The instrumentation is simply perfect, with the acoustic guitar, tribal drums, and especially the Belafonte Folk Singers, who provide an album-making chorus underneath most tracks that simply has to be heard.  Charles Colman, who sings (or at least tries to) a duet with Makeba in “One More Dance” is really just the most potent instant-happiness machine I think I’ve ever heard: throughout the entire track as he attempts to deliver his lines, he is consumed by uncontrollable laughter that’s so contagious that you will at least chuckle with him, despite not even knowing what’s so funny. Overall, if you forget about the context the record was made under, this album is one of the strongest feel-good serums you’ll ever find.

Miriam Makeba’s self-titled debut is a landmark in introducing world music to, well, the world. Her ceaseless endeavours to give the music of Africa the exposure it so well deserves were admirable,  not to mention her devotion to civil rights. I give this record my highest recommendation. If you’re even slightly interested, do yourself a favor and listen to it. If you aren’t interested, still listen to it. This album is a joy, plain and simple, and whether you are a complete outsider or avid listener, you can enjoy it just the same.

Favorite Tracks: “Mbube,” “Qongqothwane (a.k.a. ‘The Click Song’),” “Olilili,” “One More Dance,” “The Retreat Song,” “The Naughty Little Flea”

Next Up: A Date With the Everly Brothers by The Everly Brothers (1960)