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 #11: Palo Congo by Sabu (1957)

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One of the things that I love about list projects like this one is that they really expand your horizons and make you listen to music that you normally wouldn’t. Palo Congo by Sabu is one such album. I’ll admit, I was pretty much completely unfamiliar with the genre of Latin music, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into this album. It sure was a pleasant surprise, though. This album is energetic, catchy, and exciting, with borderline perfect percussion throughout. With five different musicians credited for the album’s conga drums, it’s definitely safe to say that the drums are the centerpiece of the entire record. They’re so good at it that they managed to make an entirely instrumental song featuring nothing but drums an engaging and exhilarating experience. The guitars are great too, and while they only show up on half of the album’s tracks, they still manage to make the most out of the play time they have with their memorable, if repetitive melodies.

The album starts off strong with “El Cumbanchero,” with catchy vocals and guitar, before dropping the guitar for a ridiculously exuberant call-and-response chant in “Billumba-Palo Congo.” In my opinion, one of this album’s strongest points is its ability to carry a song on as little as vocals, conga drums and bongos. The performers are just so talented that they simply require no more. “Simba” is a definite highlight, with a great vocal performance and the usual incredible drum section. “Rhapsodia del Maravilloso” is a mesmerizing improvised jam with guitar and drums that doesn’t overstay its welcome for one second, while “Aggo Elegua” is another chanting song that, while not as good as “Billumba-Palo Congo,” is still a very enjoyable listen. I think the sole track that left me underwhelmed was “Tribilin Cantore,” the album’s closing song. It just doesn’t maintain the energy that the rest of the album has in surplus, and simply feels somewhat lethargic.

Sabu’s Palo Congo is, simply put, a must-listen. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in the genre, give it a chance; I was a complete outsider to Latin music myself, and I absolutely loved it. So give it a listen! You might just enjoy it.

Favorite Tracks: “Billumba-Palo Congo,” “Rhapsodia del Maravilloso,” “Simba”

Least Favorite Track: “Tribilin Cantore”

Next Up: Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis (1957)

Album Review #10: Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk (1957)

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I didn’t enjoy The Atomic Mr. Basie very much, so what a surprise it was that directly following it on the list was Brilliant Corners: simply put, the best jazz album I’ve heard in this book so far. It was one of Thelonious Monk’s first major successes as a jazz musician, and for good reason; it’s incredibly engaging, creative, and well-performed, and just a great listen start to finish.

The title track that opens the album is, in my opinion, the strongest track of the album. It’s intro, in particular, is one of the best openings to a song that I’ve ever heard, and certainly leaves a lasting impression. It switches back and forth between different tempos at a moments notice, and is a little hard to keep up with at times, but still manages to be one of my favorite jazz tracks in the book so far. Fun fact: the track was so difficult to play that they never got a complete perfect take, and they ended up having to stitch together different recordings in post. Another great track is “Pannonica,” a seriously heavenly sounding, almost lullaby-like song that made me feel like I was melting into my chair with relaxation. If there’s any track I didn’t like as much, I would say probably “I Surrender, Dear,” a solo piano piece, but not because it’s in any way bad, just because it’s unfortunate enough to be on the same album as the other four jazz masterpieces.

So this album was most definitely a pleasant surprise. Thelonious Monk’s jazz prowess is truly unparalleled, and must be witnessed to be understood. Anyone with even a minor interest in jazz should give this album a listen.

Favorite Tracks: “Brilliant Corners,” “Pannonica”

Least Favorite Track: “I Surrender, Dear”

Next Up: Palo Congo by Sabu (1957)

Album Review #7: Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! by Frank Sinatra (1956)

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The second Sinatra album on the list so far, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! is much different from it’s predecessor, In the Wee Small Hours. It’s much more upbeat and cheerful, in contrast with his previous record, which showed a much more gloomy and introspective atmosphere. While I still prefer the former album, this one’s still an outstanding album in it’s own right.

As with the preceding record, the instrumentals are by far the album’s strongest point. However, the album puts less of an emphasis on Disney-score-like strings and more on a jazzy, somewhat uptempo style. Lyrically, it’s also much less of a downer. Instead of focusing on loneliness and bitter break-ups, Sinatra sings about feelings of love and joy. It still has quite a few moments of emotion, however, with particular note going to “We’ll Be Together Again.” It’s kind of difficult to pick stand-out tracks on this album, seeing as they’re all great. Sinatra may not have written his own lyrics, but he still found a way to inject each of his performances with huge amounts of passion. I’m not usually one to exaggerate, but he might just have been the greatest Pop artist of the decade.

Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! is quite simply an incredible record. The singing is great, the instrumentation is superb, and it’s just a great listen start-to-finish. I couldn’t recommend this one more.

Next Up: The “Chirping” Crickets by Buddy Holly and the Crickets (1957)

Album Review #2: In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra (1955)

In the Wee Small Hours Sinatra Cover

I was pleasantly surprised by this album. As the oldest album on the list, it holds up incredibly well. The writing, instrumentals and vocals are all borderline perfect. It’s also a very sad and melancholy record, being mostly inspired by a particularly nasty breakup with his wife Ava Gardner.

The music itself is without a doubt my favorite part of this album. The strings, horns, and and occasional bells all work together to create a truly sublime score that sounds straight out of the most well-orchestrated classic Disney film you can imagine. Listening to this album is like having silk, milk and honey injected directly into your eardrums. …Actually, that sounds horrifying. Never mind, bad example.

This was a difficult and emotional album for Sinatra to make, and it shows. The lyrics are sad, the vocals are soulful and the album as a whole just gives off an incredible sorrowful vibe. Most of the songs are about loneliness, isolation and often unrequited love, which makes sense, as the album was mainly inspired by his recent separation with his wife, Ava. The emotions in this album are real and strong, and it’s easy to tell.

So overall, this was a very good album. The combination of absolutely incredible instrumentation, lyrics and vocal performances make this a truly unforgettable album A true masterpiece that you should absolutely listen to.

Next Up: Tragic Songs of Life by the Louvin Brothers (1956)