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.

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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.

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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)

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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)

Album Review #24: Joan Baez by Joan Baez (1960)

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Well, we’re back! It’s been an abnormally long time since my last album review (in no small part due to the recently posted album recap I’ve been working on), but now we return to the reviews themselves. Our first album of the 60’s just so happens to be one of my favorite so far: Joan Baez’s (pronounced BYE-ez, something that took me an embarrassingly long time to realize) debut self-titled album is a masterpiece of acoustic folk. This is made even more impressive considering that not only was it her first release, but that she recorded it at age 19. A lot of musicians don’t even create their best work until twice that age. It’s a top-quality folk record, introducing the decade on a particularly high note.

Interestingly enough for a “singer-songwriter” album (does that label even apply in this context? I’m not really sure), this album consists entirely of traditional songs, which are either in the public domain or simply have no known author. Despite not having written a word of the lyrics, she truly makes each song her own, singing every song with emotion and accompanying her vocals with virtuosic guitar. Despite featuring nothing but voice and acoustic guitar, the album sounds lush, detailed, and almost operatic at points. Her guitar playing is intricate, soothing, and hypnotic. Her voice is equally fantastic: she has one of the most beautiful singing voices I’ve ever heard, and coupled with her instrumental expertise, this album becomes what I can honestly say is one of the greatest folk albums of all time.

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Joan Baez. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Even though the songs are traditional, their lyrical content still contributes quite a lot to the album overall. The record starts off strong with “Silver Dagger,” followed by “East Virginia” (a haunting track that, sadly, is only present on reissues, and not on the original release). Now, “lullaby-like” isn’t typically a positive descriptor under most contexts, but not only do I think that’s a perfect way to describe much of the album, but the songs are even better for it. Joan sounds like she’s trying to serenade you to sleep, like a mother would to her baby. So it’s most definitely a calming album, not to mention compelling, moving and emotional. Most of the tracks tell some sort of story, such as highlight “John Riley,” which I won’t ruin for you here. Some other of my favorite tracks include “Donna Donna,” “Mary Hamilton,” and the album’s closing track, “El Preso Numero Nuéve.”

Joan Baez’s self-titled debut is a marvel of acoustic folk. Beautiful singing, excellent guitar playing and classic, age-old lyrics make this album a true record for the ages. While she would later go on to be famous for her activism and political lyrics, this is still an album that deserves to be remembered. Yes, it’s much different from the material she would later become known for, but it is still an outstanding album in its own right. Any fan of folk who hasn’t heard this album is truly doing themself a disservice.

Favorite Tracks: “Silver Dagger,” “John Riley,” “Donna Donna,” “Mary Hamilton,” “El Preso Numero Nuéve”

Next Up: Elvis is Back! by Elvis Presley (1960)

The 50’s Albums: A Brief Recap and Reevaluation

Now that we’re through with the 50’s section of the book, which contains a total of twenty-three albums, I’d like to just take a quick moment to look back and reevaluate each and every one of them, with the benefit of hindsight. I believe many of my reviews and rankings placements were originally unfair, and many albums I’ve written about deserve a second chance. So without further ado, let us begin!

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In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra (1955)

The book definitely starts off on a high note with this one. Through all of my first twenty-three reviews, this one has remained at the top of the rankings, and while it has now moved down to the second or third spot, I still believe it to be one of the greatest albums of the entire decade. Each track is just permeating with lonliness, and even though he didn’t write most of the songs (except for one, “This Love of Mine, which even then is only a co-writer credit), he still performs each piece with emotion and makes the song his own. What truly makes the album however, in my opinion, are the arrangements of Nelson Riddle. With the help of his strings and jazz orchestra, each track is an absolute treat for the ears. His instrumentation is moving, soothing and captivating. This is made immediately evident from just the first few seconds of the album, and continues to live up to that standard for the remainder of the album’s fifty-minute running time. In the world of 50’s pop, these sixteen tracks have no equal.

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Elvis Presley by Elvis Presley (1956)

I’m going to be completely honest. This is a highly flawed album. It’s uneven, lopsided, even a little bit unfinished-sounding at parts. In fact, I believe it’s the weakest of the book’s 50’s rock and roll albums. But despite all that, it’s still a highly enjoyable listen, not to mention a major landmark in music history. Being one of the first rock albums to achieve commercial success, this is certainly a great place to start if you wish to witness rock and roll in its early, primordial state. It’s basic, unadorned and straightforward, both lyrically and musically (and that’s definitely not a bad thing). It alternates between energetic rock songs and quiet, soulful love ballads, and Elvis is equally skilled at both. In fact, one of the album’s ballads, “Blue Moon,” is not only my favorite song off the album, but one of my favorite songs of the decade. Overall, despite the album’s flaws, this album is still absolutely worth your time. For all its negatives, it still deserves its place in the book.

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Tragic Songs of Life by The Louvin Brothers (1956)

really didn’t like this one when I first reviewed it. But in the time since, it’s started to grow on me. Granted, it’s still on the lower half of the rankings, but I’ve started to appreciate this album much more with time. Ira and Charlie are excellent at harmonizing with each other, the guitar playing is excellent and the set of songs is supremely dark and gloomy, however cheery the melodies may make it sound. “Knoxville Girl” still manages to unsettle, with its casual recounting of a brutal and heartless murder of an innocent girl, with the narrator showing neither a shred of remorse nor any semblance of a motive. Other tracks are painfully emotional expressions of grief, heartbreak, longing, and just all-around human misery in its most basic form. The stand-out track in my opinion has to be “What is Home Without Love,” which is a strong contender for the album’s biggest downer, topped only by “Mary of the Moor,” an almost absurdly dark and depressing ballad about a mother who dies in the freezing cold with her newborn child in her arms. Christ. That’s so depressing it borders on parody. In conclusion, as the book’s first country album, it’s a great way to introduce the genre. Great harmony, expert guitar playing, and morbid-as-hell lyrics. What more could a good country album want?

The Wildest! by Louis Prima 1956

The Wildest! by Louis Prima (1956)

Now, in contrast with the previous album, we have one that I loved at first, but then sort of grew indifferent towards over time. It’s not a bad album, (far from it, in fact) but surrounded by so many other incredible albums, it kind of falls flat. It was pretty great the first time through, but I think the true sign of a great album is how it holds up on repeat listens. This particular album just seems to lose its spark the third or fourth time through. It’s certainly enjoyable, but I just found myself enjoying it less and less with each re-listen. I would still recommend you give it a listen yourself, but it really isn’t my personal favorite.

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This is Fats Domino! by Fats Domino (1956)

I honestly have no idea what I was thinking when I first reviewed this one. Of all my reviews so far, this is by far the one I regret the most. I freakin’ love this album, and it frankly boggles my mind that I could’ve been “indifferent” to this album at some point. The songs here are short and to the point. They’ve got great melodies, sung with amazing vocals, backed by an outstanding band. I don’t think there’s a single track on this album that I don’t love the crap out of, but “So Long,” “Honey Chile” and “Blue Monday” are definite highlights. This is Fats Domino! is a stong contender for my favorite of the book’s 50’s rock and roll albums (just outranked by The “Chirping” Crickets) and is a must-listen for anyone interested in the music of the decade.

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Ellington at Newport by Duke Ellington (1956)

Duke Ellington’s performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival is truly legendary. Jazz fans still talk about it to this day. It was monumental to the point that it’s considered a historical album for music history, not to mention the high point of Duke Ellington’s entire decades-long career. I agree wholeheartedly with all of those sentiments, and while I would still place it around the middle on the rankings, I completely respect this record and all of the countless accolades it has received. “Diminuendo in Blue” is one of the greatest jazz tracks of all time, the trilogy of “Festival Junction,” “Blues to Be There” and “Newport Up” are excellent, and the concert’s closer “Skin Deep” is one of the best drum solos I’ve ever heard. These tracks alone make the album more than worthwhile, but sadly the remaining tracks I found to be simply forgettable. The aforementioned tracks more than make up for this, but there are simply too many “average” tracks for the album to be higher than the middle of the rankings. Other than that, this is an outstanding album, and is an indispensable part of jazz history.

Songs For Swingin' Lovers! cover

Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! by Frank Sinatra (1956)

His previous album in the book, In the Wee Small Hours, is an absolute masterpiece. This album, while high in quality, doesn’t quite meet the same heights as its predecessor. Not at all, of course, because of its much more cheerful and happy tone. Far from it, in fact; joy can often be the most potent emotion art can conjure. I enjoy this album very much, but the collections of songs here don’t work as well as a cohesive whole. What made Wee Small Hours so great was that it felt much more like an album, with Swingin’ Lovers feeling more like a collection of singles. Amazing singles, but singles nonetheless. The former album was focused on mood, raw emotion, and atmosphere, while this one is more concerned with crafting quality, catchy pop tunes. Both of those are great in my opinion, but in terms of what makes a more memorable album, I believe the former works much more well. So, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! is a top-quality record, but is sadly just not as strong as his previous album.

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

Here it is, folks. I truly believe this to be the greatest rock and roll album of the 50’s. It is truly a testament to the strength of the songs on this album that, despite it being a miniscule twenty-five minutes in length, it would go on to massively influence the style and songwriting of decades of music to come. These tracks are concise and to the point. They’re all very short, with most being two-and-a-half minutes or less, and utilize very traditional pop song structure, but it works excellently here. The instruments are minimal: just guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. And what vocals! Holly’s voice is incredibly animated and expressive, performing each song with cheerfulness and vigor. The backing vocals are great too, complimenting the song with country-like singing and harmony. There isn’t a single weak track here, and before you know it, they’re over. You’re left wanting more, which truly is a shame, considering Buddy Holly only got one more album out before his untimely death in 1959, at the age of twenty-two. His contributions to the world of music were both small and massive, and he was (and still is) mourned by music experts and casual fans alike. The tragedy of his death, along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, still feels fresh even today, almost sixty years later, but his contributions to music will always be remembered.

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The Atomic Mr. Basie by Count Basie (1957)

This is a quality jazz album, and while it’s not my favorite out of all of them, I can still appreciate its value. The songs are catchy, the playing is great, and the energy is tangible. The fast songs are so pumped full of excitement and energy that it feels like the band is on the verge of exploding. The slow tracks are even better, with a cool, smooth and relaxing mood complimented perfectly by the improvisation and jazz melodies featured. The tracks are short (for jazz, that is) and yet feel so much longer than they are (in a good way). They just manage to say so much in a short amount of time that you forget that most of the tracks are only about three minutes in length. I would say that this is definitely a highly enjoyable album, and although it isn’t my favorite of the book’s 50’s jazz albums, it’s still worth your time.

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Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk (1957)

Just listen to this album, and tell me this man isn’t a genius. This record features some of the tightest, most complex jazz tracks I’ve ever heard, and it’s just an all-around joy to experience. The opening title track just blows me away every time I hear it. Featuring such complex melodies and fast time-signature changes that the band thought it impossible to play upon first viewing, it’s almost difficult to take it all in on first listen. It’s an exhilarating ride from start to finish, and does a great job of showing what he and his band is capable of. “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” follows the opening track up with thirteen minutes of near-perfect improvised jazz bliss. “Pannonica” is a definite highlight: listen to it and try not to just melt into your seat. It is the sound of pure, undiluted tranquility. I could easily fall asleep to it, and I mean that in the best possible way. “Bemsha Swing” closes out the album on a high note, with more of the usual masterful performances and improv. Overall, this might just be my favorite jazz album of the decade, along with the obvious choice, Kind of Blue. This is a criminally underrated gem of an album that every music lover should hear.

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Palo Congo by Sabu (1957)

This one’s still one of my favorites. Featuring some of the best percussion work I’ve ever heard, Palo Congo is by far my favorite out of the three albums of Latin music featured in the book’s 50’s section. This album is simply unforgettable. Rhythm is what this album is all about. The drum section, featuring an array of types including conga and bongo drums, is unlike any I’ve ever heard. The rhythm flows effortlessly through these drums, creating a mesmerizing soup of sound that puts the listener into a trance with ease. The album’s opener, “El Cumbanchero,” is a brilliant frenzy of guitar, drums and vocals that hypnotizes the listener as much as it wills them to get up and move. The rest of the album continues the frenzy, with “Billumba-Palo Congo’s” call-and-response chanting and “Simba’s” primal, animalistic squawks and growls being particular highlights. This is an album unlike almost any other I’ve ever heard. It deserves much more attention than it gets, so I would highly reccomend you check it out.

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Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis (1957)

I think I was way too harsh on this one at first. This is a much better jazz album than I gave it credit for. I still think it’s the weakest of Davis’ four albums in this book, but that’s not saying much considering it’s up against some of the greatest jazz albums of all time, namely, Kind of Blue, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. It’s still quite good as a standalone album, featuring great improv and melody/harmony. It’s incredibly understated and subtle, and yet at the same time many of its tempos are upbeat and rather fast. These two seemingly contrasting elements actually work together very nicely, creating a unique atmosphere fitting the album’s title very well. It’s not the kind of album that you could really pick favorite tracks off of. It all seems to kind of blend together into one long experience. Oftentimes albums like this where no track seems to stick out just wind up being forgettable because of it, but with this one it suits it quite well. It’s nice to just sit back and relax to this album, but it’s just a little too fast and complex to fall asleep to. It’s got a truly unique sound and mood, and all sorts of subtleties that I completely missed out on the first time around.

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Kenya by Machito (1957)

This album will leave you breathless. It’s explosive, chaotic, and loud, and god, do I love every last second of it. The opening track, “Wild Jungle,” has to be heard to be believed. It’s one of the most memorable album openings I’ve heard in a long time, and perfectly encapsulates what makes Machito so awesome in a single track. The title track, “Kenya,” is another highlight, not to mention the following song, “Oyeme,” which uses buildup brilliantly to create a song that doesn’t get agressive, but still sounds like it could explode at any second. “Conversation”and “Minor Rama” are also favorites, but picking favorites with this album is ultimately just futile, as pretty much every track can be argued to be the album’s best. If you want a little, or rather, a lot of excitement in your jazz, this is the album for you.

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Here’s Little Richard by Little Richard (1957)

 Although only my third favorite out of the 50’s rock and roll albums, this one’s still one of the most noteworthy albums of the decade. Certainly one of the most recognizable; finding someone who hasn’t heard “Tutti Frutti” would be a monumental undertaking. It’s an absolute cultural juggernaut of a song, and is quite possibly the most iconic rock and roll song of the 50’s, if not all time. While I don’t deny the importance it holds, it isn’t even my favorite track of the album: of the upbeat, energetic tracks, I much prefer “Ready Teddy” and “Long Tall Sally.” “Oh Why?” is a great change of pace from the rest of the album, being a slower, sadder track about Little Richard being “put on trial” for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s not a perfect album, with some of the songs sounding suspiciously similar, but they’re just so well-performed that that’s easy to forget. This album is without a doubt a high point in 50’s music that any music fan worth their salt should hear.

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Dance Mania by Tito Puente and His Orchestra (1958)

Dance Mania is the sole proof needed to justify Tito’s title as the King of Latin Music. Rhythm, melody, vocals, instrumentals: this album nails them all. It takes the album’s opener, “El Cayuco,” all of three seconds to make you want, nay, need to get up and move, and every single track to follow maintains that energy completely. This is just one of those albums that fill you with joy without fail, no matter the circumstances. Feeling down? Puente and his Orchestra ain’t having any of that. Some highlights include the instrumentals “3-D Mambo” and “Hong Kong Mambo,” the aforementioned “El Cayuco,” and “Cuanto te Vea (Guáguanco).” This one is just great. Not many other ways to put it: it’s just great.

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Lady in Satin by Billie Holiday (1958)

Alright, alright, I’m just going to say it. This is the greatest album of the decade. I would try and explain why or how, but I honestly don’t have words to describe this album. Nothing I can write can explain how truly, deeply haunting and emotional this record is. It’s a masterpiece, plain and simple. And masterpiece isn’t a word I like to just throw around: it’s a word that needs to be reserved and used with caution, lest it lose its potency. Lady in Satin, however, is in fact deserving of the title, and yet even then it seems to fail to pinpoint this record’s magic. There are some feelings, some emotions, that can’t be expressed through language. So I’m just going to stop trying and move on to the next one. Listen to it.

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Jack Takes the Floor by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (1958)

My feelings on this album haven’t really altered: this is a fine folk record with great guitar playing and a Woody Guthrie feature. Need I really say more?

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At Mister Kelly’s by Sarah Vaughan (1958)

It honestly makes me sad when albums turn out underwhelming. But, it pains me to say this, At Mister Kelly’s is just that. It’s not because the instrumentation is sparse (a lot of my favorite albums feature even less accompaniment, for instance Nick Drake’s Pink Moon or Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert). I just couldn’t enjoy this album no matter how hard I tried to. Hey, they can’t all be winners.

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

My feelings on this album are a tad mixed. On the one hand, it’s incredibly long, and of course with such a long track listing not all of the songs are going to be that great. But on the other, none of them are quite bad, and I understand why it’s as long as it is. This album isn’t quite intended to be listened to in one full sitting. It’s more of a huge collection of songs that you can listen to in any order you please. It’s not my favorite, but I still enjoy it.

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The Genius of Ray Charles by Ray Charles (1959)

It sure ain’t no lie: the man’s a musical genius. This one’s got it all. Don’t like string ballads? Side One’s got all the catchy-as-hell upbeat big band tunes you could ask for. Lots of brass isn’t your cup of tea? Flip it on over to Side Two for half an album of soothing and passionate string sections. This album truly has something for everybody. If you come out of this record having not enjoyed yourself at least a little, you’re pretty much clinically dead inside. Ray Charles knows how to make music, and nowhere is it more evident than this aptly-titled masterwork.

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Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959)

Again, my opinions on this one haven’t really shifted much. It’s an absolute classic, and one of the most essential albums of the 20th century. If you’ve never heard it, do yourself a favor. Best experienced with headphones, in a silent room with the lights off. There’s not much better.

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Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins (1959)

This is a great country album, each track having a compelling story, great lyrics, and excellent guitar with Marty’s signature deep-voiced country croon. I believe this album is by far the better of the two country albums on the list so far, which is saying a lot, seeing as Tragic Songs of Life is already a pretty high standard to beat. If you’re a country fan, this album is pretty much required listening.

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Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

And finally, closing out the 50’s, is the incredible jazz album that brought us the staple “Take Five.” Seeing as this is my most recent review, I don’t have much more I can really say about it, so check out the review for more info! All I can say is that this is a very good jazz album, and that the book closes out the decade with a bang.

So those are all the albums I’ve reviewed so far. I’ll be updating the rankings soon, and you can look forward to my first review of the 60’s very soon! See you then.

Next Up: Joan Baez by Joan Baez (1960)

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

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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)

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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)