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.

billie-holiday

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)

Album Review #13: Kenya by Machito (1957)

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Kenya by Machito is one of my favorite records of the list so far. Explosive and exciting all of the way through, it really is one of those albums that I struggle to find anything I dislike about it. It remains fully enjoyable and engaging even after multiple repeat listens, and of the thirteen albums I’ve reviewed so far, this one is definitely my favorite.

There honestly isn’t a single track on this album that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, but even then a few were definite highlights. “Wild Jungle” is probably my favorite out of its twelve tracks. It kicks the album off in a hyper-energetic frenzy that’s almost impossible to sit still to. My second favorite track has to be “Conversation,” with a ridiculously catchy and dance-able melody that’s so good it manages to carry the whole song. The entire album retains the excellence of these two tracks, though, so picking highlights is almost pointless.

So, if you’ve never heard this album before, you absolutely should. While In the Wee Small Hours still tops my rankings, this one’s a definite #2. This one gets my biggest recommendation.

Favorite Tracks: “Wild Jungle,” “Conversation”

Least Favorite Track: Uhh… I got nothing.

Next Up: Here’s Little Richard by Little Richard (1957)

Album Review #12: Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis (1957)

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This album is good, but not great. Miles Davis is undoubtedly my favorite jazz musician, and his later albums, namely Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, rank among my favorite albums of all time. With this one, however, it was just kind of forgettable for me. Maybe because it’s stuck in the shadow of the records that were to follow, but Birth of the Cool just didn’t really do much for me.

It’s hard to write about an album that you don’t really have any feelings towards, positive or negative. That said, there were some tracks here and there that I enjoyed enough to mention. “Moon Dreams” is in my opinion the highlight of the album, with a great mood and relaxing atmospherics. “Godchild” is pretty catchy, with a jumpy melody and the usual quality improvisation. Other than those two, none of the tracks really stuck out to me in particular. There aren’t any bad tracks on this album, just ones that fail to make an impression.

So this album just wasn’t for me. It’s alright, but I probably won’t be revisiting it again. Miles Davis’ later albums are absolutely incredible however, and I can’t wait to get to them. So what did you think of this album? Leave your feedback in the comments, I’d love to hear your opinions!

Favorite Tracks: “Moon Dreams,” “Godchild”

Next Up: Kenya by Machito (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 #9: The Atomic Mr. Basie by Count Basie (1957)

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Welp, I’m back! Sorry about the unannounced hiatus, I’ll be trying to keep up a more frequent upload schedule going forward.

Anyways, we return with The Atomic Mr. Basie. My opinions on this album are a little mixed: I enjoyed many of the tracks, but in the end it just didn’t leave much of an impression on me. None of the tracks were “bad,” per se, but a lot of it just seemed forgettable to me. It’s no Ellington at Newport, but it still had its highlights.

“The Kid From Red Bank” starts the album off on a high note with its explosively energetic trumpet section and great jazz piano. The following track, “Duet,” is slow, minimal and relaxing, with great bass playing and a calm atmosphere. More highlights include “Double-O” and “Teddy the Toad,” the former upbeat and cheerful, and the latter quiet with brief loud trumpet sections. My favorite track is “Lil’ Darlin’,” a quiet, sweet and subtle closing track featuring very good saxophone and bass.

The album has several good tracks, but overall, despite these, I still came away from it underwhelmed. Quite a few of the tracks just sound too similar for them to stick out, and the album as a whole just came off as kind of forgettable. So while I did enjoy it somewhat, I don’t strongly recommend this album.

What do you think of this album? I would love to hear your opinions and feedback!

Next Up: Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk (1957)

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

Songs For Swingin' Lovers! cover

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 #5: Ellington at Newport by Duke Ellington (1956)

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There are two versions of this album: the original release, which is an abridged version, and the re-release, which contains the full concert performance. I believe the full version to be far superior, if only for the original’s omission of the finale “Skin Deep”, one of the best moments of the entire concert. For this review I will be reviewing the complete version.

With that out of the way, let me just say that this is one of the greatest jazz albums I have ever heard. Every instrument compliments every other almost perfectly. The saxophones are incredible sounding, the trumpets are energetic and filled with life, the quiet and reserved bass takes the background adding great amounts of subtlety, and the drums keep the beat but still manage to stand out. Every performance is almost perfect. Heck, the audience loved it so much that they refused to let it end! That’s right, the last fifteen minutes or so of the album were unplanned, and are only present because the crowd wouldn’t let them stop. 

As the longest album I’ve reviewed so far at just over an hour and twenty minutes, it definitely doesn’t feel that long. The music is so good that you really just get lost in it, and before you know it, it’s over. I would say that every track was great, but there were definitely some standouts. The three-part suite of “Festival Junction”, “Blues to Be There” and “Newport Up” are truly great. “Festival Junction” is eight minutes, but the jazz instrumentation is so good that the length becomes irrelevant. “Newport Up” is fast and exiting, and bounds with energy. “Diminuendo in Blue” is the longest track, at fourteen minutes, and right in the middle is possibly one of the best saxophone solos ever put to record. The record ends with “Skin Deep”, a nine minute attempt to please the raving adoration of the crowd, and mostly consists of an outstanding drum solo that truly ends the show on an amazing note.

This has been one of the best albums I have reviewed so far. I’ve never listened to much jazz before beginning this project, but after this album, I am seriously regretting that. I would make this album required listening for any fan of jazz or really music in general, just make sure you’re getting the full experience with the complete edition.

Next Up: This Is Fats Domino by Fats Domino (1956)

Album Review #4: The Wildest! by Louis Prima (1956)

The Wildest! by Louis Prima 1956

This album will make you feel good whether you like it or not. The songs featured here are filled with an almost tangible feeling of energy. If you’re a fan of jazzy swing and ridiculous levels of catchyness, this is the album for you.

The record starts off with a medley of two songs: “Just A Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody”. It’s got great rhythm, kept by the drums as well as the piano/bass combo. It’s this combo of bass and steady piano rhythm that really makes the song, and it also happens to reappear on a few other tracks later in the album. One element that really sticks out is Louis’ distinctive singing style, although it is heavily borrowed from Louis Armstrong. His singing just fits very well with the jazzy instrumentation.

Some other album highlights include the Jazz instrumental “Body and Soul”, as well as the fast, peppy call-and-response song “Oh Marie”. The album ends with the almost bizarrely out of place “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You”, an almost comedically callous and cold song about, well, being really happy that someone’s dead. All with the same cheery, upbeat instrumentation as the rest of the album, to top it all off. Strangely, it kind of works. It’s a good song, and it still seems to fit with the rest of the record despite it’s dissonant lyrical subject.

Simply put, I enjoyed the crap out of this album. It’s got great, catchy songs, great vocal delivery, and is just the right length to top it off, at just over thirty minutes long. I would highly recommend that you listen to it, you might just find yourself enjoying the crap out of it as well.

Next Up: Ellington At Newport 1956 by Duke Ellington (1956)

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)