Jazz Recordings to Hear Before You Die

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The Trio Rediscovered

Billy Bean

This one goes out to the near greats and the should-have-beens. All styles of music have them—the sidemen who could throw down in a big way but never got a break, the players who made others tremble but somehow got lost on the way to the spotlight. They are the utility infielders of music, existing in the half-light of liner notes and the memories of those who happened to be on the scene when once they roared. Their obscurity can be attributed to a zillion different twists of fate—they missed the gig where the talent scout showed up, they were the “wrong” color or gender, they fell victim to substance abuse, they just didn’t look the part.

Among these is the jazz guitarist Billy Bean, whose crisp and hyper-articulate style set him apart from many of his peers. Active during the 1950s and ’60s, the Philadelphia native cut his teeth supporting Red Callender, Bud Shank, Herbie Mann, and Charlie Ventura, among others. In between the journeyman work, Bean led a trio featuring pianist Walter Norris and bassist Hal Gaylor that worked the Manhattan jazz circuit in 1960. This group caught the ear of legendary pianist Bill Evans, who arranged for a record contract. The three made exactly one record, entitled The Trio (1961), which disappeared without attracting much attention.

Bean himself completely disappeared a year or so after that release, leaving behind a handful of small recordings (notably two with guitarist John Pisano, Take Your Pick and Makin’ It). His output barely rated a short mention in Leonard Feather’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, yet there was just enough to fuel a tiny myth. Decades later, some prominent guitarists—among them Pat Metheny and John Scofield—began to talk about Bean in glowing terms, as the rare technician whose lines are dauntingly complex, yet at the same time filled with sneaky, disarmingly beautiful melodies. Virtually everything on this drummerless set bolsters that assessment: Cue up the snapping “Have You Met Miss Jones?” or the intricate “Porgy and Bess Medley” to hear a man with a unique, highly developed voice on his instrument, swinging delightfully, making wild leaps and rarely missing a beat. The audience wasn’t there to pick up on it, but the tape survives all the same—a reminder that greatness can sometimes slip through the cracks, and go unnoticed for decades. Or, sometimes, forever.

GENRE: Jazz.
RELEASED: 1999, String Jazz. (Originally released 1961, Riverside.)
KEY TRACKS: “Porgy and Bess Medley,” “Motivation,” “Lush Life,” “Have You Met Miss Jones?”

Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

These three discs contain many of the most enduring compositions of the greatest American composer, Duke Ellington, as recorded by the most personable and multidimensional big band of all time, the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Blithe dances, rubato tone poems, and multipart suites, these towering pieces embody the carefree grace of great swing while hiding Ellington’s enormous musical sophistication, which revs gently under the hood of a limo ready to spirit you to a swank soiree. Ellington (1899–1974) built his scores not part by part, but according to the strengths and idiosyncrasies of his individual musicians, many of whom stayed with him for decades. He wrote to take advantage of their musical personalities, and gave those personalities room to shine—for proof, look no further than “Concerto for Cootie,” a tour de force of trumpet mannerisms popularized by the unmistakable Cootie Williams. Listen to anyone else play it, and you realize that the notes Ellington wrote are a starting point; Williams’s spirit makes the tune.

Ellington’s recorded legacy spans six decades. Like any enduring institution, the band experienced highs and lows; this compilation, which highlights the period 1940–1942, represents one golden age—when Ellington’s most economical, incandescent writing was brought to life by characters determined to catch every little ripple lurking in the scores. Part of the magic can be attributed to an influx of new talent that began in 1939. The first addition was young bassist Jimmy Blanton, who anchored the Ellington sound with agile, harmonically advanced walking lines that anticipate bebop. Then there was Ben Webster, the thick-toned tenor saxophonist, who could deliver hot shout choruses (“Cotton Tail”) as effectively as buttery ballads (“Sepia Panorama”). Also at this time, Ellington brought composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn into the fold; among his early pieces here is one that became the band’s express-shuttle glide of a theme song, “Take the A Train.”

Ellington wrote to capture moments of life as he knew it—he once described his “Harlem Air Shaft,” which pushes the band to soft and loud extremes, as a tour of the sounds and smells you’d pick up leaning out the window of a tenement apartment building. That sense of humanity, the rare ability to lift ordinary scenes into wondrous sonic abstractions, permeates everything Ellington.

GENRE: Jazz.
RELEASED: 2005, RCA. (Recordings made in the early ‘40s.)
KEY TRACKS: “Ko-Ko,” “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Cotton Tail,” “Concerto for Cootie.

The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions

Miles Davis

In a Silent Way is among the most significant transitional works in the history of jazz, and one of the least appreciated. It is the step Miles Davis took before Bitches Brew (see next page), the album that became the urtext of jazz-rock fusion. It is the first work to pull the maverick trumpeter fully into the world beyond jazz, while drawing on all the vibe-cultivating tricks he’d developed earlier in the 1960s. By this time, Davis was well-known for anticipating sea changes in jazz. After learning his craft in bebop, he took the music in new directions with astounding frequency—first pioneering cool jazz (Birth of the Cool, 1949), then hard bop (Workin’ 1956), then the modal inventions of Kind of Blue (1959), then the radical harmonies and free-jazz adventuring that defined his ’60s quintet (ESP, 1965). As he moved away from strict jazz context with this project, Davis sought a fundamentally new sound—there’s no old-school “swing” in its two extended tracks, but no explicit “rock,” either. It is freedom and openness, the pursuit of an idea not fully hammered out and quite possibly too spacey to pin down. It sits apart from any genre classification, except for the one marked “Astoundingly creative music.”

In the early 1990s, when Columbia Records began cataloging Davis’s master tapes for reissue, its discoveries included the original session tapes from which Silent Way was drawn, as well as several pieces recorded at the time that were rejected. (Like Bitches Brew, it was spliced together by Davis and producer Teo Macero; one section is actually used twice.) These were released on the three-CD The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions, and they’re eye-opening whether or not you know the original work. The extended jams show how ideas coalesced around short electric piano phrases or rhythmic motifs, and how Davis drew perfectly formed pearls of melody out of thin air. Of particular note is the stark “Splash” and its doppelgänger, “Splashdown,” two haunting seafaring explorations kept on track by the dual electric pianos of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. For any other artist, these would have been key pieces; in the scheme of Silent Way, they were just more invention than one album could hold.

GENRE: Jazz.
RELEASED: 2004, Sony. (Recorded 1969.)
KEY TRACKS: “Shhh/Peaceful,” “It’s About That Time.”

Live in Japan

Sarah Vaughan

Jazz vocal music peaked on September 24, 1973. On that night, Sarah Vaughan gave a concert at the Sun Plaza Hall in Tokyo. She and her trio went through many of the tunes she’d been singing for decades—“There Will Never Be Another You,” “On a Clear Day,” “Bye Bye Blackbird”—in other words, the jazz singer’s songbook.

Virtually every one of the twenty-seven songs on this set offers an unsurpassed thrill. Though Vaughan’s studio records (including her magical 1954 Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown and the equally joyous Swingin’ Easy from the same year) are considered definitive post-bebop singing, Live in Japan improves on these landmarks. It finds Vaughan linking the flirtatious, breezing-along style of her early years to more cerebral pursuits, including bold top-to-bottom reconceptions of familiar melodies. She drapes extended phrases across the rhythm in almost haphazard fashion, rendering normal notions of tempo irrelevant. She rewrites some themes to make them much hipper—“Like Someone in Love” has a touch of Coltrane in it, while “My Funny Valentine” aims for the pastel colors associated with pianist Bill Evans. There’s a rare moment when Vaughan, the most musically astute of vocalists, steps behind the piano to accompany herself on an ethereal “The Nearness of You,” gently (and at times almost invisibly) framing her smoldering vocals.

Another highlight is Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave,” which Vaughan starts as a majestic and super-slow ballad. When the bossa nova pulse kicks in on the second chorus, it brings with it breathtaking vistas. Like all great music, this “Wave” offers nothing less than a new way of seeing the world. That one track is enough to take your breath away. And then along comes another perfect little miracle, and then another, until the show’s over. That’s when it hits you: This all happened on one night.

GENRES: Jazz, Vocals.
RELEASED: 1974, Mainstream/Columbia.
KEY TRACKS: “Wave,” “Like Someone in Love,” “My Funny Valentine.”