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In Michael Jarrett’s book Pressed for All Time, excerpted in this article, pioneering producer and invaluable commentator George Avakian explains how he in effect created the “concept album.” “My idea was to do packages, what they now call concept albums,” Avakian recalled. By “package” he meant a project in which the various tracks revolved around a central organizing principle. Avakian produced the first such project, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, in 1954. The approach hadn’t been tried before then, in part because long-playing (LP) vinyl records — which could so sleekly accommodate such an endeavor — had only begun to find an audience a few years earlier.
[caption id="attachment_32585" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Louis Armstrong, W.C. Handy and George Avakian (Courtesy Columbia Records)[/caption]
One jazz artist or group playing one composer’s work — by today’s standards, that seems almost trite. It encompasses recordings by the all-too-well-known of the all-too-well-known (Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook) to the numerous bands of which you’ve never heard presenting the compositions of a friend or colleague (however deserving) of whom you’ve also never heard. The concept behind the concept album has grown to include broader thematic frameworks — every Christmas album, for instance, can squeeze under this umbrella. But even so, a bright line can be drawn between Avakian’s initial idea and the many albums that seemingly — but don’t really — fit the bill.
Giant Steps, John Coltrane’s first landmark disc, presented a slate of polished performances that summarized the work he had done during the previous few years. It’s a grand statement of a new direction, a “Coltrane Plays Coltrane” snapshot — but then, most albums of original compositions would fall into that category. Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz was a manifesto for a vital artistic movement, sure; but if that makes it a concept album, then any demonstration of new work would qualify. Same with Bitches Brew, the Molotov cocktail that Miles Davis lobbed at the jazz establishment in 1970; the album’s art, along with song titles that invoke pharaohs and voodoo, enhance the music’s magic and mystery. But it’s a stretch to call that an overriding “theme.”
Such recordings provide what we might call “proof of concept,” evidence of a change in musical direction, or maybe a new harmonic philosophy or theoretical underpinning. All those descriptions fit Kind of Blue, which edges a little closer to the definition of “concept album.” Much of the music does extend from an albeit generic theme, i.e., the blues. But the real foundation for Kind of Blue is its use of modal improvisation. And while the album proves that concept brilliantly, that doesn’t make it a concept album.
The same holds true for Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, the album that contained “Take Five,” “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” and several other pieces in meters not often found in the swinging jazz of the 1950s. But several years before Time Out, the Brubeck Quartet recorded three of the earliest concept albums in jazz. In Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. (1957) and Jazz Impressions of Eurasia (1958), Brubeck grouped together musical impressions analogous to sketchbook drawings (in his words) to evoke aspects of his travels. And on Dave Digs Disney (1957), he one-upped the “artist plays composer” concept, assembling songs by not one but several composers, written for soundtracks to films from Walt Disney Studios. No one had previously come up with that sort of approach. What’s more, people had yet to realize that Disney films would constitute a distinct songbook of their own: Brubeck presaged the raft of Disney-themed discs that arrived from the 1990s on, spurred by the wildly eclectic Stay Awake (1989), produced by the savant of latter-day concept albums, the late Hal Willner.
In 1959, Miles Davis released Porgy and Bess. It fit squarely in the mold of Armstrong’s W.C. Handy salute, with Gil Evans’ sumptuous orchestral arrangements framing Davis’ update of the George Gershwin opera. Building an album around a stage show’s repertoire was not uncommon. In 1956, the Shelly Manne Trio recorded songs from the hit musical My Fair Lady, and the corresponding success of that concept album led to plenty of others. Oscar Peterson’s trio covered the same show, and then music from Fiorello! And Peterson was just one of a host of artists to dance his way through West Side Story — as did Brubeck, Cal Tjader, Stan Kenton, and later, Bobby Sanabria, who in 2018 layered another concept atop the first by bringing authentic Latin rhythms into the mix. But Evans’ writing placed Davis’ Porgy in a category beyond the early small-group albums. The following year, their collaborative Sketches of Spain added another wrinkle by assembling two classical works, by pre-war Spanish composers, and several Evans compositions to evoke a still unrivaled sense of place and an expansion of the concept album boundaries.
Several other projects of the late ’50s and ’60s pushed the envelope further than what Avakian had in mind just a few years earlier. Sing a Song of Basie (1958), the debut album by the tongue-twisting trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, presented a showcase for these masters of “vocalese,” a process of fitting lyrics to previously recorded instrumental solos. A group of singers tackling another band’s repertoire? That’s meat-and-potatoes on the concept-album menu. Equally remarkable was the fact that the trio wrote lyrics for not just the solos but also the original Basie arrangements; and that they then used overdubbing to create a “trumpet section” of Annie Ross’ voice, with Dave Lambert handling the trombone parts and Jon Hendricks as “the saxophones.” The audacity of the concept vaulted them to fame.
Sonny Rollins’ universally admired Way Out West (1957) similarly served two purposes. It was the first recording to feature what we now think of as jazz’s “power trio,” an open-sky grouping of tenor sax, bass and drums. That’s the proof of concept: Way Out West demonstrated the harmonic freedom that a jazz combo could attain once you removed the chordal instrument. But what made it arguably a concept album was the extramusical theme spelled out in the title. True, only two of the five tracks had a connection to the Wild West movies Rollins enjoyed as a kid, and even those came from Hollywood songwriters rather than the country music tradition. But the frontier loomed large in his imagination, and the iconic cover photo — Rollins, alone in the desert, attired in cowboy hat and gunbelt — framed this theme accordingly.
John Lewis, the musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, took a far more rigorous approach on the MJQ’s 1962 disc The Comedy — hardly surprising, given his classical leanings and respect for compositional form. The album comprises a seven-part suite. Most suites, by their nature, are held together by a common theme; in jazz, this most often involves evocations of place (Brubeck’s Impressions albums, Ellington’s Far East Suite, Charles Mingus’ Tijuana Moods). In The Comedy, though, Lewis used this structure to portray characters and settings found in the centuries-old Italian theatrical tradition commedia dell’arte, the songs ordered to suggest the standard plot of those theater pieces. The fact that commedia dell’arte depended heavily on improvisation helped fuel Lewis’ interest. Three years later, Herbie Hancock’s unassailable Maiden Voyage captured the rhythms and fluidity of the oceans, in a suite of five compositions.
The fusion scene of the 1970s, with its debt to contemporaneous rock, was fertile ground for album concepts, particularly as nurtured by Chick Corea. On the fantasy-inspired Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (1973), he pointed the electrified edition of his band Return to Forever toward the stars, with song titles such as “Vulcan Worlds” and “Theme to the Mothership”; later, he tried telling jazz fairy tales on the programmatic albums The Leprechaun and The Mad Hatter.
As often happens on such projects, the concept tended to hamstring the music — a criticism also leveled at The Comedy a decade earlier — which might explain why many avant-garde artists of the ’70s steered clear of the practice. Nonetheless, the AACM trio Air, comprising reedist Henry Threadgill, drummer Steve McCall and bassist Fred Hopkins, scored an unexpected success with Air Lore (1979), a concept album in the original sense. The trio used early 20th-century compositions by Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton as catalysts for celebratory free improvisation. In a similar vein, the current generation of jazz masters has used the long history of jazz’s first century — and the instant availability of hundreds of thousands of tracks digitally — to explore the work of other ancient icons. Consider 2014’s All Rise, pianist Jason Moran’s “joyful elegy for Fats Waller,” whose brief career had ended more than 70 years earlier.
One particular type of concept album has gained renewed prominence during the past decade, even though it dates back a half-century and more. As the Civil Rights movement gathered steam in the 1950s and ’60s, it inspired Black artists in particular. Jazz musicians began to structure recordings in a way that would illuminate and protest the evils of discrimination and predation toward people of color. In 1960, Max Roach issued We Insist! (subtitled Max Roach’sFreedom Now Suite), the first of several albums that the drummer and composer issued in reaction to Black people’s oppression. It covered ground from the antebellum South back to modern Africa, landing in the seat of apartheid, Johannesburg. And in 1972, Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues memorably spoke to the condition of Black Americans at that time.
But ever since Eric Garner uttered the words “I can’t breathe” in 2014, the phrase echoed by George Floyd in 2020, jazz artists have increasingly turned to issues of race in America. Most often, they have devoted one or several tracks to honoring individual victims of white-on-black murder — Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, and others in this tragic litany — but two albums stand out for their overall adherence to this theme: Terence Blanchard’s Live and Ambrose Akinmusire’s Origami Harvest, both released in 2018.
These musicians have shown that the concept album can reach beyond its initial intent to encompass subjects and concerns that were once considered extraneous to the music. Still the idiom remains subject to abuse. Countless such discs have collapsed under the weight of their own conceptual ambitions. Nonetheless, the concept album has evolved into a powerful and adaptable medium for using music to amplify sentiments beyond what the sounds themselves might convey. — Neil Tesser