Year By Year: Five Essential Albums of 1959

Jazz may not have an official yearbook, but it does have a vast and well-documented discography. ‘Year by Year’ is our attempt to bring you the most noteworthy albums of each year, complete with audio samples and fascinating backstories. We hope you join us as we travel through the music’s endlessly fascinating history, stopping every 12 months along the jazz timeline.

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Columbia)

By 1959, Miles Davis had become one of the biggest names in jazz and just as other musicians looked to him for guidance, he sought out other artists who could influence the direction of his music. So, when pianist Bill Evans introduced him to modality by showing him the works of classical composers Béla Bartók and Maurice Ravel, he discovered the possibility of freeing improvisation by de-emphasizing chords. Kind of Blue became his first full-length modal jazz album, distancing him from hard bop and shaping the dominant style of jazz for most of the following decade. Regularly regarded as the quintessential jazz album, from “So What” to “Flamenco Sketches,” it lures people into an otherworldly, laid-back ambiance with unrivaled elegance and sophistication. The fact it was recorded on the fly makes it all the more impressive; a document of the beauty of spontaneousness and the chemistry shared by Davis, Evans, saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb, with Wynton Kelly stepping in for Evans on “Freddie Freeloader.”

Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um (Columbia)

In an outstanding year for jazz, marked by the sublime minimalism of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and the avant-garde experimentation of Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Charles Mingus affirmed his artistic independence with a masterful, eclectic work. Signed to Columbia by his friend, producer Teo Macero (whose innovative splicing techniques contribute much focus to the sound of this album), Mingus distanced himself from third-stream modernism to let loose his creativity on Mingus Ah Um, performed by an eight-piece incarnation of his Jazz Workshop ensemble. What strikes about this LP is not just the diversity of the material – which ranges from the gospel-influenced “Better Git It in Your Soul,” to the satirical anti-segregation anthem “Fables of Faubus” by way of the heartfelt ballad for Lester Young, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” It is also how despite this diversity, each of the tracks is so well-defined by the bassist/composer’s immediately recognizable sensibility and approach – which is why Mingus Ah Um has been called the album that best summates everything Mingus could do.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Moanin’ (Blue Note)

Art Blakey felt jazz didn’t get the attention it rightfully deserved and that his mission was to spread its message to as many people as possible. The commercial success of Moanin’ helped him do that by cementing the reputation of his Jazz Messengers group, gaining the reputation as the archetypal hard bop album in the process – which seemed right, given that he had helped coined the term three years prior. Saxophonist Benny Golson played a big part in the success of the band, becoming its de facto music director during this time. His impact was so big that Alan Goldsher writes, “Art Blakey couldn’t have saved jazz if Benny Golson hadn’t saved the Jazz Messengers.” It was Golson who assembled one of its most iconic lineups, with trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Bobby Timmons and bassist Jymie Merritt, all of whom, like himself, were Philadelphia natives. He also curated the LP’s tracklist, contributing three songs of his own, including the rousing “Blues March,” and encouraging 22-year-old Timmons to write the title track, which not only became a model soul jazz tune but also the biggest hit of Blakey’s career.

Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out (Columbia)

At a time when jazz was widely structured around the standard 4/4 and 3/4 beats, the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out emerged as a breath of “cool” fresh air. Dave Brubeck was one of the most popular pianists of the ’50s whose two-fisted block chord playing and composition was influenced by jazz as much as by an endless variety of other music. He also had a penchant for odd meters and his experimentation with rhythms reached a peak on this album. Beginning with “Blue Rondo á la Turk,” a cerebral blending of jazz with Turkish folk rhythms that still manages to swing, each piece feels like a melodic venture and a mini-masterpiece. Smack in the middle of this impressive tracklist falls “Take Five,” the delightful but unlikely best-selling jazz single of all time that its composer, saxophonist Paul Desmond, famously admitted was simply supposed to be a drum solo for Joe Morello. Columbia hesitated to release Time Out and the critics panned it. Audiences, on the other hand, loved it, and this album’s longevity proves that the “experts” are not always right…

Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic)

Saxophonist-composer Ornette Coleman felt that jazz could and should express a broader range of emotions than it had up to that point. However, the lack of success and support he had received almost drove him to quit before Atlantic producer Nesuhi Ertegun offered him the contract that allowed him to record The Shape of Jazz to Come. A polarizing figure who played music that to many felt impenetrably unpleasant, Coleman became the pioneer of free jazz, a politically charged type of jazz that contrasted its mainstream equivalent and challenged both musicians and listeners to think outside the box by breaking down conventions. The Shape of Jazz to Come was recorded with a group of like-minded musicians; trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins had sensibilities that also leaned towards the avant-garde. Yet, despite the shattering of harmonic structure and the free vehemence of the solos, The Shape of Jazz to Come ranks among the more melodic recordings of Coleman, and feature an influence of bebop that is particularly prominent in such tracks as the harrowing “Lonely Woman” (one of the few of his compositions to gain jazz standard status) and the more upbeat “Chronology.”

Honorable Mentions: João Gilberto, Chega de Saudade (Odeon); Sun Ra, Jazz in Silhouette (Saturn); Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book (Verve); Bill Evans Trio, Everybody Digs Bill Evans (Riverside); Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins, Sonny Side Up (Verve).

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