Year By Year: Five Essential Albums of 1974

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, Get Up With It (Columbia)

While On the Corner was Miles Davis’ last official studio album release of the ’70s, Get Up with It was a priceless document that summated much of his defiant, adventurous work during this decade. Like most of the material he released during this period, it was greeted coldly by critics. Yet, this compilation of unheard material recorded by the trumpet great in sessions between 1970 – the year of Bitches Brew – and 1974 also feels like the summation of the period’s jazz fusion scene, not least of all because of its long list of many of the music’s greatest interpreters, such as Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Dave Liebman and many more. Sitting behind them is producer/editor Teo Macero, whose exceptional work helps give compositional structure to the very varied moods and styles of the tracks on this double-LP, ranging from the surprisingly straight blues of “Red China Blues,” to the near-hypnotic vamp of “He Loved Him Madly” by way of the frightening, vertiginous “Rated X.”

Frank Zappa, Apostrophe (‘) (DiscReet)

It’s hard to fit the music of Frank Zappa into any specific genre, but there’s no doubt about the influence of jazz on his works. This is true even of Apostrophe (‘), widely considered his most accessible work and for this reason also the best entry point to any Zappa-newbie. Seen by many as the partner-album of the previous year’s Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe (‘) challenges both a listener’s understanding of genre boundaries as much as one’s principles of taste with its borderline offensive satire and idiosyncratic humor. Kicking off with “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” the first part of a surreal suite that managed to make a dent on mainstream charts and FM radios as a remixed singles, and including the famed title-track instrumental, Apostrophe (‘) was the also the culmination of a painstaking two-year production that is best summated by the credit that appears on its back cover and reads: “Produced, arranged and struggled with [by] Frank Zappa,” testifying to the LP as a continuation of his career-long search for his own unique idea of musical perfection.

Jorge Ben, A Tábua de Esmeralda (Philips)

A Tábua de Esmeralda is a great starting point for anyone who wants to get into not only the works of Brazilian master singer/songwriter Jorge Ben, but also the Brazilian music production of the ’70s. Originally released by Phillips, it presents an explosive brand of samba soul-rock, while at the same time being relatively simple, driven by Ben’s characteristic acoustic guitar, bass and occasional, dreamy string arrangements. From the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of “Os Alquimistas Estão Chegando,” A Tábua de Esmeralda also draws on Ben’s interest in theosophy, mysticism and alchemy – the cover artwork even incorporates a Nicolas Flamel, the French scribe who was believed to have discovered the philosopher’s stone and thereby achieved immortality.

Fela Ransome-Kuti & The Africa 70, Confusion (EMI)

Confusion is considered by many as the Afrobeat equivalent of Bitches Brew. Certainly, its psychedelic flavor recalls the atmospheres of the Miles Davis album. Yet, the process was quite different; the tracks of the records from this most intense period in Fela Kuti’s career were birthed on-stage, had been tried and tested live for years and would never be performed live again after they were recorded. They were also the result of Kuti’s ongoing musical evolution – a constant search for new sounds to include in the Afrobeat lexicon to coincide with the never-before-publicly-voiced messages lyrically concealed within his songs. “Confusion,” for example, boldly uses the chaos of the Nigerian city of Lagos caused by traffic jams and lack of proper infrastructure to represent the socio-cultural chaos of Africa caused by colonialization and political instability. Compositions such as these made Kuti the voice of an entire continent for several years.

John Coltrane, Interstellar Space (Impulse!)

Stephon Alexander, who highlighted the presence of physics in the music of John Coltrane, writes: “The songs in Interstellar Space are a majestic display of Coltrane’s solos expanding, freeing themselves from the gravitational pull of the rhythm section.” There could be no better description for this truly unique album. Interstellar Space was recorded in 1967, the year of the saxophone legend’s death, but it was only released on Impulse! seven years later. An extended duet suite with drummer Rashied Ali in four-parts, each named after a different planet, the record was minimally planned and capitalized on the strength of the impulsive energy of the saxophone-drum passages that had marked parts of the music of the later stage of Coltrane’s career. Ali proved himself the perfect partner for his explorations of uncharted space, and while the record is challenging, it expanded the boundaries of jazz, and its energy and boldness continue to mesmerize and inspire to this day.

Honorable mentions: Joe Henderson, The Elements (Milestone); The Pyramids, King of Kings (Pyramid); Astor Piazzolla, Libertango (Carosello); Miles Davis, Big Fun (Columbia); Jan Garbarek and the Bobo Stenson Quartet, Witchi-Tai-To (ECM).

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