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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.Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Afrika 70, Zombie (Coconut)It is a well-known fact that the bewitching theatricality of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat music was motivated by powerful social and political messages and criticism. The Nigerian establishment was getting increasingly frustrated by his growing popularity and influence across the country and the African continent at large by the time Zombie was released. Its title track, among Kuti’s best-known compositions, is one of the most powerful indictments of the intellectual shallowness of military dictatorships. The haunting slow groove of the lesser-known B-side “Mr. Follow Follow” complemented said message in an unforgettable one-two punch. The fact Zombie became Kuti’s biggest hit to date served to make the Nigerian regime angrier. That same year, his compound was attacked by hundreds of soldiers. The attack not only left him with a broken skull but also took the life of his octogenarian mother.Steely Dan, Aja (ABC)When Steely Dan started out in 1972, it was a rock band. As the years progressed, it became the story of Walter Becker and Donal Fagen. By the time they released Aja, their sixth and most successful LP, they were already known as one of the best songwriting teams of their day. Yet, this was the record on which they claimed to have finally captured the music just as they had imagined it. To achieve this, Becker and Fagen enlisted several session musicians in a constantly rotating lineup, and each brought a little something to the mix, including saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who added a bit of his magic on the title track. Aja was a much jazzier affair than anything Steely Dan had released up to this point and despite its sophistication, songs like "Peg" and "Deacon Blues" became hit singles. Furthermore, Aja is praised for its engineering and known as an audiophile masterpiece.
Don Cherry, Don Cherry (Horizon)Don Cherry's self-titled album was originally released as Brown Rice in 1975 via an Italian label and while it is still best-known by that title, it gained much-wider notoriety when it was reissued two years later in the U.S. via Horizon. It also stands as one of his most musically accomplished records, as well as one of the best entry points to the music of the free jazz pioneer. While beginners may initially be challenged by the wildest moments and prolonged trumpet solos on the pastiche "Malkauns," for example, they will most likely be immediately lured in by the spiritual, funky opening "Brown Rice." Indeed, Don Cherry as a whole is a recognized masterwork of funky world-fusion, and the eclecticism of its sound and experimentation - including Charlie Haden's bass played through a wah-wah pedal - feels like a meeting of many worlds as well as an ethereal, aural representation of (space and) time travel.
Al Di Meola, Elegant Gypsy (Columbia)Guitarist/composer Al Di Meola first came to prominence as a member of the supergroup Return to Forever with Chick Corea, Lenny White and Stanley Clarke during their most commercially successful period. When that group disbanded, instead of carrying on their eclectic vision, he promoted one he had created on his own; a style that mixed jazz harmony with various influences from the Latin world but also Italy and North Africa. Di Meola’s second album as a leader, Elegant Gypsy, is also arguably his finest. Here, he affirmed himself as a master interpreter of his instrument whether playing electric at breakneck speed on "Race With the Devil on Spanish Highway," which also flirts with heavy metal textures, or on a short but certainly sweet and melodic "Lady of Rome, Sister of Brazil" played on acoustic, which anticipated some of his later works.
Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson and the Midnight Band, Bridges (Arista)Gil Scott-Heron's lyrical intelligence and distinctive vocal style, alongside Brian Jackson's ingenious musical direction and interest in technological advancements in the field of music production had turned the Midnight Band into the most tight-knit jazz/R&B unit of their day. While tensions began to arise between the two around its release, Bridges stands as concise evidence to their greatness. This is a collection of nine songs that groove as hard as they represent important social and political truths about history and contemporary times. The most representative of these is "We Almost Lost Detroit," a song addressing the dangers of nuclear power. Elsewhere on Bridges, Scott-Heron pays tribute to civil rights heroes, looks back nostalgically at his childhood and talks about life on the road with his band.
Honorable mentions: Keith Jarrett, The Survivors' Suite (ECM); Shakti with John McLaughlin, Natural Elements (CBS); Zbigniew Seifert, Man of the Light (Promising Music); Art Pepper, The Trip (Contemporary); Ornette Coleman, Dancing in Your Head (Horizon).
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