Year By Year: Five Essential Jazz Albums of 1957

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.

Sonny Rollins, Way Out West (Contemporary)

In 1957, Sonny Rollins called upon his “pioneering” spirit to create the necessary space he felt he needed to express the ideas that were running through his head. He did that by leading his first piano-less trio on Way Out West; his excitement is palpable as he “strolls,” hitting peak improvisation on such surprising Western-themed Songs as Johnny Mercer’s ode to city slickers “I’m an Old Cowhand” (which kicks off with that instantly recognizable clip-clopping sound) or breathes new life into old standards, like Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” the first number recorded on that date. Rollins couldn’t have asked for better backing: bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne were two of the most sought-after musicians around, so much so that Way Out West had to be recorded at three in the morning just to accommodate their busy schedule. Despite the lack of rehearsal time, this historic session managed to legitimate the piano-less trio format and solidify Rollins’ “saxophone colossus” status in the process.

Thelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners (Riverside)

Orrin Keepnews signed Thelonious Monk to his newly-formed Riverside label in 1955. By then, Monk was an esteemed musician and had written many of his best-loved standards but his records were not selling. Keepnews somehow convinced him to record two commercial albums, one of Duke Ellington numbers and the other of show tunes. But Monk’s heart was not in these projects and when they too flopped, Keepnews decided to let the iconoclastic pianist-composer do his own thing. No better decision could have been taken. Monk’s next album, Brilliant Corners, was a remarkable collection of six mesmerizing tracks on which he let all his creativity loose and at certain points appeared to stretch the very ways in which music could be technically conceived of with his own unique rhythmic and harmonic sensitivities – so much so that he drove his sensational band – featuring such greats as Sonny Rollins and Max Roach – crazy on the beautifully complex title track. Brilliant Corners is also known as one of the last recordings of Ernie Henry on alto sax; the criminally underrated musician died a year later of an overdose.

Miles Davis, ‘Round About Midnight (Columbia)

In 1955, Miles Davis performed a version of Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island that has since gone down in history as the performance that caught the attention of George Avakian. The Columbia executive was so taken by him that he signed him to his label and in 1957, the trumpet great released his first of numerous quintessential albums for Columbia – ‘Round About Midnight. By now, Davis had kicked off a heroin addiction and his sound had matured; it was tough-skinned but tender, balancing emotion and technique. He had also introduced the Harmon mute, a technique he did much to legitimize, adding to it a distinctive intensity. An exemplary hard-bop album, ‘Round About Midnight is also known as the first studio album of Davis with a band that would be known as his first great quintet, featuring pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer “Philly” Joe Jones and saxophonist John Coltrane. With the latter, who was relatively unknown at the time, he formed a legendary yin and yang type of partnership, with Coltrane’s spicy soloing perfectly contrasting and complementing Davis’ more introspective ones.

Charles Mingus, The Clown (Atlantic)

Charles Mingus followed 1956’s Pithecanthropus Erectus with his second masterpiece in a row: The Clown. Here, he continued to express his desire to communicate through music that stretched the bounds of tradition and projected jazz into the future. The focused arrangements of The Clown place a stronger focus on his bass than the previous LP, and his quintet, featuring among others his future longtime collaborators Jimmy Knepper and drummer Danny Richmond, sounds so dense that they may sometimes be mistaken for a full-sized orchestra. The Clown introduced two of the bassist/composer’s most famous compositions: the steady and powerful “Haitian Fight Song,” a tune that seems to reverberate the thoughts of the injustice of hate, prejudice and persecution Mingus felt, and “Reincarnation of a Lovebird,” a loving tribute to bebop great Charlie Parker. The album’s title track is a fascinating program that was arguably Mingus’ most avant-garde experiment to date: a narrated composition in which Jean Shepard tells the story of a clown victimized by the cynical world of entertainment, with the band members improvising circus and cabaret music that will either, understandably, delight or frighten the listener outright.

Ella Fitzgerald with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book (Verve)

Between 1956 and 1964, Ella Fitzgerald recorded her series of Song Book albums. These records have been praised for their role in the consecration of such individual songwriters as George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, among others. The most ambitious of these was arguably Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book, the third in the series, recorded shortly after the Rodgers & Hart entry. This one stands out for being the only one in the series to feature the man whose works are being tributed; it also happens to include his stellar orchestra and some of the main figures of 20th century jazz, including Billy Strayhorn, Oscar Peterson, Johnny Hodges and Jimmy Hamilton, as well as a special appearance from Dizzy Gillespie on “Take the ‘A’ Train.” The recording sounds stunning, which is no surprise, given that it was recorded by producer Norman Granz. It also includes landmark versions of such Ellington classics as “Prelude to a Kiss,” a scat showcase from the First Lady of Song on the high-flying opener “Rockin’ in Rhythm” and a gorgeous duet take on “Satin Doll” with guitarist Barney Kessel.

Honorable Mentions: Horace Silver Quintet, Six Pieces of Silver (Blue Note); Art Pepper, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (Contemporary); Count Basie and His Orchestra, April in Paris (Verve); Nat King Cole and His Trio, After Midnight (Capitol); Frank Sinatra with Gordon Jenkins and His Orchestra, Where Are You? (Capitol).

Featured photo of Sonny Rollins by Francis Wolff.

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