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.
John Coltrane, Blue Train (Blue Note)
John Coltrane once said Blue Train was his favorite album of all the ones he recorded. Many listeners would agree with him. Blue Train was his first and only LP for Blue Note. It was also the first in which he expressed the full extent of his immeasurable genius. Whether through his liberating eight-chorus solo on the famed title-track or by voicing his more tender side on the classic ballad “I’m Old Fashioned,” the sax legend had found his voice. Several things had led to this musical maturation, especially his collaborations with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Kicking a dangerous heroin addiction also helped him stay focused on his music and career. Likewise, several things helped him document this moment of maturation in the best possible way on Blue Train. There was Alfred Lion’s excellent production. There was also the tightest ensemble he had ever led up to this point; a stellar three-horn sextet featuring trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones and trumpeter Lee Morgan. The latter was only 19, yet his solo on “Locomotion” is among the highlights of the album.
Cannonball Adderley, Somethin’ Else (Blue Note)
When Charlie Parker died in 1955, the world wondered who would fill the huge void left by the bebop pioneer’s tragic passing. That same year, Cannonball Adderley burst onto the scene in Oscar Pettiford’s band. He was almost immediately greeted as the new Bird. Parker’s influence is very much present on Somethin’ Else, particularly in the bluesy title-track and “One for Daddy-o.” But since his days with Pettiford, his sound had matured; it had become more nuanced and acquired a greater depth of feeling. The joyous, exciting flurry of notes was still there but he was more focused and able to express darker shades of emotions. In 1957, Adderley had broken up his own band to play in Miles Davis’ sextet; the experience had left an indelible mark on him and given him a greater understanding of space and sound. Davis returned the favor by appearing as a sideman on his Blue Note record, Somethin’ Else, something he rarely ever did. This album predates the laid-back cool of A Kind of Blue from the following year. Backed by the rhythm dream-team of pianist Hank Jones, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Blakey, it is the interaction between the Davis and Adderley, two of the greatest soloists in jazz history, that takes center stage and continues to absorb the listener to this day right from the opening – that quintessential version of the classic “Autumn Leaves.”
Miles Davis, Milestones (Columbia)
In 1957, Miles Davis expanded his “first great quintet” into a sextet with the addition of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, whose bluesy lyricism contrasted with the fiery adventurousness of John Coltrane and provided a perfect balance for the trumpeter’s focused, introspective playing to slide in between. The band, which included pianist Red Garland, drummer Philly Joe Jones and bassist Paul Chambers, is regarded by many as the greatest in jazz history. Yet, Milestones would be their only studio album together. Davis’ third album for Columbia is aptly titled and marks the separation between his bebop/hard-bop era and his entrance into the world of modal jazz. In fact, while the album opens with a fast and furious version of Jackie McLean’s bebop composition “Dr. Jackie” and closes with an extended take on Thelonious Monk’s hard-bop “Straight, No Chaser,” the title track, strategically situated in the middle of the tracklist, formally marks this entrance. Eager to rid himself of the shackles of tonality and favor soloing and improvisation, Davis to experiment with modality; “Milestones” is known as the song that not only anticipated Davis’ next wave of music but also the dominant style of jazz of the better part of the following decade.
Sonny Clark, Cool Struttin’ (Blue Note)
Sonny Clark was Blue Note’s in-house, and Alfred Lion’s personal favorite, pianist. While his joyous creativity knew no bounds, his troubled life led him to early death in 1963 of a drug overdose. He never reached a significant level of popularity and esteem in life. Yet the jazz cafés of Japan resurrected him in the ’70s, playing his records and inviting the rest of the world to rediscover this unfairly forgotten genius. Today, Clark is highly regarded among the innovators of hard-bop and Cool Struttin’ is his most celebrated album, not least of all because of the heavenly pairing of trumpeter Art Framer with saxophonist Jackie McLean, whose interaction and occasional harmonizing makes up its trademark sound. The line-up also featured Miles Davis’ trusted rhythm section, the omnipresent Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers on drums and bass respectively. The title track, which opens the LP, is perhaps the quintessential, cool, straight-ahead jazz tune of this decade. It is by no means the only noteworthy track, closely followed, for example, by the equally famed “Blue Minor,” which was the first track recorded by the group, immediately showcasing their chemistry.
Frank Sinatra, Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (Capitol)
Even after the dawning of rock and roll, Frank Sinatra remained hugely popular; his albums continued to sell and he continued to innovate, practically creating the “concept album” in mainstream music. Only for the Lonely‘s concepts were misery and lovesickness. It reached number one in the Billboard charts and stayed in the charts for 120 weeks. It was critically lauded and nominated for numerous Grammys. Yet, Sinatra’s life really was in shambles; prone to emotional emptiness and despair, his dramatic separation from Ava Gardner, whom he was obsessed with, dangerously strengthened the insecurities that plagued him his entire life. The pain of these days is heard on this album as Sinatra inhabits the lyrics with a disarming honesty on such standout tracks as “Angel Eyes” and “Blues in the Night,” now known as some of his signature songs. Only for the Lonely also features wonderful orchestration by his longtime collaborator Nelson Riddle; these, the conductor believed, were his finest arrangements he had ever done for an album. It’s hard to disagree. Depending on the track, his huge orchestra soars symphonically or sounds as intimate as a small combo, playing in the corner of a dimly lit, half-empty bar, where Ol’ Blues Eyes sings only for the lonely.
Honorable Mentions: Billie Holiday with Ray Ellis and His Orchestra, Lady in Satin (Columbia); Lee Morgan, The Cooker (Blue Note); Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie & Sonny Stitt, For Musicians Only (Verve); Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook (Verve); The Ben Webster Quintet, Soulville (Verve).
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