Year By Year: Five Essential Jazz Albums of 1960

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, Giant Steps (Atlantic)

Giant Steps was the first album composed entirely of John Coltrane originals and each one is a memorable work – from the rhythmically complex, rapid-fire title track to the slow, ethereal ballad “Naima.” It also marked Coltrane’s debut as a leader for Atlantic and was recorded in two sessions while the saxophonist played in Miles Davis’ band. Both Davis and Coltrane had been looking for ways to free improvisation. However, the latter’s approach was very distant from the trumpeter’s modal jazz of the previous year’s Kind of Blue. On the contrary, it found Coltrane stacking chords upon chords, with endless ideas layered over each chord in a progression. This revolutionary type of vertical improvisation was dubbed “sheets of sound” by jazz historian Ira Gitler and remains a hugely influential style of improvisation to this day.

Charles Mingus, Blues & Roots (Atlantic)

Producer Nesuhi Ertegun suggested to Charles Mingus that he record a blues album to respond to critics who claimed his music didn’t swing enough. Mingus, not one to easily give into commercial pursuits, appreciated the challenge but was equally interested in showing that “blues can do more than swing.” From the fervent opening “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” – an offspring of “Better Git It in Your Soul” from the previous year’s Mingus Ah UmBlues & Roots brims with energy and excitement, and it is phenomenal to hear Mingus harkening back to the past and presenting an expanded, personal, updated vision of New Orleans-style jazz, blues and gospel. While it is less eclectic than other Mingus albums, it also benefits from a looser production, creating space and room for soulful improvisation from the top-rate musicians of his extended ensemble.

Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain (Columbia)

With Sketches of Spain, Davis broke new grounds in a somewhat unexpected follow-up to Kind of Blue. After he discovered the black history of Spain, he had immersed himself into Spanish classical folk music and, along with Gil Evans, had settled on a program of works to reinterpret. This was their first work together in seven years, and Evans’ orchestration provided plenty of opportunities for Davis to shine on muted flugelhorn, whether replacing the guitar parts on the “Concierto de Aranjuez” center-piece or the vocal parts on such tracks as “Will O’ the Wisp” and “Solea.” Teo Macero put together the final work form hours and hours of recorded material and his innovative splicing techniques ensured his place by Davis’ side for the next 15 years. At the time, many debated whether Sketches of Spain could be considered jazz; such criticism seems outdated now. Furthermore, Brian Morton observes that this album represents how Davis viewed jazz as a verb rather than a noun, and a way of playing rather than an existing body of work.

Wes Montgomery, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (Riverside)

Wes Montgomery had a unique thumb-picking style, lyrical smoothness and penchant for octave runs that greatly influenced jazz guitar playing. The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery was his first release for Riverside, which he was signed to thanks to his friendship with Cannonball Adderley. It is widely considered his best ever studio recording, showcasing his creativity and his ability to stretch the limits of the blues. It also finds him at his best in a stellar small combo assembled by producer Orrin Keepnews, featuring pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Albert Heath. Each track of The Incredible Jazz Guitar is a gem of a varied, bluesy program and two of Montgomery’s originals, “Gone with the Wind” and “Four on Six,” have since gained jazz standard status.

Hank Mobley, Soul Station (Blue Note)

Hank Mobley is generally regarded as one of the most underrated jazz musicians of the bop era. Even at the peak of his creative powers, he was widely ignored by critics. He didn’t do himself any favors; part of the reason why he failed to gain momentum was his own drug addiction. Still, in 1960, he initiated a sequence of records for Blue Note with Soul Station that would last right up to 1963’s Another Workout and is enough to put his name right up there with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and other saxophone greats of his day. On Soul Station, he shines as the only horn player, benefiting greatly from the propulsive energy of drummer Art Blakey. But he also showcases his talents as a composer; while celebrated more as an interpreter than as an innovator, three of his six original cuts from the album – “This I Dig of You,” “Dig Dis” and the title track – in retrospect appear to anticipate soul jazz.

Honorable Mentions: Bill Evans Trio, Portrait in Jazz (Riverside); Ornette Coleman, Change of the Century (Atlantic); Tina Brooks, True Blue (Blue Note); Curtis Fuller’s Quintet – Blues-ette (Savoy); Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Alone in San Francisco (Riverside)

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