Year By Year: Five Essential Jazz Albums of 1961

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, My Favorite Things (Atlantic)

On March 1960, Miles Davis bought John Coltrane his first tenor sax while they were touring in Europe. The instrument had scarcely ever been used in jazz up to that point. However, Coltrane got on with it like a house on fire. My Favorite Things, an album of unique modal jazz takes on old Broadway tunes, was the first LP on which he showed his talent on his new instrument, playing it on two of its four tracks. It also marked his departure from the bebop and hard bop of his previous albums, while anticipating his later free jazz ventures. Importantly, My Favorite Things was also Coltrane’s first Atlantic release, and the record that established the bulk of his historic quartet, with McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums, plus bassist Steve Davis, who would later be replaced by Jimmy Garrison.

The Ornette Coleman Double Quartet, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (Atlantic)

For years, Ornette Coleman had promoted a type of collective improvisation that gave equal consideration to each player and allowed them unlimited possibilities. On December 1960, with the blessing of Atlantic’s Ertegun brothers, he put together his most ambitious recording session to date. He assembled two stellar quartets and had them play face to face, without predetermined chords and nothing but a set of tonal centers and brief written statements. The 37-minute track that resulted out of this session was released as Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, a difficult but powerful and surprisingly accessible album that initially took a beating from the press that widely ignored its historical importance as a symbol of the desire for social harmony in the midst of America’s moment of turbulent unrest.

Oliver Nelson, The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse!)

Saxophonist Oliver Nelson worked primarily as a big band leader and arranger. However, his most celebrated album, The Blues and the Abstract Truth, was recorded with a smaller combo. This is a collection of six original Nelson compositions. Each of these is a fresh take on the blues idiom, including the two best-known tracks, the standard “Stolen Moments” and “Yearnin’,” both particularly attuned to the modal jazz stylings of the time. The Blues and the Abstract Truth was the fifth album to have been released by Impulse! and is now known as a post-bop masterpiece. Produced by Creed Taylor, it was recorded with a notable lineup of then-young scene-makers: Freddie Hubbard (who takes the first solo of the LP), Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, George Barrow, Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes.

Eric Dolphy, Out There (New Jazz)

Eric Dolphy’s desire for innovation was deeply rooted in an understanding and knowledge of jazz tradition and music in general. He surpassed himself on Out There, his second album as a leader, recorded while playing with the iconoclastic Charles Mingus and shortly before the beginning of his collaboration with the avant-gardist Ornette Coleman. Out There features him playing saxophones, clarinet and flute with a quartet. Here, he presents a wonderfully odd, immersive blend of bebop and avant-garde, with Ron Carter’s turn on cello adding suggestive eloquence and intimate chamber music feel to the work. Similarly to Coleman, Dolphy longed to defy musical conventions and liberate expression; on Out There, he uses traditional jazz lexicon as the surrealists used everyday objects, altering it to allow a freer expression of the unconscious mind.

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, A Night in Tunisia (Blue Note)

For all the experimentation that took place in the early ’60s, no ensemble could play more powerful grooves and swing as heavy at this time as Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers. A Night in Tunisia is a culmination of a golden period in the group’s history, with the legendary drummer leading a celebrated lineup including trumpeter Lee Morgan, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Bobby Timmons and bassist Jymie Merritt. The 11-minute cut of Dizzy Gillespie’s title-track has long been considered the composition’s best version. However, it is also the remarkable compositions by Shorter, Timmons and Morgan, each contributing one or two originals to this classic hard bop set, that makes A Night in Tunisia such a standout recording.

Honorable Mentions: Bill Evans Trio, Explorations (Riverside); John Coltrane, Olé Coltrane (Atlantic); The Gil Evans Orchestra, Out of the Cool (Impulse!); Mal Waldron with Eric Dolphy and Booker Ervin, The Quest (New Jazz); Hank Mobley, Roll Call (Blue Note).

Featured photo by Don Schlitten.

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