Six of the best… landmark jazz recordings

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Jazz has undergone many changes of style over the last century, not least with the arrival of rock music. Neil McKim picks out some pivotal concerts

Benny Goodman live at the Carnegie Hall, 1938
AVID AMBX151 (4 discs)
Promoted as ‘the first swing concert in the history of Carnegie Hall’, a hitherto strictly classical venue, this concert boasts an incredible line-up of musicians from the swing era. Clarinettist Goodman had started the decade in good company – in 1930 playing in the pit orchestra for the Gershwin show Girl Crazy – notably with Glenn Miller and drummer Gene Krupa. And through the ‘30s, the fervour of Goodman’s own concerts had incited dancing in the aisles.

The Goodman band at this Carnegie Hall concert (on 16 January) includes Harry James on trumpet and Krupa on drums, and importantly, for that era, inclusion of black artists such as vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Hearing the crowd respond to ‘One O’Clock Jump’ and the uproarious ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ gives an unrivalled insight into these legendary performers at the peak of their power. The concert also has a throwback to the early roots of jazz with a medley that includes a version of ‘Sensation Rag’ by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

 

Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich at the JATP, The Drum Battle 1952
Verve 559 8102
Gene Krupa, one of the stars of Benny Goodman’s band is here pitched against fellow drum giant Buddy Rich in their first epic encounter. The event was organised by impresario Norman Granz, as part of his ongoing ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ concert series which showcased top artists of the day. The rhythmic rumble culminates with the track ‘The Drum Battle’ where the rimshots fly and egos clash in an exhilarating display of thundering drum work, which sends the crowd crazy.

The concert also features pianist Oscar Peterson, bassist Ray Brown and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, who rounds off the album with ‘Perdido’. Many other drum battles between the pair followed, and drummers still argue about who was the best. But the volatile Buddy Rich took on one of his most formidable opponents on US television in 1980…

 

John Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard 1961
Impulse 174 8625
By the early ‘60s saxophonist John Coltrane, having already played and recorded with many of the great innovators in modern jazz such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, was cutting his own path with his classic Quartet. After the commercial success of his studio albums he opted for a live album and deliberately chose not to include any recent hit tracks. He also filled the second side of the album with one continuous improvised blues track, which at the time was considered by many to be a gamble.

In the intimate setting of New York’s Village Vanguard club, the track in question ‘Chasin’ the Trane’ has a 15-minute solo, with pianist McCoy Tyner sitting it out. The result splits opinion, with one critic at the time saying: ‘It’s more like waiting for a train – a 100-car freight train – to pass.’ But what it clearly demonstrates is the incredible breadth of Coltrane’s technique and a deliberate break with the protocol of past recordings.

 

Miles Davis Live at the Fillmore East/It’s about Time 1970
Sony C2K85191 (2 discs)
With Neil Young having headlined at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, it’s bizarre to think that this groundbreaking concert by Miles Davis was performed as a support act to Young back in March 1970. Reluctantly agreeing to play at New York’s rock venue, the Fillmore East, Davis and his sextet play a formidable set, featuring tracks that would appear on forthcoming studio album Bitches Brew. It’s not easy listening. Long gone are the cool suits and careful Gil Evans orchestrations. Davis and his band are now electric and refusing to conform to popular tastes. Instead, they sonically assault the unsuspecting audience with wave after wave of darkly creative and eerie improvised textures, held together with pounding rock rhythms.

The key aspect of this concert, is that the line-up of musicians involved such as Davis himself and keyboardist Chick Corea, would go on to be key players in the 1970s jazz/rock ‘fusion’ movement. This was also saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s last gig with Davis, before he went on to form legendary jazz fusion outfit, Weather Report.

 

King Curtis Live at the Fillmore West 1970
Rhino 8122776322 (2 discs)
San Francisco’s Fillmore West played host in 1970 to a concert by saxophonist King Curtis (real name Curtis Ousley). For years this album was a rare groove collector’s item, owing to the inclusion of the live version of Curtis’s seminal floormover ‘Memphis Soul Stew’, taken from studio LP King Size Soul. Curtis, a childhood friend of Ornette Coleman had worked with Lionel Hampton before honing his own brand of soul jazz on the Atlantic label, the home of Ray Charles. In contrast to Miles Davis’s Fillmore outings, the Curtis formula plays directly to the late ‘60s young crowd, with cover versions a-plenty from Led Zeppelin to Procol Harum. The version of the latter’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ crops up at the start of cult movie Withnail and I. Sadly, Curtis was stabbed to death in 1971 but this album fortunately captures him at his height. It must surely contain one of the best introductory band announcements ever: over four minutes, Curtis introduces each instrument of the band, from Jerry Jemmott’s killer bass riff, to Billy Preston’s gospel organ and the soaring Memphis Horns, as ingredients for his legendary ‘Memphis Soul Stew’.

 

EST Live in Hamburg 2008
ACT6002-2 (2 discs)
‘It was clear that EST had made history that evening.’ These are the words of ACT record label owner Siggi Loch, after seeing the last date of pianist Esbjörn Svensson’s Trio live tour of their studio album Tuesday Wonderland on 22 November 2006 (hear an audio clip above). The tragedy of Svensson’s accidental death in a diving accident in June 2008 sent shock waves through the jazz world because EST was streaks ahead of anything else around.

The band’s concerts attracted stadium audiences of all persuasions, from classical fans through to rock. The combination of Svensson’s virtuosity, with longtime friend and drummer Magnus Oström and bassist Dan Bergland won critical acclaim from all sections of the jazz community. This high quality recording will serve as a valuable record of one of EST's peak concerts and demonstrates how warmly received they were by the crowd at the Hamburg Music Hall. Afterwards Svensson declared: ‘What started off just like any ordinary day has become something unique.’