The Jazz Buffet – Filling in the New Year on the right set of notes

Cover of "Birth of the Cool"

Cover of Birth of the Cool

Sitting in for the Jazz Buffet with the opportunity to present my own buffet of sorts.  You would normally find me here on Sunday nights at midnight, but noon is a fine time too.

We started with Giant Steps, the title track of his legendary 1960 album.  Giant Steps was not his first solo album (that honor goes to Blue Trane), but this was his first album after his stint with Miles Davis, and can be considered a coming-out part of sorts.  Coltrane had developed his “sheets of sound” technique during his time with Davis, and with Thelonious Monk before that.  So the Coltrane that we hear here is a different Coltrane than the Coltrane that we heard in Blue Trane.

Check out this extraordinary clip of Giant Steps, featuring an animation of Coltrane’s sax part as it would appear on the sheet music as he plays.  A must see for any jazz fan, and quite mind-blowing for the aspiring saxophonist.

Our second Coltrane recording, Focus on Sanity is notable for a number of reasons.  It is actually a Ornette Coleman composition, recorded in June of 1960, just after having left Miles Davis‘s group and having recorded Giant Steps.  You can see differences in the Coltrane of then and the Coltrane of a year or so later.  He hadn’t put together his legendary Quartet yet, and this recording actually features a group of Ornette Coleman veterans.  On this recording he gives equal billing to Don Cherry, something that never happened on any of his solo albums.  Also unusual here is that he is not playing with his quartet, but rather some guys who had been playing with Coleman (all three of the players that we hear with Coltrane had played with Coleman on Free Jazz earlier that year.  This album (although not the song specifically) also features one of Coltrane’s early recordings featuring his newly acquired soprano sax, a once obsolete instrument that Coltrane helped bring back to prominence.

Such is the joy of John Coltrane, his willingness to take risks, to experiment, to depart from that which had been serving him so well, to pay tribute to his influences.  We hear some of this on the Africa/Brass Sessions, from which we hear Africa.  The album features some luscious orchestrations by Eric Dolphy, again a departure for both men, and it also features an expanded ensemble, essentially the legendary Quartet with extra horns added (including french horns and baritone saxes).

Next we hear some Miles Davis, from the Birth of the Cool sessions (interestingly enough, with the same tuba that we heard on Africa, Bill Barber).  Like with Coltrane, we have a lovely example of a musician ready and willing to challenge the status quo.  The music is essentially bebop, but the expanded palette of sound serves the music well.  Miles uses a group of musicians who had been playing with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, along with an arranger who had been doing arrangements for Thornhill, Gil Evans.  The relationship between Davis and Evans would prove to be quite fruitful, with some of Davis’ greatest, most adventurous work resulting from their collaboration.

Changing the pace is always nice, and that is what we do by moving into the In A Silent Way album.  Both albums that we hear here feature a substantial amount of compositional exploration and experimentation.  Birth of the Cool was all about taking the bebop medium and adding new tonal colors and new musical heft.  In A Silent Way was Davis’  first major fusion album, although he had in fact been moving in that general direction with Miles in the Sky and Filles De Kilimanjaro, both from 1967.  Today’s song, Shhh/Peaceful, features some nice guitar by John McLaughlin and a 3-keyboard layout by Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul.

I wasn’t intending to focus so much on experimental this afternoon, but that is how it turned out.  We followed Miles Davis with a classic from Eric Dolphy’s 1964 Out To Lunch album, Something Sweet, Something Tender, and then a bit of Sun Ra, Discipline, from his 1972 Space Is The Place.  Both songs slow the tempo down a bit, with Sun Ra demonstrating his underlying Duke Ellington influence underneath a somewhat avant garde sheen.

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