1959 and All That

There was a documentary a while ago on 1959 as the year that changed jazz for ever. It focused on Miles’ Kind of Blue, Brubeck’s Time Out, Mingus’ Ah Um and Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come.

Of course, jazz had pretty much become set as bebop/hard bop, and there was a desire to explore further possibilities. These recordings had profound effects on all kinds of levels and they were iconoclastic in different ways, but I think there’s a common notion linking them. There seemed to be something in the air…

Kind of Blue was the sound of modal jazz, but can be seen more prosaically as an album based largely on vamps. Adderley’s vaporous intro over bass riff on Autumn Leaves on the earlier Something Else is a significant precursor. So is Bill Evans’ Peace Piece – an extended rumination on the underpinning of Some Other Time. What we have here is tunes based around neutral vamps or “til-readies”, rather than chasing changes. The challenge was to put something meaningful on top.

Though it’s not mentioned in the documentary, the following year’s Giant Steps deserves a mention here. Modulation by major thirds had been used before, classically, in Tin Pan Alley and by jazz composers. Stablemates and Miss Jones are well-known examples. Coltrane took the idea and made an entire tune (and system) out of it. Of course, he went on to do the same with minor thirds and then went further still…

Mingus’ Ah Um could be regarded as There Is No Such Thing as Genre. Arrangements previously had included clearly delineated stylistic sections – with Mingus’ music the idea seemed to have been to express yourself in any style whenever you like. Just don’t coast, or he’d belt you. Full engagement all the time, no excuses.

Brubeck’s album was all about unorthodox time signatures. It was honestly felt that you could only really swing in 4/4 time (Fats Waller might have disagreed) and Time Out ignited quite a debate. Bear in mind that arrangements had hitherto often contained odd-bar breaks or sections.

As for Coleman – well, essentially what he was doing was liberating jazz from the hamster wheel of cyclical form. Which can be thought of as playing somehow in the spirit of the tune. Everything is essentially a communal cadenza.

So what do they all have in common? In each case, what had previously been regarded as a small component of music has been expanded to become the whole and opened up for intense exploration. Intros/vamps, occasional modulations, stylistic sections, odd time or bar sections and cadenzas.

Maybe there was something in the air – or in the water – that year… It’s almost as though everyone got a microscope for Christmas.

It’s worth considering what they did and applying it to practice. If there’s a key, mode, progression, time sig, style or anything else that always seems to trip you up – find or concoct a tune of sorts that comprises solely that element. Challenge yourself to find things in it.

Oh and these are all great albums – you should have them.

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Posted in b) Harmony & Comping, e) Rants & Ramblings
8 comments on “1959 and All That
  1. Pete Cook says:

    Yup, 1959 definitely the era of the concept album in jazz. Kind of Blue is still the best-selling jazz record ever, and Take Five the only jazz tune to get to no 1 in the pop charts.
    True too that nothing was new. Jimmy Guiffre released modal jazz tunes two or three years earlier than Miles, and Lennie Tristano pre-empted the free guys by ten years (although the record company refused to release it).
    Bill Evans’ Peace Piece’ is just fantastic and conceptually identical to Chopin’s Db Berceuse. Interestingly, the Chopin is much more ‘outside’!
    Keep these great posts coming won’t you?

    • Jason says:

      Happy New Year, Pete. How’s Dud? And are you two still being pestered by Greta Garbo and the others? Did they wake you up again, the needy minxes?
      I confess I’m not familiar with Berceuses, but I’m betting Bernstein and Bill were – thanks for that, will investigate.
      Quite right about grumpy old Lennie too. Things like Turkish Mambo spring to mind.
      As for Take Five, people seem to love to blow on the changes these days (or try to) – perhaps forgetting that the original, while it does have form in and out, became a hypnotic vamp to accompany the solos. Like the way many Cuban tunes drop down to a simplified core for the blowing. In that sense, the band actually “takes five” from the harmony… All very “concept”, innit?
      Simplification and intensification again.

  2. anentropic says:

    I’d heard about the major third intervals of Giant Steps… could you please point me in the direction of Coltrane tunes where he did “the same with minor thirds”. Many thanks!

    • Jason says:

      The famous one is Central Park West, which modulates between B, D, F and Ab majors. The harmony does seem to impart a sort of “summer in the park” feel.
      (Actually there’s a track on my Listen page called Brunswick Park, written by alto saxist Dee Byrne, which she modelled on the same idea.)

  3. They are great albums all. I tend to think the Coleman is the most sublime, because he does what so many after him failed to do: float free and still manage to make music, and the Brubeck is the most disappointing, because he introduces great ideas (Rondo a la Turk) and then abandons them when it’s time to solo. But that’s in context…disappointing like a less than perfect dinner at a five-star hotel restaurant.

    • Jason says:

      Hello there.
      When someone says “hey, let’s just play free”, I usually resign myself to ten minutes of earnest incoherence. Occasionally I get a pleasant surprise but, as you say, it’s easy to coolly declare you’re bored with rigid structure and incredibly hard to work without it. Or perhaps to freely impose your own.
      When someone says “let’s do GDS in seven with Coltrane subs on the II-V-Is” I usually think: okay I’ll give it a go since you’re keen, and you’ve obviously been working on it…
      Occasionally I get a pleasant surprise. But given that so few people can handle odd time sigs convincingly while flowing through changes, on balance I’d rather things be boiled down to the core idea a la Brubeck.
      I’m all for magnificent experiments, but not if I know you’re going to drop all the test tubes, set fire to the bench and then declare the result good for its own sake. Maybe I’m just jaded – hey, it is January…

  4. Will Patton says:

    Wow what a great series of discussions I’ve found here! Great, discerning analysis and real world jazz theory. This statement alone on Ornette really added to my understanding: Everything is essentially a communal cadenza.

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