Time may pass smoothly but that’s not the case for history. It jolts along in lurches and pauses, summoned and stalled by the forces surrounding it.
Art forms are the same way in development. Centuries might pass with little change before a revolution like the Renaissance shakes up the previous order and gives all a different lens through which to view our reality.
The Mystic Order of the Jazz Obsessed (MOJO) nods in appreciation to one of those lenses Nov. 24 at 6:30 p.m., when they look back to the year 1959 and its watershed releases. It’s the latest in MOJO’s acclaimed monthly Jazz Jambalaya series.
The five albums in focus – from Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and John Coltrane – run a wide gamut and represent a high water mark in terms of commercial appeal, artistic influence and cultural impact.
It takes broad talent and formidable chops to present master works therefore saxophonist Rebecca Barry was circled as bandleader. The Eastern Shore native has earned a reputation for maintaining technical proficiency while delivering a soulful punch.
It was those qualities that allowed her to earn degrees from Loyola-New Orleans and UNO. That carried her through to work in New Orleans for 15 years, playing with the Head Hunters, Ellis Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, Kermit Ruffins and Michael Clark, among others.
Spring of 1959 was in full bloom in New York City when bassist, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus assembled nine musicians at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studios for his first album on that label. What resulted was a phenomenal collection of staggering breadth, intimacy and power named “Mingus Ah Um.”
Among the album’s honorifics to mentors and colleagues was “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” an elegy for recently departed saxophonist Lester Young and a nod to his trademark headwear. Other homages to Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton were included.
“Better Get It in your Soul” became one of Mingus’ most familiar numbers, a gospel-inspired, rousing locomotive of sound that barreled off the disc.
One cut, “Fable of Faubus,” was a song dedicated to segregationist Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus whose refusal to integrate Little Rock’s public schools in compliance with a Supreme Court order led to iconic images of National Guardsmen escorting school kids.
That same spring, saxophonist Ornette Coleman entered a Hollywood studio for experimentation. The Texas-born musician believed he could find a way to leave chords, keys and harmonies behind and play in the cracks between it all. He called it “free jazz” and it was an avant-garde breakthrough into cultural consciousness.
The album Coleman produced, “The Shape of Jazz to Come” was polarizing. Though still blues-based and melodic compared to his later work, it was considered wildly adventurous in context. In 2012, the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry.
When Coleman’s band began a lengthy engagement at the The Five Spot in New York’s Bowery, the venue was packed every night with American music’s cognescenti. Some embraced it while others such as Miles Davis initially decried what they would later employ.
Meanwhile, back at Columbia’s 30th Street Studios, pianist and composer Dave Brubeck and his quartet were putting together the monumental album “Time Out.” The collection of idiosyncratic time signature experiments contained the smash hit song “Take Five” and became one of best selling jazz albums of the century. The Library of Congress placed it in the National Recording Registry in 2005.
The most famous album recorded in those studios that year was undoubtedly Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.” The landmark sessions with an all-star cast including pianist Bill Evans, saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and saxophonist John Coltrane was universally hailed and the accolades have hardly ceased in the nearly six decades since its release.
The best selling jazz album of all time, it was certified quadruple platinum in 2008. Open, airy, majestic the collection of only five songs based on modes more than chords is commonly held as the masterpiece of Davis’ lengthy career.
In 2002, the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry. The U.S. Congress passed a resolution honoring the work on the album’s 50th anniversary, “reaffirming jazz as a national treasure.”
Coltrane followed his work on Davis’ keystone album by forging his own. Two weeks after the Kind of Blue sessions, the saxophonist recorded the core of the album that would mark the emergence of his new “sheets of sound” melodic phrasing and chord movements that would later just be deemed “Coltrane changes.”
It was only the late addition of the delicate and heartfelt ballad “Naima” in December that pushed the album’s official release into the first few days of 1960, but it is firmly a product of the artistic revolution of 1959. The Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry in 2004.
In light of the body of work, the program is ambitious. Performances of selected pieces from all the aforementioned albums are on the slate, a little bit for a lot of tastes.
The location of this dynamic time capsule is Gulf City Lodge at 601 State St. Entrance is $12, $10 for students and military, $8 for MOJO members and includes a light jambalaya dinner. A cash bar is available.
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