Les McCann “Layers” (1974)

Think of the work of the following artists in the early seventies: Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, The Mizell Brothers, Lonnie Liston Smith, Stevie Wonder, George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis. If you like their work, you’ll like – love – this album. Aside from an electric bass and three percussionists, this is the epitome of a keyboard album. By overdubbing (this was the first album recorded in 32-track format), McCann employs ARP synths, clavinet, Fender-Rhodes e-piano, and piano to simulate horns, woodwinds, and whatnot. On the basis of funky grooves, he creates a reflective atmosphere that’s both nostalgic and futuristic. The album is structured like a suite, with the tunes fading into each other. The result is something that could be called Prog-Jazz. McCann created a visionary sound when he recorded this album in ’72. Layers is a groundbreaking Fusion album from the early seventies when fusion was not yet something to be ashamed of. The record belongs to the best of that genre. –Yofriend

Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie “Bird and Diz”

This is hardly a typical recording, but I have to say that this is my favorite jazz album ever recorded. It’s the only recording to have Thelonious Monk playing together with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, which in itself is pretty amazing. Although their styles are so distinct, they do play quite well together. Hearing them playing together is almost surreal. It’s hard for me to describe how and why I like this album. I think the main reason that I like it is that it’s so strange and so normal at the same time. The tunes exemplify this…two catchy blues (Bloomdido and Mohawk), a laid-back song to the same chord changes as “Stompin at the Savoy” (Relaxin’ with Lee), a slowish and rather bizarre rhythm-changes tune (An Oscar for Treadwell), leap frog which is just ridiculously fast, and rather cheerful…and then…my melancholy baby. And of course…bizarre stuff happens to the harmonies and rhythms when you put these musicians together. One moment it sounds so old-fashioned, the next moment totally modern. I love it all the way! –Alex

Ornette Coleman “This Is Our Music” (1961)

It was over 30 years ago that I bought my first Ornette Coleman album, Free Jazz, from the second-hand record shop: it was love at first sight (first hear?). Love is inexplicable, at least to those in love, but the sound of Coleman’s alto had an immediate effect on me, an emotional connection, that continues until today. It is the early Atlantic recordings that remain at the heart of my love for Coleman. I have only been listening to This Is Our Music for the past couple of months (I feel no need to rush a love affair), but, other than Free jazz, it has become my favorite of the Coleman-Atlantic albums (but I don’t feel I have to be bound by that judgement in the future). I have heard it said that compared to other figures of the 1960s jazz avant garde Coleman now seems very tame: I think that is true, at least as far as he doesn’t howl and shout in way that threatened to blow away all our assumptions of what music should be, but then the other avant garde sax players tended to fall in behind Coltrane, in their stance of difference they tended to sound the same, while Coleman remains unique. He has created his own musical world, one I find as vivid and friendly as an Impressionist painting, and it is a world that has no successful copies. The one musician who shared this vision was Don Cherry and he is the Engels to Coleman’s Marx, the Watson to his Holmes, the Robin to his Batman – he is the lesser figure, the one who takes his imaginative world from his dominating companion, but maybe he brings Coleman closer, creating a bridge between him and us. Charlie Haden is the anchor for this music, for most of this album playing an idiosyncratic hard bop bass, it has the lines that stabilize the music. The exception is Beauty Is a Strange Thing where, playing with a bow, he allows the music to drift away like a cloud without any edges. Ed Blackwell is a unique drummer (and I much prefer him to Billy Higgins’ work on the earlier Atlantic-Coleman albums) – he is the gentlest of drummers, not giving the music the rhythmic propulsion we expect a drummer to provide, but rather a rhythmic voice responding to and answering the horns. Writing about other Coleman-Atlantic albums I have said that their great limitation is that all the tracks tend to be a bit the same – here there are two numbers that stand out for their difference: the slow and hovering Beauty Is a Rare Thing and the reinvention of Embraceable You. The latter is the only Ornette Coleman version of a standard I know – it is as though Gershwin’s melody has been replanted in a totally alien soil and it has grown in an unforeseeable way, still recognisably having the same shape, but also disturbingly different. –Nick

Terje Rypdal “Odyssey” (1975)

Producer Manfred Eicher’s ECM label has been a mixed bag over the years. Much of the output has been criticized for being homogenized, self-indulgent & dull as well as being praised for genius production, adventurous artists making groundbreaking recordings, with an inner fire underneath the slick recordings. Love it or hate it, there is a definite sound environment that Eicher has created, it’s simply known as the “ECM sound”. The use of space in music, as loud as silence, free improv without a million notes, composed chaos that whispers screams. When it works it is timeless & innovative, when it doesn’t, it can sound like elevator music that was thrown aside because it sounded too much like, well, elevator music.

Odyssey is guitarist Terje Rypdal’s fourth record for ECM & it works. A double album of low-fi fusion intertwined with progressive rock string interludes, distorted organs, hissy snare fills, groovy bass lines , ethereal horns, & of course, Rypdal’s guitar playing, which sounds like a cross between Jimi Hendrix & an avant garde cello player. The melodies are dark, cold & funky as hell. Rypdal was definitely channeling Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” on this record but only softer, all the groove & dissonance, but less crowded, like someone whispering a hurricane in your ear. The record opens with “Darkness Falls”. Rypdal’s guitar screeching like an injured space bird along side organ stabs & chattering drums with the bass searching for a cohesive rhythm: a gentle panic within the group forms but slowly subsides as the sound fades & flows right into the second track, “Midnite”. Warm, pulsating bass & drums lock into each other & they begin to groove with Rypdal’s wah pedal over the top of moaning trombones & snaky organ lines in the background, holding it all together; quietly. Odyssey has it’s heavier moments as well- “Rolling Stone” a twenty-five minute rock-funk gem that sounds as if Sly Stone & crew ran into the boys from Black Sabbath & said, “Let’s jam”. “Over Birkerot” would be perfectly comfortable on a mid- seventies King Crimson record. It does bog down a bit with a couple of almost contemporary classical string/synthesizer drone marathons that can get a little sleepy, but there’s just enough smolder in there to keep the listener curious. The tracks heard on Odyssey still sound relevant. Manfred Eicher’s production stamp make these tunes sound as if they could be on any modern down-tempo electronic record from today. –ECM Tim

The Mahavishnu Orchestra “The Inner Mounting Flame” (1971)

Fusion has become a dirty word in most jazz circles these days, which have been thoroughly Marsalis-ised to the point of declaring that the only good jazz is acoustic jazz. And yes, there were a lot of crimes committed in the name of jazz-rock (I’d rather have my fingernails pulled out than have to listen to a Lenny White LP again) but a handful of classics did emerge from it. This is one. I’m tempted to say this is THE one, which wouldn’t be correct, but you do tend to get carried away listening to McLaughlin and the boys in full flight. As opposed to their subsequent albums, the emphasis here is on virtuoso playing that still comes from the heart. And the all-acoustic “A Lotus on Irish Streams” is quite simply one of the most beautiful pieces of music to come out of the 1970s. In some ways Birds of Fire is a better, more ambitious and fully-conceived album than this one, but it just misses out on the questing spirit and beauty that makes The Inner Mounting Flame such a compelling listening experience. –Brad

Airto Moreira “Free” (1972)

By now, Airto must have released about 30 LPs and played on and spiced up countless albums, yet Free may still be his best. Simply because the conditions were perfect: there are Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on piano, Ron Carter on bass, the master himself on drums and percussion, Hubert Laws and Joe Farrell on reeds, George Benson on guitar, Don Sebesky with exceptionally good arrangements directing a big band of super-professionals and Rudy van Gelder making sure the recording sound is crystal . There’s a very good version of Return To Forever, there’s this little gem, Lucky Southern on which Keith Jarrett plays a wonderful solo, and there’s the highlight, Flora’s Song and again, it’s Keith Jarrett who along with Don Sebesky, gets the crown. Airto himself? Not just his percussion is top, but also his drumming. A joyful event, whenever the record is played. –Yofriend

David Axelrod “Song of Innocence” (1968)

Trying to put a tag on the music of legendary producer David Axelrod is almost impossible as his music, especially [when] early offerings such as this, straddles so many genres. You get funk, jazz, classical and rock all thrown into the melting pot to create a rather unique sound that has had a large influence on many people. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in hip hop and trip hop where this LP has been heavily sampled. If you are a fan of those two genres prepare to hear a lot of familiar breaks when you hear this record for the first time. The LP itself was heavily influenced by the poetry of William Blake hence there is a dark brooding feel throughout and Axelrod uses layers of strings playing minor keys to obtain this mood. The drums and percussion drive the music on and there are some fantastic guitar breaks. –Jon

Cannonball Adderley “At the Lighthouse” (1961)

Cannonball Adderley is a tremendously joyful performer. It’s the trait that makes him such a great foil for melancholy Miles on their collaborations. It’s also the trait that makes At the Lighthouse such a beautiful album. A lot of jazz music is aimed at expanding boundaries, or breaking them down entirely. A great deal of the most highly regarded work is exploratory in nature, and that exploration can be breath-taking. There is something to be said, however, for simplicity. The musicians on At the Lighthouse never force a note. Each solo is in complete service of the song, rather than taking the first opportunity to bust free of the song’s framework. The rhythm section of Sam Jones and, particularly, drummer Louis Hayes are economical and straight-forward. Adderley and his brother Nat deliver lovingly crafted solos and have a precise but easy-going chemistry when playing together. The real stand-out, in my mind, is pianist Victor Feldman. He always waits patiently for his solo (always third) and accentuates the rhythm section. Then, he takes the reigns and delivers these long, eloquent solos while still helping to propel the song along. Really lovely stuff. If your thing is Ascension and The Shape of Jazz to Come, and you’re only interested in the outer edge of jazz, then this album may not be for you. If you just love great music, however, then this magical, casual recording of a night at a club in 1960 will make you smile, guaranteed. –Lucas

Centipede “Septober Energy” (1971)

This ominous double LP has been sitting there in my record collection since 1973. I don’t know why I haven’t played it for ages, I used to play it a lot. So, the first of October is an apt day to play and review Septober Energy. It is a project assembled by Keith Tippett and produced by Robert Fripp (both members of King Crimson at the time). These two gathered virtually the entire creative British music scene – a who-is-who of some 50 musicians, horns, brass, strings, singers, Alan Skidmore, Elton Dean, Ian Carr, Alan Skidmore, Paul Rutherford, John Marshall, Robert Wyatt, Ian MacDonald, Boz Burrell, Julie Driscoll (Tippett at the time of recording), just to name a few. The music sounds as if Tippett and Fripp were struggling to find a home for their jazzier, freer ideas which they couldn’t incorporate into the King Crimson concept.
There are moments of grandezza, pathos, Jazz-Rock passages, Free Jazz – both loud and aggressive and soft and gentle, Bolero-like crescendos, concert music, sheet music, smashing arrangements and orchestrations, all of it played live in the studio and simultaneously recorded. Of course, due to the concept, there are also passages which don’t succeed or which are too long – I’m thinking of the finale. Septober Energy has been put down as megalomania, usually from King Crimson fans. I don’t agree. It’s difficult music, certainly. You have to make an effort to follow the music. It might just not be your taste. But that doesn’t make it a flop. Septober Energy is like nothing else from the early seventies, it’s an important musical document from one of the most exiting musical phases in the twentieth century. I’m glad I re-discovered this album. It’s out on CD and should not be overlooked. –Yofriend

Miles Davis “Nefertiti” (1968)

I wish I’d been a fly on the wall, no, a fly on producer Teo Macero’s shoulder during the classic sessions which yielded this album and the rest of the quintet’s catalogue in the late 60s. Creative tension probably doesn’t even begin to describe the atmosphere. Strangely, there are no Davis compositions here, but Wayne Shorter weighs in with the first two tracks – the slightly off key, circular title track and beautiful Hand Jive. On the latter, the sax is a true wonder in his hands, soulful, searching, graceful. I much prefer the version of Herbie Hancock’s Riot heard here, rather than on his own album Speak Like A Child. It’s slightly faster, with an almost mambo, Latin sounding tempo. –Neal

Eric Dolphy “Out There” (1960)

At first Out There sounds like an Ornette Coleman album, but then you realize that Eric Dolphy has twisted Coleman’s weird ideas around his even stranger finger. I mean…legendary bassist Ron Carter plays cello. Cello!!! George Duvivier plays bass. What a stroke of genius. There’s less musicians on Out There than on Dolphy masterpiece Out To Lunch. In fact, Dolphy is the only horn period. He puts in mind blowing solos on alto sax, flute, b-flat clarinet and bass clarinet. If I had to choose the most talented reed and woodwind player of all time it would be a tie between Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. While Kirk absolutely mastered more than 50 instruments, Dolphy can make a clarinet sound drop-dead sexy one moment and convince you that the world is ending the next. The same goes for any instrument that he played. “Sketch of Melba” has some stunning flute playing. –Rob

James Blood Ulmer “Tales of Captain Black” (1979)

“HOLY CRAP!” is a good summary of my reaction to Tales of Captain Black. If you ever wanted to hear a Jazz album that could match…make that surpass Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica then this is it. It’s a Free-Jazz-Post-Punk-Polka-Funk-Blues merry-go-round, pushing the limits of any music listener’s tolerance levels. The most famous member of the band is certainly Ornette Coleman. He’s great company for James Blood Ulmer. You can hear briefly from time to time that Ulmer is a great Blues guitarist as well, when he’s not being a demon. Bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma books it at light speed. And Denardo Coleman’s performance makes me wonder if anyone has ever recorded the drumming tracks for an album by mounting a small drum kit to a horse, having their beats thrown off by galloping and bucking of freaked-out horse as they rode it around the studio. That would be pretty “Free-Jazz” of them. –Rob