One And Done: 5 Artists' Sole Blue Note Albums
November 21 2012
For many jazz musicians, recording for Blue Note is one of those things, like running a marathon or visiting Paris, that feels like the kind of goal you have to reach at least once in your life. For some of them, at least once also meant at most once: sidemen or free-agent bandleaders given one shot to have their names splayed across the top of one of those striking Reid Miles-designed covers before getting a change of scenery. Five albums—four from the late '50s and early '60s, and one of more recent vintage—display the myriad ways an artist can take advantage of this opportunity.
John Coltrane, Blue Train (1957)
The most storied one-off in Blue Note history is the foundation that churches are built on. Coltrane's only Blue Note session as a leader, based off an oral agreement rather than a formal contract, was recorded less than four months after his first headlining session in 1957. That's a short span of time to go from emerging talent to stratospheric genius. True to the album's title, this session is heavy on blues-based jazz and hard bop, the kind that Coltrane would later expand and extrapolate on at the turn of the '60s, but it's not rudimentary or pre-formed by any means. Within the opening title cut's first 90 seconds, there are immediate flashes of the style that'd make Trane's performances breath-snatching—deceptively simple melodies that start out already heavy with feeling, and then go into evocative orbit with each outburst and flurry of notes. It's an unusual track listing: four full-throttle Coltrane originals and a ballad standard ("I'm Old Fashioned") that's as tenderly expressed as his own compositions are vividly exploded, which could be why it's widely considered the finest version anyone's ever recorded. Not to be overlooked: the fact that his transcendent solos are also balanced out by his role within a strong, tight three-horn harmony section with trumpeter Lee Morgan and trombonist Curtis Fuller.
Cannonball Adderley, Somethin' Else (1958)
After a couple of years paying dues in Miles Davis' late '50s sextet, and literally days after sessions on the trumpeter’s Milestones wrapped, alto saxophonist Adderley made the most of what the credits on his one Blue Note album cover made out to be something of a role reversal. Sure, Miles had a hand in the direction of Somethin' Else—he wrote the title tune, his fingerprints are all over the track selection, and he gets some of the choicest solos. But Cannonball isn't upstaged here, not by a long shot. The transitions from Davis' razor-sharp but sweet solo to the indomitable smoothness of Adderley's, and back again, on "Autumn Leaves" will give you goosebumps, and much of the album's remainder, the title cut and "Love for Sale" in particular, is a study in complementary stylistic contrast. But Adderley's solo showcase on "Dancing in the Dark" is, at least on the original LP (the CD reissue offers bonus tracks), as definitive a last word as you could want. Adderley's leadership style was always more democratic than dictatorial, and the two horn players go together so well over the Art Blakey/Sam Jones/Hank Jones rhythm section that it's easy to assume that Cannonball's name is at the top because somebody's had to be. One year later, Adderley's name was back in smaller print next to Miles', though you could hardly call it a demotion in stature, since the album in question was Kind of Blue.
Art Taylor, A.T.'s Delight (1960)
To call Art Taylor's career a short moment in the limelight would be glossing it over a bit. His years as a sideman for everyone from Miles to Coltrane to Donald Byrd to Jackie McLean meant he was never more than one degree of separation from just about anybody in the business, and even his 1963 move to Europe never completely exiled him from a robust life in music. Still, his 1960 session A.T.'s Delight stood as the last major release as a leader he'd cut on any label for three decades, and that's the kind of thing that usually leads to "what if" discussions. A.T.'s Delight is front-loaded with a pair of indelible standards, Coltrane's "Syeeda's Song Flute" and Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy," and Taylor's drumming underpins his band's approach, which feels like collective jitters reined in by a strongly directed core. Wynton Kelly's piano radiates luxurious energy like a caged ferret running laps, Stanley Turrentine's sax murmurs like a linebacker overcoming his shyness on "Epistrophy" before charging in for crazy-legged QB sacks on "Move," and Dave Burns' conversational trumpet works through melodic lines like a gifted raconteur telling an elaborate but well-timed joke. Factor in Paul Chambers' always reliable bass and the groove-vulcanizing congas of Carlos "Patato" Valdez, and it's not hard to tell that Taylor wasn't just a good piece to plug in to someone else's group, but a brief yet savvy leader of talent in his own right as well.
Charlie Rouse, Bossa Nova Bacchanal (1962)
When he wasn't touring in Europe as Thelonious Monk's go-to tenor sax player (he’d soon join him on a string of albums for Columbia as well), Charlie Rouse spent the early '60s jumping between sideman gigs and bandleader sessions, with his one Blue Note excursion, 1962's Bossa Nova Bacchanal, the last he'd helm for another 11 years. The title makes the album’s inspiration clear enough; this was the year of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd's Jazz Samba and the initial spark of what would become a massive Brazilian-pop crossover by the middle of the decade. But Rouse broadened his palette beyond straight-up bossa nova to incorporate the rhythms and traditions of countries and communities across Latin America and the Caribbean, personified by the Afro-Cuban influence of drummer Willie Bobo, chekere player Garvin Masseaux and the aforementioned congalero "Patato" Valdez. Instead of touristy, trend-hopping exotica, the album feels like a celebration of a sound that lets Rio and NYC meet halfway. And on that bed of rhythm, inflected with the mellow, chiming guitars of Kenny Burrell and Chauncey Westbrook, Rouse has plenty of space to mold his hard bop methodology into a remarkably well-attuned, natural progression of a quickly coalescing movement.
Aaron Parks, Invisible Cinema (2008)
Pianist Aaron Parks took a charmed route from teenage prodigy to proficient composer, cutting sessions with Terence Blanchard's band as a teenager and joining him to soundtrack Spike Lee movies before he was old enough to legally drink. With 2008's Invisible Cinema, so far the most definitive document of a still-young career, he really pulled everything together: Here was an album that wore its influences on its sleeve, veering between classical influence and pop hookiness en route to a contemporary permutation of post-bop that incorporates the same kind of collector's eclecticism as the trendier corners of underground hip-hop and indie rock. The best pieces point towards the album's titular concept, almost like a particularly distinctive demo reel for potential future film-score gigs. The ruminative but free-flowing Eastern undercurrents of "Peaceful Warrior" sounds like kung fu noir, "Nemesis" has the fraying-wire tension of Bernard Herrmann retrofitted to loosely evoke the kind of anxious melodies from which Radiohead wring pathos, and solo pieces like "Into the Labyrinth" and "Afterglow" reveal a delicacy that stands out just as strikingly as the slow-build frenetic energy that drives propulsive small-combo numbers like "Karma" and "Harvesting Dance."
Photos courtesy of Mosaic Images & Mamoru Kobayakawa (Aaron Parks)