Jazz Collecting: Artists & Labels

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

After suffering the impacts of the pandemic, namely unemployment and quarantine, I, like many others, have afforded myself some time. And time is definitely something one can use more of when collecting jazz. So, with this extra time at home I’ve been able to take stock of my personal collection. To be fair, it’s not one of those vast collections where you need a separate listening room or zip code to appreciate. It’s relatively modest but stocked with artists and labels that I believe merit repeated listening.

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Like many other collectors, my entrée into Hard Bop was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on Blue Note Records. My first jazz album purchase was “At the Cafe Bohemia – Volume One”. I have to confess, not knowing much about the genre at the time and being a designer, I chose it simply for its typographic cover—a decision I never regretted. Thank you, John Hermansader.

As for the actual recordings, I’m one of those collectors who, for the most part, sticks to certain labels for the bulk of his collection. ECM and Blue Note Records are great examples of this approach. Rule of thumb, if you find one or two artists you really enjoy on one label there’s a good chance you’ll find more—appreciation through chance discovery. Although with certain artists, Bill Evans for example, labels matter less. If you follow an artist throughout his or her career you’ll find that oftentimes they skip around—usually pursuing the best contract or more creative freedom.

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A true visionary in every sense of the word, Miles Davis trailblazed the far reaches of jazz. His second great quintet, including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, represents the quintessential modern jazz group in my book—conceptual, explorative and intelligent.

As with Bill Evans, you’ll find a fanbase that rallies around a particular period in the recording career of an artist. Take the distinguished career of Miles Davis, there are diehard fans of Miles’ first great quintet and their associated record label, Prestige. Others may gravitate toward Miles’ second great quintet on Columbia Records or his later electric outings on the same label. John Coltrane is another artist who produced many divided camps. He had a successful early solo career on Prestige and Blue Note, then moved to Atlantic with his first great quartet in the early-60s, and then Impulse! Records in the mid-60s which found him exploring more avant-garde avenues with personnel that would prove to be in flux.

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The often imitated Bill Evans has made his way back into my collection for over twenty years. One can easily hear echoes of Evans in the works of many contemporary artists. His years on the Riverside label with his first trio are still one of my favorite periods of his—romantic, subtle and introspective. If you’re not already familiar with Evans, try spinning a couple of his critically-acclaimed albums, “Portrait in Jazz” (1960) and “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” (1961).

If you’re a completist, like myself, you’ll collect from every recording period of a favorite artist—oftentimes picking and choosing particular albums based on year recorded, personnel or audio fidelity. Bill Evans, one of my perennial favorites, definitely falls into the multi-period, multi-label category. His first trio on the Riverside label, featuring Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, defined the gold standard for jazz trios. A deft and cohesive unit famous for anticipating each others’ actions. After the untimely death of bassist, Scott LaFaro (one of my personal jazz heroes), Bill Evans began to move around with solo and trio stints on Verve, Blue Note, Fantasy and Warner. There are hardcore first trio fans who only swear by the early Riverside recordings as a measure of Bill Evans’ improvisational genius. As for myself, I can appreciate all his outings, be it solo, trio or third stream. If you find an artist who really hits a chord you’ll follow him or her anywhere.

If you’re a completist, like myself, you’ll collect from every recording period of a favorite artist—oftentimes picking and choosing particular albums based on year recorded, personnel or audio fidelity.

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Keith Jarrett, a virtuoso pianist with an uncanny ability to improvise lengthy solo concerts, gained his global following on the ECM label. Although he led groundbreaking groups, including his long-lived trio, he became best known for his solo output. His massive “Sun Bear Concerts” 1978 box set, showcasing over six-and-a-half hours of very personal music, is an achievement hard to be matched by any performing artist, past or present.

By following an artist from one label to another one can also experience the creative growth an artist achieves. Some Coltrane fans lament his move to Impulse! Records as it would eventually showcase his interest in spiritualism and the avant-garde which, regrettably, shed some of his followers who were only interested in his modal music. Another artist who would truly come into his own because of his association with a particular label is Keith Jarrett. His early career as sideman to jazz masters Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis on various labels would eventually jettison him to a famed solo career starting at Atlantic Records in the late-60s. But it wasn’t till his move to ECM in 1971, for an astonishing 49-year partnership, where he would flourish and rise to international fame with unprecedented live solo recordings such as Solo Concerts: Bremen and Lausanne (1973), The Köln Concert (1975), The Sun Bear Concerts (1976/78), and Concerts: Bregenz/München (1982).

So, be it artist-centric or label-centric, starting and maintaining a jazz collection will always prove fruitful, especially if the listener devotes time to enjoy the fruits.

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Herbie Hancock and the Shock of the New

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

After the release of his 1970 Warner album, Mwandishi, Herbie Hancock was well on his way to introducing electronics to his brand of jazz. His top-flight team of improvisers made it that much easier to make the transition to fusion. Although naysayers were wrapped around Hancock’s funky hard bop from his Blue Note years, there was an audience to be had with this new free-form, electric jazz.

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Mwandishi, 1970

Miles Davis had already taken off with his 1969 Columbia release, Bitches Brew, plus a handful of live recordings which featured an even edgier take on his dark vision. Hancock’s work, by comparison, did not display the raw bravado of Davis’, its strength, rather, lied with its creator’s love affair with technology and the possibilities it could bring to his music.

Hancock’s work, by comparison, did not display the raw bravado of Davis’, its strength, rather, lied with its creator’s love affair with technology and the possibilities it could bring to his music.

This love affair becomes all the more evident in Hancock’s next Warner release, 1971’s Crossings. He pulls out all the stops here, adding an additional voice in Dr. Patrick Gleeson on Moog synthesizer. Here, Hancock crosses over to an avant-garde realm only visited briefly, and acoustically, on his already long resume. With banks of synthesizers, Hancock plugs in and creates a world wholly his own.

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Crossings, 1971

Although the Davis influences are impossible to deny, it’s Hancock’s own genius in multilayered arrangements that forges each piece into something unique. With track titles like “Quasar” and “Water Torture” it’s obvious this isn’t the laid back hard bop of years past — the future is now. The opener, “Sleeping Giant”, is just that — a giant. It’s a near 25-minute roller coaster of a suite incorporating Hancock’s new electronic instrumentation. Changing tempos, frenetic drumming, and the blips and chirps from synths soon show the way to a new approach that will eventually be more fully embraced on Hancock’s next release.

Experimentation abounds, much of Sextant sounds as if it was created live in a science lab setting.

Hancock’s debut on Columbia Records is an album that some may consider menacing to say the least. 1972’s Sextant is a full-on fusion album, quite literally equal parts man and machine. Experimentation abounds, much of Sextant sounds as if it was created live in a science lab setting. I like to call this sub-genre of music Sci-fi Jazz. Much of the album sounds like a funky, and oftentimes frightening, soundtrack to a science fiction journey. The opener, “Rain Dance”, sets the spacey mood with a flurry of electronic effects which carry throughout the piece and register as electronic water drops. Perhaps giving credence to the surrealistic album cover as a sort of alien dance ritual.

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Sextant, 1972

The second of the three tracks is “Hidden Shadows” and is indeed dark. And for all the percussion, synths and alien effects there is still the signature Hancock sound that musters familiarity right off. The keyboard chordings, the solos and the group harmonies — all transplanted from Hancock’s former life at Blue Note. There is a theme that continues to reign in the blowing and keyboard wizardry to keep “Hidden Shadows” as the most conservative and least likely to scare off the uninitiated.

The crowning achievement on this album is the final piece, “Hornets”. Abstract and nearly inaccessible, it begs further inspection. The redundant use of kazoo instills the frenzy of the track’s namesake. There are Fender Rhodes passages with free blowing over top in this 20-minute piece that sound reminiscent of Davis’ live outings from the same period. There was something undeniably in the water back then. Sometimes, I wish that certain something would make a return posthaste.

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