In the early 1960s, as the manic improvisations of bebop gave way to bluesy hard bop, a group of young players showed up on the roster of legendary jazz label Blue Note Records, making music that combined the soulful swing of the time with adventurous approaches to melody, harmony and rhythm, striking a balance between funky grooves and free jazz extemporization, between gutbucket riffing and complex compositions that demonstrated ferocious instrumental and theoretical knowledge. Players like Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, Jackie McLean, Grachan Moncur III, Wayne Shorter and Larry Young were pulling jazz forward, and they carried some of the music’s more mainstream figures like guitarist Grant Green and drummer Art Blakey (pictured above) along with them. The dozen albums listed below, all released between 1963 and 1965, are among the high points of Blue Note’s catalog, and jazz as a whole.
One of the most revered albums in jazz history, this disc, Dolphy's only Blue Note release, was recorded only months before his early death from diabetes. The band, which included vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Richard Davis and still-teenaged drummer Tony Williams, create jagged, lurching rhythmic beds over which Dolphy's alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute, and Freddie Hubbard's trumpet, dart and screech, hinting at atonality and jumping vast harmonic chasms. The album features five Dolphy compositions, including the opening "Hat and Beard," which in paying tribute to Thelonious Monk, makes that man's unique, even jarring rhythms seem almost staid in comparison.
Pianist Andrew Hill's fourth Blue Note release is probably his most recognized album, and for good reason. The band is stellar, including trumpeter Kenny Dorham, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, Eric Dolphy, Richard Davis and Tony Williams. The compositions are hard bop with sharp edges, creating an approach to the blues that brings minor-key melancholy into stark relief. There are outbursts and individual solos here, mostly by Hill and Dolphy, that point to free jazz, but the music as a whole is a powerful lesson in hard bop's capacity to absorb outside influences and create something familiar, yet new. Absolutely essential.
This trombonist made two albums for Blue Note, and appeared on several more with creative partner Jackie McLean. Evolution kicks off with "Air Raid," a piece with a title implying uptempo blare; it's actually a moody, cryptic number, with the three horns (including trumpeter Lee Morgan) bolstered by Bobby Hutcherson's vibes, Bob Cranshaw's bass and Tony Williams (still calling himself "Anthony") on drums. The album's title track doesn't swing so much as surge and recede over a slow drone and creepy tinkling from Hutcherson. "The Coaster" is this weird, arty band's attempt at a hard bop "hit," and it almost works.
One of two albums alto saxophonist McLean made in partnership with Grachan Moncur III, this one (which gave a terrific jazz blog its name) is really the trombonist's disc — he wrote three of the four tunes, and the music has the same haunted vibe (pun intended, 'cause there's Bobby Hutcherson again) as Evolution at times. Only the album closer, "Riff Raff," swings conventionally. The aptly titled "Esoteric" switches back and forth between fierce, Mingus-esque swing and piercing solos by McLean, where Hutcherson and drummer Roy Haynes hammer their instruments behind him. When Moncur begins his solo, Haynes nearly demolishes the kit.
Of the five albums Joe Henderson made for Blue Note in the '60s, only this one features him as the sole horn. It's also the most forceful and aggressive of the bunch; backed by Coltrane sidemen (pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones) and bassist Bob Cranshaw, he goes much farther out on the title track than he ever could have on his other gig at the time, as a sideman to pianist Horace Silver. "El Barrio" is another barn-burner — the deep, biting tones Henderson emits during the piece's unaccompanied opening phrases, and his incantatory, trancelike solo, predict much free jazz to come.
Saxophonist Sam Rivers first came to broad public attention via a short stint with Miles Davis's quintet, and two of that group's members — pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter — appear on this date, alongside trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and drummer Joe Chambers. Everyone is in top form throughout, as compositions like "Dance of the Tripedal," "Euterpe" and particularly the evocatively titled "Mellifluous Cacophony" infuse intricate post-bop melodies with the dissonance of the burgeoning free jazz scene. Rivers's Blue Note debut, Fuchsia Swing Song, was bluesier, but the tunes were older; Contours was an album full of brand-new music, in every sense.
Vibraphonist Hutcherson, who played on Andrew Hill's Andrew!, Grant Green's Idle Moments and Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch! in 1964, made his label debut as a leader the following year. Dialogue features several other members of the avant-bop class — Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers and Richard Davis — alongside trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and drummer Joe Chambers, and includes four Hill compositions, plus two by the drummer. The music encompasses aggressive Latin-influenced groove ("Catta"), chamber-jazz balladry ("Idle While"), and militaristic blare ("Les Noirs Marchant"), fiercely performed all involved. Harsh and even shocking at times, Dialogue is as avant-garde as anything on this list.
The organ trio (organ, guitar and drums) is the bedrock of soul jazz, but in the hands of particularly talented players, it can become much more than a vehicle for funky grooves. On this album, Grant Green, a master of stinging, bluesy guitar with a sharply electric tone, is teamed with the adventurous organist Larry Young. Young would eventually become one of the freest, most avant-garde jazz organists of the '60s; here, he was moving away from groove-grinding and into a more abstract, modal zone. Behind the two men, Elvin Jones keeps a steady, swinging and sometimes rockin' rhythm.
On his own albums, organist Larry Young took the instrument far from its hard-grooving soul jazz base, frequently launching into abstract zones of near-Sun Ra-esque exploration. On this, his Blue Note debut as a leader, he's joined by Sam Rivers, as well as guitarist Grant Green and drummer Elvin Jones, with whom he made two other records, including Green's Talkin' About!, reviewed above. It's not nearly as out as later Young discs like Of Love and Peace or Mother Ship, but it's already showing avant-garde potential, especially when compared to the work of funkmasters like Jimmy Smith and Big John Patton.
Tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter came to Blue Note in the mid '60s fulfilling two roles. With Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, he contributed bluesy, hard-grooving hard bop tunes and gutsy solos; meanwhile, on his own albums, he attempted to expand jazz's melodic and harmonic vocabulary with intellectually rigorous, occasionally dispassionate inward journeys. On this, his label debut as a leader, he was backed by trumpeter Lee Morgan, and John Coltrane's rhythm section — pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Elvin Jones. The music is both bluesier and more meditative than Coltrane's contemporaneous work, though, sacrificing furrowed-brow intensity for Zenlike swing.
Even as Wayne Shorter established himself as a leader, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers provided him steady work, and on this record, he's in blazing form. The band roars through three intense, hard-driving tracks — "Free for All," "Hammer Head" and "The Core" — and even the lone ballad, "Pensativa," is more brooding, ready to erupt at a moment's notice, than it is truly pensive. On the opening title track, Shorter's solo is ferocious, nearly kin to what Albert Ayler was doing than to traditional hard bop, and Blakey's drumming renders words like "apocalyptic" and "concussive" inadequate. The sound of tradition exploding.
In 1963, trumpeter Lee Morgan had a major breakthrough hit with the funky hard bop anthem "The Sidewinder"; a year later, he made possibly his most adventurous album. The band includes Wayne Shorter, Grant Green, Herbie Hancock, Reggie Workman and sometime Ornette Coleman drummer Billy Higgins. The nearly 16-minute title track of Search for the New Land is a simmering modal vamp that stops and starts repeatedly — unusual territory for Morgan, a veteran of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. The rest of the disc is more typical, but hardly bad; Search... is very much a welcome surprise in the Morgan catalog.