JAZZ: The Defining Moments


Any jazz fan, whether a deeply committed fanatic or casual listener, will agree that jazz is a truly indigenous American art form, growing, like the country itself, from a rich racial and cultural polyglot. Like a continent-wide jam session, the genre has echoed down the decades, its rhythms and styles intertwining, joining, dividing, growing.

Within that macrocosm there are pivotal moments of brilliance, moments that send the subject spinning off into a new and exciting direction. We all have our favorites: studio sessions or live sets that stand out in terms of innovation or outstanding execution.

Words often fall short when trying to describe such moments. Words contain, limit, define. Jazz, and particularly jazz improvisation, is about transcending limits and barriers. That said, words can be valuable in calling attention to these stellar moments, so others can find them and experience them directly. That is my intention with this column.

A case in point: Miles Davis’ ever-popular (and deservedly so) recording, Kind of Blue, has achieved stellar success due to an equal measure of high quality sound, ease to the listener’s ear, individual improvisation, group sound, and, last but certainly not least, its unusual (for the time) advanced harmonic concept. But popularity isn’t the only litmus test—or even the main one. More important are the beauty and depth of the art form. And in this and succeeding articles, I hope to bring attention to some of these moments of greatness, moments over the last 60 years that shaped and changed the direction of jazz or carried it along a truly elevated path.  

Although I believe good quality sound is vital to the continuing and repeated enjoyment of music—and its ultimate impact—in the case of the jazz performances presented here, recording quality was often a secondary consideration to the musical distinction of the work.  However, in all cases I will mention or discuss the recording quality and, where deserving, in depth.

In selecting some of these great moments, the factors I took into account were many. They included:

1. Sound: The tone of the instrument or the cumulative sound of instruments in relationship to one another (including voice).

2. Harmony: Choice of notes, voicing, etc.

3. Rhythm: The way the beat, accent or lack thereof is employed.

4. Dexterity or technique: Where technique is part of the musical expression and aligns well with all other factors present, it can be an enhancement. But technique alone ensures nothing musical. Thelonious Monk did not have “great technique,” but he was a singular genius. His technique fit his musical concept. Clifford Brown on the other hand possessed a prodigious technique, one that was essential to the overall musical effect. 

5. Interaction between musicians.

6. Improvisation: To this writer, the most essential of all elements in jazz—The ability of the musician to spontaneously create an original work of art. 

7. Intangibles: Feel, sensibility, emotion—those things that words can’t adequately express. One could argue that these are nothing more than the sum of all the other ingredients listed above, but for me there’s an added “x” factor—the way a great musician communicates or expresses himself or herself using those other qualities.

The article below, and those to come, will be organized against some aspect or particularity of jazz, including many of the above factors. In this way, I hope to explore not only what makes great jazz, but what distinguishes these performances as true cultural milestones.


In jazz, comping has nothing to do with free hotel rooms in Vegas. It’s short for complementing. The word complement is from the Latin complementum, “that which fills up or completes.” In its most basic definition it means something that completes or brings to perfection. And that is exactly what is meant when the term is applied to jazz. It’s one musician complementing another—playing with them or against them to bring out the best in their performance.

You often see this when a musician is playing behind or beneath an improvising musician, laying down a base of notes or rhythm that enhances the improvisation. A piano player interacting with a lead singer is a good example of this. This is the type of comping I’ll cover in this article. It is a specific and somewhat rare skill, perhaps because some think of it as a subordinate position or not a glamour job. Regardless, at its highest level, the comping musician’s apparently secondary role has the power to transform a merely good performance into an excellent one or, yes, even a classic—as I’ll describe below.

This is not to minimize the contribution of the main performer. Because I’m focusing on the art of comping doesn’t mean the lead musician didn’t measure up. Quite the contrary—the performances described below are sublime. But in each case, the comping musicians propel and define the final outcome.

Ella Fitzgerald

A stellar example that makes the point: Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) and her quintessential rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”

One of the 20th century's greatest female singers, her work transcends accurate description. Unlike Billie Holiday’s inimitable, melancholy darkness, Ella managed an almost childlike joy at times—an outrageous technical ability. At other times, she practiced an almost “detached” or unaffected approach to a song—an approach that, in the hands of another with less command of the art, would render the communication void and emotionless. Not so with Ella Fitzgerald.  

In “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” no theatrics are employed. The singing is effortless, her diction immaculate and she uses the precise quantity of appropriate emotion to convey her message. Backed by the stunning work of Paul Smith on piano, the result is exalted. 

Some specifics: At the beginning of the song, Smith comps with perfectly placed chords and an uncanny touch, creating a light, unresolved tension until Ella first transitions to the words, “I’m wild again, beguiled again…” He then lays out delicate, right-hand notes that perfectly reinforce Ella’s message. His touch and choice of single notes and chords, here and throughout the song, weave an unobtrusive but brilliant fabric. But Smith can use time—yes he can. When Ella sings “couldn’t sleep, wouldn’t sleep.” Smith drags behind, exquisitely filling the openings, perfectly complementing Ella’s words. And so it goes until the ending.   

Here is an ultimate collaboration between two musicians in an effortless and consummate performance, one that’s well worth listening to many times.

As for the sound quality, it is quite acceptable. Unless you have extremely fine midrange transducers (such as Quads) you won’t notice the voice coloration. It is slightly closed down, and electronic sounding. This fault is very common in voice recordings—most recording engineers don’t have the playback equipment to discern unnatural voice deviations. But despite this quibble, the recording serves the music and Ella’s effortless message is communicated and even enhanced by the sound.
Summary: Breathtaking!

Recommendation: Get the CD compilation by Verve entitled, Ella Fitzgerald: The First Lady of Song. Not only does it contain “Bewitched, Bothered and bewildered” but many other great performances. However, with that said, my favorite collection of her performances, many of which are on the level of the above description, are contained on the CD, Ella Fitzgerald, The Cole Porter Songbook. Here, backed by the orchestra of Buddy Bregman, Ella spins out one stunning performance after another at a level that is truly mind-boggling. (Her rendition of “Miss Otis Regrets” by Cole Porter will break your heart.) There are many other great CDs by Ella but the above are enough to experience her singular qualities at their height.

Miles Davis

By 1963 the rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, that had served Miles so well since recording Kind of Blue, had left the band. Miles sifted through various personnel until he settled on Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums; and George Coleman, tenor saxophone. Later, Wayne Shorter would replace Coleman and help lead the quintet into spectacular new territory (listen to the brilliantly original Miles Smiles). In my opinion the above personnel comprise one of the, if not the, greatest rhythm sections in modern jazz. And they consummately demonstrated this in a 1964 live concert at the Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher) in New York City. The event was in support of the civil rights movement and was important both politically and culturally. The band didn’t disappoint, turning out some of the greatest music of the 20th century.

There are many superb examples of comping in this performance. In fact, this concert could be said to be the bible of modern comping in both the sense discussed above and in the broader sense of musicians interfacing with each other. Here is a group of musicians that seem to be reading each others’ minds, meshing seamlessly and pushing each other to new heights. George Coleman plays as well as he has ever played and Miles is simply superb. 

To illustrate the point, let’s take an example from the concert that most of us are familiar with, “All Blues” (heard on Miles’ landmark album, Kind of Blue). Miles comes out of the gate propelled by the incessant drive of Tony Williams on drums and the stunning chordal voicings of Herbie Hancock. Hancock hits his notes at just the right spots, under and between the notes of Miles who himself is truly inspired. Tony Williams continues his steam-engine rhythm while adding a mélange of accents and hits to punctuate this and that, creating modulations in tone and color. Carter on bass lays down a firm foundation for all of this without the monotony so common to bass players welded to a repetitive groove. Indeed, this rhythm section is in fact a dynamo, generating color, tone, message and time for the performance; an organic machine totally in sync.

All of this is repeated and, yes, taken to a higher level on “My Funny Valentine.” Miles is brilliant (and erudite) from the onset, using dynamic contrast, space and varying length of note and phrase to bring out the essence of the song’s melody and its intimacy. While Ron Carter lays a brilliant musical foundation, Herbie Hancock impeccably anticipates and responds to Miles’ every thought and concept. In the complex gathering of melodic lines and underlying harmonies there is a perfect whole created. This is jazz dialogue elevated to the level of ESP.

The recording here is very good. The natural sound resulting from recording a live event enhances the enjoyment of hearing the group’s wizardry. Yes, it is close, multi-micing.  But is a good job and it never gets in the way of the experience.

In short, this revelatory version of “My Funny Valentine” is one of the greatest artistic performances of the 20th century. 

Recommendation: Get the two-CD set entitled, Miles Davis—The Complete Concert: 1964. It contains the full concert originally issued on vinyl as two separate records, dividing the slow songs from the up-tempo ones. For the serious jazz lover, get the seven-CD set put out by Columbia entitled, Seven Steps: The Complete Miles Davis Columbia Recordings of 1963-1964. It includes not only the full 1964 concert but chronicles the band and its personnel changes before and after. As for vinyl, Mosaic issued this later Columbia compilation on ten records entitled Miles Davis: The Complete 1963-1964 Columbia Recordings. It may be available used as the Mosaic set is now sold out.

Chick Corea

In 1971, after working on several historic albums for Miles Davis, Corea formed a group consisting of Stanley Clarke on acoustic bass, Joe Farrell on soprano sax and flute, Airto Moreira on drums and percussion, his wife Flora Purim on vocals, and Chick on the Fender Rhodes electric piano.

In 1972, the group recorded their first album with ECM entitled Return to Forever. The album, unlike anything before it, consisted of melodic, Brazilian-flavored jazz tunes played by masters of modern jazz. 

Chick is outstanding as both an accompanist and as a soloist. In fact, a whole new language is synthesized here and clearly displayed on Chick’s cross-cultural masterpiece, “Sometime Ago – La Fiesta.” With a slow and majestic introductory section, a tension is set that soon explodes in the restless intensity that follows. Anchored by Clarke’s driving bass and Airto’s relentless percussion, Chick weaves an electric, buoyant tapestry while shifting the band into high gear. When Joe Farrell improvises on flute, Chick is right there prodding, accenting and filling the spaces. In the second section, even more intensity is created with Farrell now on soprano sax and Chick displaying uncanny timing while percussively attacking the Fender Rhodes. In the final section, Chick confidently jumps into the breach laying down a monster solo, and in my opinion, setting the standard for electric piano improvisation. If this performance isn’t enough to convert those who have disparaged the electric piano as a legitimate jazz instrument, I don’t know what would. Chick brings magic to the electric piano that few others have approached.

The sound quality is standard multi-mic ECM, but not icy, as can be the case on many of this label’s recordings. Perhaps the sound can be faulted for being “unnatural,” but I think the musical expression, and in particular the musical energy, comes through loud and clear. (If you want to hear natural sound listen to the masterful work of recording engineer Ray DuNann on Analogue Production’s Way Out West, featuring the outrageous playing of Sonny Rollins.)   

Summary: A wild and electric performance by Chick Corea’s RTF—it will get your blood flowing. 

Recommendation: Get the ECM recording Return to Forever. For more of the same, also buy the ECM recording entitled, Light as a Feather (it followed Return to Forever chronologically and will give you two great and original albums).


JAZZ: The Defining Moments - Improvisation


What makes music jazz?

Well I certainly don't want to step lightly into that hotly debated topic, but I do have at least a partial answer, and one that forms the subject of this article:


Of course other forms of music have improvisational elements. But with limitations. In European classical music, for instance, the roles were well-defined: the composer composed, and the musician performed—with limited options for interpretation. Jazz, an indigenous and truly American art form, could be described as more egalitarian. The performer has an equal voice, and can alter and change melodies, harmonies and time signatures to suit the mood, the reactions of other performers and even the audience. The jazz musician never plays the same piece twice in exactly the same way.

At the same time, jazz isn't just "making stuff up," as Homer Simpson famously opined. The language of jazz has its own syntax, grammar and vocabulary, and truly great improvisation draws on a rich understanding of this language, a confident command of one's instrument, and an acute awareness of the moment. The only real difference between composing and improvising, one could say, is time. Improvisation is really composition done in the moment, on the fly. (I will never forget the day I showed my classical music teacher at the University of Southern California a transcription of Lee Konitz’s solo of “Lover Man.” He would not believe someone improvised it and was convinced it was composed music.)

Of course, one can have jazz without improvisation. Composition and arrangement, for instance, are also essential to great jazz (Billy Strayhorn, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Gil Evans, Clare Fischer, to name a few). I'll be covering these subjects and artists in future articles.

But for me (and many musicians) improvisation is central to jazz. Even though the album that hooked me on jazz in the early 1960s was gorgeously arranged and composed (Charles Mingus, "Tijuana Moods"), it was the improvisation that knocked me out. To be specific, it was Clarence Shaw playing trumpet on the album.

Improvisation remains central to the body of work known as jazz and, in most cases, the greatness of a jazz artist is measured by his improvisational abilities.

With that said, let me strike upon a few of the great improvisational moments in jazz since the 1950s. There are many more than those I will list below. But if you read my previous article on comping and you add the below performances to those, well you have the beginning of a solid jazz collection. I will be describing others in the future. But for the here and now these will do. They are some of the great performances in the history of jazz—some of them not widely known.

A note on sound: As I said in the opening article in this series, although I believe good quality sound is vital to the continuing and repeated enjoyment of music—and its ultimate impact—in the case of the jazz performances presented here, recording quality was not the main factor in my choices. It was solely the musical distinction of the work. However, in all cases I will mention or discuss the recording quality and, where deserving, in depth.


Lee Konitz (Warne Marsh) Live at The Half Note.

Let’s make one thing very clear right from the outset. This is very cerebral music. It is intellectual and it demands much of the listener.  Although played at some blistering speeds, it is cool in the jazz sense of that word. For instance, it stands in sharp contrast to hard bop which was developed in the mid-1950s and which brought elements of gospel and church music back into jazz (as well as some much needed popularity), such as Art Blakey’s Moanin’, Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder or Horace Silver’s Song for My Father.

The principal players here, Konitz (alto sax) and Marsh (tenor sax), were disciples of the Tristano school of jazz, a highly original approach which broke away from the bebop music played by the inimitable Charlie Parker. Lennie Tristano’s concept eschewed the dynamics found in bebop in favor of a European influence accompanied by a steady beat that was downright metronomic in character. Make no mistake: this is pared down music without cushion, crutches, drama or what is commonly know as “soul.” 

This is improvisation in its most unadorned form, a dazzling high-wire act performed without a net. To fully appreciate it, one has to focus on every note and just go for the ride. And while it is Bill Evans at the piano, it is Tristano whose presence we feel throughout the session. Evans, whose appearance in this set was almost an accident of fate (or irony)*, does not lead the way, but appropriately fits himself into the proceedings. 

Lee Konitz is one of the most influential alto saxophonists in the early development of modern jazz. Konitz was (and is) truly original and brilliant. As one of the key creators of the cool style, he was the perfect complement to Miles Davis in his nine-piece Birth of the Cool band. He differed from Charlie Parker by delivering a cool, even tone with long, harmonically complex improvisational phrases. 

Warne Marsh, although not as well known or musically accessible as Konitz, is also one of the greatest improvisational giants in jazz history—and probably its greatest secret. Well, on this CD you can hear him at the height of his powers. This is not a Stan Getz, whose gorgeous tone could carry a performance. No, Marsh plays without forgiving qualities. But you won’t hear one cliché in a Marsh solo and you’ll hear ideas flow forward (sometimes very complex ideas) that no one ever played before nor after. From his virbratoless tone to his unique tonal colors, Warne was his own man. So don’t let his unusual sound put you off. This is the real deal if you can stay with it. 

Listen to the first performance on the CD, “Palo Alto” (any of these performances will do). First and foremost, one hears the driving rhythm section snap right to it—the straight, relentless meter of the Tristano school. This is not a rhythm section interacting with one another as took place as jazz developed through the late 50s into the 60s and which I described in the Miles Davis section of the first article in this series).

Bill Evans (piano), Paul Motian (drums), and Jimmy Garrison (bass) are there to serve and provide overt impetus to the fronting horns. After an artful unison melody, Konitz runs his long fluid lines of harmonically rich improvisation. Sometimes he hesitates and creates space and other times he accents the rhythmic pulse. But whatever he does, he never loses sight of the long line of improvisation. Masterful.

That someone could not only follow Konitz and hold his own, but rise to the same level (or higher) boggles the mind. But Marsh does just that, following with an absolutely stunning demonstration of harmonic inventiveness. Sometimes he appears to have said his piece, only to add, almost as an afterthought, an extended elaboration to fully realize his harmonic concept. At other times he skids across the pulse, outflowing serpentine lines of note after note. After an Evans solo, Konitz and Marsh exchange a pyrotechnic volley of notes and harmonic concepts.

As I said, it's heady stuff, but if you can tune into it, you will experience two of the greatest improvising artists in the history of our culture.

Sound quality? Passable. That fact that it is recorded live tends to help convey the musical moment. If you focus on the musicianship you’ll be all right.

Recommendation: Get the double CD: Lee Konitz Live at the Half Note. To hear more of Konitz at his height but in a different context (and an easier listen), get the CD Konitz Meets Mulligan. His rendition of “Lover Man” on this CD is classic of jazz. And for a complete Tristano compilation, get the Mosaic collection, The Complete Atlantic Recordings of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh.  

*The music on this two-CD set was recorded in 1959 at the Half Note club in New York. Lennie Tristano was playing with two of his former students, Lee Kontiz and Warne Marsh. However, on Tuesday nights Tristano was not present due to teaching obligations and Bill Evans sat in, the very night this recording was made. These recorded performances were edited (either by Evans or Tristano himself) to include only Warne’s solos. Warne, then in Los Angeles, had established a relationship with the LA-based Revelation Records who put the performances out on vinyl, The Art of Improvising. In 1994 the unedited version of the performance to include Kontiz, which is the subject of this article, was issued on Verve.  

Sonny Rollins. Alfie 

By the late 1950s two monsters of the tenor saxophone emerged: John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.This section concerns the later. I’ve picked this CD out of the many noteworthy performances by Rollins because I believe his long, breathtaking solo on the opening track, “Alfie” is one of his greatest legacies. Yet it's one of his lesser-known performances. And since at the bottom of this section I give you several of his other greatest CDs, you’ll have it all. With that explanation offered, let me tell you Sonny also plays his anatomy off on the other tracks of this CD, such as track 3, “Street Runner With Child.” 

"Alfie" is immensely listenable. The theme is gorgeous, and Kenny Burrell’s opening solo on the title track is bluesy and catchy. But from the moment Rollins starts his solo, one knows the commander has arrived. Sonny’s playful, sometimes gruff exploratory style is perfect for the Alfie score. This is no smooth laid-back performance despite the theme. Nope. Sonny commands your attention, asserts his presence and then delivers the goods. He growls gently, accents this or that, and spins out brilliant ideas, not in the long flowing lines of Marsh, but in short or long bursts and clusters. By the time the group melody is reasserted at the end, you know you’ve just heard a master at the height of his powers. The wonderful arrangements by Oliver Nelson and the stellar personnel present a perfect foil for Rollins. This is creativity at its zenith.

The sound here is fine. It isn’t Kind of Blue but one can hear all the musicians and one surely can be knocked on their back by Sonny Rollins. If you want to hear Sonny recorded to the nines, see my recommendations below.

Recommendations: Get the CD Alfie. And to hear more of the masterful Rollins, get Saxophone Colossus, The Bridge (featuring Sonny and Jim Hall on guitar—very listenable on several levels) and finally, Way Out West, which just happens to be one of the finest, if not the finest and most natural sounding jazz recordings ever made, thanks to the work of recording engineer Ray DuNann.  

Bill Evans. Portrait in Jazz

With this recommendation I’m flying right in the face of conventional jazz wisdom. So stay with me. I say this because Sunday At the Village Vanguard is usually cited as Bill’s finest work. I beg to differ—if the criterion is improvisation. If the standard is introspection, ambient beauty, trio interaction, and a deep dream-like quality, then Sunday At The Village Vanguard fits the bill. It is a gorgeous performance and nicely recorded at that (Mark Levinson was the first person who ever pointed this out to me way back in the 70s, well before its deserved admission into the audiophile ranks.)

But in my opinion, Portrait in Jazz is the trio’s height of improvisation. It took the jazz world by storm, impacting many musicians at the time. There is little question Bill Evans was the most influential jazz pianist since Bud Powell. And this performance demonstrates why. 

This is a trio in the real sense of that term: they listen to each other, they interact as one voice when needed and they support each other creating and propelling each other to individual heights. That was new then.

Scott LaFaro is one of the most influential bassists of the past 50 years. He helped propel the bass from being a strict timekeeper to a voice of melody and improvisation, on equal rank with others in the ensemble. His volume and ideas were big.

Take the trio’s performance of “Autumn Leaves.” The three players go back and forth one against the other, before Bill even begins to improvise. But when Bill does improvise he sparkles at a buoyant gait (ditto for Scot LaFaro). His note choices and chord voicing are innovative and profound. He lays out a perfectly structured solo with so many original ideas it took me ten turns through that performance in 1961 to get it. No one played that way then. And all the time Scott and Paul are right there thrusting, accenting, improvising and complementing every harmony and nuance nearly on an equal footing. LaFaro shows his chops while still manifesting a lyrical singing quality throughout.

The sound is quite good. But make no mistake: this is a studio recording that can’t compare to the live feeling of Sunday at the Village Vanguard. But with that said, the recording serves to convey the beauty of the musicians of whom I have never tired.  

Recommendations: Get Portrait in Jazz (I have the version called the Keepnews Collection and it sounds the best of the reissues I have heard. I haven’t heard any SACD versions). Also get Bill Evans The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961. There are many other great Evans CDs, but these two are his finest work. Truthfully which one is better is moot. They are both the work of geniuses at their height.