Think of a well-known Smiths melody and start scatting: “Some jazz is more epic than other.” It might not be one hundred procent correct grammatically. But as Miles Davis would say: “So what.” He rewrote the rulebook more than once: most notably on modal jazz milestone ‘Kind of Blue’ (1959) and on the monumental – one might say epic – double album ‘Bitches Brew’ (1969), which paved the way for a cornucopia of fusions between jazz, rock, funk and world music.
So what … is ‘epic’? It’s a feeling, a mood, certainly not a genre. A timeless atmosphere or cinematic quality that oozes out of jazz’s most grand and often groundbreaking gestures. Epic jazz unfolds its stories patiently, sometimes violently, and might deal with matters that transcend our understanding, such as time and space, inhuman suffering and superhuman achievements, …
Here’s a list of records that sound epic or cinematic to my ears, ordered counter-chronologically, honouring the unruly nature of many of these albums. They were released between 1960 and 2015, which raises another question: was 1959, when ‘Kind of Blue’ (Davis) and ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ (Ornette Coleman), iconoclastic statements in their own right, freed musicians from their harmonic and compositional straight jacket, the year when jazz became more epic?
Kamasi Washington – ‘The Epic’ (2015)
Brad Mehldau – ‘Highway Rider’ (2010)
Piano player Brad Mehldau doesn’t dwell in the same place for too long. He travels between trio recordings and sharp-edged collaborations. Most recently, he teamed up with Mark Guiliana on jazz-funk-prog album ‘Taming The Dragon’.
Mehldau’s restless ambition reached its peak on ‘Highway Rider’, a 100-minute cycle of jazz and classical music with elements of pop – there’s even a salute to Elliott Smith – and electronica, beautifully arranged and executed by Mehldau’s trio, sax player Joshua Redman and a full-blown orchestra.
Exploding Star Orchestra – ‘Stars Have Shapes’ (2010)
For Exploding Star Orchestra, a large band led by Chicago musician Rob Mazurak, everything seems to revolve around … the sun. Or should I say Sun Ra? They’re certainly at ease with the cosmic side of things.
Dropping listeners in mid-space, Ascension Ghost Impression no. 2 floats towards complete astral chaos, with gigantic wooshes of sound and near-collisions of cosmic debris. After a brief soothing middle section, the turmoil returns, and then transforms again. Three Blocks of Light represents a different type of avant-garde jazz from outer space, and while Impression no. 1 contains some familiar jazz elements, it’s equally disorienting.
Patricia Barber – ‘Mythologies’ (2006)
Deep-voiced jazz pianist and composer Patricia Barber meanders through Ovid’s classical masterpiece ‘Metamorphoses’ and turns it into a thrilling suite on ‘Mythologies’. Despite her often offbeat sense of melody, the album progresses smoothly, propelled by subtle piano, brief sax improvs, spirited percussion and blistering guitar, courtesy of Neal Alger.
On songs like Icarus and Phaeton Barber’s voice is out of this world. Just spell-binding. A timeless album, ‘Mythologies’ clearly flies close to the sun. But never too close.
Electric Masada – ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ (2005)
Masada is the name of a series of insanely versatile klezmer-inspired songbooks written by John Zorn. Versatile? Because these compositions have been interpreted by numerous bands and musicians, both within and outside of Zorn’s immediate entourage. In 2013, Pat Metheny had a shot at taming Zorn’s ‘Book of Angels, Vol. 20’.
Almost a decade before that, a rather extreme ensemble aimed at the Masada repertoire too. No surprise it was one of Zorn’s own groups: the allmighty Electric Masada, which took a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach to the music.
Compare the quiet Abidan to the complex and brutal Metal Tov. The obi that goes with double-disc live album ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ puts it right:
“Tight as a drum and hot as a blowtorch, these two incredible live performances will leave you breathless. Astonishing group conductions, searing solos and crazed insanity from one of the most amazing bands Zorn has ever had.”
Pat Metheny – ‘The Way Up’ (2005)
Guitarist extraordinaire Pat Metheny and keyboardist-sidekick Lyle Mays took their Pat Metheny Group recordings to the next level with this 68-minute twisting and turning piece of music. Partnering gorgeous melody with bursts of bebop improvisation, and Steve Reich-like pulses with a proggy compositional structure, ‘The Way Up’ is one of a kind.
Metheny had embarked on such grand-scale adventures before. ’80/81′, ‘As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls’, ‘Zero Tolerance for Silence’ (his take on ‘Metal Machine Music’), … anyone? After ‘The Way Up’, Metheny’s next step was to replace his Group by a stagewide construction of automated instruments, the orchestrion, which he dragged aIl around the world.
Dave Holland Quintet – ‘Extended Play. Live at Birdland’ (2003)
Honestly, the first track on ‘Extended Play’, The Balance is one of the most celestial pieces of music I know. The way the horns parts fight each other, and then fall into each other’s arms, is beyond words. As is the polyrhytmic base provided by Dave Holland (bass), Steve Nelson (marimba) and Billy Kelson (drums). ‘Extended Play’, an ECM release, was recorded live at Birdland in 2001.
Every single track on this massive set is a stretched-out version of a composition that was first recorded in the studio. In other words: Extended. And Play-ful most of the time, especially during the Chris Potter-Kevin Eubanks battle on Prime Directive. ‘Extended Play’ remains a crowning achievement for one of jazz’s finest band leaders.
Jaga Jazzist – ‘A Livingroom Hush’ (2002)
Main composer Lars Horntveth has a sixth sense for grand melodies and brightly coloured arrangements. Take Animal Chin and its huge, textured sound, which couples jazz marimba with electronics and turntables. One great theme is followed by another followed by another … culminating in a strange voyage through Lithuania, which couples Tortoise-like minimalism with orchestrated house. Now that’s cinematic.
The Necks – ‘Next’ (1990)
The Necks are an unusual Australian experimental jazz combo, with a very common set-up: piano, bass and drums. For years now, they have been releasing single, looooong compositions as albums, like ‘See Through’ and ‘Mosquito’. Meticously crafted acres of improvised music, time and time again. Debut album ‘Sex’ introduced the format. Follow-up ‘Next’ broke it.
It’s 28-minute centerpiece Pele, which patiently and brilliantly builts towards a gently pounding climax, sets the tone for The Necks’ further career, together with final piece The World At War. The ghostly guitar funk of Nice Policeman Nasty Policeman and the Seinfeld slapp bass of the title song only add to the fun on this overlooked album.
John Zorn – ‘Spillane’ (1987)
One of the most versatile composers around, John Zorn had released challenging ‘game pieces’ and a splendid tribute to Ennio Morricone (‘The Big Gundown’), before seeking inspiration from cult crime writer Mickey Spillane. The 25-minute title piece wouldn’t have sounded out of place in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, the cartoon/live-action film that hit the theaters a year later. Both ‘Spillane’ and ‘Roger Rabbit’ share the same setting: the 40’s-50’s LA underworld.
Zorn’s jumpcutting technique (from cartoons to harsh reality in a split second), samples and Morricone-mystique all work brilliantly. Besides Spillane there’s a thunderous blues jam featuring Albert Collins (Two-Lane Highway), and a mindblowing modern classical piece performed by the Kronos Quartet (Forbidden Fruit). Together with the Ornette Coleman readings of ‘Spy vs. Spy’, ‘Spillane’ would lead directly to jazz/hardcore masterpiece ‘Naked City’.
John Abercrombie – ‘Timeless’ (1975)
‘Timeless’ begins with rapid-fire interaction between guitarist John Abercrombie and keyboard player Jan Hammer (the Miami Vice guy). Meanwhile Jack DeJohnette holds everything together with his automatic weapon drumming.
But very soon, the trio sails into calmer water, evocating a wide range of moods: Love Song is a moving acoustic, well, love song. Just piano and guitar.
Red and Orange, by contrast, seems to predate early 1990s rave music like Nightmares on Wax. And the first four minutes of the title song provide an early example of ambient, while the next part has an elegant repetitive motif, which makes you think of Portishead, or even Radiohead. To top all that, ‘Timeless’ has that cystal clear ECM production. It’s a classic without expiration date.
Keith Jarret – ‘The Köln Concert’ (1975)
When on 24 January 1975 Keith Jarret finally sat down on his piano stool in the Köln Opera House, he didn’t have the slightest idea of what to play. He improvised his solo concert from start to finish. And still it became the best-selling solo piano album in jazz history.
But even more wonderous than the sales figures, is the fact that Jarret’s on the spot invention maintains a constant quality throughout two lengthy pieces, and knows no boundaries whatsoever – you’ll even find a Laura Nyre-like pop melody at about 02:25 in Part II c. Pressed on two LP’s and released on ECM Records, ‘The Köln Concert’ is a sincere work of art.
John Coltrane – ‘Interstellar Space’ (1974)
‘Interstellar Space’ is Coltrane’s posthumously released, deeply spiritual cosmos voyage. Recorded just five months before his untimely death in July 1967, his odes to Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn and the constellation of Leo are among the final sounds he put to tape.
On ‘Interstellar Space’, it’s just Coltrane, his wildly inventive sax improvisations, and the equally intense drum parts of Rashied Ali. As a listener you’ve got very little to hold on to. No melody to whistle along to. No beat to tap your foot to. This album is lightyears away from his beautiful ‘A Love Supreme’ (1965), which he had recorded just two years before, and therefore a witness of his increasingly restless soul.
Sun Ra – ‘Space Is the Place’ (1973)
It takes just one Google Images search to find out that Sun Ra was a mythical character, inspired by ancient Egypt. As you start digging into his vast body of work, another lifelong obsession emerges: outer space and the future. No wonder he confused audience and critics alike.
‘Space Is the Place’ – especially its sidelong, freeform, cosmos-worshipping centerpiece – is a gentler (i.e. more easily digestible) ode to all things celestial than Coltrane’s ‘Interstellar Space’. And its title track, a whirlwind of repetitive voices, horns and keyboards, is a testament to the genius of one of jazz’s maddest mavericks. But let’s not fall into the trap of explaining too much, as Sun Ra warns in his liner notes:
“What can I say other than the music itself? Music? Yes, to the ears that dare to hear, that dare to hear, that dare to hear. Both the silence and the sound.”
Miles Davis – ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’ (1971)
The genesis of Right Off, the first of two +25 minute tracks on ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’, is a special one. Apparently, while waiting for Miles, guitarist John McLaughlin started a riff on his guitar. Drummer Billy Cobham and bass player Michael Henderson joined in. Together they built an explosive foundation for Miles’ solo, which starts at 02:19.
In the meantime, Herbie Hancock, who happened to be in the NYC building for some other business, was ushered into the 30th Street Studio to play keyboards. Track two, Yesternow, may be a less succesful cut-and-paste affair, but ‘Jack Johnson’ emulates the power of the legendary boxer it was inspired by. Johnson himself, voiced by actor Brock Peters, had the final word:
“I’m Jack Johnson, heavy-weight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.”
Soft Machine – ‘Third’ (1970)
With tensions within Soft Machine rising, and the sword of Damocles hanging above his head, drummer, singer and songwriter Robert Wyatt remained silent on all tracks but one, his own composition Moon In June. The other members of Soft Machine wanted to pursue purely instrumental jazz, a schism which would very soon lead to Wyatt’s dismissal from his own band. All brilliantly described by Marcus O’Dair in ‘Different Every Time’.
Luckily, the internal dissonance is not evident from ‘Third’. The album comprises four glorious side-long tracks. And though its sound and scope seem modelled on ‘Bitches Brew’, it was recorded before Miles even released that set. It’s a defiantly idiosyncatric and British sounding record, and arguably one of the all time finest marriages of jazz and rock.
Peter Brötzmann Octet – ‘Machine Gun’ (1968)
“This historic free jazz album is a heavy-impact sonic assault so aggressive it still knocks listeners back on their heels decades later”, writes Allmusic’s Joslyn Layne. And she’s not exaggerating. It takes some nerve to get ‘Machine Gun’ out of its sleeve, to put it on the turntable and to let a wild bunch of sax players, bassist, pianists and drummers trash your ears, your walls and your furniture.
It’s an even bigger challenge to sit through the entire thing. But it will send chills down your spine. Albeit chills that feel like bullets. To quote Layne again: “Much like standing outside during a violent storm, withstanding this kind of fierce energy is a primal thrill.”
Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)
An orchestrated tour de force divided into four parts, ‘The Black and the Sinner Lady’ was ahead of its time. It had nothing to do with free jazz. Instead, the record seemed to come entirely out of Mingus’ mind. So much, in fact, that his psychologist Dr. Edmund Pollock provided liner notes to the original album:
“To me this particular composition contains Mr. Mingus’ personal and also a social message. He feels intensively. He tries to tell people he is in great pain and anguish because he loves.”
Anyway, whatever Mingus tried to say, he did so in a heart-stoppingly beautiful way. Incorporating everything from avant-garde to flamenco guitar in neat – in turns elegant and heavy – arrangements.
Ornette Coleman – ‘Free Jazz’ (1960)
Back to where we started: according to Fred Kaplan, 1959 was the year everything changed. Miles went modal and Ornette Coleman went free, with ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’. The latter then further revolutionalized jazz with ‘Free Jazz’: one monumental improvisation – created on the spot by his double quartet – split into two sides.
“No re-takes, no splices”, say the original liner notes. It’s a quintessential stereo record, with a set of horns, bass and drums in each speaker. There’s always someone keeping a familiar rhythmic pulse somewhere. That’s why ‘Free Jazz’ is a more relaxing listen than Brötzman’s ‘Machine Gun’. Still, Coleman provided the original landmark. One which impact on the shape of jazz to come is epic in its own right.
What are your views? Which records did I miss? What about the void I left in the 1980s? And was 1959 a landmark year for increasingly ambitious jazz albums?
Special thanks to Jonas Aerts for his suggestions and feedback.
And to the devoted followers of Facebook-group ECM Records for their input and support.