It was all happening in the nineteen nineties – the fall of Margaret Thatcher, the release of Nelson Mandela and the world premiere of Spice World – The Movie, to name just three. Whether you consider the latter to be a truly historic event or not, is one for heated, philosophical and profound discussions late into the night. But whatever your position on the matter, you probably would be hard pressed to think of any jazz related event which qualified as being worthy of such a description. Unless that is, if you took a look at the obituaries where you would find the likes of Miles Davis (1991), Ella Fitzgerald (1996) and Dizzy Gillespie (1993) all going to that jazz club in the sky.
But it wasn’t quite Jazz RIP. True, it did not have the global power of hip-hop (which was basically taking over the world, Spice included) but jazz could still produce music of note (no pun intended, although I’ll accept it). Jazzmatazz for example, was the rapper Gang Starr using jazz samples to produce a thrilling album. The cover, with its photography and typography, cleverly echoes the Blue Note albums of the fifties and sixties. A Tribe Called Quest, another pioneer of jazz rap also, for their 1991 single Jazz (We’ve Got) did likewise. For some it wasn’t jazz; for others, the mix was jazz updating itself and evolving, like jazz has always done. Some didn’t give a hoot either way. Personally, I’m in the evolution group and think this sleeve neatly depicts how a very modern art form (rap) can adopt, style and incorporate an older one (jazz). It is witty too.
The decade saw the trend of fusing different genres with jazz increase with a whole host of words being bolted before and after it to create ‘new’ hybrids of the music (jazzcore, post-bop, punk jazz, acid jazz et al). Which would at least give gainful employment to the grammar police who could debate whether a hyphen was required or not. Buckshot LeFonque (1994) was the self-titled debut album from the group created by Branford Marsalis to cross jazz with hip-hop. The sleeve, like the album, is bold and fun.
Not that the decade was solely hip-hop, there was also grunge and Brit pop. But I am not aware of the genre of Brit pop jazz (although Noel Gallagher did play guitar on a cover version of the Beatle’s Help on jazz singer Claire Martin’s 1999 album, Take my Heart). Fab Four Brit Pop Jazz?
Something must have been in the air that year because this exceptional album includes Mehldau covering a Radiohead song.
The cover is number of cool blue and green stripes with the title and artist(s) in stylish lower case lettering. The slanting 4 is the final touch; giving the sleeve a pure simplicity.
At least in these comparatively early days of hip-hop, social comment and anger at the poverty, injustice and racism which African Americans continued (and continue) to experience in the States was an important element to the music. Maybe that was one reason why young artists were drawing upon their musical roots – historically, jazz had been greatly influenced by the civil rights movement. In turn, jazz artists saw hip-hop as breathing life into an old form. But jazz didn’t have to rely on its new loud nephew to make a point. Pharoah Sanders was from the generation immersed in the black consciousness movement and spiritualism. Here the stand out track is Our Roots (Began in Africa) which is so self-explanatory that, well I don’t need to explain it.
The cover looks to be like the great man is lost in a vortex of warped perspective which almost look like the folds of time. Considering Mr Sanders’ music and beliefs, that surely is no coincidence.
There was little in the way of subtlety (which is definitely not a criticism) with this album. The cover (by Deborah Bowie) is a photograph from the 1992 Los Angeles riot and the title alludes to the James Baldwin book on race in the USA. It is a live album recorded just a few months after the riots which followed the acquittal of the cops who almost beat Rodney King to death. Tracks include a cover of Strange Fruit, which he introduces with the poignant comment that nothing appears to have changed, and a stunning version of Michael Jackson’s Black or White. (A fine example of how interpretation and context can empower a song; in this case going from a passable if cheesy pop to a strident angry, yet witty, blow-out of rage at injustice). The cover and the music remind me of the great 1960 jazz albums which had a symbiotic relationship with the civil right movement.
This 1995 album also reminds me of the great LPs of the sixties but this time it is because the design uses a painting for the cover. This particular one is by John Marin and is a 1932 watercolour titled Region of Brooklyn Bridge Fantasy and is a good example of both the painter’s love of New York and his debt to cubism.
The Joe Lovano album is on Blue Note and was a continuation of the labels’ emergence from its dormant existence; remembering that it was once home to new fresh releases and not just a vehicle for the selling of dozens of retakes of the same song. This album shows how the label could honour its past and bring it to a whole new generation of artists by using its huge back catalogue to join in the jazz hip-hop scene.
I love the simple style of the sleeve which manages to hark back to the golden era of design and at the same time seem new. The vertical stripe which backs the number 1 divides the classic original artists from the DJs who have remixed them. For me, it is a clever way of crediting all those involved.
Such albums have become very popular (and let us be honest, sometimes very good).
Perhaps the management in Blue Note records noticed that ECM records were releasing albums which were critically acclaimed and were popular (in jazz terms that is – Michael Jackson never feared being out sold by any of them) and were released in imaginatively designed album covers. Here’s another one. Barbara Wojirsch was still at the helm of design for the label (see previous blogs). Here the photography is by Jim Bengston who was responsible for many fine covers. Like this one. Although, call me an old post- punk nostalgia addict but it does whisper in my ear – Joy Division.
And here’s another one by the same photographer and on the same label. It neatly shows how ECM would often use design which appeared to be a still from some European art-house movie.
But let’s end on a dash of colour with this 1991 album by the Mubal Richard Abrams Orchestra and has a fantastic bright and vibrant cover painted by Abrams himself. Abrams, like Roscoe Mitchell, who we encountered on the last blog with an album cover painted by himself, was formerly a member of the Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AAACM). The AACM had emerged from the cultural empowerment of the sixties and were a collective who rented out city lofts to play at.
It is a bright note (yep, it is a pun) to end on, with a veteran jazz man from political times, producing a fine album in a fine sleeve.