I’ve been picking out my favourite designs of jazz albums decade by decade. It has all been purely personal and subjective and has never pretended to be a history of graphic design, let alone of jazz. Many classic artists and albums have been missed out in the selection and some of those I have included are far from such and indeed are not even personal favourites (in the musical sense). The point has been just to show some of the sleeves which appeal to me. In doing so, I hope to show, in what essentially is just the packaging, there can be found fantastic and even beautiful art.
The decade I started with was the time of World War II, the Cold War and the birth of the civil rights movement. I finish with a time of numerous global conflicts, the reawakening of East/West rivalry and the Black Lives Matter campaign. Things change; things stay the same. Then, jazz was THE music whereas now it is a minority interest. Then, some big band enthusiasts were questioning whether bebop could rightly be termed jazz and even seeing it as a threat; now jazz hip-hop and all the maze of fusions sometimes receive a similar reaction. The first sleeves were for 78s, then came LPs, then CDs and now digital. All these changes have influenced some designs, and been irrelevant to others.
Looking at the previous recent blogs you could be forgiven for thinking that there was some iron rule which stated that at least two albums from the German ECM label have to be included. I can assure you that there isn’t. Nor is there a FIFA situation happening here with money changing hands (although if they do so desire, then meet me at the service station on the A1 at…) but is due to the consistently excellent quality of their designs. The label was launched in 1969 by Manfred Eicher with designer Barbara Wojirsch and the belief that the sleeves are, if not equal in importance to the music, then run it a close second.
They certainly weren’t the first record label to value cover design as an essential part of the art form and use it to convey an image. Labels as diverse as Motown and Factory, Verve and Blue Note have done likewise. Indeed, from my perspective, the question isn’t why these labels chose to do so but why so many don’t. My music collection is full of great music – rock, pop, soul and jazz – packaged in tacky bland covers which must have taken all of thirteen seconds to think up and produce. Fifteen seconds max.
Recently, the focus for ECM appears to be black and white photographs from a host of talented photographers. Sometimes they are of a glimpse of a person or a detail of an urban scene. This one and the one at the top of this blog are wonderful moody landscapes and look as if they are stills from the latest BBC4 Nordic Noir thriller. I find them simply beautiful.
Talking of that part of the world, this one is from Danish bassist Jesper Bodilson and could easily have been an ECM release (it isn’t, it is from the marvellous Stunt Records).
Another acquaintance from the previous blog was the rise of the jazz remix album. Verve Remix has become quite a series, even including Christmas specials; all which have featured interesting and amusing sculptures which incorporate hi fi equipment and make me think of a modern day Heath Robinson. This one by sculptor David Ellis is one of my favourites.
Germany does seem to be monopolising the list – two albums from ECM and now with this German trombonist. I like this cover because for me when I look at it I see what might be the result of a primary school child’s attempt to copy a De Stijl painting using a few rulers and a photocopier.
This 2008 album’s cover is a good example of how typography and a simple pattern can introduce the listener to the ethos of the music contained within. Mahanthappa is of Indian heritage (although born and brought up in the USA). Here he collaborates with Indian music legend Kadri Gopalnath to fuse (that word again!) South Indian music with jazz. The design hints at this nicely. It also incidentally is an example of how jazz design can be used as a fashion accessory because like many other album designs you can actually wear it with the label selling t-shirts with it on. Thus allowing you to swan about in someone else’s idea of cool. I should sniff and tut at such things and discuss alienation and commodities, but truth be told, they do look rather good, so I merely comment.
On this 2005 Blue Note album, Photographer Nitin Vadukul has light pouring out of both Blanchard’s trumpet and his brain, which could be seen as a metaphor for a musician who plays with his head as much as his instrument. Or it could just be a nice image. It is a great cover either way.
Okay, here is a nineteen fifties hero saving the damsel in distress from a saxophone. But this is 2014 and welcome to the wild and wacky (and whilst we are on alliteration, let’s include witty) world of the Ed Palermo Big Band. Keeping it all the family, the cover is drawn by Nancy Palermo. I see this as standing in the long tradition of jazz art which incorporates the playful and the wacky. It also fits neatly with his Palermo’s love of Frank Zappa, a rock musician who could be a wee bit zany himself.
Although these blogs are all about the cover art it has been especially gratifying when the album matches the quality of the design. That is true of this 2006 release and it is made even better when you note that it is by legends who include Hank Jones (who played with Charlie Parker) and Jimmy Cobb (who of course, amongst other things, played on the great Kind of Blue with Miles Davis).
The skyscraper soars above us, gleaming and impersonal, powerful and intimidating. The album designer is Jack Frisch who has over 150 CD photographs and designs behind him, including M2 by Marcus Miller, which won him a Grammy in 2001.
I wanted to end on this one because through the seventy odd album covers I have picked out there have been the political, the ones which used classic art, the playful, the simple, the colourful, the profound and the slight. And there has also been the simple fact that jazz cover designers have the advantage over many other music genres because jazz musicians are usually so damn cool. So here is Joshua Redman, a comparatively young musician (and not only very accomplished but very cool) and he is standing behind a puddle in a street. The photographer is Michael Wilson, an in-demand man with a range of clients including Lyle Lovett and Hugh Laurie. He takes the pic and turns it upside down so the reflection is on top. Simple. And cool.
And let us end with that word for it describes the jazz years as seen by the covers, from 1940 to 2015 – cool.