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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.
In the 1980s you were never far from a sax solo. If there was a movie scene which demanded an element of sex or sophistication, or both, usually involving a lot of hair spray, then you could bet your rolled-up jacket sleeves that some smooth jazz would be playing in the background. Smooth jazz, emerged (with silky ease) out of the 1970s. Basically, it was Jazz rock fusion with all the edges, indeed interest…well…er…smoothed out. Kenny G was the king of the genre, a genre which many loved and many others thought was akin to watching white paint drying. Running him a close second was sax man David Sanborn. Linking Sanborn with smooth jazz might be doing him a disservice as he has been keen to distance himself from the genre; plus the fact that the list of musicians who he has recorded with boasts an impressive number of the jazz and rock greats.
But we’re here to discuss album covers and this 1982 LP from Sanborn has a sleeve with a picture by the marvellously named Lou Beach (I really hope he has a son called Sandy) which is worth a look. Born in Germany of Polish parents, Beach came to the USA at the age of four. Leaving high school he hitched a ride with some hippies and after several blue-collar jobs concentrated on his art. He hit fame with his Grammy winning album cover for Weather Report’s 1971 debut album.
I like its bold colours, which if you have read my previous blogs, you will already know that I am a sucker for (and if you haven’t read them – why not?). I also appreciate the way it initially appears to be a simple street scene but on taking a closer look, the distorted perspectives and repeated images appear. It is bright and brash, and I think fun. Like much of the eighties.
Talking of Germany, the label, based in that country – ECM – also featuring in my 1970s blog, was going from strength to strength. This 1984 Art Ensemble of Chicago album is designed by the ECM design supremo, Barbara Wojirsch. The effervescent cover is a painting by one of the musicians of the band, sax player Roscoe E Mitchell. Mitchell was one of the founding members of the nineteen sixties non-profit Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which had been inspired by the black cultural movements of the decade, which had in turn had grown out of the black consciousness movement. The Art Ensemble grew out of the AACM.
But in the 1980s things were also brewing elsewhere in Europe, in the UK to be precise. Acid jazz was yet another fusion, of jazz with funk, pop, soul and disco (and the kitchen sink if required). Like previous fusions it repulsed as many as it attracted. One band in the nineteen eighties club jazz scene was the James Taylor Quartet who had Taylor’s Hammond B3 playing at its core. Mission Impossible was their debut album and as both the title and design suggest, was a set of cover versions of film themes. This was groovy before Austin Powers was even a sparkle in Mike Myers’ eyes.
This 1989 compilation is an example of the work of art director and designer Andrew Sutton who designed albums for many acid house and acid jazz musicians. But is it a jazz album?
There was less ambivalence about the rise of the London born jazz sax player Courtney Pine. Destiny Song (1988), is his second album with the sleeve a repeated photograph of Pine, from music industry photographer Mike Prior.
As Pine shows, sometimes you don’t need fine art, playful visual puns, collage or fancy typography – a photo of the musician looking cool is quite enough. And coolness is something which jazz musicians have a large stock of. Don Cherry is sitting there, with his trumpet pressed to his lips, wearing a white hat. Just cool.
And this one too. This photograph by Irving Penn is so close up that you feel as if you can see every pore of Miles Davis’ skin. Penn specialises in close ups of the famous, the VERY famous, with the likes of W.H Auden and Picasso having their faces snapped by him. The cover won a Grammy for the Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka, whose credits also include designing the costumes for the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the uniforms for the Japanese 2002 Winter Olympics team.
A different Davis. This one is Anthony. His 1988 album features a simple and effective, if none too subtle, picture with an allusion to the title. But then designer, Ivan Chermayeff, has made his name with effective designs which stay in the memory because his CV includes logo designs for a host of well-known multi-nationals. A thought does occur to me that many of the sleeves of the nineteen sixties and seventies were influenced by the militancy of the time. Whereas here, the links are with big corporations; maybe that is a coincidence or maybe it says a lot about the decades concerned.
Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy was a massive hit in the eighties but wasn’t from this album. Oh well. It is however a sign that Blue Note records was beginning to awake from the slumber it had fallen into during the seventies.
The designer is Paula Scher who has received multiple Grammy nominations for cover designs and acclaim for her work for the cultural giants of Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum and the New York Ballet. The sort of names you drop at dinner parties. She too has a corporate client list which would have Madison Avenue slobbering with jealously. Scher claims inspiration from the Russian Constructivists (the 1917 revolution wasn’t in vain then) and believes that you can learn everything you need to know about album design from three Beatles albums (Revolver, Sgt Peppers and the White Album).
There were several jazz films in the 1980s and Cotton Club, whilst being far from the best, the original soundtrack did have a great cover. It is a stylish black and white image with cool typography and the shadow of the machine gun is that of a trumpet. Design was by Steve Gerdes who did likewise for a number of movie soundtrack albums (and indeed for synth poppers Depeche Mode).
Cotton Club is a nice enough sleeve but it exemplifies something which struck me whilst compiling this list; that most, if not all, would struggle to get into my equivalent for the fifties and sixties. Indeed, my problem with those decades was how to restrict them to a manageable number. Yet, in the two which follow the pickings get far fewer. So many of the jazz sleeves of the nineteen eighties show the musician looking like an extra from Miami Vice. Of course, it could simply be personal taste – bad haircuts in brightly lit photographs – may be your thing. But I think that in the main, they look tacky. Too much of the corporate idea of what is cool. There appears to be little thought given to them. Is it linked to the fact that by the mid-sixties, jazz was not where the big bucks could be found? Rock, pop and soul made the profits, so time and effort should be spent on them and not on a minority interest. Maybe also, as the years rolled past, the truly great innovative and revolutionary jazz musicians and albums declined.
We shall see. The 1990s are next (didn’t expect that did you!)
The silver Airstream mobile homes, under a lovely blue sky and glistening in the autumn sun, look like aliens from a 1950s sci-fi flick. An iconic image. This is the second album from guitarist Pat Metheny, whose fusion of jazz and rock split many into lovers and haters. As the blog’s title says – Marmite jazz. (Okay, so the majority of people couldn’t give a hoot either way, let’s not spoil a well-worn cliché).
In the 1970s jazz was fusing faster than an electrical system installed by cowboy sparks. Rock, funk, classical, Latin – jazz musicians were being influenced by them all, and in turn influencing them.
American Garage was released on the German ECM label. A label which in itself can divide a jazz gathering into those who adore its classical stylings and those who see it as muzak. But hey, I’m just looking at the covers here. And in any case, when the ‘but is it jazz?’ wars were being fought, I was just moving from T. Rex to the Sex Pistols. To me, ‘All that Jazz’ merely referred to an Echo and the Bunnymen track.
Another Metheny album (his first) and another ECM record. There are a few here because I genuinely find the covers attractive (as indeed do many others, who collect them as works of art). The design team for the label was Barbara and Burkhart Wojirsch. After Burkhart’s untimely death, Barbara would, along with photographer Dieter Rehm, create, a recognisable style for the label. Similar to Blue Note in the fifties and sixties, you could tell the label from the design. It was a type of branding. Although the designs from the two labels are very different, both share a playful approach using different fonts, photography and art. Both looked very cool.
Here, the photograph of an isolated house in the country reminds me of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of an almost mythical American landscape. The bright light from the house compliments the title. Then there’s that large white margin, keeping it clean and focussed.
From Germany to Sweden. The Swedish Caprice label released this 1972 album featuring a painting by the artist Moki Cherry. The blaze of colour all but jumps out at you, and has a marvellously naive, almost childlike quality about it. Moki incidentally, as well as being a fine artist, also happened to be married to the trumpeter.
Gil Scot Heron and Brian Jackson’s great 1974 album was originally called Supernatural Corner, after the collage featured on the sleeve. Created by artist Eugene Cole it refers to a house which Heron lived in and was reputed to be haunted. Heron though, found the title rather too obtuse, so chose Winter in America instead, a far more appropriate one, considering the themes of songs such The Bottle. The four by eight foot painting is Cole’s sense of confusion and anger following the murder of Martin Luther King.
A simple but effective photograph of a lone figure standing tall, proud and dignified in front of the African landscape. With apartheid South Africa provoking world-wide outrage and the movement against it growing, the image spoke volumes.
This masterpiece has the seventies written all over it. Just look at the design, the clothes and the garish typography. For the central image, the Galician-American artist, Victe Moscoso uses a modern image (a tape head demagnetiser, which was a recording tool at a time. And no I have no idea what they do), and creates an African mask out of it. So it’s a jazz-funk cousin of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon then. Moscoso had become well known in the late nineteen sixties counter-culture for his psychedelic posters and illustrations in Zap Comix.
This is the wonderful Alice Coltrane’s third album and features the equally wonderful Pharoah Sanders. The cover art is by Jim Evans, an artist who, like Victe Moscoso made is his name in underground comics. The album sleeve design reflects the ancient Egyptian mythology which inspires much of the album’s music. (I’m guessing that Pharoah Sanders was chosen because he is one of the finest sax players in the world and not because his name fits the concept. And yes, I know the oa is reversed, it was a joke).
The 1971 album is another superb example of how to contrast a title with an image. In this case, the billowing flames from an industrial chimney has little in the way of a blue horizon. I think it is that thing called irony. It could have easily been used by Gil Scot Heron.
Yet another ECM cover. I have a fondness for minimalist art because, without sounding pretentious (or at least any more pretentious than I usually do), I find the purity relaxing. I think the sleeve reflects the space present in Bley’s piano playing.
The album’s title is a reference to the Attica prison riots which occurred when the prisoners rose up demanding better conditions, following the shooting of Black Panther George Jackson in San Quentin jail (on the album one track is called Blues for George Jackson). The sleeve shows Archie Shepp working at a piano, his sax slung across it like a rife. He is flanked by books and images of black heroes, including a poster with the iconic image of the African American Olympic athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 games giving the Black Power salute on the medal rostrum. Great cover – great album.