In this confusing world we all use labels, indeed it could be said that language is based on doing so, but it is also common for certain people, with highfalutin rhetoric, to denounce their use. Then they create their own. That’s true for far more important matters than favourite record sleeves, so I feel no embarrassment in that I use the term post-punk even though it is a label which is vague, difficult to define and sometimes contradictory. It is however, a term now in common usage for the music which followed the punk explosion of 1976/1977 (but then, even if you hadn’t been aware of it before, you would have no doubt guessed it from the term itself; unless you took it to be songs about some stroppy mail man). It can mean all sorts of music – free jazz, pop, electronica, funk, shambolic rock, you name it. It can also include bands who were originally once known as punk or new wave or even predated punk. But hey, that’s labels for you.
My first album sleeve is from the fantastic Raincoats and their second album, Odyshape. As the founding members attended the Hornsey School of Art, it is perhaps not a total surprise that the 1981 LP’s cover is based on a painting (Peasant Woman by Kazimir Malevich). For me, it is an album which musically and visually explains post-punk. The album is a fantastic set of songs which somehow just manage to avoid collapsing half-way through each one; post-punk having continued the ethos that music could be thrilling without having to be played by musical geniuses. Often this is called the DIY music – although, isn’t most music performed by the musicians themselves?
On buying it, the cover seemed bright and wonderful to me, and for some reason radical, and I could ascribe all sorts of meanings to it. Having dutifully read my NME, I knew The Raincoats were political and were feminists, so it must be political! I had never heard of Malevich, or his peasant paintings. I thought it was eye-popping and vowed to find out who this Malevich was. Pre-internet, I visited the local library and looked him up. The world of the Russian revolutionary art popped up. That is post-punk: musicians with the freedom to explore music, politics, ideas and art. And making it fun. And different.
Either side of the painting is the band’s name and the album title in a font which is strong and colourful but avoids being macho or domineering. Can you read too much into the lettering to say that is how I see the band? Probably.
More art school types. Talking Heads could justifiably claim to be pre-punk (formed in 1975) but we’ve done the thing about labels. This 1979 album (their third) had a black embossed cover which was lovely to run your hand over (you just don’t get that with digital music – the feel of an album). Designed by the keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison it, apparently, is meant to resemble diamond plate flooring. The type you might get on the factory floor to avoid slipping. The typeface appears like a neon light shining out from the darkness of the cover. The sleeve has an industrial feel about it, which is not matched by the funky vibe within. But they’re art school, so don’t expect the obvious.
Visuals were almost as important as the music, perhaps because of the number of ex-art school students involved or perhaps the space post-punk gave artists encouraged creativity. The emphasis was on the art rather than the profit margin. Unlike the Talking Heads’ cover, this from Wire’s debut album, Pink Flag, does somehow sum up the music inside: clear lines and a simple purity which is oddly intriguing. The photograph is actually of a flagless flag pole in the middle of a parade ground, which Wire saw whilst touring. They the added the pink, so undermining any military connations. (Maybe it is post-pole music? Sorry, as you’ll read below, I’ve been listening to too much ABC). It is simple but effective.
Raised eyebrows might accompany Elvis Costello’s inclusion in post-punk, having been touring in pub rock bands since 1975. The cover of Imperial Bedroom (1982) is a painting by Barney Bubbles, a graphic artist who, unlike Malevich, I had heard of at the time of purchase, because he had designed the NME. He also used his craft for covers for the likes of The Damned, Hawkwind and Ian Dury. It is a pastiche of the Pablo Picasso painting, Three Musicians. On its release there was some chat both in the music press and with my more posy friends as to what it might mean. Was it an allegory on sex, music or the western capitalism’s flirtation with fascism? The letters on the creatures on the upper right spell out PABLO SI which might be a clue – perhaps it is just fun. But still, it made for some great pretentious late-night drunken rambles.
The inner sleeve had the lyrics running across it and the label in one block of unpunctuated words. A good friend of mine criticises Costello for being exactly just that.
Words were also used as design for ABC’s album released in the same year, the Lexicon of Love. Indeed, unusually, they were even on the front of the cover. But then as the title says, this is about words and language. Not that singer Martin Fry could ever be accused of being a dry linguist professor. Although it is quite possible that he has a doctorate in puns because each song tends to include at least five. Like Costello, words are important to Fry, but with him they are used in a more playful way. Fry has said that he wanted his music to be shiny and almost cinematic in feel. This is reflected by the design of the cover with Fry as some noir detective holding a swooning woman. But the image is one of theatre; you can clearly see the stage curtains and on the back cover shows the band as stage hands; ready for the leading man to finish his performance. This is the singer playing a part. Profundity and puns, what’s not to like?
For many bands, covers merely showing the musicians smiling, or even looking cool, whilst staring out at the record buyer was seen as boring. Many of the second generation punk bands might want to sneer in their leather jackets but post-punk wanted something far more interesting. Unlike today’s releases, or indeed contemporaries from other genres, album sleeves featuring the band or artist were not the norm. When they were, they often would be playing a role, like ABC or Heaven 17 on Penthouse and Pavement (posing as international businesmen). Others such as Pil’s debut or Human League’s Dare had them deeply stylised. Echo and the Bunnymen were one of the bands who did appear on their covers. But even with them, they were not looking at the consumer. They were always looking ahead, to a point on the horizon, in some stunning (and moody – it had to be moody) landscape. On their second album, Heaven up Here, they are on a wet beach in south Wales (photo by Brian Griffen). All dark, moody (told you), brooding and cool. The Bunnymen didn’t do sunshine or summer – it made wearing their trademark dark raincoats uncomfortable. Silhouettes and shadows were far more edgy. In one go, they could keep post-punk cred whilst also using the long-standing marketing fact that a band’s photo sells units.
Whilst it was undeniably male dominated, women had been an important part of punk (X-Ray Spex, Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees for example, who by the way, are not included here because like The Clash, The Jam and Pistols, I consider them to be punk… those labels again) and with post-punk that increased. The Au Pairs were led by Lesley Wood, who possessed one of the great rock voices. This was a time when many bands were not afraid to be political and Playing with a Different Sex, the Au Pairs’ 1981 debut, contains a fantastic set of songs on topics as diverse as Northern Ireland and domestic violence. With Rock against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, politics had been very much a part of late seventies music. With the recession deepening, Margaret Thatcher privatising everything in sight and with millions suffering, people were angry and a number of musicians felt singing only about love and romance was not entirely appropriate. But PWADS is never worthy-but-dull. There is humour, warmth and great hooks, which makes this an object lesson into how to be angry but accessible.
The cover neatly encapsulates the themes with a photograph of Chinese female militia on manoeuvres in Mongolia, taken by the great photographer Eve Arnold in the late seventies. Arnold was a photojournalist whose work included iconic images of a range of subjects including Malcolm X and Marilyn Monroe.
Here’s another great photo from a 1981 debut. This one is of a monkey taking on a wild cat. Rip, Rig and Panic were named after a Roland Kirk’s album, and were a free jazz/post-punk/funk/choose your label band, who included former members of the Pop Group and Neneh Cherry. Their wild and frenetic music confronts and exhilarates and like the monkey, screams and bites with its hackles up. It is also full of humour (probably not reflected by the monkey though). And the album title is God. Look at it and then the photo, and make your own mind up as to what that means.
Politics and art were expressed in all sorts of ways in both punk and post-punk with movements such as the situationists and constructivists being used or cited by a number of bands. The former was evident in this 1979 Gang of Four album. The front cover has three stills from a 1960’s cowboy film (a series based on the character Winnetou) which have been seen as a fore-runner of the Spaghetti Westerns and were popular in East Germany because they were seen as being anti-capitalist. Around the stills is written: “The Indian smiles, he thinks that the cowboy is his friend. The cowboy smiles, he is glad the Indian is fooled.”
Not that everything was political on planet post-punk. Yazoo’s 1982 debut (why are so many of these debuts?), Upstairs at Eric’s, has two manniquens sitting at the table with their upper torsos actually on the table and their lower halves set back on the chairs. Taken in photographer Joe Lyons’ studio, it shows by simply positioning different objects and a clever use of light an arresting image can be made which basically just looks good.
It is the final choice of my post-punk favourite album sleeves but looking at them I realise that as great as they are, there could have easily been a totally different ten (even with the issues of defining what is and is not, post-punk) and so have included some of them below. I also note that whilst they were chosen purely for their album design, they also happen to be albums which I also enjoy musically.
There’s a whole new blog out there of great albums with awful covers and awful albums with great covers.
Ones which could have been included in the above list
- Everything but the Girl: Love Not Money
- Human League: Dare
- Joy Division: Closer
- Pop Group: Y
- The Raincoats: The Raincoats
- The Passage: Pindrop
- Public Image Ltd: First Issue
- The Cure: Three Imaginary Boys
- Girls at our Best: Pleasure
- Depeche Mode: A Broken Frame
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.
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.
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.
A trussed up Nazi, hand-grenades on the table and a sub-machine gun slung across his back is not quite the scene you’d usually expect from an album by a jazz pianist. But welcome to the 1960s and to Thelonious Monk. His 1968 album sleeve won a Grammy for its design but proved to be controversial with some folks. Maybe it was because that in 1968 Martin Luther King had been assassinated, sparking riots across major cities in the States, and although the picture is ostensibly a tableau of the French Resistance it is quite possible that people saw allusions closer to home; seeing the title as being a reference to the nineteenth century abolitionist network – the Underground Railway. Those who saw the cover perhaps saw the resistance as being against the racist (Nazi?) US state or against the imperialistic Vietnam War. Or perhaps that at the time of the Blank Panthers, a picture of a black man carrying a gun was pretty damn frightening. But if some were troubled by it, many were inspired.
Whatever the reasons for the controversy, the sleeve, supervised by Columbia Records’ art director John Berg and photographed by Norman Griner, is often more talked about than the (marvellous) music.
John Berg was also responsible for overseeing another iconic 1960s album sleeve – Bitches Brew. Miles Davis’ 1969 album was one of the first albums which would be labelled jazz-rock. The gatefold sleeve had a painting by Abdul Mati Klarwein, an artist who also provided covers for artists as diverse as Santana and The Last Poets.
Mati Klarwein was born in Hamburg in 1932. His mother was an opera singer and his father an architect with the Bauhaus Movement. The family were Jewish, fleeing Germany in 1934 and settling in Palestine. He went on to study with Fernand Leger in Paris and became friendly with Salvador Dali. Through these associations you can see the surrealism and use of symbolism in his work.
Interestingly, later, he added the Muslim name Abdul, which means servant in Arabic, as a statement of his belief that the two religions need to understand and respect each other.
How could this 1967 album not be included with its painting of Simone as Cleopatra? It, like Bitches Brew, is an example of how Afro-centrism was influencing 1960s sleeve designs. At the time the Black Arts Movement were promoting African American art and demanding a higher profile for black artists, authors and musicians and recognition of the worth of black history. So whilst fifty years on it may seem a touch cheesy to have Nina Simone as the Egyptian Queen there was significance beyond wearing fancy dress. And let’s face it; it is a whole lot less cheesy that the girl from Hampstead, Liz Taylor, who four years earlier had dressed up as Cleopatra.
The title is also telling, with the record execs wanting to catch a ride on the soul train. Because in 1967 soul was proving to be highly profitable.
Whilst generalising is a dangerous thing, it is quite legitimate to say that by the early to mid-sixties young black audiences were drifting away from jazz and towards the sound of Motown and Stax. Soul was reaching huge audiences whilst the experimental avant-garde jazz, which had exploded into the decade, was leaving many cold. Jazz though, has always been adaptable and many artists saw soul as not a threat but instead was something which could be incorporated into their music. This 1963 soul-jazz classic by the Hammond B3 legend, Jimmy Smith, was enormously successful on its release and remains hugely popular today.
It is so with me. Back at the Chicken Shack is just one example of the series of 1960 album sleeves which were designed by Reid Miles and photographed by Francis Wolff for the Blue Note label. Their brilliance set a new level of album design. When I saw first saw this album, my knowledge of jazz consisted of Ella and Nina. I picked it up to admire the red shirt and the juxtaposition of the chicken shack and Smith looking so damn cool. I played it purely for that reason. After hearing it – I threw myself at everything jazz related I could find.
Jazz could still have hits though. The Girl from Ipanema sung by Astrud Gilberto is taken from this album and proved that it certainly could (the song is the second most recorded pop song of all time – after Paul McCartney’s Yesterday). The album cover features a lovely abstract expressionist painting by the Puerto Rican artist Olga Albizu. It radiates warmth and joy, like a hot sunny holiday – an effect totally in keeping with the music.
But whilst soul jazz and bossa nova retained a wide appeal, one type of jazz was far more polarising – free jazz. Even now, the mere mention of those two words can send people scurrying off for shelter. Cries of “that’s not music, its just noise” will greet a thirty minute sax improvisation. This is the audio equivalent of the reaction which modern art often receives – “my seven year old could do that!” So it is apt that this 1961 album by Ornette Coleman came in a gatefold sleeve, with a cut-out showing Jackson Pollack’s 1954 drip painting, White Light. Free jazz and modern art – now that’s taking no prisoners! Both art forms were about tearing down conventions and both are here.
The sixties were a decade that the pressing political questions of the time were never far from many people’s thoughts. I think this sleeve by the Dutch artist Marte Roling wittily captures this. It is one of her covers for the Fontana label which featured drawings with cut-away heads. This one says it all – look closely at the words at the back of his head.
The previous blog on my favourite jazz covers of the fifties closed with a Max Roach album and there could have been several more of his in this one. For example, I could have included his 1960 album, We Insist, with its cover evoking the sit-ins of white-only restaurants; a case of the era’s militancy not only influencing the artists but becoming the art itself. Charlie Haden’s 1969 album, Liberation Music Orchestra does a similar thing with the group holding aloft a banner, referencing a sight often seen on the streets – a demo.
The sleeve of It’s Time (1962) is simply a portrait of Max Roach. It is an excellent portrait by a clearly talented artist but the artist, Richard Jannings, had difficulty getting work because of his colour. It seemed that black artists were fine to sing or play an instrument but not to design an album cover. The title speaks for both artist and musician, and for all black people, in echoing Charlie Parker’s classic demand for equality – Now is the Time. What I really like about this painting is the feeling of depth; it is as if you can actually feel the layered paint.
The sixties will also forever be associated with other rebels – hippies. Long hair, Flower Power, dropping out and all that stuff (maaan) is usually more associated with white audiences but psychedelic stylings spread even to jazz albums. This 1967 album by Archie Shepp manages to combine hippy flowers with the West African witchcraft in a delightful mash up. Was this the first Gothic African Hippy Trippy Free Jazz album?
Now this is REALLY dropping out. If society is so corrupt and the individual needs to escape from it then perhaps it is best to leave the planet which spawned it. Sun Ra claimed that he was from the “Angel Race” and hailed from Saturn. Born with the name Herman Poole Blount, he changed it to Sun Ra (Ra was the Ancient Egyptian God of the Sun), insisting that Blount was merely an imaginary person. His rejection of his birth “slave” name echoes Malcolm X and Mohammed Ali and can be seen as more than just an eccentricity.
Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One is one of his key albums of the mid-sixties (1965), highlighting his break from other types of jazz and his invention of cosmic jazz. It was originally released in a black and white cover, which he designed himself. I cannot say on which planet that was done.