Each year as we roll through summer, the one thing that always comes to my mind besides the scorching heat is the undeniable energy of live concerts and festivals.
I wish more than anything that I could be out every night experiencing jazz in its purest format, as I’m sure many of our listeners do. But until we can safely gather again, we should consider ourselves blessed that some of the most iconic live performances in jazz history happened to occur in the presence of a tape recorder.
From Monterey to Newport, Las Vegas to Toronto, here are a few of my favorite live recordings. I hope they get you feeling like you’re in the front row once again!
“A Night in Tunisia” — Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Max Roach — “The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall”
If there was ever a jazz A-Team, it was recorded live at Massey Hall in Toronto on May 15, 1953. This last recorded meeting of legends Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker (who appeared on the record first as Charlie Chan due to contractual obligations) is a whirlwind of incredible solos backed up by the ironclad trio of Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach.
This is considered by many to be the greatest jazz concert ever. Check out “A Night in Tunisia” for the evidence.
“Teach Me Tonight” — Erroll Garner — “Concert By The Sea”
A concert by the sea sounds like a pretty relaxing way to spend your time, right?
In a concert at the Sunset School in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California on September 10, 1955, pianist Erroll Garner, bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil Best created some of the most lush and relaxing sounds known to jazz.
This was one of those concerts that wasn’t going to be recorded originally, but someone in the back happened to be taping it. And how lucky we are that they were!
“Teach Me Tonight” is a laid back swing number that really makes you feel like you could be relaxing right by the ocean.
“Angel Eyes” — Frank Sinatra — “Sinatra At The Sands”
When I think of a surefire crowd pleaser, Frank Sinatra undoubtedly comes to mind. And where else would you get a crowd like Las Vegas?
Recorded in 1966 at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Sinatra and the Count Basie Orchestra led by Quincy Jones are the epitome of cool. The night is littered with plenty of big brassy swing tunes, as well as a few captivating ballads. My favorite has to be “Angel Eyes,” a sorrowful song featuring just Basie’s piano and the muted trumpet of Harry “Sweets” Edison as accompaniment.
“Tricotism” — Oscar Peterson Trio — “The London House Sessions”
While it may be a subject of debate for some, it is my firm belief that no one swings harder than Oscar Peterson. His trio of bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen is truly a force of nature, and their concerts from the summer of 1961 at the London House jazz club in Chicago are absolutely mind blowing.
One of the catchiest numbers is Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism.” The playful back and forth between the piano and bass in the beginning is sure to have you dancing out of your seat.
“Jeep’s Blues” — Duke Ellington — “Ellington At Newport 1956”
Explosive and laid back are two descriptors that can only be truly exemplified together by the music of Duke Ellington. One of the most famous performances in jazz history is Ellington’s set at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.
In this performance, his band proves why they were in the business so much longer than the other big bands. “Jeep’s Blues” is sultry and soulful and features alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges at his finest.
“What Love?” — Charles Mingus — “Mingus At Antibes”
The hallmark of live jazz is its improvisation, and bassist Charles Mingus was known for pushing the boundaries. While Mingus had been experimenting with aspects of free jazz for quite a while already, it was likely an entirely new experience for the crowd at the 1960 Antibes Jazz Festival in Juan-les-Pins, France.
The mostly piano-less quartet explored the art of musical conversation. The most captivating example of this to me is “What Love?,” a long and winding composition by Mingus that features Ted Cruson on the trumpet and Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet.
“Li’l Liza Jane” — Nina Simone — “At Newport”
It’s no secret that live music was meant for dancing, and if I had been in the audience for Nina Simone’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960, you can bet I would’ve been shaking my tail off.
This was recorded on June 30, which also happens to be my birthday, so extra points to Simone. There’s not much to “Li’l Liza Jane” other than its infectious beat and joyful air, but the folk tune stands out as the gem of the set.
“Interlude” — Christian McBride Trio — “Live At The Village Vanguard”
So far, every tune on this list was recorded before 1967, so I wanted to finish it off with some modern excellence in live jazz.
Christian McBride has always been one of my favorite bassists, and his showing at the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York City in 2014 should be convincing enough as to why.
Joined by pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., McBride leads an unforgettable hour of hard-hitting swing and infectious grooves. Check out J.J Johnson’s blisteringly fast “Interlude” for a bass solo that would leave any jazz lover shouting for more.
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