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Unforgettable Jazz Concert Records
From Toronto to Tokyo

Blog
Unforgettable Jazz Concert Records From Toronto to Tokyo

10.12.2018

Written by Leyla Aksu

Perhaps more than any other genre, jazz’s most pivotal, breathtaking moments occur outside of the studio. To the sole privilege of a darkened room of club goers lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, the rules of jazz are rewritten right before their eyes, and through the genre’s tradition of live recordings, we get to experience these moments right alongside them. From a stage-side table at Blue Note to front row seats at a packed theater in Tokyo, the live jazz album stands as an essential historic document and the best may yet to be discovered. So below, we take a quick look at some of the greatest concerts that shaped the course of jazz history, their resultant live albums, and the unforgettable stories behind each of them.

The Quintet - Jazz at Massey Hall (1953)

Frequently referred to as “the greatest jazz concert ever,” on May 15, 1953, Toronto’s Massey Hall witnessed a historic, one-time meeting of bebop masters. “The Quintet”-which was none other than the legendary Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Bud Powell- took to the stage for what would eventually become an infamous six-song set and the final recorded partnership between Parker and Gillespie.

A somewhat chaotic organization, the concert was accidentally held on the same night as a heavyweight championship, and thus, in front of an almost empty room. The performance seemed like an unlikely success despite the stars on stage, with Parker on a plastic alto, Powell inebriated, and Gillespie supposedly running off and on the stage to keep checking the match. However, once it all began, the magic onstage was palpable with five unique musicians demonstrating their complete ease and masterful interplay, and thankfully, the recording was captured by Mingus on a last-minute whim. Still a mind-blowing meeting of bebop innovators and the only recorded performance by the Quintet, Jazz at Massey Hall was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1995 and reissued in full in 2004.

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane - At Carnegie Hall (1957)

A long-lost and forgotten treasure, it took 48 years for At Carnegie Hall to see the light of day. Though rumors of this Monk and Coltrane performance persisted through the years, no actual record of the show existed until Larry Appelbaum, a specialist at the Library of Congress, accidentally came across a box of tapes labeled “Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957, T. Monk” and immediately recognized the tenor tones of Coltrane on the recording.

Recorded on November 9, 1957 by Voice of America as part of a “Thanksgiving Jazz” benefit, which also featured performances by artists like Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, and Sonny Rollins, this Monk and Coltrane show was never broadcast until its eventual release by Blue Note in 2005. Coming at a pivotal point in Coltrane’s career and displaying the beginnings of his “Sheets of Sound” technique, the performance also included Shadow Wilson on drums and Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass. Coltrane had just joined Monk’s group after an unceremonious departure from Miles Davis’ band and after a five-month stint at the Five Spot, At Carnegie Hall documents their blossoming partnership and musical interaction. Capturing the prowess and familiarity between the two greats, which their studio sessions could not, these two uncovered sets are one of the most exciting recent discoveries from the secret vaults of jazz history.

Bill Evans Trio - The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings (1961)

An afternoon of legend, the Bill Evans Trio settled into the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961 to create an unforgettable landmark in the jazz repertoire. With Evans on keys, Scott LaFaro on bass, and Paul Motian on drums, the trio played five sets throughout the course of the day, redefining the bounds of the jazz piano trio in what would, unfortunately, be their final outing together.

Featuring a slew of intricate harmonies and renditions with members in constant improvisational dialog and instinctual communication with one another, the trio played compositions by both Evans and LaFaro, including “Gloria’s Step” and the celebrated “Waltz for Debbie.” Recorded on a stage-side table, the performance has since been immortalized on releases like Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Waltz for Debby, and the Complete Village Vanguard Recordings. The band’s warmth and casual flow come through in full, with stage banter, technical difficulties, and the clanking of glasses all transporting the listener into the small club to witness what has become one of the most influential recordings in jazz.

Miles Davis - Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965)

It was a typically cold and windy Chicago night, just a few days before Christmas, when Miles Davis and his second quintet- Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums- took the Plugged Nickel by storm. Recorded on December 22nd and 23rd in 1965, these two nights saw the emergence of a more adventurous Davis, indicative of much of his music that was yet to come.

Revealed later that the entire set was conceived as a sort of musical game, with Tony Williams challenging the band to play “anti-jazz” without informing Davis, the Plugged Nickel performances put the unaware band leader right on the spot in front of an expectant audience. Leading to radical interpretations and renditions of his old standards, the musician fully embarked on a new and more experimental musical chapter throughout these striking seven sets. Featuring fast bop tempos, deconstructed melodies, and boundless improvisation, these recordings were eventually released by Legacy Records in 1995, bringing audiences musical change in real time, as an artist evolves right before their ears.

Weather Report - Live in Tokyo (1972)

To hear a band fully come into their own onstage is a unique and rare experience, and what undeniably came to pass for the Weather Report in Tokyo. With their lineup of Josef Zawinul on piano, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Miroslav Vitouš on bass, Eric Gravatt on drums, and Dom Um Romão on percussion, what eventually became the band’s first ever live album captured a night of shape-shifting duets and inexhaustible improvisation.

Heading to Tokyo for five sold-out shows in January of 1972 at the Shibuya Kokaido Hall, Weather Report was not sure what to expect from its Japanese audience. Discovering a hall full of passionate, respectful and fully present music lovers, the band fed off their energy and set out on a fiery exploration to engage with their special listeners. Recorded on January 13, 1972, the resultant album sees the band take a slightly more jazz-oriented approach than before, spread across five intensely impassioned tracks. Live in Tokyo presents a rewarding listen from a group of influential artists finding their collective footing and claiming their own distinctive style.

Keith Jarrett - The Köln Concert (1975)

Keith Jarrett’s Cologne concert is a benchmark in music history, transcending the boundaries of jazz and transforming music in a single night. Taking the stage despite countless setbacks, Jarrett’s passionate late-night improvisations in front of a sold-out crowd defied categorization, established ECM as an influential force in jazz, and went onto become the best-selling solo album in jazz history.

Organized by Vera Brandes, a seventeen years-old concert promoter, Jarrett’s was the first ever jazz performance to take place at the Opera House in Cologne and was held on January 24, 1975. Jarrett took the stage close to midnight, despite arriving at the venue to find a severely sub-optimal piano and considering cancelling the show just hours before. Sleep deprived and faced with a faulty instrument, he creatively and instinctually adjusted his playing, creating delicate, rhythmic motifs, and fully letting go. “What happened with this piano was that I was forced to play in what was—at the time—a new way,” he said. Breaking from the constraints of almost all contemporary jazz at the time, The Köln Concert still remains one of the most influential and best-selling piano recordings of all time and has, undoubtedly, changed the course of music forever.

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