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Hard Bop: Ten Essential Live Albums

Hard Bop: Ten Essential Live Albums

Courtesy Barbara DuMetz


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Lee Morgan was the only young cat that scared me when he played. He had so much fire and natural feeling. I had more technique, but he had that feeling.
—Freddie Hubbard
"Fire! That's what people want. Music is supposed to wash away the dust of everyday life. You're supposed to make them turn around, pat their feet. That's what jazz is about. Play with fire. Play from the heart, not from your brain. You got to know how to make the two meet."

So said drummer and hard bop pioneer Art Blakey in an interview with David Rosenthal in the 1980s. To which his partner in funk, the blues-and-gospel referencing pianist Horace Silver, added that "meaningful simplicity" should be a cornerstone of the music.

Hard bop ruled the inner-city jazz world from the mid 1950s through the early 1960s but it was never one-size-fits-all. Alongside Blakey and Silver's strand were more astringent stylists such as pianist Elmo Hope and saxophonists Tina Brooks and Jackie McLean. And menacing prowlers such as trumpeters Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. And lyricists such as trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonists Benny Golson and Gigi Gryce. And experimentalists such as saxophonists John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and pianists Thelonious Monk and Andrew Hill. Then there was the soul jazz of organists such as Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff, related to hard bop but distinct from it. And all manner of cross fertilization between the sub-genres.

It is a feast alright and here are ten of the greatest live albums from hard bop's purple period. Six of them recorded in New York City (at Birdland, Café Bohemia, Five Spot, Village Vanguard, Carnegie Hall and Village Gate), and four of them on the Coast (at San Francisco's Jazz Workshop and Blackhawk and Hermosa Beach's Lighthouse).

Hopefully you will find an item or two you are not familiar with, or whose glories you have perhaps forgotten. Enjoy.


There are of course more than ten essential live hard-bop albums. That is why this article is titled Ten Essential Live Albums not The Ten Essential Live Albums.

Art Blakey Quintet
A Night At Birdland
Blue Note, 1954

Recorded in early 1954, on the cusp of bop morphing into hard bop, A Night At Birdland presents four key players in that transition—trumpeter Clifford Brown, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, pianist Horace Silver and drummer Art Blakey; the group's bassist, Curley Russell, continued to be more closely aligned with bop. Some key characteristics of hard bop's foundational aesthetic are already in place. These include Silver's extensive use of blues-and-gospel-based motifs; Brown's embrace of half-valve effects and smears, soon to be developed further by Lee Morgan; and Blakey's stripped-down, visceral take on the complexities of bop drumming as exemplified by Max Roach. Originally released on three 10" LPs, the Birdland recordings are available on two separate CDs, A Night At Birdland Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, both of which include additional material from the gig. By the time Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers' At The Café Bohemia (Blue Note) was recorded in late 1955, with trumpeter Kenny Dorham and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley replacing Brown and Donaldson, Blakey's hard bop was pretty much codified, though by no means set in stone.

Kenny Dorham
'Round About Midnight At The Café Bohemia
Blue Note, 1956

In his passionately polemical, and mostly on the money Black Nationalism And The Revolution In Music (Pathfinder Press, 1970), Frank Kofsky tried to cancel Kenny Dorham. He described the trumpeter as "a nice, safe, domesticated neobopper" (Dorham had raised Kofsky's ire by telling another critic that he disliked Albert Ayler's music). Like all the best put-downs, Kofsky's contained a smidgen of truth, albeit one that was heavily spun. Dorham is more fairly described as a disciplined and technically adroit musician who could play with either the exuberance of Dizzy Gillespie or the introspection of Miles Davis but who generally inhabited an emotionally tempered middle-ground between those poles. 'Round About Midnight At The Café Bohemia is a minor masterpiece. It is hard bop to soothe the savage beast: Thelonious Monk's title track and Vernon Duke's "Autumn In New York" are sublime examples of balladeering and even Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia," though energized, avoids urgency. Dorham's band comprises the idiosyncratic tenor saxophonist J.R. Monterose and the lyrical funksters pianist Bobby Timmons and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Another Dorham live album of note is Inta Somethin' (Pacific Jazz, 1962), in particular for the berserker soloing of alto saxophonist Jackie McLean.

Thelonious Monk Quartet
With John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall
Blue Note, 1957/2005

This is that rare thing: a "lost album" that lives up to all the hype a record company might throw at it. Recorded by Voice of America in November 1957, but not released until 2005, At Carnegie Hall captures Thelonious Monk's quartet with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane after the group had been bonding at New York's Five Spot three times a week for four months. Bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik (who had replaced Wilbur Ware a month or so into the residency) and drummer Shadow Wilson complete the lineup. The group are at ease with each other but Monk's music retains all of its edge and asymmetry. Importantly, Coltrane had successfully put heroin and alcohol dependencies behind him back in April and was playing with unprecedented precision. The concert was a fundraiser for a community centre—the quartet shared the bill with Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins among others—and there were two performances, one at 8.30pm, the other at midnight. The album includes both of the quartet's sets and is a joy from the opening saxophone-and-piano-only reading of "Monk's Mood" through the closing iteration of "Epistrophy."

Sonny Rollins
A Night At The "Village Vanguard"
Blue Note, 1957

John Coltrane ultimately became the most influential saxophonist in post-1960s jazz, but in 1957, when A Night At The "Village Vanguard" was recorded, the jazz establishment was divided over whether he or Sonny Rollins was the "top tenor," an idiotic debate given the players' broader than Broadway stylistic differences. Critics took up opposing positions for and against Coltrane's chordal (vertical) approach and Rollins' thematic (horizontal) one. Like another stonking 1957 Rollins set, Way Out West (Contemporary), the Village Vanguard recording was made with a trio. Actually, two trios. The afternoon set featured bassist Donald Bailey and drummer Pete La Roca, while the evening ones, from which most of the album is drawn, had bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones. Rollins is a force of nature, wrenching the listener along with him. Every bit as magnificent as Saxophone Colossus (Prestige) from earlier the same year.

Kenny Burrell with Art Blakey
On View At The Five Spot Café
Blue Note, 1960

There is no shortage of cracking live albums by guitarist Kenny Burrell and picking out just one of them is a tough call. From hard bop's belle epoque, a strong contender is A Night At The Vanguard (Argo), which Burrell recorded with bassist Richard Davis and drummer Roy Haynes in September 1959. Another is On View At The Five Spot Café , made a month earlier with a quintet: tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks, alternating pianists Bobby Timmons and Roland Hanna, bassist Ben Tucker and drummer Art Blakey. The presence of the singular and immensely talented, but deeply troubled, Brooks gives the Five Spot album added allure. So devastated was Brooks' life by heroin that he was active for only around four years, making every album on which he appears collectable. Another live release featuring Brooks is organist Jimmy Smith's Cool Blues (Blue Note), recorded at Small's Paradise in 1958 but not released until 1980.

Barry Harris
At The Jazz Workshop
Riverside, 1960

Pianist Barry Harris was part of the band which recorded Lee Morgan's best-selling The Sidewinder (Blue Note, 1964), one of the most incendiary hard bop albums of all time. Yet Harris never recorded under his own name for Blue Note. In a 1977 interview with Cadence magazine, he said, "I went to [Alfred Lion] and I asked him why didn't he give me a record date—he said I played too beautiful. So I thanked him and walked out." Harris' elegance is in full effect on At The Jazz Workshop made with bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes, his colleagues in alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's band in early 1960. Harris has always bristled at the term "hard bop," considering himself a pure bop player (check the YouTube interview below with Bob Cranshaw, bassist on The Sidewinder). But on At The Jazz Workshop, despite tunes written by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the only track with a thoroughly boppish feel is Harris' "Curtain Call." Elsewhere, his touch is weighty and deliberate and he often comes down hard on the first beat of the bar—all hard bop signatures. The music cooks.

Miles Davis
In Person Friday And Saturday Nights At The Blackhawk Complete
Columbia, 1961/2003

OK, this is a bit of a cheat, as it is a box set comprising four CDs. Single disc versions have been released, but just as fans of Davis' 1965—1968 quintet have to have the seven CD The Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel 1965 released by Columbia in 1995, so fans of Davis the hard bopper have to have the complete Blackhawk set. The lineup is genre perfection: Davis plus Hank Mobley, pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb. And the set lists are heaven, too: "If I Were A Bell," "On Green Dolphin Street," "Walkin,'" "Someday My Prince Will Come," "Autumn Leaves," "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" and "Bye Bye Blackbird" are among the selections. Davis himself regarded the band and the material as backward steps after the modal revolution he had sparked with A Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959). But hard bop was what club owners wanted to book (hard bop audiences were consumers, baby).

The Horace Silver Quintet
Doin' The Thing At The Village Gate
Blue Note, 1961

Along with Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver was the funky but sunny face of hard bop, an alternative to the brooding menace projected by the school of Lee Morgan. In his liner notes to Serenade To A Soul Sister (Blue Note, 1968), Silver set out his "guide lines to musical composition." There were five of them: melodic beauty; meaningful simplicity; harmonic beauty; rhythm; and environmental, hereditary, regional and spiritual influences. In the wider hard bop context it is "meaningful simplicity" which is the chief take-away and around which the other four guidelines cluster. The glorious Doin' The Thing At The Village Gate has Silver at the top of his game, fronting his classic quintet with tenor saxophonist Junior Cook, trumpeter Blue Mitchell, bassist Gene Taylor and drummer Roy Brooks. The original LP included just four tracks, each a Silver original clocking in at around eleven minutes and opening with the immortal "Filthy McNasty." Throughout, Silver delivers on both his own guidelines and his sometime colleague Art Blakey's exhortation that music should "wash away the dust of everyday life."

Cannonball Adderley Sextet
Jazz Workshop Revisited
Riverside, 1963

This album makes the honour roll on the strength of the eleven-minute version of cornetist Nat Adderley's soulful "The Jive Samba" alone. As a single it was one of the last times jazz scored a sizeable juke-box, radio and retail hit in the US before "the British invasion" changed everything. But there is plenty more going for Jazz Workshop Revisited , not least the groovalicious presences of Yusef Lateef on tenor saxophone, flute and oboe and funk meister Joe Zawinul on piano. Three years on from the Barry Harris album, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes are still in place as Adderley's bass-and-drums team. Cannonball's programme announcements, the excited audience's audible (but not intrusive) enthusiasm, and Wally Heider's impeccable recording also contribute to the success of an album which chronicles the Adderley brothers' strand of hard bop like no other—though the same lineup's Nippon Soul (Riverside, 1963), recorded live in Tokyo, runs it a not too distant second.

Lee Morgan
Live At The Lighthouse
Blue Note, 1970

In his book Blues People: Negro Music In White America (George Morrow, 1963), LeRoi Jones, as Amiri Baraka was then known, wrote that by 1960 "hard bop, sagging under its own weight, had just about destroyed itself as a means toward a moving form of expression." Oops. True, cliché began creeping in around the end of the 1950s, by which time heroin had taken its toll on many of the style's originators. But even allowing for rhetorical licence, Baraka was overstating his case, as was his wont. Lee Morgan's steaming Live At The Lighthouse, recorded over three days in July 1970 with a quintet including Bennie Maupin on tenor saxophone and Harold Mabern on piano, is one of many proofs that creative hard bop flourished beyond 1960—as, too, are British-based trumpeter Mark Kavuma's new millennial The Banger Factory (Ubuntu, 2018) and Arashi No Ato (Banger Factory, 2021). Some hard boppers, John Coltrane and Miles Davis among them, were moving into new trajectories by 1960, but Morgan kept the faith right up until his life was snuffed out in January 1972. Expanded editions of the Lighthouse performances, originally released on a double LP, have been released on three-CD and, in 2021, eight-CD box sets. How big is the monkey on your back?


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