Music Documentaries You Must See to Believe

Have you ever heard a life story that was too powerful to believe? Below you can find five biographical documentaries that challenged the truth and caused controversy and disbelief among the public.

Amy

2015 / Asif Kapadia (director)

A sad, stark study of a public life and death” is how The Guardian describes this raw and controversial documentary about Amy Winehouse’s volatile life. The film contains home-video footage and testimonials of friends and family. And because the director got complete access to the song catalog, we can also follow Amy Winehouse via her music.

Amy” is an intimate experience. It pictures the rise and fall of the English singer-songwriter in a tender but sometimes uncomfortable way. It consciously steps away from the commercial music brand and shows Amy Winehouse as a human. 

The Two Killings of Sam Cooke

2019 / Kelly Duane (director) / Jeff Zimbalist & Michael Zimbalist (writer)

Sam Cooke rose to fame as one of the most influential soul singers of the century. He established his own record label (SAR Records) and publishing company (Kags). He was also active as a civil rights activist and had thighs with Malcolm X.

This documentary tells the story of Cooke’s life and investigates the controversy around his mysterious murder in 1964. The question of whether his murder was related to his involvement with the civil rights movement, or the mob that wanted to take over his publishing company, are central elements in the final chapter of this documentary.

I Called Him Morgan

2016 / Kasper Collin (director & writer)

I called him Morgan” are the words of Helen Morgan in an interview she gave two decades after she shot and killed her common-law husband, Lee Morgan.

The documentary is not a study into the life of hard bob trumpeter Lee Morgan. Instead, It’s a drama narrating the relationship between him and Helen. Via interviews with former band members and friends, we get a picture of what caused the fatal shooting of this celebrated musician who featured in bands with Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey.

Lee Morgan’s story is spellbinding. A young talented musician who struggled with a drug addiction and got murdered. This is the story of a musician who obtained his place in history next to Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, or Miles Davis, as one of the greatest trumpet players in history.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

2015 / Liz Garbus (director & writer)

A breathtaking documentary of the life of legend Nina Simone. The story, written and directed by Liz Garbus, tells the story of her life as a singer, pianist, and civil rights activist. The documentary features unreleased images, concert footage, and interviews.

The documentary attempts to understand Nina Simone’s civil rights activism and the impact it had on her musical career. It perfectly captures who Nina Simone was, her honesty when performing, and her protest that led to her being banned from radio stations. Songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam‘ turned her into a controversial female lack singer embraced by the civil rights movement but rejected by the music industry.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

2016 / John Scheinfeld (director & writer)

Chasing Trane is an epic portrait of the legendary forward-thinking saxophonist who innovated and influenced jazz music in many ways. This story explores the impact of Coltrane’s life on the music he made. 

It’s a classic, well-made biographical movie built on personal interviews with his children and grandchildren, friends, and fellow musicians. It creates honest insights into the life of the jazz titan.  The documentary includes footage of Coltrane’s performances and uses the musician’s own words, read by Denzel Washington. At times, it analysis Coltrane’s compositions and his unique way of playing.

Related articles:

Spotlight on Coltrane: 5 Diverse Albums

John Coltrane started his musical journey in 1949 under the spell of Charlie Parker and later Dizzy Gillespie. In 1954, he joined The Miles Davis Quintet where he was encouraged to think more harmonically. During the second half of the nineteen-fifties, he rehearsed extensively with Thelonious Monk. By 1959 Coltrane mastered the skills to compose and record the album that innovated jazz harmonically and rhythmically, and so he released Giant Steps.

The saxophonist continued to explore and develop. He took on numerous projects, collaborated with various jazz legends, and even composed a movie soundtrack. Each album he recorded is unique and spotlights Coltrane’s musical evolution. In this article, you’ll find five diverse albums by one of the most significant jazz musicians of all time.

John Coltrane’s Soultrane

Recorded in 1958 on Prestige Records

The second half of the nineteen-fifties defined John Coltrane’s career and helped him come into prominence as a musician and arranger. Underlined is the time as a member in Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet and later sextet, and the period working aside Thelonious Monk. Many recordings featuring Trane‘s support on the tenor saxophone got listed as the most acclaimed and influential jazz albums in history.

Coltrane’s legacy before moving to Atlantic Records in 1959 got well documented by Prestige. Soultrane is the best example of this. The album got described as a demonstration of Coltrane’s late nineteen-fifties “sheet of sound” (Ira Gitler, DownBeat Magazine.) The term is dedicated to John Coltrane and represents the unique improvisational style he developed while working with Thelonious Monk. He loosened up the demanding chords and harmonies of hard bop while maintaining loyalty to its traditional values. Coltrane was given the freedom to improvise when playing along with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

John Coltrane’s Giant Steps

Recorded in 1959 on Atlantic Records

In 1954, Coltrane joined The Miles Davis Quintet where he was encouraged to think more harmonically. This was an important milestone in the yet-to-be-written composition of Giant Steps as he was introduced to new possibilities in chord progressions. After a drug addiction that caused him to leave Davis’ band, he started rehearsing with the celebrated Thelonious Monk. This not only helped him recover from his addiction, but it also helped him develop artistically.

Fully recovered and evolved, Coltrane rejoined Miles Davis’ quintet in 1958. The following year, they recorded Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, an album that is claimed to be the most important album in jazz history. Giant Steps was recorded less than a month after the sessions for Kind of Blue. Giant Steps – consisting entirely out of Coltrane’s original compositions – was released in 1960, and despite being a perfect contrast to Kind of Blue, it became a mighty equal. Coltrane masters the skills to compose and record an album that innovated jazz harmonically and rhythmically.

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

Recorded in 1962 on Impulse Records

In the early sixties, John Coltrane’s career and technical abilities peaked. For several years, he would release various historical jazz albums. The saxophonist was a perfectionist, carefully exploring harmonic progressions and multiple rhythms. He was confident in both playing and arranging. Still, while playing with Duke Ellington, he felt honored, imperfect, and challenged. The album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane is a display of two jazz musicians from a different generation who, despite having a divergent background and relationship with music, communicate politely.

The album features acclaimed Ellington standards such as In A Sentimental Mood and some of his new compositions like Take the Coltrane. John Coltrane also added a new composition to the album’s track-list. His work titled Big Nick is a tribute to saxophonist George Walker “Big Nick” Nicholas who influenced Coltrane during his time with Dizzy Gillespie. “In thinking back,” Coltrane said, “it seemed to have something that would suit the style he likes to play in. But maybe not?”

John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album

Recorded in 1963 on Impulse Records

The recording was made one month after his collaboration with Duke Ellington was released and features Coltrane’s so-called Classic Quartet: McCoy Tyner on the piano, Jimmy Garrison on the bass, and Elvin Jones behind the drums. The recording got lost but surfaced in 2018.

Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album got released in 2018 and features seven tunes from which two previously unissued tracks: Untitled Original 11383 and Untitled Original 11386. The numbering refers to the identification system used in the studio by Bob Thiele. Aside from the standard one-disc version, also a two-disc deluxe edition containing several alternate takes got released. Spotlighted are the alternate takes of Impressions.

John Coltrane’s Blue World

Recorded in 1964 on Impulse Records

By 1964 saxophonist John Coltrane was one of the leading figures in jazz music. Mainly thanks to his release of Giant Steps in 1960. Officially, he recorded and released two albums that year: the often-overlooked album Crescent, and the well-known masterpiece A Love Supreme. With the recent release of his recording Blue World, we can add a third album to the list.

Blue World, recorded in the Rudy Van Gelder Studio on June 24 (1964,) is a composition for the movie: Le Chat Dans Le Sac (Gilles Groulx, 1964.) The soundtrack was fully composed by John Coltrane. For the recording, he invited his classic 1960s quartet. The album features two alternate takes on the song “Naima“, a ballad he composed for his wife Juanita Naima Grubbs (married 1955-66.) Also notable are the three takes on his composition “Village Blues,“ a song that was originally released on the studio album Coltrane Jazz with Steve Davis on the bass. The Blue World recordings would feature Jimmy Garrison who replaced Steve Davis in 1961.

Related Articles:

Jazz Album Covers That Inspire – Part 3

What attracts me to an album apart from the music, is the sleeve design. Here are again five designs that inspired me. The artwork is stunning and at the same time, it contributes to the story of the recording.

Bring Backs – Alfa Mist

2021 / Anti- 7789-1 / Kaya Thomas-Dyke (artwork)

With his third studio album, the British producer, songwriter, and self-thought pianist Alfa Mist reflects upon his sampling and hip-hop days on the streets of London. After self-releasing his two previous albums – Antiphon and Structuralism – Alfa Mist partners with the American independent record label Anti- for his next body of work, Brings Back.

The artwork is by Kaya Thomas-Dyke, a close friend of Alfa Mist and the bass guitar player on the album. Alfa Mist drew inspiration from a card game he played as a child. In the game, after winning a round, you can be brought back to play again, meaning that winning is never a sure thing. With it, Alfa Mist refers to his childhood. He lived in a constant state of uncertainty and instability. “You can be doing okay for a while but, that can change. You know that’s always a possibility,” he explains. The unpredictable and inevitable future is a recurring theme on the album. Kaya Thomas-Dyke embodies this theme in the artwork.

Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album – John Coltrane

2018 / Impulse! 00602567493013 / Osk Studio (design) / Joe Alper (photography)

Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album got recorded in 1963. However, the tapes got lost. John Coltrane’s personal copy was discovered in 2018, and the recording was released that same year. The album was made while under contract with Impulse Records and features Coltrane’s so-called Classic Quartet: McCoy Tyner on the piano, Jimmy Garrison on the bass, and Elvin Jones behind the drums.

The design is stunning, and it’s one of the most distinctive records I have in my collection. On the outside, two cut-out triangles are pointing in both directions. Inside, we have two vinyl records, and the inner sleeves feature portraits of John Coltrane by the photographer Joe Alper. The album comes with a four-panel folded poster capturing one of the most influential groups in music history. Music historian Ashley Kahn added the liner notes, which you can find on the poster’s backside.

We Are Sent Here By History – Shabaka And The Ancestors

2020 / Impulse! 00602508645631 / Daniela Yohannes (artwork)

The album is a partnership between the British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and a large ensemble of South African musicians. The New York Times wrote: “If jazz is looking to reinvent itself, the music of Shabaka And The Ancestors might be a good place to start. Shabaka And The Ancestors are making their own jazz history.”

The cover artwork is by the illustrator Daniela Yohannes who is of Ethiopian-Eritrean heritage. Daniela Yohannes got introduced to the jazz scene in London and facilitated several music events around jazz. She witnessed a whole new generation of musicians, both of European and African descent. She created promotional materials and cover art for jazz groups. As described in her biography: “Her work reflects upon the racialized movement and conditional belonging of African diaspora.

Palo Alto – Thelonious Monk

2020 / Impulse! 00602507112844 / Ryan Rogers (Creative Direction & Design) / Larry Fink, Jim Marshall, Lee Tanner, Veryl Oakland (photography)

In 1968, the sixteen-year-old Danny Scher invited Thelonious Monk and his quartet to play a benefit concert at his high school in Palo Alto, California. The concert was recorded and, more than 50 years later, the music got finally released. T.S. Monk – Thelonious Monk’s son – claims that the recording at the Palo Alto high school is the best one made during his father’s career. “The way he plays, not knowing he was being recorded, was very rare,” he explains.

The cover features a black-and-white image of Thelonious Monk behind his piano. The photo is by the hand of Larry Fink, a noted photographer who is best known for his pictures of people in social situations. The gatefold album on vinyl includes a 12-page booklet with photos, essays, and credits. You also get a replica concert program and poster by the Palo Alto High School International Club.

Blue Note Re:imagined – Various Artists

2022 / Blue Note 0890927 / Jay Vaz (Art Direction & Design) / Dan Medhurst, Daniela Monteiro, Fabrice Bourgelle, Karolina Wielocha, and Michaela Quan (photography)

Ever since its birth, jazz music has continuously evolved into various subgenres. The American record label Blue Note Records played a significant role in this evolution. The company is a landmark in jazz music and has an extensive song catalog that includes many acclaimed jazz standards. Their release Re:imagined is a compilation of Blue Note originals brought by a unique selection of musicians who’ve taken on jazz, soul, hip-hop, and R&B as their musical narrative.

The sleeve design is by the graphic designer and visual artist Jay Vaz. Vaz has a deep passion for music. For his designs, he draws inspiration from old record sleeves and, he embeds heritage to bring meaning. For the design of Re:imagined he tries to visualize sounds through animated vinyl stickers.

Related Articles:

The Best Jazz Albums Released in 2021

How was 2021 for jazz musicians? Let’s reflect back and list out what were, according to me, the five best jazz albums released during the year.

Dear Love – Jazzmeia Horn and Her Noble Force

 September 2021 / Empress Legacy Records ELR001 / US

Dear Love is the third and most ambitious album by Jazzmeia Horn. Her previous albums, A Social Call (2017) and Love & Liberation (2019), both got nominated for Grammy Awards in the category Best Jazz Vocal AlbumDear Love is not only another demonstration of Jazzmeia Horn’s singing ability. The album also spotlights her as a composer, arranger, and bandleader. This orchestral project released on Horn’s label, Empress Legacy Records, has been Grammy nominated for Best Large Jazz Ensemble.

Jazzmeia Horn explains that Dear Love addresses three aspects of her existence: her community, her lover, and herself. She infused the album with poetry and spoken word. Her meaningful and intimate vocals have a consistent timbre, a wide range, and an outstanding timing that perfectly communicates with the big band called Her Noble Force.

Bring Backs – Alfa Mist

April 2021 / Anti- 7789-1 / EU

With his third studio album titled Bring Backs, the British producer, songwriter, and pianist Alfa Mist reflects on his sampling and hip-hop days on the streets of London. After self-releasing his two previous solo albums – Antiphon in 2017 and Structuralism in 2019 – Alfa Mist partners with the American independent record label Anti- for the release of his next body of work, Brings Back.

Brings Back blends jazz with R&B, hip-hop, classical, and wistful spoken word. The reflective musical voyage alters between an instrumental atmosphere and vocals. While the instrumental atmosphere is present in each track, the vocal-oriented parts of the album lie mainly in the songs “Mind The Gap” and “Organic Rust“.

Deciphering The Message – Makaya McCraven

November 2021 / Blue Note 00602438144730 / US

For the recording of Deciphering The Message, drummer and producer Makaya McCraven dove into the Blue Note catalog. By rearranging parts, sampling, and adding beats, he presents a contemporary take on jazz classics by among others, Horace Silver, Hank Mobley,  Kenny Dorham, and Art Blakey.

In Deciphering The Message, Makaya McCraven does not celebrate jazz by duplicating the originals. He reimagines and innovates tunes without losing their valued core characteristic. The thirteen songs on the album are an homage to the jazz subgenre from the ’50s and ’60s, hard-bop.

Daring Mind – Jihye Lee Orchestra

March 2021 / Motéma MTM-0385 / US

Daring Mind is the work of the South Korean arranger and composer Jihye Lee. Lee, who had no jazz or classical training, originally became a successful indie-pop singer-songwriter. As she began exploring her own identity, she soon discovered large-ensemble jazz to be more satisfactory. She moved to New York and transitioned into a jazz composer under the guidance of pianist Jim McNeely.

Lee’s experience in pop music gave her a creative view on jazz composition. “Jihye Lee is emerging as a strong voice in the ‘next generation of composers for large jazz ensemble. Her music is imaginative and creative,” Jim McNeely said, “And she’s not afraid to make some exciting changes in her writing.”

Tone Poem – Charles Lloyd and The Marvels

March 2021 / Blue Note – B003313501 / US

Tone Poem, the third cooperation between the 83-year-old Charles Lloyd and The Marvels, is a continuous piece of orchestral music that blends various American music styles such as jazz, blues, and country. 

Lloyd and The Marvels quintet, featuring Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums, present us a full-length album filled with adaptations from Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Ignacio Villa, Gabor Szabo, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. The album is supplemented with Lloyd originals.

Related articles:

Digging the Archives: Previously Unissued Jazz Recordings

There are various reasons for record companies to decide not to release an album. Labels such as Blue Note recorded more than they could release and had to prioritize. Sometimes recordings remained unfinished and would be completed when the time is right. Live recordings nobody knew existed surfaced decades later and were released to continue the musician’s legacy.

Here are five unissued jazz recordings that were released recently.

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers – Just Coolin’

Recorded in 1959 – Released 2020 / Blue Note Records

Just Coolin’ is the result of a unique but short-lived ensemble of The Jazz Messengers collective.

The studio album was recorded on a single day in March 1959 at the famous Rudy Van Gelder studio in New Jersey. However, Blue Note Records co-founder Alfred Lion decided not to release the album and instead record a live performance at the famous Birdland club in New York. The live album titled At the Jazz Corner of the World was released in 1959 and remained the only issued recording of this jazz ensemble until Just Coolin’ was released in 2020.

Thelonious Monk – Palo Alto

Recorded in 1964 – Released 2020 / Impulse Records

When jazz drummer T.S. Monk was contacted regarding an old concert recording, he was amazed by his father’s performance and the background story behind the session. Danny Scher, sixteen at the time, organized benefit concerts to raise money for the Peace Corps and construction projects in Kenya and Peru. Although many people did not believe it would actually happen, he successfully hosted a concert with the jazz titan, Thelonious Monk.

T.S. Monk, knowing most of his father’s live recordings, understood how unique this recording was and how it contributes to the legacy of Thelonious Monk. In cooperation with the label Impulse Records, he released the album in September 2020.

Tony Allen And Hugh Masekela – Rejoice

Recorded 2010 – Released 2020 / World Circuit Records

Trumpeter Hugh Masekela and drummer Tony Allen met in the seventies thanks to their associations with Fela Kuti (Africa ’70). In the decades to come, they talked about making an album together. In 2010, producer Nick Gold took the opportunity and recorded the encounter.

The recording remained unfinished and got stored in the archives. With Hugh Masekela’s passing in 2018, Tony Allen and Nick Gold continued working on the original tapes during the summer of 2019. They finished the recording at the same studio where the original sessions took place, the Livingston Recording Studios in London. The album got released in 2020.

John Coltrane ‎– Blue World

Recorded 1964 – Released 2019 / Impulse Records

For every admirer of the saxophonist, composer, and bandleader, this release is very welcomed. It gives another insight into the confidence Coltrane and his band had that year. 

The recording was commissioned for the film Le Chat Dans Le Sac and after the movie was put online for streaming, the search for the original recording tapes began. They were stored in the archives of the National Film Board of Canada. After discovering and clearing out the legal constraints, the music was released to the public in 2019.

The album features two alternate takes on the song “Naima“, a ballad he composed for his wife Juanita Naima Grubbs (married 1955-66) in 1959 and which was originally released on the album Giant Steps. Also notable are the three takes on his composition “Village Blues“, a song that was originally released on the studio album Coltrane Jazz.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time OutTakes

Recorded in 1959 – Released 2020 / Brubeck Editions

When author Philip Clark was researching for his biography Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time, he discovered previously unissued tapes from the recording sessions of Time Out in 1959. Time Out, a studio album by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, was the first jazz record to sell over one million copies.

Apart from alternate takes on Take Five and Blue Rondo à la Turk on the A-side, we get some newly issued materials on the B-side.

The outtakes give us a look into the creation of this iconic album. You can ask yourself: “What if the record label decided to release a different version of the song?”. Song details that fans are so familiar with today could have looked different.

Related articles:

Jazz Album Cover Designs That Inspire – Part 2

Once again, I dove into my collections in search of inspiring designs. Here are five more record sleeves that tell a story.

Mulatu Of Ethiopia – Mulatu Astatke

1972 / Worthy Records 1020 / photo uncredited / Matt Thame (design)

The Father of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke, brings a fantastic arrangement of Ethiopian fine tone scale mixed with Afro-American soul and jazz. The album is called Mulatu Of Ethiopia.

The cover photo and design remain uncredited but it’s a true eye-catcher. It features the title, a photograph of Mulatu Astatke posing in front of his vibraphone, and in the bottom left corner the logo of his sponsor, Ethiopian Airlines.

The copy I own is a reissue that I purchased at a concert in Prague. The outside design is identical to the original but inside the album, we find additional photography including a picture of a much older Mulatu Astatke holding his original record from 1972.

Chris Dave And The Drumhedz

2018 / Blue Note B002705401 / c. BARR @n8tivalien (artwork)

Blue Note Records describes this album as a place without genre, where elements of funk, soul, gospel, hip-hop, and jazz mix until they’re an indistinguishable surging mass of solid groove.

The artwork was created by creative artist c. BARR.

People Of The Sun – Marcus Strickland Twi-Life

2018 / Blue Note B002898301 / Stan Squirewell (artwork) / Leon Williams (photo)

This is saxophonist Marcus Strickland’s second studio album for Blue Note Records but, this is the first time he released his work on vinyl. People Of The Sun is a contemporary jazz album influenced by hip-hop and modern r&b.

You can see that they wanted to do something special for his first vinyl release. For the artwork, they hired the painter Stan Squirewell. Squirewell’s work is described as multilayered and explores identity and heritage. The photo is from the Brooklyn based photographer Leon Williams.

Gling-GlóBjörk Guðmundsdóttir & tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar

1990 / Smekkleysa SM 27 / Óskar Jónasson (artwork)

I’m not sure if I can pronounce the name of this band correctly but, this is a jazz album with the 24 years old Björk on vocals. Several songs are covers of jazz standards but sung in Icelandic. The music is as charming as the left-field pop she would later record.

 The artwork is from the Icelandic film director and screenwriter Óskar Jónasson who was Björk’s boyfriend at the time.

The copy in my collection is a reissue on One Little Indian. The album was repressed on a 45 rpm double-12-inch vinyl to improve the sound quality and several songs were added. The sleeve design was kept the same and the tracklist was not revised. On the reissue sleeve you still see only 2 sides while in reality, we have 4. Be aware to play the reissue at 45rpm! There is no indication on the sleeve nor on the label about this.

A Love Supreme – John Coltrane

1965 / Impulse! A-77 / George Grey (design) / Bob Thiele (photo) / Victor Kalin (sketch)

An album that needs no introduction. Coltrane called this album his gift to God.

This gatefold sleeve features the same picture of Coltrane on the back as on the front. The picture was taken by record producer Bob Thiele who was at the time the head of the Impulse! record company. When folding open the record sleeve, a sketch of Trane playing the saxophone appears. The sketch was made by artist Victor Kalin who is best known for his illustrations for magazines, paperback books, and record albums. He, for example, also illustrated the albums: Rockin’ In Rhythm by Duke Ellington (DL 79247), Mingus Plays Piano by Charles Mingus (A-60), and again Coltrane for the album Expression (AS-9120).

Related articles:

How Pixar Portrays Jazz in Their New Movie ‘Soul’

Pixar’s new animated movie Soul, directed by Pete Docter (Up) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami), is a unique collaboration between filmmakers and musicians. Pixar Animation Studios has delivered a long list of outstanding movies. They stand out when it comes to building authentic characters, something they have been doing since the release of their first full-length movie, Toy Story, in 1995.

Twenty-five years later, they set the bar to a new standard of quality. For the first time, they will feature a protagonist with African American heritage. Jazz music is a central element in the plot and this creates additional expectations as many jazz musicians will surely examine the work.

In this article, I will explore how and why jazz music, or black improvisational music, was used in the plot as a metaphor for real life.

The Plot (Spoiler Alert)

The movie tells the story of Joe Gardner, a middle-aged music teacher whose life hasn’t quite gone the way he’d expected. Joe’s true passion is playing jazz music and he believes he is born to perform. When his time finally arrived, and he was offered to perform with the A-listed saxophonist Dorothea Williams, Joe has an accident and he ends up queueing the line into what is described as The Great Beyond. Joe panics as he feels to have unfinished business in his life (playing jazz) and manages to escape. Instead of going back to earth, he ends up in The Great Before, a place where souls are giving personalities before being born.

To avoid being sent back to the afterlife, he pretends to be a mentor and he is being assigned to a precocious soul, named 22 (Twenty-two). 22 has spent hundreds of years at The You Seminar, an institution where new souls must meet several requirements before going to earth. 22 refuses to be born as she (?) does not see the joy of life.

When 22 finds out that Joe is not a real mentor, they agree that if Joe manages to fulfill the requirements, he will be granted the earth-pass instead of 22 and so, he can fulfill his purpose in life. Joe fails but, he and 22 find an alternative. However, when on earth, 22 finds herself in the body of Joe, and Joe finds himself in the body of a cat.

While looking for a solution to their body-swop, 22 starts enjoying life, and she finds her will to be born. After a series of events, they find themselves back in The Great Before and 22 was granted her ticket to be born. As agreed with Joe, she offered the pass to him and so, Joe returned to earth while 22 stays behind.

Joe fulfilled his long-life dream by playing the concert with Dorothea Williams but soon realizes that his choices, his pursuit of one single goal, has cost him other great joys in life.

The Authenticity of the Characters

Pixar always exceeded in making their characters feel authentic. In animation, filmmakers often have to use caricatures to accomplish this. Think about the squared face and big glasses of Carl Fredricksen in the movie Up.

For the physical creation of African American characters in the movie Soul, Pixar was challenged to bring out the true African American heritage without using racist stereotypes from old cartoons. Joe Gardner, as a human, is an African-American. He has a black mustache, a hat, and big black glasses that remind us of other great jazz legends (Dave Brubeck & Toots Thielemans). The physical appearance of Joe was kept classic and avoids stereotypes. The biggest contribution to his character is, according to me, the way he relates to music.

Pixar consulted with many jazz musicians, including Herbie Hancock, during the process. They also did extensive research in jazz clubs where they interviewed musicians about their life. This research was used for Joe’s character. For the compositions and recordings, they worked with pianist and bandleader, Jon Batiste (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert).

Usually, Pixar would add music as one of the final steps in the creative process but for this movie, they followed another approach as they felt the music is a central and important piece. Joe’s authenticity was brought to life in two ways. The first one being the voicing by Jamie Foxx, who is a trained pianist himself. The second element is Jon Batiste’s compositions, recording, and physical movement. The recording was digitally filmed and reverse-programmed into animation. This means that when you see Joe play, you can see him play the notes that you are hearing. The way Jon Batiste sits behind the piano, and the way he moves his fingers across the keys, are adding to the genuineness of Joe.

“My hands are central to my life, I was in tears when I saw my essence come to life in Joe. To have this as a part of my creative legacy is an honor.”

Jon Batiste (interview with The New York Times)

Black improvisational Music as a Metaphor for Real Life

Journalist and music critic Giovanni Russonello wrote the following for The New York Times:

In the past few years, jazz has shown up onscreen most prominently in the work of Damien Chazelle. His “Whiplash” (2014) and “La La Land” (2016) tell the stories of young white men who are torturously committed to playing jazz and the feeling of excellence it gives them. In these movies, jazz is a challenge and an albatross. But in “Soul”, the music is more a salve: a river of possibility running through a hostile country, and — as Rainey says in Wilson’s script — simply the language of life.

Take for example Andrew in Whiplash (Miles Teller) whose purpose is to become a master drummer by studying at Juilliard and by practicing night and day but, he has little focus on the spirituality of jazz. Or take Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in La La Land, who sees himself as the conservator of jazz and has the sole purpose to open a jazz club. They relate to jazz in a very different way compared to how Joe Gardner relates to the music. Jazz is part of African-American history and this is an important element in the movie.

Yes, Joe starts with a purpose as well. His life goal is to become a professional jazz musician. He is fixated on the idea that if he does not accomplish this, his life won’t have meaning. He says that he only exists to play and that nothing else matters. But the character is built around the idea that above purpose, there are more aspects in life. During the movie, Joe becomes aware of this when he sees the joys he missed after accomplishing his goal. Joe’s character is built around this epiphany and not around accomplishing one single goal. He understands that people, including himself, can become disconnected from life because they are fixating on one thing instead of all aspects of life.

In this movie, jazz music, or black improvisational music, is a metaphor for real life and its unexpected situations that force us to adapt. Director, Pete Docter, said in an interview that he was inspired by a story Herbie Hancock told. While touring Europe in the 1960s with Miles Davis there was one concert where Hancock played a piano chord so bad that he thought the whole concert was ruined. But, Miles Davis reacted to the chord by playing a series of improvised notes, and by doing this, he made Hancock’s chord look right. Miles Davis did this by not judging the mistake but by interpreting it as something new that happened. It was an unexpected situation where the musician was inspired to improvise. Miles turned something that others considered as bad, into something of value. Pete Docter said that this story contributed to the theme of the movie and that the idea of improvisation is a great metaphor for what we are doing in our daily life.

In the podcast Soul Stories the movie’s co-director, Kemp Powers, invites cast, creators, and consultants to share their experiences working on the project. Soul Stories exists out of six episodes and all of them are available on Spotify. Below you can find the episode featuring the composer, Jon Batiste.

The Best Jazz Albums Released in 2020

2020 wasn’t a great year for culture. Luckily, we still had jazz music and its ability to adapt to any situation. A new generation of musicians emerged and they are blending jazz traditions with spoken word and contemporary sounds. It looks like jazz music has started to reinvent itself once again.

In this article, you can find my five favorite jazz albums that were released in 2020.

Rejoice – Hugh Masekela and Tony Allen

March 2020 / World Circuit ‎WCV094 / EU

Rejoice is the result of a collaboration between Nigerian drummer and co-founder of afrobeat Tony Allen, and South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. The album is a unique fusion of afrobeat and jazz where drums and trumpet are the central elements.

The album was recorded in 2010 at the Livingston Recording Studios in London. The recordings of the unfinished sessions were archived and never released. When Hugh Masekela passed away in 2018, Tony Allen and producer Nick Allen decided to finish the album. Additional recordings took place in the summer of 2019. The album was released in March 2020. A month after the release, also Tony Allen passed away, he was 79 years old.

Tony Allen described the album as “a kind of South African-Nigerian swing-jazz stew”. The album was received very well by jazz critics worldwide.

We Are Sent Here by History – Shabaka And The Ancestors

March 2020 / Impulse! 00602508645631 / EU & US

Four years following the debut album ‘Wisdom Of Elders‘, British-Barbadian saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings recorded and released his second album with the band Shabaka And The Ancestors.

The ensemble, Shabaka And The Ancestors, is a partnership between Shabaka Hutchings (who plays in several other bands) and a group of talented South-African musicians. The result is a futuristic fusion of beats, Hutchings’ tenor sax, and South-African vocal harmonics.

New York Times wrote: “If jazz is looking to reinvent itself, the music of Shabaka And The Ancestors might be a good place to start. Shabaka And The Ancestors are making their own jazz history”.

SourceNubya Garcia

August 2020 / Concord Jazz 00888072175594 / EU

The British tenor saxophonist, Nubya Nyasha Garcia, released her debut studio album in August 2020. During the past few years, Garcia built her music career and public interest with EP releases and live concerts. This album, which is a reflection of her Afro-Caribbean heritage, was long overdue but has finally arrived.

Nubya Nyasha Garcia represents a part of a new generation of London-based jazz musicians that are making jazz history. She is reinventing the genre with a blend of modern jazz, neo-soul, afrobeat, and reggae.

On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment – Ambrose Akinmusire

June 2020 / Blue Note 00602508926198 / EU & US

Music arranger and trumpet player, Ambrose Akinmusire, released his fifth studio album with Blue Note Records last June. This album isn’t as easy to listen to as the other albums from this list. On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment is an abstract fusion of instruments and sounds that lean towards the blues. Yet every song of the album is a unique visionary manifesto of contemporary jazz.

Ambrose Akinmusire follows his acclaimed, genre-busting best-of-2018 manifesto “Origami Harvest” with another visionary statement on his new album “on the tender spot of every calloused moment,” which finds the trumpeter examining blackness on an uncompromising set of modern jazz laced with a heavy feeling of the blues. The album presents 11 new compositions by Akinmusire and features his quartet with pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown with guest vocals from Genevieve Artadi and Jesus Diaz.” – Blue Note

Mama, You Can Bet – Jyoti

August 2020 / SomeOthaShip Connect / US & Canada

Jyoti, which means divine light in the Indian language, is the musical alias for the solo jazz project of singer and multi-instrumentalist Georgia Anne Muldrow. Muldrow previously released R&B/contemporary soul, such as the album Overload (2018), but her work under the name Jyoti takes her creativity to another level.

The music contains elements of jazz, funk, and soul. All blended in the abstract work called Mama, You Can Bet. The album is a compilation of ideas filled with unseen musical experimentation. Georgia Anne Muldrow plays, sings, records, and produces everything herself under her own label, SomeOthaShip Connect, and this is what gives her the creative freedom in music.

Related articles:

Jazz Album Cover Designs That Inspire – Part 1

My record collection is growing every day and what attracts me to purchasing an album apart from the music is the sleeve design. For this article, I dove into my collection and hand-picked my favorite jazz covers.

Giant Steps – John Coltrane

1960 / Atlantic 1311 / Marvin Israel (design) / Lee Friedlander (photo)

The red text and frame on the album are so distinctive that you immediately recognize it as Coltrane’s Giant Steps. The photo itself, taken by Lee Friedlander, is an upwards close-up of John Coltrane doing what he does best.

Marvin Israel, the artist behind it, knew how to frame it. These are the words of famous photographer Robert Frank in the documentary Who is Marvin Israel (Doon Arbus). The documentary brings to light the life and work of the artist. Marvin Israel worked as a freelance art director for Atlantic Records from 1957 to 1963 so, Giant Steps is far from the only sleeve design he did. He painted several abstracts of famous jazz musicians such as Charlie Mingus (Atlantic 1416) and Milt Jackson (Atlantic 1417), and he designed the cover for the albums: Joe Turner Sings Kansas City Jazz (Atlantic 1234), Charles Mingus’ The Clown (Atlantic 1260), and Ornette Coleman’ The Shape of Jazz To Come (Atlantic 1317).

Afro Blue – Dee Dee Bridgewater

1974 / Trio Records PA 7095 / Katsuji Abe (design & photo)

If you’re a fan of 70’s soul-jazz, there is a big chance you have this record sitting on your shelf at home. Afro Blue, the debut album from Dee Dee Bridgewater, is not only one of my favorite albums for listening to, but also the artwork inspires curiosity. This is how I got familiar with the album, I spotted the cover, got curious, and bought it.

The cover design and photography on the backside are credited to the Japanese photographer Katsuji Abe. Abe was a designer for Trio Records and Whynot Records during the 1970s. He also published several books including 50 Jazz Greats From Heaven (1995).

The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady – Charles Mingus

1963 / Impulse! AS-35 / Joe Lebow (design) / Bob Ghiraldini (photo)

This powerful release from Charles Mingus, where he takes on the role of composer and band-leader, consists of a single continuous composition that is written as a ballet. The record is among the most acclaimed jazz records of the 20th century thanks to Mingus’ perfectionism and ability to improvise.

The sleeve design is from the American designer Joe Lebow who worked for different record companies during his career. He used the photography of Bob Ghiraldini who was specialized in photographs of jazz musicians. The cover features Charles Mingus in front of a white wall and above him, you read his name, the title, and the words: “From the poem: Touch my beloved’s thought while her world’s affluence crumbles at my feet

Love Matters! – Jowee Omicil

2018 / Jazz Village ‎33570118.19 / Yannick Le Vaillant (artwork) / Renaud Monfourny & Sylvain Cherkaoui

For this album, Haitian-Canadian Jazz musician, Jowee Omicil, impressed us with this gatefold cover design. It gives you a direct impression of the music you can expect. The photographs include a lot of light and color, which is in contrast with his previous album, Let’s Bash! (Jazz Village 33570120.21)

The artwork is by the graphic designer Yannick Le Vaillant, who is a true master when it comes to sleeve designs. The photography used for the artwork is credited to two artists. The first is the French photographer Renaud Monfourny, who captures the cultural scene with his portraits of musicians, actors, and writers. The second is the French photojournalist Sylvain Cherkaoui.

Miles Ahead – Miles Davis

1957 / Columbia 1041 / uncredited

Miles Davis released his second collaboration with Gil Evans in 1957. The original release of this record features a photograph of a white woman and child aboard a sailboat. Miles Davis was dissatisfied with this choice and complained to Columbia Records‘ executive producer George Avakian. No clear reasoning was given to him but in the early 1960s, a picture of Miles Davis was used on the cover (although reissues with the original cover are still being released).

Displaying a white woman on African American album covers was done quite frequently during the 1950s and 1960s. This was done with the sole purpose to easily reach and sell to the white audience as they thought it was a more attractive display. Other examples of this are the soul records Otis Blue from Otis Redding and Arthur Conley’s album Sweet Soul Music. I prefer the cover featuring Miles Davis. It gives a stronger indication of what he does and who he is. The original cover is playing with the title, Miles Ahead, but does not reveal what to expect.

Related articles:

Introduction To 45 rpm Record Collecting

As a deejay and music collector, I purchase as many 45’s as I buy LP’s. Columbia Records copyrighted the term LP (Long Playing) so, let’s use the word ‘album’ going forward. You can say that there is more sense in buying albums instead of a 45 rpm (revolutions per minute). You receive the completed studio work in the order the artist intends you to listen, you have more tracks on the medium, and you don’t have to change or turn the record after one song. However, I do not always agree that an album is always the better choice. 45’s have many advantages compared to albums.

45 rpm record from my collection

The first advantage of a 45 is the higher sound quality. Of course, this is my point of view what is open for discussion. The sound quality of a 45 can be explained by looking into the record surface, playing speed, and track times. On an album, played at 33 1/3 rpm, and with a surface dimension of 12 inches, you will have about 30 minutes of music. A 45 (when talking about a 7-inch single) has a surface dimension of 7 inches, is being played at 45 rpm, and contains about 3 minutes of music. When manufacturing an album, the grooves are very narrow and tightly curved because there should be room for 30 minutes of great music. For a 45, where you only need 3 minutes of music on one side, the grooves are spread out more widely what allows them to be pressed deeper. Like this, more information can be stored. And with more information stored, the audio level of a 45 doesn’t need to be toned down (this is done with some albums to avoid audio cross-over) what makes the sounds quality of a 45 superior.

It’s no surprise that audiophile companies are reissuing classic Jazz records at 45 rpm. Because of the tiny curves on the album’s surface, it is hard for the cartridge to track everything. Fine details, which are so important in Jazz music, can get blur. You can lose the feeling of the bass player sitting next to you because you no longer can hear the fingers sliding over the strings.

A good example of this is the famous Jazz Record label Blue Note. By using the original master tapes, Blue Note records are, in cooperation with Music Matters Jazz and Analogue Productions, reissuing albums on a 45 rpm double-12-inch vinyl. The so-called ‘Blue Note Sound’ was the creation of Rudy Van Gelder, a sound engineer who started to record Jazz musicians in the early 1950s. Van Gelder’s goal was to recreate live Jazz into his recordings. It was much later, in 1994, when the idea came to reissue Blue Note albums at 45 rpm. Mike Hobson and Michael Cuscuna started cutting 45 rpm test pressings and as expected, they sounded much better.

Rudy Van Gelder in the control room of his studio

Playing at 45 rpm is faster than playing at 33 1/3 and therefore, one original album of one disc (33 1/3 rpm) needs to be converted into 2 discs at 45 rpm. It went even further, Blue Note never stopped innovating and improving the sound experience. In some tests, they had better sound quality on a single-sided record. Meaning that grooves were pressed on one side, and the other side stayed blank. The result of this is that 1 original double-sided album was repressed on 4 single-sided 45 rpm discs of 12 inches. Although audiophiles agree that the sound is better, these albums were expensive to buy and it is not so common to find them in your local record store.

Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue ‎(2xLP, Album, Ltd, RE, 45 rpm) released on Blue Note and Analogue Productions

Another great advantage of 45’s is that there is much more great music available on 45 rpm. For the genres I play during sets, mainly soul and rhythm-and-blues from the 1950s through the 1960s, there is more music out there on 45 rpm. The main reason for this is that the smaller independent labels were contracting artists to record one track. A 45 was pressed and released and depending on the success, artists were offered a contract to record an album. For many of them, the success was too low to record and release on a full album (songs may have been released on later compilation albums). Just one example is the artist under the name Little Mummy. Little Mummy only recorded two tracks for Federal Records in New Orleans, Louisiana. The titles ‘Where You At Jack‘ and ‘Oh Baby Please’ were distributed in 1960 and repressed decades later because of the growing success. If his music would have been acknowledged during his life span, this artist may have recorded several albums that would find its place next to rhythm-and-blues greats such as The Drifters, The Coasters, and Jackie Wilson.

Little Mummy’s only release – white original label on the left, later repress on the right.

It is also more convenient for deejays to use 45 rpm singles during sets. You don’t have to carefully place the needle in between the grooves of an album as you only have one track on each side of a 45. The records are smaller in size what makes handling and transportation easier.

To conclude, as a deejay I prefer playing 45’s because of its superior quality, music assortment, and easy handling during sets. But don’t misunderstand me, I love albums equally! Full 12-inch albums offer better record sleeves with impressive cover art, you can listen from start to finish in the order the artists intends you to, and originals are often in better condition because they were handled with more care (45 were often used in radio stations and jukeboxes). For me, the choice of format is really subject to the purpose and music genre.

Some record collectors are more attracted to the original or first pressing of the 45. There is more to it than just the music it contains. A record can represent part of history. Owning part of this history can give more meaning to the music and its origin. As a listener it offers more value knowing its past. The reasons why we collect can be better explained in an anthropology study and I believe that each collector has its own motive. I collect vinyl records to better understand the music. By researching and educating myself, I came to understand its history, its development, its origin, and the influence it has on modern-day music. Listening to music became more valuable since the day I started to collect. Let’s say that, as an example, you watch the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, a portrait of the life of Nina Simone by Liz Garbus. After understanding the life of Nina Simone, I listen to her songs in a completely different way. I’m now able to understand her reasons for making music what adds its value.

In some situations, owning the original or first pressing is a must. This is the case for collectors of Northern Soul records. To better understand this, we need to have a deeper look at the history and meaning of Northern Soul.

Northern Soul is a subculture that originated in North England during the late 1960s and through the 1970s. It is powered by uptempo American soul music from the mid-1960s. Many young modernists were not convinced of the development of soul music into disco and funk. They kept a preference for the uptempo American soul music. Today it’s common to stream any song you’d like to hear, but back in the days, you had to go to your local club to listen to the songs played by deejays. The success of a deejay had a lot to do with their collection of 45’s and their ability to locate and find them. The scene was based on non-commercial lost and forgotten soul records. Many songs that were popular in the Northern Soul scene, were recorded by smaller independent labels and because of that, there are not too many in circulation. A deejay owning a song that was loved by the crowd would make him unique. Northern Soul fans, mainly the young working middle-class, would go to clubs to dance to these unique soul records. There was also a lot of competition between deejays and clubs. Deejays would often scratch off the label to keep the title secret. The Northern Soul scene is also characterized by its own unique dance. People would fill the room individually and perform light and smooth footwork with the occasional turn, drop, or karate-kick.

The Northern Soul scene still exists today and one would say it is even bigger than before. Around the world people are organizing All-Nighters where Northern Soul deejays and collectors can share their rare music collection. It was already unique to own certain 45’s back in the 1970s and this has not changed. These days, rare Northern Soul 45’s are worth a couple of hundred dollars and in some cases, a couple of thousand.

The rarest original Northern Soul 45 rpm record is ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’ by Frank Wilson (1965). It is said that only 6 copies of the record were printed and their purpose was to promote the song at radio stations. Out of those 6 copies, only 2 are still in existence and only 1, is in playable condition. this record was sold in auction for over $30,000.

The story behind this is not fully confirmed but many believe that it was Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown records label, who ordered the copies to be destroyed and who blocked the official release of the song. Frank Wilson was hired as a producer by Motown but in return, he had to renounce his musical career. However, he moved forward with the pressing of his promo single for ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’. This was not appreciated by Berry Gordy and, he ordered the destruction of the pressed records. However, two records survived and in 1977 the song reappeared in the Northern Soul dance scene. The record’s rarity and its original soul sound is what made it one of the most popular songs in Northern Soul and in 1979, the record was officially released to the public by Tamla Motown.

On the left, you can see the promo records. It was signed by Frank Wilson himself with the words “to Kenny” referring to the previous owner. On the right, you can see the official release by Tamla Motown

‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’ by Frank Wilson – promo on the left (1965), official release on the right (1979)