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Concept Albums that Work

Dan Gould

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Thought about doing this as a poll but thought better of it.

It came to mind now that I've picked up a copy of Benny Golson's Take a Number From One To Ten and been able to hear the three Octet, Nonet and Tentet tunes that Keepnews inexplicably lopped off the reissue. But this is a terrific "concept" album that really works well, as Golson's arranging, playing and composition talents (he wrote five of the last 6 tunes) really get a chance to shine.

So what are your favorites and why?

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Archie Shepp - FOR LOSERS (Impulse, not yet on CD)

Because it is what it says it is, and lovingly so.

With Clarence Sharpe, Wilbur Ware, Cedar Walton, Cecil Payne, Woody Shaw, and many others.

Everybody loves a winner.

'Specially when he's thinner.

Up and down,

Like a clown.

Who gives a damn

For losers?

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There are probably many more, but two I've recently enjoyed come to mind:

Tommy Flanagan - LONELY TOWN (United Artists 1959). This one's pretty obscure, undeservedly. Last reissued in Japan (TOCJ) in 2000, as part of the series that also included Tina Brooks' WAITING GAME, Freddie Redd's REDD'S BLUES, and Ike Quebec's FROM HACKENSACK TO ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS, only 2 of which have made it to the U.S. reissue series recently. A fairly conventional concept at first glance - Flanagan, Joe Benjamin on bass and Elvin Jones on drums play 7 Leonard Bernstein compositions, including "America," "Lonely Town, " Tonight," and "Make Our Garden Grow." But then again, how many jazz albums have been devoted to Bernstein's compositions? Furthermore, it sounds and feels like Flanagan was born to play these pieces - an understated, humble masterpiece.

Terence Blanchard - JAZZ IN FILM (Sony Classics 1999). A fine group, including Joe Henderson, Donald Harrison, Steve Turre, Kenny Kirkland, Reginald Veal, and Carl Allen, backed by a full orchestra, tackle a series of classic film score themes, many with strong jazz undertones to begin with. Alex North's "A Streetcar Named Desire," Jerry Goldsmith's "Chinatown," Quincy Jones' The Pawnbroker," Duke's "Anatomy of a Murder," and several others are given lush, film noirish arrangements that have a stunningly big, "deep" movie house kind of sound. Top notch playing by all involved.

Edited by DrJ
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I've heard OF that Blanchard disc, but never actually heard it. Sounds like a winner, and if "Papa Tony" ;) recommends it, that clinches it for me.

Now, can somebody define "concept album" for me? I think I understand the term, but I'm wondering if I could be confused. Is a "theme album" the same thing?

I really love the Wilbur Harden/Tommy Flanagan album of tunes from "The King & I" from the 50's on Savoy, but I'm sure I could name a bunch of others in a similar vein that I like almost as much...

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Strongly concur with that recommendation from DrJ of 'Jazz on Film'. Holds together beautifully, with great horn arrangements. Saw Blanchard's band in person a few years ago playing this stuff (with Gary Bartz in the lineup) and it absolutely smoked. Recommended !

On a nautical concept theme, Herbie's 'Maiden Voyage' works superbly. Theme of a maiden outing for a yacht, captures well the tentative air of discovery and apprehension. 'Eye of the Hurricane' the innevitable turbulence, 'Dolphin Dance' an ode to these kings of the sea and 'Little One' an appreciation of sub-aquatic food-chain critters.

Other fine concept albums from Herbie which work for me are 'Crossings', with its African tribal themes and 'The Prisoner', with its dedications to Martin Luther King.


Edited by sidewinder
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Now, can somebody define "concept album" for me? I think I understand the term, but I'm wondering if I could be confused. Is a "theme album" the same thing?

To name a rock "concept" album-Tommy or Dark Side of the Moon.

Something beyond, say "Ballads and Blues". Something that aspires to more than just a cohesive album-not sure that Lonely Town really qualifies, frankly.

BTW, Bluesnik has been remastered in Japan. Would love to see it as a domestic RVG!

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Blakey, Selections from Lerner and Loewe

Eddie Costa, Guys and Dolls Like Vibes

Billy Eckstine, Now Sings...in 12 Great Movies

Tommy Flanagan, Giant Steps

Kenny Garrett, Pursuance

That Giuffre album, what's it called? Modern something

Golson, Take a number from 1 to 10 (yes Dan, it IS terrific!)

Paul Gonsalves, Cleopatra feelin' jazzy

Grant Green, Feelin' the Spirit (and probably Goin' West - I never heard it)

Charlie Haden, the Liberation Music Orchestra

Chico Hamilton's Ellington Suites

Joe Harriott, Indo Jazz Fusions (2 Vols)

Andrew Hill, Dusk

David Klein, My Marilyn

Steve Lacy, Five Facings

Joe Lovano, Rush Hour, Celebrating Sinatra

Mingus, Blues & Roots (if that qualifies for a concept album)

Oliver Nelson, The Blues and the Abstract Truth

Pago Libre, Cinémagique

Bud Powell, Portrait of Thelonious

George Russell, New York N.Y.

Hal Russell, The Hal Russell Story

Frank Sinatra, In the Wee Small Hours (if that's allowed at the O-board...)

Billy Taylor, My Fair Lady Loves Jazz

Mel Tormé, California Suite

Vienna Art Orchestra, The Minimalism of Erik Satie, All That Strauss, Art&Fun 25

Cassandra Wilson, Travelling Miles


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"The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet" concept is kind of like that of the Golson 1-10 album.

And since we were just talking about it - We Insist! Freedom Now Suite by Max Roach.

There are dozens of ones like that: the album-length suites - A Love Supreme, Meditations by Coltrane; Free Jazz by Ornette; Uhuru Afrika by Randy Weston; Gillespiana, Perceptions by Dizzy; Sing Me A Song of Songmy by Freddie Hubbard; Canadiana Suite by Oscar Peterson; October Suite by McFarland & Kuhn; then there's the operas/oratorios/chronotransductions - Escalator Over the Hill by Carla Bley; X by Anthony Davis; Shala Fears for the Poor by Anthony Braxton; The Light in the Wilderness by Brubeck; not to mention all those Wynton Marsalis commissioned pieces.

Oh - and though it's not been updated in nearly 5 years, here's a list that might be worth looking at:


I suppose records like those are sort of built-in concept albums. Ditto for the songbook/tribute/cover albums.

But I find some of those mentioned earlier to be very interesting because they aren't known as suites - like Maiden Voyage - unless you know the liner notes (or look at the titles as as whole), it's just a group of tunes. The pieces on Speak Like a Child have sort of a common theme, but not everything holds to it.

Here's a couple more like that:

Don Friedman: A Day in the City

Chick Corea: The Leprechaun

Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now

Dave Brubeck: Time Out (and others)

Max Roach: Jazz In 3/4 Time

Wayne Shorter: Odyssey of Iska

Some are programmatic and tell a story from the start of the record to the end, others take a concept (jazz waltzes, say) and just group pieces together for presentation.

Some of my very favorite concept albums are the Liberation Music Orchestra records by Charlie Haden. The original one from 1970; Ballad of the Fallen; and Dream Keeper. Though they may not hold to the concept 100% of the time.

And just a few days ago I heard the premiere of a great new piece, a ballet by Randy Sandke. "Subway Ballet" describes in music a NYC trip from lower Manhattan to mid-town (apparently the stops are not entirely accurate, but are more a composite from various lines). Dance of the Punks; Dance of the Wall Street Brokers; The Blind Beggar Encounters the Korean Peddler; Dance of the Hasidic Diamond Merchants; and Dance of the Midtown Career Women). It's written for big band - no choreographer has come forward to make the ballet a reality, so it's more a suite for the moment. But it was wonderfully played by an all-star band with folks like Lew Soloff, Scott Robinson, Ken Peplowski, Wycliffe Gordon, Virgil Jones, et al.


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Blanchard's Jazz in Film, as mentioned above, certainly works for me.

Like Jim R, I'm not quite certain what a concept album is exactly. I thought of a few that I'm not sure fit the bill:

Ellington's Afro Bossa, Symphonic Ellington and Violin Summit - all of course from the Reprise Mosaic.

How about Bob Belden's Black Dahlia?

Of course now I've forgotten the title I had in mind when when I first saw the thread. Hopefully it will come back....... Oh well.

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I knew it would come back. Now this is one concept album that definitely works for me, and from what I could tell from a recent thread at least one other. It's no classic or masterpiece but it grooves like hell. It's Nat Adderley's Soul of the Bible

Man does this album kick ass in the groove department. I have listened to it multiple multiple times since I grabbed it a couple of months ago. A total groove fest, at least IMO. Of course you have to get past the biblical meanderings of some cat named Rick Holmes who sets up the various pieces with his narration. To me, though, the juxtaposition of his narrations with some of the most serious funky grooves I've heard just add to the ambience. Definitely a period piece and clearly not for everyone. But dig this, I was playing it in my car and my wife loves it.

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A concept album is one that has an overall plan or theme - some common element that holds the album together. It might tell a story, it might not. It might be a source (spirituals or folk music, say) or it might be intended to set a particular mood. Some people call Frank Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours" the first concept album. The album might have a political message or everything might be musically related. Basically, it's something that makes the album an album - a large work rather than a bunch of small works.

Sometimes these concepts are grafted on afterwards. Those albums are less worthy of the term, in my opinion. And compilations just do NOT fit the bill. Blue Note issued some "Ballads" CDs. Those ain't concept albums. But Coltrane's "Ballads" album on Impulse might be.

Here's one definition:


How about that Teddy Charles "Russia Goes Jazz" album? All Russian composers' works turned into jazz. To me, that's more along the lines than a Cole Porter songbook album.


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How about that Teddy Charles "Russia Goes Jazz" album? All Russian composers' works turned into jazz. To me, that's more along the lines than a Cole Porter songbook album.

Has this been released on CD anywhere? Sounds like a very interesting date, and I've enjoyed the other few Teddy Charles CD's I have in my collection.

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The problem I have with trying to define a concept album is alluded to in many posts so far - nearly all recordings have SOME concept, but often it is quite loose and thus I wouldn't consider them "concept albums." Otherwise, basically every album is a concept album.

Personally, I wouldn't consider it a "concept" album unless there is a very clear structural thread running through - so Flanagan's LONELY TOWN, which is all Bernstein tunes (actually, all WEST SIDE STORY tunes) would qualify for me, but something like LOVE SUPREME would not. Therein lines the pro and con of concept albums - there is a strong unity in the structure, which brings it right to the edge of (and sometimes in less successful cases across into) contrived territory.

To be honest, I chafe at the idea of describing albums like WE INSIST! and LOVE SUPREME as a concept albums- they are far beyond that, not reducible to anything as simple or contained as a "concept." Sure, there's an underlying sense of purpose and general intent, but again, most albums have that. One can take away so many interpretations and meanings (in the abstract sense) of this type of music, many of which have nothing to do with the artist's original intent. By contrast, in my view concept albums basically tell the listener up front, "Here's what we're about on this recording, we're exploring X and we want you to appreciate it." As a result, there are few truly great concept albums, although they can be quite good and enjoyable when done tastefully.

Edited by DrJ
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No, unfortunately. Full details here:


It's from 1963 - the last thing Teddy Charles did as a leader before retiring. Let's see, who can we blame for holding up the reissue of an album originally on United Artists.......oh right, Blue Note.

There's another good Russian to Jazz thing from more recent times: "Red Square Blue" with Fred Hersch and others. I have it on CD, now whether it's in print, I don't know.


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Speaking of that Terence Blanchard Jazz In Film album...

The date 1999 is, I assume, the release date. I wonder when it was recorded. It must be one of Joe Henderson's last sessions, if not the last. How much solo space does Joe get?


Edited by bertrand
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To be honest, I chafe at the idea of describing albums like WE INSIST! and LOVE SUPREME as a concept albums- they are far beyond that, not reducible to anything as simple or contained as a "concept." Sure, there's an underlying sense of purpose and general intent, but again, most albums have that.

I have to say I disagree with the term "most" unless you are saying that the most common common general intent of jazz albums is to jam on a blues or two, a few originals and a standard or three.

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Several of Wayne's BN albums could qualify as concept albums in the way that MAIDEN VOYAGE does. SPEAK NO EVIL, THE ALL SEEING EYE, & ODYSSEY OF ISKA all "tell stories" if you choose to believe Wayne's comments in the liner notes, and I see no reason not to.

Verve in the mid-90s was the KING of concept albums. It seemed as if every one of their albums had a theme of SOME kind. I reached the point with them where I just wanted to hear an old-fashioned, Prestige-style, round-some-cats-up-and-let'em-play-for-3-hours blowing session!

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