Mood Music: jazz and railroads go together like a horse and carriage. Richard Williams lines up some of the best tracks...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012
In the days when jazz was popular music, the musicians went from one gig to another by train. The biggest bands even had their own carriages. The iron horse also took vast numbers of African-Americans away from the poverty of the southern states to the hope of prosperity in the cities of the north and the Mid-west. No wonder the railroad formed such an insistent leitmotif of the music.
Click the play button to listen to the playlist on Spotify.
MEADE LUX LEWIS HONKY TONK TRAIN BLUES
This may be where it all started, back in 1927, with a great pianist's exuberant evocation of smokestacks and steel wheels and humming rails. It certainly launched the boogie-woogie craze, whose echoes can be heard every time Jools Holland sits at the keyboard.
DUKE ELLINGTON TAKE THE "A" TRAIN
Written in 1939 by Duke's long-time collaborator and boon companion Billy Strayhorn, this is nevertheless as pure a slice of Ellingtonia as can be found. Some versions feature a vocal refrain, but it never needed words to paint its picture of a subway service that ran from Brooklyn to Harlem.
JOHN COLTRANE BLUE TRAIN
A classic minor blues from the 1957 Blue Note album of the same name, this forges ahead at a steady medium tempo, with a sense of restrained power. A simple, chant-like theme gives way to a relentless Coltrane tenor saxophone solo, the sound of a man alone on a long journey.
JIMMY GIUFFRE TRIO THE TRAIN AND THE RIVER*
A jazz pastorale with a locomotive running through it, this was the music playing over the titles for Bert Stern's film "Jazz on a Summer's Day" in 1958. Jim Hall, the trio's guitarist, now 81, is featured in the London Jazz Festival.
CHARLES MINGUS BOOGIE STOP SHUFFLE
This one is a coast-to-coast express, airhorns wailing to clear its path. Recorded by Mingus's Jazz Workshop combo in 1959 for the classic album "Mingus Ah Um", it features the great tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin.
JOHN PATTON THE SILVER METER
A misspelling half-disguises a homage to the Silver Meteor, the New York to Florida service inaugurated in 1939. A driving example of Hammond organ jazz from "Along Came John", Patton's classic debut album (Blue Note, 1963).
GERRY MULLIGAN K-4 PACIFIC
Mulligan loved trains, and the K-4 Pacific was a powerful locomotive that the baritone saxophonist, composer and bandleader recalled rolling through the American landscapes of his youth. Included in a 1971 big-band album called "The Age of Steam", it was expanded for a version performed several years later with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic.
PAT METHENY GROUP LAST TRAIN HOME
Metheny swaps guitar for electric sitar on this track from his 1988 album "Still Life (Talking)". A soundtrack to those F. Scott Fitzgerald stories about rich kids going back from east-coast boarding schools to their Midwestern homes for Christmas, conjuring sparks and smoke in the night air as they traverse the snow-covered plains.
BILL FRISELL GONE, JUST LIKE A TRAIN
No one captures the whole sweep of Americana, from backwoods simplicity to digital-age sophistication, like this marvellous Baltimore-born guitarist, also featured in the London Jazz Festival. This track captures all the feelings evoked by its graceful title.
All tracks at iTunes except * at Amazon
London Jazz Festival Nov 9th-18th
Richard Williams is chief sports writer on the Guardian and a former editor of Melody Maker and Time Out. His books include "Long Distance Call"