I was just thinking about extraordinary feats in musical history.
It’s somewhat common for an artist to make one or two great albums and then decline or have a short, intense period of creativity which then falls off (Sly Stone). But a sustained output of superb music is much more rare.
Here is a short list of examples. Feel free to add more examples in the comments section.
Elvin Jones’ Blue Note Period
Every album Elvin Jones made for Blue Note was at least very, very good. Some were out and out masterpieces.
Miles Davis, roughly from 1945 to 1973
Miles is probably the king of sustained bursts of creativity, at least if you don’t count Duke Ellington. (I don’t, because I’m most familiar with his early work from the 30s). This period included Miles’ participation in the formation of bebop, cool jazz, the sophisticated jazz of the 2nd great quintet, the birth of fusion, the great quintet of Live At The Fillmore, and the protean Jack Johnson sessions. And I’m not even including his comeback band with John Scofield in the 80s.
John Scofield, 1977-1987
Speaking of Scofield, he could basically do no wrong between ‘77 and ‘87. Yes, I know, he’s made many brilliant albums since (Hand Jive, Quiet, Uberjam), but his post 80s output has been inconsistent.
Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic Years
Practically every time Aretha opened her mouth during those years, gold poured out. Enough said.
John McLaughlin, 1969-1983
With a few exceptions, everything McLaughlin tried worked like a charm. He was absolutely reckless in his innovation. The free-ish jazz of Extrapolation, the proto world music of My Goals Beyond, the hard rock fusion of Mahavishnu, the soul jazz of New York On My Mind, the Indian fusion of Shakti, the French flavored fusion of Belo Horizonte…wow.
McCoy Tyner’s Milestone Period
I know, McCoy was great even before his tenure with Milestone, but he just caught fire with the label. He was consistently brilliant from ‘72 to ‘81.
James Brown, 1959-1974
Good Gawd! Brown was a protean soul stylist, and not content with that, basically invented funk.
They went from being competent rock and rollers and steadily increased in sophistication until their breakup in 1970. I know, it’s only 6 years, but what a 6 years! They changed styles like some people change socks.
Coltrane’s career as a solo artist only lasted 10 years, but he made every minute count. He started out as a relatively straight forward bebop artist, but rapidly progressed in a number of directions, experimenting with rapidly shifting harmonies (Giant Steps), pulse-oriented jazz (the great quartet), and finally free jazz.
Now, keep in mind I came of age in the 70s, so there are earlier artists, like Ellington, that I probably haven’t given their due. And who knows? I probably left out somebody obvious. But I think it’s hard to argue with the artists I’ve included.