I’ve just looked again at a funny story on the satirical website, the daily mash. The story is titled, ‘Woman ends 20-year attempt to like jazz: a music fan has finally admitted that jazz is bad‘. Jane Thompson, the fictional heroine of the story, says: “I worried that I was musically thick and that’s why I didn’t get the apparently-random squeaks and farts. I tried smoking weed but that just made the jazz physically painful.” A funny article and one with some truth to it.
‘Jazz’ is similar to ‘Rock’ in the sense that it covers a wide spectrum of styles and sounds. If someone’s first taste of rock was Sepultura they may not take to the vocal screaming and crunching power chords. This doesn’t mean that all rock is the same and should be dismissed out of hand: even our heroine, Jane Thompson, gave Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew a few chances! Rock encompasses bands as diverse as The Doors, Slayer and Bon Jovi. Sure, in response you’d say that The Doors is psychedelic rock, Slayer is thrash metal, Bon Jovi is soft rock, etc. But you can make a similar argument about jazz. Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto’s bossa nova albums (think ‘The Girl from Ipanema’) are a distant relative but are a relative nonetheless to John Coltrane’s later albums, which are an acquired taste. So, part of the problem is one of nomenclature, ‘pigeon holing’, and individuals’ expectations, i.e. all jazz sounds the same.
I quoted Mark Twain in a previous post. Twain said, ‘a classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.’ Like rock, jazz has its classics, and a Google search will quickly churn out the same list of top ten jazz albums. Like this one, from ‘the village voice’, which looks like a pretty good list to me. I’ve not heard every minute of all these albums, not because I don’t rate them but because often the albums are way before my time. The most recent album on the village voice’s list is Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters album from 1973, over forty years ago!
When I was growing up jazz wasn’t the popular form of music it was in the 50/ or 60s. I grew up listening to pop and rock music in its various forms. Jazz came later as I started playing the electric guitar. So these classic jazz albums weren’t on my radar until later in my musical development and other jazz albums got heard before some of these and which are more important to me, despite arguably being inferior to certain classics. Music, though, like beauty, is in the eye, or ear, of the beholder. So I’ve listed below some of these albums and hope that if you haven’t heard them, you might want to after reading this post.
Number one on most lists of top jazz albums ever is Miles Davis’ 1959 Kind of Blue. I don’t disagree. The album really is an example of something being greater than the sum of its parts and what parts! Davis, Adderley, Coltrane, Cobb, Chambers and Evans (the star of the show), with Wynton Kelly on one track. Blue in Green was probably the track that made me fall in love with Bill Evans’ playing and made me want to play jazz piano. If you want something cool and bordering on magical to put on the stereo and turn the lights down, Kind of Blue is the soundtrack to that mood.
I’ll stick with the village voice’s number 2 choice too – not that my pickings here are in any order other than my top pick – John Coltrane’s 1958 album Blue Train. Like Kind of Blue, Coltrane surrounded himself with a stellar cast, notably for me, Lee Morgan on trumpet. The intro to the title track is unforgettable and arguably one of the most famous jazz intros ever. The trombone solo from Curtis Fuller is equally wonderful. However, for my money, Lee Morgan takes the MVP award for his solos throughout the album but especially on Blue Train and Moment’s Notice. Blue Train is mostly a pretty uptempo album and perfect to get those feet tapping.
A lot of top jazz albums lists would feature the Bill Evans trio’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard. For my money and because it was one of the first jazz records I possessed, I would choose Bill Evans’ piano trio (with Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morrell on drums) recording of their February 1972 concert in Paris. This album includes some wonderful ballads, including What are you doing the rest of your life? and Evans’ own Turn out the stars and Re: Person I Knew. The latter is one of my favourite recordings and is Evans’ tribute to and an anagram of Orrin Keepnews, his friend and producer. I have a ‘Real Book’ with the late Michael Garrick’s chord/scale notes on this particular tune (having attended one year Garrick’s Jazz Academy summer school); not that it made it any simpler to play! Evans had the ability, like all the best of artists, to make the complex or difficult sound simple and beautiful.
All the albums thus far have included rhythm sections, my next top choice doesn’t. It’s a live album called People Time featuring Stan Getz on tenor saxophone and Kenny Barron (the subject of a previous post) on piano. The duo were recorded live in Copenhagen in 1991, three month’s ahead of Stan Getz’s death making this album Getz’s final recorded output. The duo are at the top of their respective games though what Getz lacks in chops he gains in emotion. But what comes across vividly in this recording is how much the two enjoy playing with one another. Stand out tracks on the (thankfully) double album, are First Song (for Ruth) penned by Charlie Haden. While clocking in at just under 10 minutes you hang on every note. Getz in particular wrenches pure emotion from his instrument. There is no greater love is also a standout track and on which the two are clearly enjoying themselves. Barron is especially playful on this track and his Monk-ish foray into stride at just after the halfway mark is worth the price of admission alone.
My final choice – five seems like a good place to stop – is a little bit different from the previous albums and that’s why it’s on this list. It’s recorded by European rather than American musicians and is typical of the output of the ECM record label, which has released many of my favourite albums. It’s called The Sea II and features Ketil Bjørnstad (piano), David Darling (cello), Terje Rypdal (electric guitar) and Jon Christensen (drums). It’s an interesting blend of instruments and what is being created are more akin to soundscapes than particular tunes. You won’t find any toe-tapping, swinging solos on this album. Some readers might find the guitar sound familiar. Terje Rypdal appears on a number of tracks on the soundtrack to Michael Mann’s classic movie, Heat. It’s a quiet, still album, sounding more like a deep river than a sea. Regrettably, but understandably, ECM doesn’t have any of its music on Spotify. But you can pick it up for less than £8 on iTunes. If you don’t want to splash that much cash then perhaps dip you toe into the water (or Sea!) with the track Brand for the princely sum of £0.79.
Other notable albums include:
Vijay Iyer trio – Break Stuff. A modern (2015) piano trio album with a difference. A favourite of mine is Hood, Iyer’s tribute to Robert Hood, the Detroit techno DJ and producer.
Thelonius Monk – Solo Monk. You could include anything by Monk but this 1965 solo recording by Monk is a favourite. Favourites include Monk’s Point and I’m Confessin’ (that I love you).
Bill Frisell – Tales from the Far Side. A 1996 album from Frisell, a guitarist who’s at home playing jazz, rock, country, etc. This album features tunes from Gary Larson’s animated Far Side movie. Larson himself is a keen jazz guitarist. Egg Radio is my favourite, a simple but wonderful tune.
Branford Marsalis quartet – Crazy People Music. This 1990 album features arguably one of the finest bands ever assembled. Marsalis on tenor and soprano saxophones, the late Kenny Kirkland on piano, Robert Hurst on bass, and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts on drums. The Dark Knight is a favourite.
Wayne Shorter – Speak no Evil. Shorter’s 1966 album is a true classic. A stellar cast and stellar tunes, setting the benchmark for jazz in the mid-60s. Infant Eyes is one of the most beautiful and interesting tunes in the jazz repertoire. Herbie Hancock’s piano playing is sublime throughout.
Bobo Stenson trio – War Orphans. Another piano trio album. Again, any Stenson album is a treat but this was the first I’d heard so it’s one I return to. It’s very much within the ECM aesthetic and will appeal to fans of Bill Evans.
(The author (right) with Bobo Stenson, at the Vortex, London)
There are countless other albums that could have been included and on any other day some of these would have been featured. But I hope you take a chance and try some or at least one of these out. If you do, let me know what you think.
Finally, this post has been a lot longer than previous ones. If you like this, prefer shorter posts, or a combination of the two, do let me know via the comments button below.