Friday, April 28, 2006

 

Jazz primer

A friend recently emailed me to ask about which ten or fifteen jazz albums I would recommend to get his collection started. Actually, he asked me to list "the classics," but if I tried to make a list like that, I'd never finish it. So I'm interpreting the request much more narrowly. Instead of thinking about which albums a collection would have to include, I started to think a bit about which albums I heard early on. If these albums drew me in, then maybe they would work the same way for someone else.

Not necessarily, though. Tastes are different, and I suspect every jazz fan charts a different path into the music. My own entry points clustered around particular decades (the 1950s and the 1960s) and I initially neglected classic big band leaders like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. It also took me a while to branch into more recent artists and more avant-garde music. But I think a lot of people come to jazz through rock-jazz fusion artists like Weather Report or Pat Metheny and then work backwards to the period where I began. Others get introduced to Ellington, Louis Armstrong and the like and work forward to the kinds of albums I've listed below.

Nonetheless, having cleared my throat and aired some qualifiers, here are ten albums that I think serve as a reasonably good Jazz Primer (or at least a reasonably good recollection of some of my earliest finds). It's not a primer in the sense of providing an elementary survey; more of a primer in the sense that it might ignite interest in other albums. (I've cheated a little bit by grafting some of those other albums onto the main ten.) It's lengthy, yes, but let this be a lesson: don't ask a jazz fan to pontificate on jazz unless you want an earful!



At Basin Street / Clifford Brown and Max Roach (Emarcy) - The band that recorded this album (with Brown on trumpet, Roach on drums, and Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone) is a perfect guide to the 1950s, a transitional decade in jazz history. It bridged the genres of bebop and hard bop. In general, the boundaries between "bebop" and "bop" are blurry, but this is an album that at least gives some pretty clear examples from both sides of the divide. For example, if you like tracks such as "What is This Thing Called Love?" and "I'll Remember April," then you're probably going to like classic bepop -- a style pioneered by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that placed a premium on virtuosity, blistering tempos, and technical variations on a standard set of chord changes. On the other hand, tracks like "Step Lightly (Junior's Arrival)" and "Powell's Prances" look ahead to the hard bop of groups like Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and artists like Bud Powell (for whom "Powell's Prances" is named). Incidentally, Powell's trio album, The Scene Changes, was also one of my first jazz albums. Hard bop is hard to define: one of those "know it when you hear it" kind of things. Two characteristics leap to mind, though: hard-swinging rhythms (I find myself voluntarily tapping my feet or nodding my head) that often stop and change on a dime, and more complicated harmonies. In other words, groovy.

Saxophone Colossus / Sonny Rollins (Prestige) - An album in the same vein as the first. (Rollins appears on both.) As the title of the album suggests, the man is a giant on tenor saxophone. You can't really go wrong with anything he recorded. (It was hard to choose between this and Freedom Suite, one of the earliest albums I owned.) Rollins is generally renowned for being able to improvise for very long stretches without becoming redundant or losing the melody. "St. Thomas" is also an important track because it mixes Caribbean and Afro-Cuban sounds with traditional jazz instrumentation, thus anticipating Latin Jazz before it had really arrived. (If you like this, you might move on to Joe Henderson's Page One.)



Kind of Blue / Miles Davis (Columbia) - You'll find this album near or at the top of almost every list of Greatest Jazz Albums Ever, but even after listening to it for years, you'll have a hard time quibbling with that choice. It's one of the first widely successful examples of "modal jazz." From what I can gather, with my limited amount of musical training, this means that on each song Miles simply gave his band members a few unconventional chords within which to improvise and set them loose. The result, to an untrained ear like mine, might more appropriately be called "mood-al jazz," since it sets the bar for ambient music and can be a perfect remedy when your mood is "kind of blue." The album also represents a move away from bebop that was fundamentally different from "hard bop." Kind of Blue, in common parlance, is an early example of "post-bop," a style that more radically deconstructs the rhythms and harmonies of swing and bebop music than hard bop did. Whatever you call it, it is luminous, beautiful, and deeply poignant music. (Although Kind of Blue represented a departure for Miles from the band he had been recording with in the early 1950s, the albums produced for Prestige by that earlier quintet are also must haves, especially Relaxin', Workin', and Cookin'. I also highly recommend this box set that collects all of the music recorded for Columbia by Miles and Coltrane together, including Kind of Blue. I would also be deemed a heretic in some circles for saying this, but I think Cannonball Adderley's alto sax fits better on the Kind of Blue session than Coltrane's tenor sax, and Somethin' Else, another collaboration between Adderley and Davis, is something else you should hear.)

Blue Train / John Coltrane (Blue Note) - This is Coltrane's first and only recording as a leader for Blue Note Records (although he appears as a side-man on many other albums for this legendary label). If the Brown / Roach band straddled the bebop and hard bop divide, this is an album that dances around the boundaries between hard bop and "post bop." It is an especially excellent example of Coltrane's early use of a technique he would later become famous (and, to some critics, infamous) for using -- an approach to solo-ing that tried to create cascading "sheets of sound" instead of sticking to a linear melody. Like the best bop albums, Blue Train is drenched in the blues and never stops swinging. [NB: As Dacoit points out in the comments below, I could have listed Coltrane's Giant Steps here instead. Giant Steps was one of several great albums that Coltrane recorded as leader for Atlantic Records, and if you like it, I'd also recommend Coltrane's Sound and Coltrane Plays the Blues.]



Songs for Distingue Lovers / Billie Holiday (Verve) - It's nearly impossible to recommend a single album by Billie Holiday without recommending the whole oeuvre. But if you can find it, this underrated album is as good an introduction as any single CD. It also features musicians like Roy Eldridge and Ben Webster who were the heroes of the swing era before bebop exploded on the scene. So the album is a good way to whet your appetite for classic Ellington and Basie albums. It doesn't really include Bille Holiday's most legendary performances (on songs like "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit"), but there are numerous "greatest hits" albums that collect tracks like these. The best that I've found, if you have the money to spend, is the two-disc Ultimate Billie Holiday Collection, which also includes a DVD of live performances and radio interviews with Lady Day.

Song for My Father / Horace Silver (Blue Note) - Another of the earliest albums I owned, this is a hard bop classic that showcases Joe Henderson on tenor sax. Silver is an infectious pianist, and I could easily have listed his other quintet albums for Blue Note here, especially Blowin' the Blues Away and Finger Poppin'. If you like one of these three albums, you'll like them all.



The Sidewinder / Lee Morgan (Blue Note) - Not generally listed as one of the classic hard bop albums, but it makes the list again because it is one of the earliest jazz albums I owned. Again, it features Joe Henderson (if the title of my blog didn't clue you in, I'm a big fan) and also a young Billy Higgins, one of my favorite drummers. A Blue Note album with Lee Morgan on trumpet is pretty much a safe bet anytime, and if you like this album, then you'll want to start exploring Morgan's larger body of work, along with similar albums recorded by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers(especially The Big Beat and Moanin') or Hank Mobley and Dexter Gordon, each of whom recorded a string of classic bop albums for Blue Note in the 1950s and 1960s.

Sunday at the Village Vanguard / Bill Evans (Riverside) - This is the first half of a two-album recording of a classic live concert by Evans' trio at the Village Vanguard. (The other is the equally excellent Waltz for Debby.) Evans was the moody, melancholy pianist who helped make Kind of Blue a classic (and also contributed to the more obscure but also wonderful Oliver Nelson album, The Blues and the Abstract Truth, which was cast in a similar mold). But in my mind, Evans is at his best in a trio setting, and particular with this trio of Paul Motian on drums and Scott LeFaro on bass. LeFaro was killed in a tragic car accident shortly after this album was made, and IMHO, Evans never found a better trio, although he recorded some excellent albums in the 1970s and 1980s. LeFaro's bass work is sui generis in many ways, and these albums are worth having just to hear his interaction with Evans' piano.



Crescent / John Coltrane (Impulse) - One of the albums recorded by Coltrane with the trinity of McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison -- the Classic Quartet. A Love Supreme is rightly regarded as this group's masterpiece, but I actually like Crescent, which was recorded just before Love Supreme, nearly as much. I heard them in the order they were recorded, and in some ways I also think Crescent is more accessible at first listen then Love Supreme because so many of the tracks are grounded in the blues. The middle three songs alone would stand together as a better album than many other artists could ever hope to record. Coltrane's late body of work, which was inaugurated by his albums with this quartet, is controversial and tends to inspire either love or hate. But Crescent is a good litmus test, I think, for whether you'll be interested in hearing more.

Miles Smiles / Miles Davis (Columbia) - Post-bop par excellence. Davis is generally thought to have recorded with two great quintets -- the one featuring John Coltrane that recorded the albums leading up to Kind of Blue, and the one that recorded this album, with Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Wayne Shorter as tenor saxophonist. The quintet is highly regarded partly because it had, in Hancock and Shorter, two of the most intriguing composers of their generation. The presence of Tony Williams also proved to be fateful for Miles, since Tony's influence interested Miles in the intersection between jazz and rock and roll. Their collaboration paved the way for the next phase of Davis's career, which experimented with electronic instruments and rock-like rhythms. (Exhibit A: In a Silent Way.) Miles Smiles is one of a quartet of albums that really go together: I could just as easily have listed E.S.P., Sorceror or Nefertiti. This band also launched Hancock, Shorter, and Carter into spectacular solo careers. Two of my "what would you take to a desert island?" albums are probably Maiden Voyage by Hancock and Speak No Evil by Shorter.

Well, it's a start, even though I'm horrified by some of the omissions here -- Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk to name only two. But there's much, much more advice for new jazz listeners on this page at All About Jazz. After making my list, I checked it against some of the lists and guides over there and think mine stands up reasonably well.

I'd also add two pieces of buying advice for starting a collection, based on my experience rather than on any expertise. First, one of my surefire habits early on was to acquire albums released in the Rudy Van Gelder Series by Blue Note. (The albums are prominently marked "RVG" on the cover and spine.) Van Gelder was a legendary recording engineer who manned the booth for the label's most famous albums, and this series (which is remastered, very reasonably priced, and often on sale at places like Borders) is a veritable hall of fame. I would recommend, in general, starting with the albums released early in the series, since Blue Note made sure to start with the truly great albums. Lately, they seem to be scraping the back of the vault, and whereas RVG releases used to be marketed as a kind of Blue Ribbon series, now the series includes virtually every re-release by Blue Note. Second, early on I often consulted The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD before buying albums. The authors can be pretty stingy with stars for albums that I love, and they also bestow a lot of praise on some albums that I don't. But in general, their advice can help steer someone just starting a collection, particularly because they mark a handful of especially essential albums with a "crown" symbol. All Music Guide is also generally reliable for jazz reviews.

Happy listening!


Collective Improvisation:
Interesting that you mention albums mastered by a recording engineer. It sounds to me, that some albums remastered for CD, the recording engineer is missing. I was somewhat disappointed by the sound quality of John Coltrane’s "A Love Supreme," among others. I grew up on vinyl and I am still very much an analog fan. I find some differences between PC media players and the CD in my car. I would recommend, after the introduction to the albums you recommend, that one should try to find a few in vinyl.

Posted by Anonymous VRB on 4/28/2006 07:13:00 PM : Permalink  

I must confess that I have never been able to appreciate Miles Davis (Yes, I know, please do not shriek incomprehension at me.) or actually many of the modernists. I love Louis and Sir Duke and Ella, not to mention Pat and Dave and I even can dig some Mingus, but I know I am hopelessly hidebound.

Maybe someday.....

Posted by Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" on 4/29/2006 01:43:00 AM : Permalink  

Hmm, these selections show a preference for hard bop/post-bop. Not that I want you to look to earlier or later periods, but is there some reason why you think that this particular era is the best entry into the world of Jazz?

Posted by Blogger Nathanael on 4/29/2006 12:01:00 PM : Permalink  

VRB, thanks for the comment and the advice about vinyl. I have to admit I've never gotten into analog. But I am a huge fan of album cover art, and I love many of the classic album covers in jazz history. I think releasing records on large vinyl albums encouraged more creative and striking album cover art than do today's CD packages (with notable exceptions, of course).

Ms. Cornelius, You'll hear no shrieks of incomprehension from me! There's an irreducible idiosyncracy to most music tastes, I think. I have to say, too, that my appreciation of Miles waxes and wanes. I binged on his music when I was first getting in to jazz, which sent me reeling in all sorts of interesting directions, but I don't listen to him as much as I once did.

Nathanael, I wouldn't try to make the case that this is the "best" entrypoint into the world of jazz. It just happens to have been my entrypoint. And, for lack of a better principle to guide a recommendations list like this, I decided just to list some of my first loves. I did, however, take a "History of Jazz" course as an undergraduate, shortly after I started to become a serious fan, and that course proceeded more chronologically and musicologically than my own somewhat arbitrary buying habits. It was a superb course, so I can also see the benefits of starting at the beginning and working forward.

But, when all is said and done, I suppose I do have a preference for hard bop and post-bop. My personal collection, at least, is heavily weighted towards those genres, amorphous and imprecise though they are.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 4/30/2006 03:18:00 PM : Permalink  

Excellent starter list, Caleb. I of course recognize the idiosyncratic nature of such lists, and share your horror at the Mingus and Monk exclusions. I might have modified the selections somewhat (The Bridge instead of Sax Collossus for Rollins, Giant Steps for Blue Train, ESP for Miles Smiles, and so forth), but ultimately would have come up with a list that looks quite similar - a fact which troubles me for reasons I will try to explain below. I want to add that I am quite pleased to see Horace Silver's Song for my Father/Cantigo Para Meu Pai on the list, which is one my own all-time favorites. Silver does not get nearly enough respect from the self-appointed arbiters of taste.

Speaking of whom, I have always felt that the makers of the modern jazz canon (Wynton Marsalis, Ken Burns, Stanley Crouch) have done a great violence to our capacity to appreciate both the full range of what was produced in the putative golden age of jazz, and to the other directions jazz has taken since then. It is not so much their act of constructing the canon in the first place, but the convergence of marketing, media saturation and institutions of music pedagogy in inscribing the Armstrong-Parker-Miles-Coltrane axis as the boundary in which what we know as jazz exists. I am also a creature of this, as indexed by the fact that whatever my intro list is would be largely similar to yours in terms of coverage. But I do feel that our ability to appreciate past jazz and imagine new jazz has been severely constricted by Marsalis, Burns, Lincoln Center, PBS and the like. I am not sure if you share these sentiments, and am interested to hear your perspective.

Further, if you had to compile a counter-canonical introduction to jazz, what would you include?

Posted by Anonymous dacoit on 5/01/2006 11:07:00 PM : Permalink  

I've listened to jazz all my life, but I have not been one to remember all the names. I do know that when I saw the documentary on jazz, Marsalis and Burns, there were many sounds missing. So I agree with dacoit about the new jazz canon. What would help change this, would be to find a person in their seventies or eighties that has an extensive jazz record collection, try to have an audience and listen. Maybe publish their comments and samples of the music on the Web. I know these people exist, because my Dad and one of his friends had very large collections.

Posted by Anonymous VRB on 5/02/2006 12:08:00 AM : Permalink  

Good points, dacoit. I share some of your unease about the "makers of the modern jazz canon." I certainly don't have any problem with preserving and appreciating jazz traditions, and so I have no problem joining Marsalis, Crouch, and company in bestowing effusive praise on The Greats. Armstrong, Parker, Miles, and Coltrane made inarguably great music, and I don't think one has to dissent from that in order to express some reservations about their "canonical" status.

My reservations about the "modern jazz canon" have less to do with its inclusions than its exclusions. I only get hot under the collar when Marsalis and Crouch types start depicting Ornette Coleman as the Antichrist or the arrival of the Hammond organ as akin to the expulsion from Paradise. (If "going electric" really was jazz's original sin, I'm inclined to think it was a fortunate fall.) It's the knee-jerk dismissal of certain artists and genres that irks me, not the fanatic love for Miles and Trane.

I'd have to give a lot more thought to what I would include on a counter-canonical list, or even what I would include on a "canonical" list. As I mentioned in my reply to Nathanael, this list is more of a historical record than a canon: it's mainly an account of some of my earliest forays into jazz. I suspect, though, that Stanley Crouch would already quibble with the list as it is: sometimes he seems to curl his lip even at players like Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, and late Trane, all of whom are given pride of place in my list.

But if I were really going to shake things up a bit, I would certainly not overlook Mingus. I also have a great fondness for Ornette Coleman's early quartet albums (like The Shape of Jazz to Come and This is Our Music). I'd probably also linger over artists like Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, and the trombonist Grachan Moncur III. I'd probably also include a raft of Blue Note albums that Andrew Hill had a hand in making, like Bobby Hutcherson's Dialogue. I don't know how non-canonical this is, but I toyed with putting Chick Corea's Now He Sings, Now He Sobs on this list, and Keith Jarrett would show up in some form or fashion in a longer list.

Ultimately, though, I think this kind of list-making has only a limited value: one man's counter-canon is another man's canon, and some readers would probably smile at the thought that the above paragraph is really "shaking things up." Besides, my own listening habits are often dictated, almost capriciously, by mood and timing, and since I have no vested interest in sorting out who's who in the world of jazz, I have a pretty easy-going view of these things. My musical tastes are similar to my gustatory ones: I'll listen to anything once.

All the same, I'd be interested in some of your own "non-canonical" picks, if you have the time to share them. Incidentally, you're right that it's hard to avoid the influence of the marketing machines of major labels and star-makers, especially for those, like me, who were introduced to jazz on CD and have therefore been somewhat captive to market-driven determinations about what albums are worth re-releasing on disc. I don't think the marketing is always a bad thing, though; as I pointed out in the post, the RVG Series may not be perfect, but it's hard to argue that its standards are pretty high.

And also incidentally, thanks for mentioning Giant Steps. Another of my faves from the same period is Coltrane's Sound. I meant to mention Coltrane's Atlantic albums in the plug for Blue Train, so I'll go back and add them in.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 5/02/2006 10:34:00 AM : Permalink  

Caleb~ Completely with you on the point of the problem of canonizing being a matter of exclusion rather than inclusion. The questions are linked, of course, since the styles purveyed by the Jazz Greats (generally leaving out their more experimental endeavours) are taken to provide the criteria for good jazz.

Were I to make a supplementary or counter-canon, I would probably include most of the folks you mention in your spiel above (Coleman, Hill, Dolphy, Hutcherson, Corea, Jarett), as well as some of the following artists who have transgressed the boundaries of Jazz as music form at various angles:

Sonny Sharrock, Jimmy Smith, Tim Berne, Sun Ra/Arkestra, Israel Lopez Cachao, Paul Bley, John Zorn, Abdullah Ibrahim, Donald Byrd, Pharoah Sanders, Herbie Hancock, Idris Muhammad, Albert Ayler, Lee Morgan, Jaco Pastorious, Archie Shepp, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jan Garbarek, Steve Coleman/M-Base,Roy Ayers

This list is basically of the top of my head, in no particular order, and certainly is both influenced by my own tastes and leaves a lot of people out who would warrant consideration if one were ever to compile a primer for extra-canonical jazz. I think most of these people have been quite influential, exist in traditions in dialogue with those of the Jazz Greats, and have representative recordings. I suppose most of them are too 'out', ethnic or fusion -oriented to warrant serious consideration by Crouch or Ken Burns, which I suppose is the point of undertaking this exercise in the first place. One could even go further and put together a list with artists who are way out there on the far margins of the canon, such as Blue Series Continuum, Gil Scott-Heron, the Roots, YNQ, Fela Kuti, Maceo Parker and others, but I will leave the outliers aside for now.

There is probably quite a lot of earlier stuff which provides a revealing vantage point from which to rethink the canon, but unfortunately I am not as familiar with that music so have no list to offer.

Posted by Anonymous dacoit on 5/06/2006 05:02:00 PM : Permalink  

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