One of the first entries I ever made on UberMullet was a windy meditation on Miles Davis, specifically, Kind of Blue. Since it is apparently lost to the digital ether, and I listen to jazz these days far more than anything else (or, at least, music with jazz elements...to abridge John Lewis: improvisation, swing, the ability to surprise, and the embodiment of the eternal search for the Blues), I thought I'd post this. In a messageboard exchange, I recently posted what I considered five essential jazz albums, in response to someone who had just heard John Coltrane's Blue Trane album and wanted to know where to go next. The second part is an answer to someone who (rightly) protested the lack of Charlie Parker on my list, and questioned my lack of older, more "danceable" music (said poster is an avid and very good swing dancer). My response explains my rationalization, and gives me a chance to address the work of both Bird and Duke Ellington. The final section is a small list of some of my personal favorites, albums that may not achieve "All Time Great" status, but get repeated and rewarding play here on Planet Bubba.
1) Miles Davis-Kind of Blue
Still my vote for the single greatest recorded entity in the short history of recorded music. It dictated the cliches and defined post bop jazz. It's consistently revelatory without diluting the sheer emotion that the sounds and structure convey. As I mentioned earlier, Trane's presence here elevates without lapsing into vulgar dominance. The interplay and complementary melodic creativity between the three horns (In addition to Miles on trumpet and Trane on tenor, the amazing Cannonball Adderley provides the perfect funky counterpoint to both Mile's relaxed but raw emotional expression, and Trane's harder intensity. And the word "gorgeous" was invented for Bill Evan's piano work on "Blue in Green". And Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums are simply perfect; they don't just build a foundation that the soloists can build on, they subtly add sonic dimensions that enhance the richness of the music being made. Chambers, in particular, shines, partly due to his role; as this was an album of modal experimentation, he could veer off from the more restrictive "chord defining" functions he was normally asked to fulfill, and so had more of a say in the music's progree and impact. But it is not a stretch to say that Kind of Blue would have been far less musically successful had a bassist of lesser empathy and expression been involved. Plus, one of the more under rated jazz pianists, Wynton Kelly, takes over for Evans on one cut, and swings mightily. Everything on this set fits perfectly. A friend of mine, a guitar player not normally given to jazz, once told me he loved Kind of Blue because it was "five guys making music...not just playing, or doing a song...they're making music".
2)A Love Supreme -John Coltrane
Less "number 2" than "1B", this four section suite is more meditation than swinging affair. The swing is there (albeit more graceful than manic), but not for it's own sake.
I know of no piece (with the possible exception of Beethoven's Ninth) that reveals with successive listenings as much as A Love Supreme does. In fact, it may take a few listenings to even begin to "get" it, or at least to see how this is more than just a set of nice sounds.
It is also, I think, drummer Elvin Jones' finest hour. The idea of breaking from single-minded time keeping, and adding to the overall texture, was nothing new. And Elvin had long been known as a "busy" and powerful drummer. But here, he uses the drums as a melodic embellishment in a much subtler fashion, emphasizing underlying themes and melodies, rather than simply accenting the main (and most obvious ) ones, which adds a depth and richness that enhances it's revelatory nature. A copy of A Love Supreme belongs in every household, nestled safely between the Bible and the shotgun.
3)Mingus Ah Um - Charles Mingus
Bassist/composer Minus faced accusations early in his career that his music didn't "swing". Must have stuck in his craw a bit, because nothing has the uniquely fierce swing he coaxed out of his bands around this time, and especially on this album. Without losing any of the coloring or texture he was known for. His septet, a bigger band than most were willing to work with at the time, gave him the voices he needed, while keeping the fluid agility of a much smaller grouping. Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is another Mingus set that achieves that very difficult result, and some would say that for sheer musical inventiveness, it belongs on the list. But Ah Um is equally inventive, if less complex, while more vividly displaying both Mingus' playfulness and his anger. Sometimes within the same song. Indeed, he often turns one into the other.
4)Time Out-Dave Brubeck Quartet
With their willingness to use odd time signatures and their precise delivery, "funky" would not be a very accurate description. Their swing was organic, but mannered, and their delivery could seem more formal statement than joyful expression. Still, in Altoist Paul Desmond, they had one of jazz's true originals, a soloist for whom the word "lyrical" has probably been used trillions of times, with devastating accuracy.
Tangentially associated with "third stream" music, an ill-defined and self-conscious attempt to meld equal parts jazz and western classical influences, they (along with artists such as Bill Evans and The Modern Jazz Quartet) were able to transcend such goofy labeling and develop a natural and unique sound. Time Out is not a revolutionary album (except, perhaps, in a commercial sense), but it is unusually stocked with musical ideas and subtle expression.
5) Out to Lunch!-Eric Dolphy
This is the most "Out" thing on the list, with staggering rhythms, unusual and even abrasive phrasing, and dissonant touches. The musicians at time seem to ramble amongst themselves. Plus, the extensive and jarring use of Bobby Hutcherson's vibraphone lends a chaotic and almost satirical air to the proceedings. If it's not really "free jazz", in the Ornette Coleman vein, it's still far more chaotic than the mainstream listener will probably allow for. Definitely not for every taste, and not an "easy" listen. Still, if you're willing to step outside of conventional notions, such participatory listening will be rewarded.
If you want to hew a little closer to the mainstream, substitute Saxophone Colossus by Sonny Rollins, or split the difference with the tricky and complex, but not-quite-as-harsh-as-the Dolphy Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk. That Brilliant Corners is a Hall of Fame caliber album, yet does not represent Monk as well as an anthology of his work would illustrate, is a testament to his genius.
I have a good friend, a guitar player and teacher of some repute (and a major Django Reinhardt fanatic, to mention someone else who has not been brought up), who makes the case that it is often forgotten that jazz was, initially, dance music. He will make the argument that it went from music of expression (both through playing and in dance) to a cloying intellectual exercise because of Charlie Parker, or, more precisely, because of Bird's acolytes and less talented imitators. Lost in all the celebration of Bird as an innovator and musical revolutionary is that Bird was not trying to foment some musical paradigm shift. He was just expressing himself, and needed the conceptual tools to fully realize his vision. Others, who did not have the same gifts Parker did, mistook the process for the result, and bebop became more of an academic process and technical display. Basically, Bird was so good he almost ruined it for everybody else. And bebop was a contributor to the death of jazz and swing as dance music; Bird's disciples looked down on the more primal (and less complex) aspects of rhythm and blues, which became the dominant dance music for the young, while swing as dance music, absent the more adventurous voices that were concentrating on bebop, morphed into a treacly, cliche-ridden form of pop.
There is another reason for Bird's absence from conversations such as these: he never made an album as fully realized and powerful as those cited, simply because he died before the emergence of the album as the primary jazz medium. He produced some of the most amazing music of the twentieth century, but, again, it can (and should) be heard anthologized, with no thought to context. One of the most powerful aspects of Kind of Blue, Ah Um, etc., is the way the songs segue and complement each other, not unlike a suite or a song cycle. I think of jazz as American classical music, in terms of depth and weight if not form or surface similarity. As such, whereas, say, "Part 2-Resolution" from A Love Supreme can be listened to, enjoyed, and appreciated on it's own, it is more powerful in context of it's place in a series, and not only does it become enhanced, so do the other songs it is placed amongst. No different than listening to the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth; it can be enjoyed on it's own, but the full impact of Beethoven's vision can only be appreciated within the context of the entire symphony.
Now, that does not mean Bird's music was any less powerful or visionary than the artists cited. Far from it. But the post was asking for recommendations because (original poster) mentioned he was trying to build his jazz library. So before I got into the compilations and anthologies (which can be a confusing task for even those familiar with the genre, let alone someone just starting to dig in deeper), I cited what I thought were the most essential "albums as stand-alone entities" I could think of. It should not be taken as a tacit demeaning of the contributions of Bird or Ellington or Louis Armstrong, who I think is the single most important figure in American musical history. It is simply a matter of convenience and idiom.
I almost mentioned Bird With Strings. However, in an effort to try to pick some genuinely indispensable albums, it misses the mark. Also, there has since been a reissue compilation, Charlie Parker with Strings/The Master Takes, which is a two disc set, remastered, that sounds great. A classical music aficionado, this was Bird's favorite album, and the first real merging of Bebop and a string orchestra. I love the set, but some purists don't consider it jazz. For a good intro compilation, the Rhino two-disc set, Yardbird Suite/The Ultimate Collection, has cuts from both the Savoy and Dial labels (very unusual), and has been remastered to alleviate some of the noise. This set not only showcases his most important and groundbreaking work, as well as his best known compositions, it is a set of astonishing emotional depth and expression.
Duke Ellington is a little more problematic. The sheer breadth of his work is astounding. A friend of mine is a jazz writer, and an Ellington fiend. He has been working since the early eighties on a complete Ellington discography, including live recordings and radio shows (which are his specialty as a writer and historian). Years ago, I figured I needed to listen to Duke more, and asked him for guidance on where to go next. This man, a writer and disc jockey, an acknowledged Ellington scholar, was literally at a loss. He opened his mouth and nothing came out. Part of it was, I'm sure, was he didn't want to just parrot the compilations and most famous recordings that he knew I was familiar with. He finally just laughed, shook his head, and said, in awe as much as frustration, "There's just so much".
I'm partial to an album from 1959 called Blues in Orbit, with some of playful stuff from Ellington mainstays like Ray Nance (including a violin solo on one cut), Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges. This is really a look at the Ellington Orchestra just doing what they do best. Also, you can't go wrong with the Live at Newport '56, which lives up to it's reputation. I tried to keep from citing live albums, or Newport would have been in my initial top five. This is big band jazz at it's best. It positively blisters.
Also, the series of duets he recorded with bassist Jimmy Blanton, and has been packaged and repackaged (mine are on a CD called The Jimmy Blanton Era, from the Italian "Giants of Jazz" label) are amazing, and are way ahead of their time. The Blanton-Webster edition of the band is considered by many to be Duke's very best. There are several compilations available, Never No Lament, a three-disc box set, being the best I've heard.
To get off the beaten track, here's a list of some of my favorite albums. They may not be "essential" or even "great", but I enjoy them.
Sonny Stitt-Goin' Down Slow
Unjustly criticized by some as a Bird imitator (Sonny insisted, and there is anecdotal evidence to support it, that he was playing "like Bird" before he had ever even heard him), Stitt began to shed his rep as a ditto when he began to focus more on tenor, although he played both alto and tenor throughout his career. "Miss Ann, Lisa, Sue and Sadie" is the album's centerpiece, a small string section and percussion providing a very different, but no less ferocious, kind of swing.
Plenty, Plenty Soul-Milt Jackson
Vibraphonist for Modern Jazz Quartet, Jackson did this session with a band that included the underrated tenor man Lucky Thompson, and it's some of his finest work. Also, Horace Silver puts a hard bop spin on Jackson's work, a difference from the more scholarly approach one is used to hearing from John Lewis, the pianist and driving force behind the MJQ. Also, as a rule of thumb: if Cannonball Adderly is on it, it's worth the price.
Money Jungle-Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach
This blue note set gives Ellington bigger billing, which is understandable, given his status and fame. But it is a true trio set, just three legends playing their their tails off.
Conversin' With the Elders-James Carter
Young (at the time) tenor man Carter invites some older players (as diverse as trumpeters Lester Bowie and Harry "Sweets" Edison) to play. More fun than self-reverential.
Rainbow People-Steve Turre
Trombonist and conch shell virtuoso Turee has amassed out a high quality body of work, but this (released just last year) may be his finest. His sound is as soulful as any jazz has produced, and he's as fine a bandleader as he is a player. "Groove Blues" and "Brother Ray" stand out. I think Turre is one of the most inventive artists playing today. My favorite album of last year, of any stripe.
The Blues and the Abstract Truth-Oliver Nelson
Ostensibly an alto player, and a fine one, Nelson the arranger and bandleader was even better. Blues is melodically inventive without sacrificing expression or becoming gimmicky. Nelson later moved to Hollywood and was gaining success as a TV and film composer, in addition to his jazz pursuits, but died suddenly at only 41.
Nuclear War -Sun Ra Arkestra
This may not be the mainstream swing of the other stuff, but I like it.
Sun Ra considered the title track, recorded in 1982, a vamp with electronic sprinkling, a surefire dance floor hit. It was rejected by his record company at the time, and released on a British punk rock label. And if you can't appreciate a call and response featuring the phrase "Nuclear War/It's a motherf***er/don't you know/if they push that button/your ass gotta go/and whatchoo gonna do without your ass?", well, maybe you need to go seek out some old Lawrence Welk records to listen to.
Blue Soul-Blue Mitchell
Blue gets overlooked in favor of labelmates Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, and indeed, his sound was less unique and personal, if no less expressive. This set, though, is definitive hard bop, and the band here (including drummer Philly Joe Jones) is textbook in it's empathy, drive, and creativity.
Last Date- Eric Dolphy
Recorded just over a month before he died, it wasn't his last session; there was one more. But this was recorded with a European rhythm section that he was so happy with, he had made plans to use them again. It's a live recording, a lot less chaotic than some of his stuff, much more standard than "free", although there is a clear elasticity to the band that sets it apart. Great version of "Epistrophy" to kick things off. And the version of "You Don't Know What Love Is" here is nothing short of amazing, with Dolphy doing some amazing flute work (an instrument I normally only tolerate).
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