Monday, October 6, 2008

Recommended Jazz Albums for New Listeners

It's hard to remember a time I didn't listen to jazz. Maybe it was because of what I was listening to, I don't know... but my point is, the music is simply a part of who I am. That's not to say I don't listen to many other kinds of music. People are always referring to bands or songs I don't know, but I still think I've got a fairly eclectic taste. In fact, I think most everyone has eclectic tastes. Given access to a wide variety of music, they'll listen. But for some reason the genre of jazz is hit or miss for most people. Why is that?

My theory is simply that jazz, as a genre, is about as eclectic within itself as one can get. There are so many subgenres it's hard to know what's out there. Plus, most people's exposure to jazz is limited to the commercial, crossover, or nostalgic subgenres. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that type of jazz, but it often carries that lowest common demoninator of taste found in any popular music.

Smooth jazz is possibly the most commonly heard form of jazz, though it's arguably not even jazz and is now often called "Adult Urban Contemporary" or something like that. Some popular artists include Dave Koz, Kenny G, and Chris Botti. I've heard a lot of smooth jazz in my time, but it's not really my cup of tea, so I'm not a good person to make any recommendations.

Another oft-heard style is crossover vocal jazz. This is the stuff that sets the atmosphere for wine and cheese parties in the suburbs (that's a gross over simplification). Norah Jones' first album is a great example, along with Diana Krall's entire catalog. There's also a handful of crooners, like Michael Buble or, well, Michael Buble. This style is pretty self explanatory and easy accessible.

Finally, there's the nostalgic styles you'll hear in a jazz documentary. This includes anything from early jazz like Louis Armstrong to big band like Benny Goodman, and bebop like Charlie Parker. This is where I think things start to really get interesting. Following various progressions stemming from these artists lead you to a wealth of music.

So here is a list of some of my favorites, in no particular order. I purposefully avoided popular titles and anything that would be considered a must have, such as Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue because I'm going to assume someone else has already told you to go buy it.

I should note that Kind Of Blue was one of my first jazz albums, and I started my collection exploring albums by each of the sidemen on that album. That's a great way to go once you find something you like.

Miles Davis - Someday My Prince Will Come (1961)

Looking for some great straight ahead jazz? This is it. If I could choose the music that plays as I die, it would be the title track from this album. Specifically, during Coltrane's solo. You see, 'Trane wasn't in Miles' band when this was recorded. Hank Mobley was holding down the tenor sax chair at the time. So the album starts out as one would expect, playing through the melody and solos as a quintent, then restating the melody. But after Miles' plays a shortened statement of the melody, an old, familiar voice is heard. Coltrane proceeds to play an out of this world solo. Very brief by his standards, but it leaves me floored every time.

John Scofield (w/ Medeski Martin & Wood) - A Go Go (1996)

If you want something with a little more edge to it, try out this album. Sco is one of those immediately recognizable jazz guitarists who could do no wrong by me. This album, with MMW, is all about the groove. But what I love so much is that it's NOT SMOOTH. Most artists that play jazz over a funk groove end up sounding too smooth for my taste. I want something organic, and this album delivers. I often use it as a yardstick to make sure my songs don't cross that line.

John Coltrane - A Love Supreme (1964)

Pretty much considered his masterpiece, this album was more than just music--it was 'Trane's tribute/prayer to the God. Not necessarily the God of Christianity, but more of the supreme being or creator. Honestly, it doesn't matter that much, you need to experience this music start to finish, repeatedly. I've heard it dozens of times and continue to find inspiration.

Herbie Hancock - Man-Child (1975)

Looking for some true jazz/funk? Herbie Hancock and his Headhunters group released several albums, the most popular being Head Hunters in '73, but this one is my favorite. I have yet to hear another group convincingly play in this style as well as this band.

Bill Frisell - Good Dog Happy Man (1999)

This album is a mash up of jazz, Americana, folk, and blues, often called Neo-Americana. It's difficult to describe because no one makes music like guitarist Bill Frisell. He has definitely been a huge influence of mine as of late, and this album introduced me to his playing.

The Quintet (Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Ray Brown, Max Roach) - Jazz At Massey Hall (1953)

One of the greatest bebop recordings of all time, played by the cats that invented the style and consequently reinvented jazz. Perhaps one of the reasons it's such an outstanding performance is the slight tension on the bandstand--Charlie Parker and Dizzy were late because they had to find a saxophone for Bird, who had pawned his off for drug money. The rhythm section performed a set as a trio before being joined by the horns.

Brad Mehldau - Largo (2002)

Largo is a great album for those turned off by the notion of traditional jazz. Mehldau is openly influenced by a wide variety of music, including the Beatles and Radiohead, and covers songs by both groups here. I sort of think of Mehldau's groups as the indie rock band in jazz. You never know exactly what he's going to do, but it's always hip and bound to set some new precedent.

Dexter Gordon - Our Man In Paris (1963)

Another immediately recognizable voice in jazz, Gordon was simply one of the greatest stylists of all time. This album swings HARD from start to finish, and every line Gordon plays on his sax is played like that is it. The master has spoken. One of the great lessons I learned from this album--playing time. Listen to how he starts most of his solos by sitting on one note and just swinging it. Try it, it's not as easy as it sounds!

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