This column I thought I'd do something a little different and list some essential jazz albums for those not familiar with the genre.
I recently read where something like 3 percent of Americans "like" jazz, which I found somewhat exaggerated. The reasons have to do with my own experiences, but it's definitely true jazz hasn't been a "popular" music form sine the 1950s. I have found that listening to jazz all depends on what jazz, where, when and who. So I decided I'd write a column featuring some essential jazz albums that are accessible enough for even the most tin-eared listener, hoping some might take me up on listening.
- Miles Davis "Kind of Blue"
To me, this is the one album almost anyone can relates to. Featuring the trumpeter's first great - augmented - quintet of the later 1950s, "Kind of Blue" is one of those albums that can be listened to on several levels - as a serious jazz study, as "mood music" or just something to unwind with on a late evening with a fine wine.
The album's midnight mood has been used in countless films, commercials and radio. Featuring the stellar lineup of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly on sax, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, Miles on trumpet, Paul Chambers on bass and Billy Cobham on drums, "Kind of Blue" was the first jazz album I ever purchased. It's elegance balanced with superb and daring performances from those listed above changed American music - and my life - forever. "Kind of Blue" has been called the best jazz album ever, and it's a great place to begin for the novice.
- John Coltrane - "A Love Supreme"
This album, released in 1964, is another one of the pinnacles of modern jazz that's accessible and moving. A spiritual album dedicated to the Creator, "A Love Supreme" was created after well after John Coltrane left Miles and began his own fantastic quartet featuring the explosive Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Coltrane's own restless and compelling playing.
Recorded after Coltrane's own spiritual crisis - he'd quit doing drugs, drinking and dedicated his life to God - the music on "A Love Supreme" has a palatable spirituality that's hard to define but deeply sincere and moving. Hypnotic with loads of drama, it's the kind of music that seems to be outside of time and space itself. One listen to "A Love Supreme," and the listener will never think of music the same way again. I know I haven't.
- Thelonious Monk - "Solo Monk"
This album, recorded in the 1960s when Monk was signed to Columbia Records, is one of my favorite listening experiences. The high priest of jazz, pianist Monk was a one-of-a-kind player. Instrumental in the formation of modern jazz, his own roots could be traced back to the days of stride piano and even back to ragtime. Monk was, though, thoroughly modern with his use of quirky dissonance and sly humor. Monk's playing has a sense of childlike humor while also being serious jazz. Unlike most other jazz pianists, Monk's originals were challenging and sometimes difficult for novices to appreciate. I really love Monk's audacity and daring, and his true personality really shines through on his solo work. This is a great treat for ears that want to hear something totally different and enjoyable.
- Dave Brubeck Quartet - "Take Five"
Pianist Dave Brubeck often got a bad rap by some jazzbos for committing the ultimate sin of being popular in an age where jazz was declining in popularity. But Brubeck knew what he was doing, and even Miles recorded some of his tunes. While everyone gave Miles a pass, sometimes Brubeck was derided. Whatever. I love Brubeck, and this masterpiece of modern jazz sold lots of records on the strength of the album's title cut, a song in the unlikely meter of 5/4 written by Paul Desmond, Brubeck's famously melodic saxophonist. Mixing influences from pop music to classical, "Take Five" consisted of a string of outstanding songs, all in different meters. Accessible but daring, "Take Five" became an unlikely hit, and this was Brubeck's best-selling album. It's also a great place to begin for those with delicate ears who want to hear inspired jazz.
- Charles Mingus - "The Clown"
Jazz bassist Charles Mingus was a giant among giants, and while he was famous for mixing jazz with other forms of music - particularly gospel and folk - I would have to think his funny and sardonic album "The Clown" would be a great listen for those unfamiliar with jazz. The album is built around the 12-minute title cut, which is unlike anything else in jazz. Using jazz instruments as a story-telling device was a brilliant and inspired attempt to fuse Mingus' quirky humor. The rest of the album also is excellent, filled with Mingus' inspired originals. he also made no bones about "feeling the spirit" while in the studio, and listening to Mingus egg on his players is an ecstatic delight.
While some of these may not be considered by jazz connoisseurs to be the best of all possible jazz recordings, they are a good place for the novice to begin to dig the world of jazz.