Sunday, July 15, 2007

All about Jazz? What if i don't know anything about jazz? Where do I start?

Anyone who knows me knows I love jazz. From the sounds of Trane and Bird constantly playing on my stereo to the framed print of Miles Davis hanging on the wall, I am constantly surrounded by jazz. A friend recently asked me to burn some cds for him as he had never been really exposed to jazz except for the easy listening type of jazz one hears in restaurants. Its boring nature discouraged him from listening to more jazz. During a recent visit to Bourbon Street, he and some friends walked into Maison De Jazz where he heard Jamal Sharif (I knew who played that night as I know the place very well.). After commenting that he was surprised he liked what he heard, I burned some cds from the masters: Monk, Trane, Sonny, and Miles. The next time I saw him, I discovered a jazz-lover had been born. Since then, I have had numerous people ask me about what they should buy if they wanted to sample some jazz but do not know where to begin. As I am not a critic but just an aficionado of that American treasure. I recommend the following albums. Feel free to offer your own recommendations as I am no expert by any means. As there is still much jazz I have not listened to, I apologize for any omissions of albums that belong on such a list.

1. Sonny Rollins & Thelonious Monk. The first track smokes as Sonny starts at full speed with his sax, taking you on a journey that shows you what jazz is. I can't describe what that "what" is, you just have to hear it. Monk and Rollins only play together on only three of the five tracks but those three tracks are fairly memorable.

2. Monk in Paris, Live at the Olympia. This is Thelonious Monk at his peak with his best quarter, including Rouse on sax. The sound quality is perfect as the concert sounds as if it were recorded yesterday. As one reviewer on Amazon wrote:
"If you share an avocation for jazz that sounds as fresh today as it did 40+ years ago, do your self an enormous favour and pick up this CD/DVD. It is a wonder from every standpoint. Monk was ever and always his own man, and his son's comments throughout the booklet are absolutely the best way to describe how his father's work crept up on you, got inside you and set you on flights of wonder. Both concerts featured here showcase his quartet of the sixties, especially Charlie Rouse, and the dynamics of the sound are really terrific." The performance of Bright Mississippi is simply stellar as Monk and Rouse bring out the best in each other as the creative tension erupts into an outpouring of jazz heaven.

3. Crescent or Live at Birdland by John Coltrane. Yes, A Love Supreme is considered to be Coltrane's masterpiece. However, it might be a bit much for someone who has not listened to much jazz. Crescent is a studio recording. This cd is very underrated and compared to his other albums is an afterthought but it is filled with gems such as Crescent (the sexy slow playing of the sax that starts the song pulls you into the rest of the album) and Lonnie's Lament. I recommend Birdland because jazz is defined by its unruly, improvising nature. How American. America has never been defined by rules;it is constantly changing, improvising, adapting, as does jazz. Jazz is about playing live in front of an audience, expressing the notes as they rise up from the soul. Just as one's soul is always changing, so does jazz, even if its the same song. This live album puts Trane on display before an audience and he delivers. One reviewer on Amazon wrote:

"Certain albums, or even songs if you will, have special meaning for me. This can be at varying levels,some serving as touchstones in my life with others occupying larger and deeper cerebral pockets in my psyche.----John Coltrane's Live At Birdland falls into the latter category. I consider it literally dear to my heart. The opening track, Afro Blue is amazing in it's emotional intensity.The quartet functions so congruently ,arriving at peaks and valleys with unbelievable precision. Mccoy Tyner's brilliant solo builds gradually.With polyrhythmic and powerful underpinning from elvin's drums,it results in a frenzied trance-like plateau.The explosive tension that is reached by the two(with rock solid bottom from bassist Jimmy Garrison),is resolved only with 'Trane's re-entry on soprano;an emotional wail that's beyond the limiting descriptive qualities of mere words.-One must "hear it" or better still "feel it". At the other end of the spectrum with respect to tempo and mood,is the somber Alabama.The song is a musical and spiritual ode to the tragic church bombing in Birmingham in the early 60's.It is truly beautiful in its sadness,yet somehow hopeful. I Want To Talk About You is evidence of what Coltrane could do with a ballad.It exudes love and tenderness.His extended coda stands as one of the truly magical expressions in all of jazz history. We are fortunate to have this music preserved and available to us.Less fortunate are those who for whatever reason,can not perceive how vital and uplifting it is.Coltrane's Live At Birdland is very special indeed. "

If you like Trane, I recommend Soul Trane, A Love Supreme, and Ole.
Live at Birdland:

3. Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane, Live at Carnegie Hall. This album is an absolute masterpiece. There is an interesting story behind it. These two jazz icons played together for less than a year and it was thought that there were very few recordings of their work. As the editorial review said on "Every year sees a crop of newly found jazz gems, but rarely are listeners treated to anything as special as this 1957 concert recording of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, which was accidentally discovered in an unmarked box by a Library of Congress engineer early in 2005." The engineer had no idea what was recorded on the tapes. It was soon realized this was literally a masterpiece that had been lost, not one of these collections of outtakes from the cutting room floor that are repackaged years later in a shameless attempt to squeeze more money out of fans.

I chose this album for this list because one of the hallmarks of jazz is improvisation and the lack of rules. In jazz, musicians are not bound to a band like they are in rock music. Typically in jazz, a group is put together based upon a musical concept. When the creative effort plays out, the group breaks up and they join other bands, even if the band is still fairly successful in contrast to rock music where bands stay together for the sake of staying together. A fun part of learning about jazz is learning about the individual musicians and comparing how they play with each other. I can compare an album of the Duke and Trane playing together to Trane and Monk to Monk and Rollins to Miles and Trane to Parker and Miles and so on. Much different than rock music where one drummer stays with one lead guitarist or singer for 20 years.

4. Miles Davis: Live at Carnegie Hall, Miles Davis:Highlights from the Plugged Nickel. Miles had so many masterpieces that it is almost impossible to choose a first cd to recommend for a beginner without starting a civil war. Of course, many will recommend Kind of Blue as it IS the biggest selling jazz album of all time with the likes of Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane appearing in the band (It was also Duane Allman's favorite album). However, today's younger listeners might find it a bit too mellow for their tastes so I chose live performances that I think are a good dose of Miles.

One reviewer opined on the two disc Live at Carnegie Hall:
"To my mind Miles never played better than at this recording. There is a new searching and driving vitality to his playing which probably indicated that he had reached the absolute peak of his powers but was still pushing himself further. His technique was certainly better than ever. Don't let the imperfections of the recording as an inadequate document of sound disturb you - not really worth worrying about, as one can hear enough to know that this was an exceptional performance. Hank Mobley on tenor complements Miles well, and the new rhythm section whips the horns along with great impetus. The tracks with Gil Evans and his orchestra have a spontaneity lacking on the more polished studio-recorded equivalents. This record is not immaculate - but it is a very great one and clearly a must-have for any serious Davis fan, because he plays here in a way that he doesn't on any other recording, and produces unusual excitement even for this, the most permanently satisfying and richly artistic musician in jazz, whose music is sure to go down the centuries as great by any standard at any time. - Joost Daalder "

Highlights from the Plugged Nickel is considered one of Miles's best concert performances. It is culled from an 8-disc set (if you want to really listen to live Miles, buy this box set. Warning: Its not cheap). Herbie Hancock and Wayner Shorter are members of this quintet. The music is edgy, always pushing the envelope but never alienating the listener. Miles is at his best playing live and this masterpiece showcases him in his lair.

If you want to listen to more Miles, I recommend: Round About Midnight (Coltrane on sax), Kind of Blue, In Person Friday Night at the Blackhawk, Live at Newport 1958 (Coltrane again), and of course, Bitches Brew (Chick Corea and John McLaughlin are in this ensemble).

Live at Carnegie Hall:
Highlights from the Plugged Nickel:

5. Diz 'N Bird at Carnegie Hall. Two of jazz's all-time greats from a 1947 show what they are made of in this performance. A Night in Tunisa is sizzling. Parker takes sax-playing to another level on this song. The sound quality is very good (amazing what is being done with current remastering techniques). Dizzy and Bird are at their best. As written on
"This is one of the few live recordings made of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie from the period when Parker was at his height. The west coast recordings made in California are scrappy, most likely due to the fact that Parker was strung out and could barely lift his horn. On this recording though, Parker is sensational. His tone is bright and uplifting. His phrasing soars and he is continually inventive; his lyricism is clear and concise and never falling back on his well known staple of licks, a tendency which characterised his later live recordings.(ie: Bird at St Nick's) Dizzy is also in fine form. My personal favourite is 'Dizzy Atmosphere'. It is taken at a furious tempo and Parker laps it up. His lines are long, rich and complex and really deserve the title 'sheets of sound' (which was coined by Ira Gitler to describe Coltrane in his pre-quartet years.) The recordings have a fine jam session feel and really warm the heart. There are two drawbacks to this album. Firstly, the sound quality of the rhythm section is often so poor it is inaudible. This is particularly evident on 'Ko Ko', where Parker sounds almost as though his is practicing sets of scales unaccompanied. Without the rhythm, this sounds quite boring. Secondly, three quarters of the album is taken up by Gillespie and his big band playing watered down versions of bebop classics. However, the cd is worth purchasing for the Gillespie/Parker sides only."

The reviewer makes a good point. Bird and Diz only play together on the first five tracks, then the rest of the tracks are played by Diz and his band. However, those first five songs are more than worth the price of the album.
One sad story about this album shows Bird's talent as well as the tragedy that was his life. Bird's wife and manager discovered him passed out in the bathtub on the night of the concert. They got him out of the tub, dried him off, clothed him, carried him to the cab, literally carried him up the stairs, borrowed a plastic sax from someone, and pushed him out on the stage, where he played a masterpiece of a performance. Keith Richards never played half as well in such a state.
There are plenty of good websites on line to if one wants to learn more about jazz. See the jazz links on the right of this site. The Jazz at Lincoln Center broadcasts featuring Ed Bradley are great for learning more about jazz. Reading Wikipedia entries for the jazz greats is fun to read while helping you learn more about jazz as well along with its interesting, but sordid history.


Unknown said...

Very thorough. A great list for anyone wanting to get into jazz. Well done! --ToplessTenors

Anonymous said...

Nice inclusion of live albums, they always have that electricity! I think if I were giving 3 albums (couldn't bring myself to settle on 5) to a brand new jazz listener I'd go traditional in a sense...

1. Miles Davis - Kind of Blue cannot be omitted, and I think it should be one of the first jazz albums anyone should listen to since it stretches the listeners ear with modal sounds as well as basic blues changes.

2. The Quintet - Jazz at Massey Hall, the cast of characters alone is great but their interplay is incredible. Don't let "Charley Chan" fool you even on a pawn shop horn he is the greatest ever.

3. John Coltrane - Blue Train is my favorite jazz album to listen to while driving because it flows seamlessly between tracks. Also Curtis Fuller's playing on this album is the perfect contrast to Coltrane's insane technical licks.

Kingfish said...

I almost included Kind of Blue but I designed the list for the 18-30 something crowd, which I thought might find Kind of Blue a little too mellow. Parts of it have also been overplayed in restaurants and other places. I used the Carnegie Hall because it included tracks from Kind of Blue and also Round About Midnight, his other masterpiece.

As for the Massey. I thought about the Worlds Greatest Jazz Concert but when I listen to it, I have a different interpretation than you do. The sound quality could be better ( I don't want to scare of beginners) and to me it sounds more like a bunch of soloists playing together intead of a tight ensemble like Miles's band on Kind of Blue.

Can't quibble with your selection though. All masterpieces.

Anonymous said...

All great choices, but as a guitarist, I'd say they are pretty 'horn-centric'... so I thought I'd suggest Wes Montgomery and the Wynton Kelly Trio's "Smokin' at the Half-Note". Terrific playing and even better vibe.

Anonymous said...

Kingfish- agree with your inclusion of the live date then including the non-mellow tunes from Round Midnight...also obviously agree with the sound quality on Massey, and maybe i'm just partial to listening to All the Things You Are way too much.

Homeydcat- yeah I confess I'm a sax player and am driven by listening for horn lines and complexity up front. However that album with Wes and Wynton is outstanding for a trio date, so tight!

Anonymous said...

Definitely Louis Armstrong's Hot Five sounds belong in there. Not having that is like listening to Rock and Roll without the Beatles.

Kingfish said...

link on amazon? I saw hot 5's and 7's.

Anonymous said...

Hot Sevens is just a bigger band from the earlier Hot fives. This may be why it required a boxset. So, yes, all of that music.

Anonymous said...

Highlights from "Live at The Plugged Nickel" is wonderful.... It also introduced a young Wallace Roney.

Anonymous said...

Dave Brubeck---------- Take Five

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Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

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If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

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