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Part One: The 50's and early 60's
You grew up listening to rock & roll and now your snooty jazzhole friends are making fun of your music. Or maybe youíre not getting that deep buttkick satisfaction from your rock listening anymore and you think itís time to broaden your horizons. It could it be youíre searching for more subtle fulfillment from your music. Youíre becoming sophisticated. Itís time you got into Jazz! The question is: Where do you start?
These six albums represent the sound that most of us hear in our heads when we think: JAZZ. They cover a twenty year period that is the lynch pin connecting the early era of jazz (Dixie through swing) with todayís jazz. All of these discs are open, inviting and tuneful. Each is the gateway to a piece of Americaís greatest contribution to world culture. So here are six portals of that gate; each opens into a new musical world.
Pick one and come on in!
Kind Of Blue
This should be your first jazz record. It is the quintessential recording of jazzí most fertile era by the quintessential artist of that era. Milesí cool, timeless and eloquent hipness suffuses every note of this masterpiece. Davis plays the fewest possible notes and extracts the greatest possible emotion from each. Each solo here is a sweetly sad jazz haiku.
The band features John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly on saxophones. Both are at the peak of their playing lives. Adderly always put the blues into every note he played. Here he is the perfect foil for Coltranes harmonic inventivness.
Miles was a strict musical discliplinarian. He knew exactly how he wanted every tune to sound and exactly what he wanted out of every player in the band. ĎTrane chafed under these limits, but they really pay off here as Miles strong focus keeps ĎTrane in deep simmering groove.
Wynton Kelly plays piano on one cut, but the keyboard sound on this record is that of the legendary Bill Evans. Although Evans released a lot of acclaimed records both before and after his (short) association with Miles, none surpass his playing on Kind of Blue. Evans plays pulses rather than strong beats with his left hand, leaving drummer Jimmy Cobb and bassist Paul Chambers room to react to the shifting rhythmic sands trod by the other soloists. His right lays in harmony that is spare enough to allow the three horn players plenty of space in which to create, while at the same time supporting them on a firm cushion of harmony.
Kind of Blue is the kind of record that grows on you and with you. The more sophisticated you become, the more you hear. Iíve owned this record for thirty years and still find fresh nuance in it.
Great musicians from Jimi Hendrix to the Kronos String Quartet cite John Coltrane as an influence. Exploring his large and diverse recorded output is a huge undertaking. This is the place to start.
Recorded between his tense term with the Miles Davis band and the. flowering of his "sheets of sound" avante garde experiment, this disc features Coltrane's pure musicianship in a wonderful ensemble, specifically assembled to support him. In many of his recordings 'Trane is the only non-rhythm section soloist. (In jazz a combination of bass, drums and piano are thought of as "the rhythm section") Here Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone and a throbbing rhythm section of Kenny Drew (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums) lend hands. These guys maintain the swing while Coltrane wrings out the changes. Everyone solos with vigor and authority. Coltrane, leaning on broad sonic shoulders, is free to horn dance through some sinuous blues. His improvisational power shines. Bright and accessible are unusual descriptions for a John Coltrane record. They apply completely to this one.
Duke Ellington/Charles Mingus/Max Roach
No one believes me when I tell them that this is the most perfect jazz record ever made. Then they hear it. It's a trio, a three-way conversation between Duke on piano, Mingus on bass, Roach on drums. Together they form the greatest rhythm section of all time. Each is a superb composer in his own right. Duke's writing defined elegance, grace, and style; Mingus personified, most eloquently, the robust, creative impatience of the '60's; Roach has always been the social percussionist with a knack for setting the table for fine musicians. Here, they're in a late night musical conversation over scotch and rhythm. Challenging, kidding, prodding, patting each other until its time to turn out the lights and head home. You get to eavesdrop as the most sublime musical poets of our lifetime converse. Hey, what would you give to listen in as Shakespeare, Noel Coward, and Grouch Marx split a pitcher of Old Style?
Stan Getz Plays
This is Getzí first and best LP. Here the young romantic with smooth and elegant technique blows cool and sure through a set of tunes perfectly matched to his style. He made some great records in the Ď60ís and Ď70ís but none touch this one. Here, Stanís playing has the confidence and guilelessness of youth. His interpretations of the standards have not one ounce of cynicism or weariness. His finger popping swing drives faultless flows of fresh improvisation. His sense of melody and time are flawless. The three most essential uses for music are dancing, driving, and making out. This record is great for all three (Editorís note: Vintage Vinyl assumes no responsibility if you try to do two or more of these simultaneously)
In 1956, your dad thought Stan Getz was the hippest white guy in America. Buy this CD and find out why!
Straight No Chaser
Monk was the great harmonic impressionist and rhythmic pointillist of the piano. His solo playing is unique and wonderful, but his style sounds most natural in the classic jazz quartet settings on this, the finest of his 30 or so records. He was the prototype of the "Beatnik Jazz Musician." In many ways Monk lived in a world he created in his head and on his keyboard. Straight, No Chaser is a roadmap to that world.
Monk was in his prime when this disc was recorded. You can hear all of his varied influences on it. His modal approach to the blues; his love of Middle Eastern and Asian sounding melodies; the firm foundation of ragtime, boogie and dance rhythms that supports the harmonic vastness of his improvisations are all in sparkling relief here. On this CD Monkís strong idiosyncratic intellect explores the keyboard with wit and sophistication, irony, love and nostalgia. The band is sharp and on time. They provide a solid underpinning and inspirational support to this most unique musical sensibility. There has never been another musician even vaguely like Thelonious Monk. All the reasons why are apparent on this disc.
Dave Brubeck Time Out
This is the best selling jazz record of all time. I always imagined this as the background music to a cocktail party for the staff of The New Yorker.
Brubeckís hit rendition of Paul Desmondís classic composition "Take Five" is the keystone of this excursion into heady improvisation. The band, which Brubeck kept together for about thirty years, is one of the tightest and brightest. Itís probably the most polished ever in this style. Desmondís alto sax playing has been described as "..the sound of a dry martini."
Time Out is about ensemble playing. Brubeck, Desmond and the boys are experimenting with time signatures. "Take Five" for example, is built on a five beat rhythm, rather than the four beat combinations weíre used to hearing. Each of the other tunes exhibits a similarly odd construction. The trick is they make them all swing and build improvisations that sound "normal" on these odd beats.
This is head music, not heart music. It is based more on thinking about musical construction than expressing emotions. It succeeds because Brubeck, Desmond, and the band have a deep respect for, and thorough understanding of the musicians whose work they built on. Every cut on this disc has a clean, straightforward sound that is unmistakably from the Jazz tradition. At the time it was made though, it all felt new.
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong The Best of Ella and Louis
These are the two finest singers jazz has produced.
Louis Armstrong is the most complete and important musician America has given the world. He was the first great jazz singer. Armstrongís uncanny ability to make any song, from the most sophisticated Cole Porter tune ("Let's Do It") to the lamest pop drivel ("What a Wonderful World"), into a cool and swinging party on a platter, is at the core of why jazz is the ultimate American art form and Mr. Armstrong its finest practitioner.
The Ella and Louis set collects two discs of their finest performances from a twenty-something year association. Ella had a tendency to coast along relying on her unbelievably rich voice and the vocabulary of stylish jazz singer conventions she'd practically invented. Armstrong loved to loosen Ella up and chase her voice into more interesting territory. There are many times on these tunes when Louis' horn or voice take away the comfortable Ella-ism and push her to respond to him or the tune or the lyrics in new and interesting ways. All this is done in a relaxed, good-fun-among-friends atmosphere, which allows us a delicious peek into the Jazz Master's Club.
There you have it. Seven gates to the City of Jazz. Each will introduce you to major musicians who helped define modern music. From the fountains from which the new art form called Jazz came (Louis Armstrong, Duke Elllington); to the great players who defined itís techniques (Ella Fitzgerald, Paul Desmond, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderly); to innovators who stretched our ears and reshaped our musical culture (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Max Roach).