Some friends have indicated that they just don’t know where to start when it comes to jazz records. Some of them feel it would be valuable for me to offer a list of recommendations. I understand that Jazz can be intimidating, as it often evolves into a cerebral exercises. You know, dudes will solo in a particular mode in a certain time signature while the rhythm section plays in another time signature and, truthfully, it’s no longer even tuneful or moving.
Before I begin, a little concerning my history with jazz might be helpful. I played alto saxophone until my freshman year of college. I also played baritone saxophone for three years in high school. Between the busyness of life and the intonation problems of my student-issue horn, I stopped playing and pursued songwriting and rock instruments. During this time, I sought out mostly rock recordings, as well. This gap, however unfortunate it may be perceived, gave me a different perspective on jazz recordings when I finally returned to them later in college. While I can appreciate technical prowess, I’m a bigger fan of sounds and melodies. I also prefer small groups, or combos, to overblown big bands.
Obviously this list is not exhaustive; I’m leaving out some real heavy-hitters. I just hope the annotated list offers a place to start and doesn’t get too technical (for lay people who just want to discover cool music).
1. Thrust – Herbie Hancock (Columbia / 1974)
Thrust is the follow-up to Herbie’s big, funky, fusion break-out record, Headhunters. Simply put, I like this one better. The grooves are more tight and the drumming more precise. I feel like Herbie and his backing band, The Headhunters, have gelled with this record. Probably the most accessible album on this list to start with.
2. Kind of Blue – Miles Davis (Columbia / 1959)
Miles was like only a handful of career artists who constantly evolved and reinvented themselves. (Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, David Bowie and Elvis Costello also come to mind.) This record finds Miles and his bandmates embracing modal soloing. Don’t worry about what that means, just know that it opens up the bebop sound. He pieced together a stellar band of dudes who really listened to one another and were, themselves, on the cusp of true greatness. I know, I know, this is an obvious, big album in Miles’ catalog (and in all of music) but it’s still a great starting point.
3. House on Hill – Brad Mehldau (Nonsuch / 2006)
The most recent album in the list. I love Brad Mehldau’s airy style (reminiscent of Keith Jarrett, but I’d say Mehldau is usually more accessible), and I feel this record finds him at his best. A great album to play as you watch the rain fall.
4. Red Clay – Freddie Hubbard (CTI / 1970)
The funkiest fusion record you will ever find. It’s a collision of funk, soul and jazz. Lenny White’s drumming is so crisp and precise. Some great playing and comping, too, but I don’t want to get too technical. Like so many releases on CTI, this seems intended for vinyl. The drums sounds perfect and warm on wax; the gate-fold artwork is gorgeous.
5. Off-Limits – The Francy Boland/Kenny Clarke Big Band (Polydor / 1970)
I’m not usually a fan of big band recordings. (Playing in bands, on the other hand, was pretty fun.) This is the only big band to make my list, and it’s quite impressive. The group has two drummers, hard-panned left and right, and the horn lines swoop in and out in a dizzying manner. It’s hard to keep up with it all, but it’s beautiful. With everything going on, it’s surprising that the best moments are quiet and autumnal. Hard to describe, but it’s a must-have.
6. Moon Germs – Joe Farrell (CTI / 1973)
Farrell is a criminally-overlooked tenor sax player. In fact, I recommended him to a friend who just graduated with a degree in tenor sax performance, and he had never heard of the guy. Playing with some of Miles Davis’ late-60s band, this album finds Farrell at his most funky. It’s worth getting this record for the drum break in “Great Gorge,” alone–it feels like the drummer (DeJohnette) predicts the future of 80s hip-hop with just that one break.
7. Conversations with Myself – Bill Evans (Verve / 1963)
I think Bill Evans is my favorite pianist. I won’t gush about his beautifully-voiced chords, but they are beautiful. Trust me. Just get this record and be amazed. It’s a solo piano record without precedent. Evans accompanies himself, one piano track on the left and another, overdubbed part on the right. Occasionally, he even adds a third piano down the middle. Great tunes and an inventive (for the time) delivery.
8. Search for the New Land – Lee Morgan (Blue Note / 1964)
Much like Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan was a trumpet player whose legacy is often overshadowed by Miles Davis’. This album is well-balanced between swinging bop and new sounds of the 60s. I especially love the title track, as it explores that expansive (airy?) vibe that Coltrane and Miles were after, as well. It’s as close to psychedelia as many acoustic jazz musicians got without tape manipulation and overdubbing.
9. Timeless – John Abercrombie (ECM / 1974)
I really don’t care for many fusion guitarists. Trading style for wankery, these dudes seem only concerned with impressing the listener (or themselves). While that can be fun, it usually just gets old. Throughout his career, Abercrombie occasionally nailed it, delivering cool vibe and melodies. This is it. Oh yeah, and check out the crazy breakdown with synth bass and drums (same dude who drummed on the aforementioned Joe Farrell record) nine minutes into “Lungs”. That sick track, alone, makes most DJ Shadow records obsolete.
10. Speak Like a Child – Herbie Hancock (Blue Note / 1968)
Before he became a jazz/funk rockstar, Herbie was on the verge of becoming a first-rate jazz composer. Speak Like a Child and The Prisoner feature fantastic horn arrangements. This record, in particular, is especially solid and would make for a great film noir soundtrack. Very few songs make me cry, and “Goodbye to Childhood” has brought me to tears, twice.