Jazz. We’re talking about essential introduction albums leading this dope-ass genre to become a huge staple in our musical lexicon, and then, exploring those albums or artists that leave the awful taste in your mouth of pretentiously despondent beatniks nodding out in library dens with a spoonful of black pearl swimming in their veins, soundscape bludgeoned by Miles Davis’s “Isle of Wight” cranked to ten and accented by a disheveled professor in a beret yelling, AMERICA, I’VE GIVEN YOU ALL AND NOW I AM NOTHING, or however you view jazz. That might be very specific, but I write from personal knowledge. This is what I thought Jazz was about in my teens. From what I can gather from speaking to other fans of the music, they might’ve thought the same.
Back to the dopeness of Jazz.
It has a slew of variances. Lots of stuff happened under the moniker of Jazz. Jazz is a “British Empire” genre. There wasn’t a civilized country not affected by or aggressively civilized by it. Lots of different fingers, hands, feet, lips, and lungs got to dabble in this contextual realm. Add the spread of the genre to the minutia of the musical mechanics, and you can imagine where it could possibly lead. Everywhere.
Composition confines are nearly non-existent. Recording techniques vary; not due to technological advances but to taste within the genre or atmosphere the piece is asking for. But the big shibang is interchangeable alpha instruments. There’s no centerpiece instrument for the entire genre. Between brass to percussion to vocals to the abstraction of vocal use with scatting, there’s an insane range of instruments and records dedicated to each instrument and we’re not talking just silly side market favor, sell a few records and you’ve got this strange small market niche. We’re talking all the big names played different instruments and made huge relevant records at some point.
Miles Davis played trumpet. His big record, Kind of Blue, was certified quadruple platinum in 2008. Thelonious Monk played piano. His big record, Straight, No Chaser, constantly tops top ten lists for best jazz records of all time. Charles Mingus plays bass. His big record, Ah Um, is always in people’s top ten list. John Coltrane plays saxophone. His big record, Blue Train, is arguably the best jazz album ever. And the list of different instrumentalists at the forefront of influential records goes on and on.
This is why jazz has such a shit show for sub-genres. For every drop of excellence they have due to geniuses working in an open field of expression, you have an equal measure of not so intelligent people lost in the open-ended aesthetics to intellectualize and bullshit their way to the holy moniker of jazz. To name a few of the absurd subs-genres : Nu Jazz (1990’s); Acid Jazz (1980’2-1990’s); Shibuya-ke (1960’s to now); and the dreaded Smooth Jazz (1970’s to now).
Now after all that rambling, let’s get to your essential tracks and the garbage farting under the genre blanket. In no order of relevance because this is one listener comparing his list to the general consensus within the culture:
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane live at Carnegie Hall is your first bit of goodness. It’s one of my desert island albums. This shit makes my head quiver. Perfect listening for any writers out there.
The live album was recorded in 1957 at Carnegie Hall at a benefit for a Harlem community center. The tape was not released at the time, but stored at the Library of Congress till it was discovered by the recording lab supervisor Larry Appelbaum, then remastered and released in 2005.
This record rules on a lot of different levels. It has high energy bop, a cool sonic palette of colors, and both Thelonious Monk and Coltrane show their ass on their instruments. Grab this or stream it or consume whatever way you wish. It’s a must in the live albums of jazz or must have in live albums in general.
Lady Sings The Blues by Billie Holiday is a great place to start when it comes to jazz vocal albums. I wouldn’t recommend playing this the first time a partner lets you control the car stereo, you’ll look like a try hard, but I would definitely recommend you enjoy this record by yourself while cooking a meal.
The album was recorded in two sessions at two different studios; one session in September of 1954 at Capitol Studios in L.A. and one session in June of 1956 at Fine Sound Studios in New York. Lady Sings The Blues was also released at the same time as her autobiography of the same name. It was a big rehashing moment of her career so the album features songs from throughout her career retracked at state of the art recording facilities. It’s the perfect blend for new ears to digest without having to dive too deep into the subtleties of the genre. Solid, silky smooth tunes few folk can deny.
Moanin’ by Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers is one record you can throw on at most parties and get weird. There’s a solid mid-tempo bop throughout the album. Lots of mild ass-shaking can happen during a runthrough of this record. The reason I mention the party idea is you can’t really bust out a Miles Davis or John Coltrane record for a party without looking like the, I have google and need to be seen listening to jazz music, guy.
There’s not too much backstory on this record aside from it was one of the better hard bop albums; a sub genre spawned in opposition to the gimmicks of cool jazz and west coast jazz. Most of my favorite players made hard bop records in their career: Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus.
Here’s the part where the internet caws and swoops down upon the perception of Jazz to pick it’s remains of all prestigious factors and leaves the bloated butthole bits to swell and fill our nostrils full of disdain.
We’re talking about the death notes from the popularity of Jazz. The stinkers are many but I’ll keep it to a few. And I will iterate, this is not saying these artists are garbage, but they did create the few records burying the genre in the graveyard of past relevance.
Good and Plenty by Jon Faddis, though well composed and executed, was a product of it’s time. I’m not saying this record is a steaming pile of shit or that it’s objectively bad. I’m saying it is an avoidable turd till you get so nerdy with your crate digging you can listen for the mechanics alone. Objectively it’s a blending of a softer than baby shit disco format and an endlessly busy bassline and rhythm section. Kudos to the rhythm section, but it’s not where you should start if you’re taking the genre for a spin around the block.
Avoid most jazz created in the mid to late seventies. Most of these musicians were making their money with studio work on commercial records like Faddis, who played on disco hits like, Disco Inferno, while working in New York.
It’s not their fault. It’s not anybody’s fault really. I’m sure some musical prodigy is concocting a Chet Baker and dubstep mash-up record as I type this. And though it might be mechanically stimulating as a musician to create. It could be garbage. It’s not really about my opinion, your opinion, or the creator’s opinion, but whether it’ll hold up through time or become another brilliant artist tainted by the pull of the commercial music of their time.
The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman is a brilliant record. Truly great. It’s so good that nineties Swedish hardcore punk band, The Refused, referenced it’s title in their seminal 1998 album, The Shape of Punk to Come. That’s how I came across the record. Why then am I including it in the avoidable turds portion of my list? Well it’s not because it’s a turd, but more because it’s an album you need to initially avoid but everyone will reference as a must listen.
All the accolades are true. This was a monumental record. Through the lack of anchorage in chord structures, Coleman freed a lot of space for future players to work and established a new movement called, Free Jazz. The album is comprised of bebop structure void of chord-structured instruments like piano and guitar. Most the solos Coleman played on the record includes microtonal intervals. These are all the reasons you should skip this record till you’re further down the road with your love of jazz.
Don’t get it twisted, this album is amazing, but it will sound like atonal rambling if you don’t listen to jazz often.
I was trying not to include this guy because it’s a lay up when writing about the downfall of cool in jazz, but here he is, Kenny G. The man has sold 75 million records worldwide. I’m not sure how, but he did it. You’ve prolly heard his music if you ever went grocery shopping or shopped at a mall in the late eighties through the nineties. It’s just soft, overly sentimental pandering to the perms of yesteryear. It really goes without saying, but stay away from his tunes. This is what the face of ‘uncool jazz’ looks like.
And that’s about the quickest summary of essential recordings and avoidable turds that I can give you. I’d be very surprised if any of you made it this far. If you did, and you liked the essential albums I listed, here’s a list of other supremely dope jazz records to check out:
Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser
Charles Mingus’s Ah Um
Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme
Django Rienhardt’s The Best of Django Rienhardt
Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook