Most people have at least one token jazz album in their collection. This week, we look at the ten you should add.
Jazz is a bit of a sticky wicket in the music geek’s world. Once the most popular form of music in America and Europe, the genre has since be relegated to an ultra niche world for only the most ‘discerning’ of fans. Let’s just say it. Jazz is the musical equivalent of wine. Almost all of us enjoy a glass of wine, but we can’t stand being seen next to one of those assholes that sniffs the glass. The ultra-fetishized nature of jazz fandom has actually done the music a disservice. Passing fans have a difficult time enjoying the music because there is this expectation that you can’t just enjoy the music. It’s almost as if you think you have to have a degree in music theory to be allowed entrance into the club. That’s not how things started. As one of the only truly American forms of music, jazz was birthed in poor black community in New Orleans and popularized in dance halls throughout the country. Inseparable from the history of jazz is its ultimately democractic nature. Poor or rich, white or black; all could come together at the jazz hall and dance until morning. Jazz was not only the first form of black music that became popular with white audiences, but it was also the first to make it okay for white and black players to share a stage. At it’s most basic, jazz is party music.
So, how did it come to this? How did jazz become music that you could only enjoy while wearing a turtleneck and monacle? In a lot of ways, it is analogous to the indie rock movement. What began as the most democratic of artforms that was meant to play in garages became hugely popular and eventually moved into relative obscurity as the search for ‘authenticity’ became more important than having fun. What we view as some of the sacred cows of modern jazz did a lot to take jazz away from pop culture. Movements like fusion, free jazz and post-bop refocused the genre to be more focused on the mind than body. Bitches Brew is not exactly the kind of album you can dance to. As those styles became more prevalant, jazz slowly but surely moved into being the territory of the educated and well-off. While there are certainly still pockets of the country that fully embrace the genre (especially its birthplace New Orleans), you’ll have a hard time finding jazz on the radio and what used to be a jazz hall on every corner is now the token club in only major cities.
I will make no bones about it, I’m not an expert in jazz music. I can’t intelligently discuss time signatures or the difference between West and East Coast bop in the sixties. Typically, I avoid discussing those topics that I don’t really feel that comfortable with in these lists. Nevertheless, I feel like someone uncomfortable with the topic needs to address jazz. There is a need to bring jazz back to the people. I don’t have a degree in music theory, but I don’t need one to like jazz. You shouldn’t feel like you need to meet a prerequisite to enjoy any form of music. That’s not really the point. So, this week, I’m taking jazz back for the rest of it that want to enjoy the music without writing a dissertation in the process. I’m going through my favorite ten jazz albums. Now, I’m not even coming close to claiming that these are the ten best albums in jazz history. Rather, these are the ten records that enjoy hearing the most. It’s that simple.
Jacques Brel – Olympia 64
Louis Armstrong – Satch Plays Fats
Billie Holiday – Lady In Satin
Frank Sinatra – In the Wee Small Hours
Sarah Vaughan – At Mister Kelly’s
Duke Ellington & Louis Armstrong – Duke Ellington & Louis Armstrong
The Bad Plus – These Are the Vistas
Medeski, Martin & Wood – Radiolarians II
Wayne Shorter – Adam’s Apple
Dr. John – Gris-Gris
Buena Vista Social Club – Buena Vista Social Club
Weather Report – Heavy Weather
Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come
The Bill Evans Trio – Waltz for Debby
Paul Desmond – Take Ten
The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Jazz Impressions of Japan
Vince Guaraldi – A Charlie Brown Christmas
Jimmy Smith – Back at the Chicken Shack
Stan Getz – Getz/Gilberto
Hank Mobley – Soul Station
Art Blakey – Roots & Herbs
Joe Henderson – Page One
Freddie Hubbard – Open Sesame
Wes Montgomery – The Incredible Jazz Guitar
Donald Byrd – Free Form
Count Basie – April in Paris
Jay McShann – Vine Street Boogie
a notable exclusion.
This week, I’m excluding two entire catalogs. Miles Davis is undeniably a legend of jazz. Over the course of his career, he helped redefine the genre no less than three times. His catalog is vast and impressively solid. Nevertheless, I’m taking Miles out this week. For one, I feel like Miles is the person that most likely fills everyone’s role of the one token jazz artist in everyone’s collection. Most of my friends only own one or two jazz records and it is almost always Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, or Bitches Brew. If it isn’t one of those, then the default choice goes to Coltrane. The cover for Coltrane’s Blue Train is an absolutely iconic image in American music. Albums like My Favorite Things and Blue Trane are some of the very few jazz records that you can still find at a chain record store. Frankly, I think Miles and Trane have gotten enough critical slobber and there is a pantheon of fantastic jazz musicians that the average music geek has never heard. This week, I’d rather focus a little more energy there.
10. Oliver Nelson – Blues and the Abstract Truth
As with many of the selections on this list, I came upon Oliver Nelson by chance encounter in the public library. Because the genre is so daunting (thanks to those pesky ‘aficianados’), I found the preferred way to begin feeling my way around was by borrowing titles from the library. One good thing about the genre being edified nearly to death is that it has become a part of art history and, as such, you’ll find a lot of great stuff at your local branch. Thankfully, the librarians in my area also had a good amount of taste. Oliver Nelson’s family was musical: his brother was also a saxophonist who played with Cootie Williams in the 1940s, and his sister sang and played piano. Nelson began learning to play the piano when he was six, and started on the saxophone at eleven. From 1947 he played in “territory” bands around Saint Louis, before joining the Louis Jordan big band from 1950 to 1951, playing alto saxophone and arranging.
In 1952 Nelson underwent military service in the Marines playing woodwinds in the 3rd Division band in Japan and Korea. It was in Japan that Nelson attended a concert by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and heard Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Paul Hindemith’s Symphony in E Flat. Nelson later recalled that this was the “First time that I had heard really modern music, for back in St. Louis I hadn’t even known that negroes were allowed to go to concerts, I realised everything didn’t have to sound like Beethoven or Brahms…It was then that I decided to become a composer”. Nelson returned to Missouri to study music composition and theory at Washington and Lincoln Universities, graduating in 1958. Nelson also received private tutoring from composers Elliott Carter, Robert Wykes and George Tremblay. While back in his hometown of St. Louis, he met and married Eileen Mitchell; the couple had a son, Oliver Nelson Jr., but soon divorced. After graduation, Nelson married Audrey McEwen, a union which lasted until his death; they had a son, Nyles. Audrey was a native of St. Louis, Missouri.
Nelson moved to New York, playing with Erskine Hawkins and Wild Bill Davis, and working as the house arranger for the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He also played on the West Coast briefly with the Louie Bellson big band in 1959, and in the same year began recording as leader with small groups. From 1960 to 1961 he played tenor saxophone with Quincy Jones, both in the U.S. and on tour in Europe.
After six albums as leader between 1959 and 1961 for the Prestige label (with such musicians as Kenny Dorham, Johnny Hammond Smith, Eric Dolphy, Roy Haynes, King Curtis and Jimmy Forrest), Nelson’s big breakthrough came with The Blues and the Abstract Truth, on Impulse!, featuring the tune “Stolen Moments,” now considered a standard. This made his name as a composer and arranger, and he went on to record a number of big-band albums, as well as working as an arranger for Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Johnny Hodges, Wes Montgomery, Buddy Rich, Jimmy Smith, Billy Taylor, Stanley Turrentine, Irene Reid, Gene Ammons and many others. He also led all-star big bands in various live performances between 1966 and 1975. Nelson continued to perform as a soloist during this period, though increasingly on soprano saxophone.
In 1967, Nelson moved to Los Angeles. Apart from his big-band appearances (in Berlin, Montreux, New York, and Los Angeles), he toured West Africa with a small group. He also spent a great deal of time composing music for television (Ironside, Night Gallery, Columbo, The Six Million Dollar Man and Longstreet) and films (Death of a Gunfighter and he arranged Gato Barbieri’s music for Last Tango in Paris). He produced and arranged for pop stars such as Nancy Wilson, James Brown, the Temptations, and Diana Ross. Less well-known is the fact that Nelson composed several symphonic works, and was also deeply involved in jazz education, returning to his alma mater, Washington University, in the summer of 1969 to lead a five-week long clinic that also featured such guest performers as Phil Woods, Mel Lewis, Thad Jones, Sir Roland Hanna, and Ron Carter. Nelson died of a heart attack on October 28, 1975, aged 43.
The Blues and the Abstract Truth was recorded in February 1961. It remains Nelson’s most acclaimed album and features a lineup of notable musicians: Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy (his second last appearance on a Nelson album following a series of collaborations recorded for Prestige), Bill Evans (his only appearance with Nelson), Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes. Baritone saxophonist George Barrow does not take solos, but still remains a key feature in the subtle voicings of Nelson’s arrangements.
The album is an exploration of the mood and structure of the blues, though only some of the tracks are structured in the conventional 12-bar blues form. In this regard, it may be seen as a continuation of the trend towards greater harmonic simplicity and subtlety via reimagined versions of the blues that was instigated by Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue in 1959 (Evans and Chambers played on both albums). Among the pieces on the album, “Stolen Moments” is the most famous. Nelson’s later 1964 album, More Blues and the Abstract Truth, features an entirely different band and bears little resemblance to this record. In 2008 pianist Bill Cunliffe released the tribute album The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Take 2, featuring new arrangements of the original pieces. This record may be a little harder to swallow for the novice jazz listener than some of the other selections provided here, but only gets better with time.
9. Cannonball Adderley – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at ‘The Club’
Believe it or not, there was a time when jazz songs were also mainstream pop hits. Of course, it took someone with the chops of Cannonball Adderley to make it happen. Originally from Tampa, Florida, Adderley moved to New York in the mid-1950s. His nickname derived originally from “cannibal,” an honorific title imposed on him by high school colleagues as a tribute to his fast eating capacity. His educational career was long established prior to teaching applied instrumental music classes at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Cannonball moved to Tallahassee, Florida when his parents obtained teaching positions at Florida A&M University. Both Cannonball and brother Nat played with Ray Charles when Charles lived in Tallahassee during the early 1940s. Cannonball was a local legend in Florida until he moved to New York City in 1955, where he lived in Corona, Queens.
It was in New York during this time that Adderley’s prolific career began. Adderley visited the Cafe Bohemia (Oscar Pettiford’s group was playing that night) where he brought his saxophone into the club with him, primarily because he feared that it would be stolen. He was asked to sit in as the saxophone player was late, and in true Cannonball style, he soared through the changes, and became a sensation in the following weeks. Prior to joining the Miles Davis band, Adderley formed his own group with his brother Nat after signing onto the Savoy jazz label in 1957. He was noticed by Miles Davis, and it was because of his blues-rooted alto saxophone that Davis asked him to play with his group. Adderley joined the Miles Davis sextet in October 1957, three months prior to John Coltrane’s return to the group. Adderley played on the seminal Davis records Milestones and Kind of Blue. This period also overlapped with pianist Bill Evans’s time with the sextet, an association that led to recording Portrait of Cannonball and Know What I Mean?.
His interest as an educator carried over to his recordings. In 1961, Cannonball narrated The Child’s Introduction to Jazz, released on Riverside Records. The Cannonball Adderley Quintet featured Cannonball on alto sax and his brother Nat Adderley on cornet. Adderley’s first quintet was not very successful; however, after leaving Davis’ group, he formed another, again with his brother, which enjoyed much more success.
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at ‘The Club’ was the group’s biggest hit, recorded in 1966. Though the original liner notes state that it was recorded at the Club DeLisa in Chicago, it was actually recorded at Capitol’s Hollywood studio with an invited audience and an open bar. The reason for this discrepancy, according to the liner notes in the CD reissue, is that Adderley and the new manager of Club DeLisa (which had been renamed “The Club”, after operating for years in Chicago under its old name) were friends, and Adderley offered to give the club a bit of free publicity.
The title track from the album became a surprise hit, reaching #11 on the Billboard charts, and has been re-recorded numerous times (usually with lyrics added), perhaps most successfully by The Buckinghams in 1967. On this album, Joe Zawinul played a Wurlitzer electric piano; however, subsequent live performances saw him taking up the new and mellower-sounding Fender Rhodes instrument. The Allmusic review by Steve Huey awarded the album 5 stars and states “Adderley’s irrepressible exuberance was a major part of his popularity, and no document captures that quality as well — or with such tremendous musical rewards — as Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”. The Penguin Guide to Jazz awarded the album 3 stars stating “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy is a hard swinging live album with one of Cannon’s hottest outings on “Sticks””.
8. Abdullah Ibrahim – Water from an Ancient Well
Here’s one I can just about guarantee you’ve never heard of and it’s a damn shame because this record is pure joy. Abdullah Ibrahim, formerly known as Dollar Brand, is a South African pianist and composer. His music reflects many of the musical influences of his childhood in the multicultural port areas of Cape Town, ranging from traditional African songs to the gospel of the AME Church and ragas, to more modern jazz and other Western styles. Ibrahim is considered the leading figure in the sub-genre Cape jazz. Within jazz, his music particularly reflects the influence of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. With his wife, the jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, he is father to the New York underground rapper Jean Grae, as well as to a son, Tsakwe. In 1959 and 1960, he played alongside Kippie Moeketsi and Hugh Masekela with The Jazz Epistles in Sophiatown; the group recorded the first jazz LP by Black South African musicians in 1960. Ibrahim then joined the European tour of the musical King Kong.
He moved to Europe in 1962. In February 1963, Ibrahim’s wife-to-be Sathima Bea Benjamin (they married in 1965) convinced Duke Ellington, who was in Zürich on a European tour, to come to hear Ibrahim perform as “The Dollar Brand Trio” in Zürich’s “Africana Club”. After the show, Ellington helped set up a recording session with Reprise Records: Duke Ellington presents The Dollar Brand Trio. A second recording of the trio (also with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn on piano) performing with Sathima as vocalist was recorded, but remained unreleased until 1996 (A Morning in Paris under Benjamin’s name). The Dollar Brand Trio (with Johnny Gertze on bass and Makaya Ntshoko on drums) subsequently played at many European festivals, as well as on radio and television.
He briefly returned to South Africa in the mid-1970s after his conversion to Islam (and the resultant change of name from Dollar Brand to Abdullah Ibrahim); however, he soon returned to New York in 1976, as he found the political conditions too oppressive. While in South Africa, however, he made a series of recordings with noted Cape Town players (including Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen). These seminal recordings gave impetus to a new sound, Cape Jazz. These included the masterpiece, “Mannenberg” (renamed “Capetown Fringe” in its US release), one of South Africa’s popular musical compositions, “Black Lightning”, “African Herbs” and “Soweto Is Where It Is At”, sounds that mirrored and spoke of the defiance in the streets and townships of South Africa. “Mannenberg” came to be considered “the unofficial national anthem” of South Africa, and the theme tune of the anti-apartheid movement.
Ibrahim has worked as a solo performer, typically in mesmerizing unbroken concerts that echo the unstoppable impetus of the old marabi performers, classical impressionists and snatches of his musical idols – Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Fats Waller. He also performs regularly with trios and quartets and larger orchestral units. Since his return to South Africa in the early 1990s, he has been feted with symphony orchestra performances, one of which was in honor of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as President. He has also founded the “M7” academy for South African musicians in Cape Town, and was the initiator of the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra, an 18-piece big band launched in September 2006.
Ibrahim’s 1985 release Water from an Ancient Well is one of my absolute favorite recordings. Also made available domestically at one time by the defunct Black Hawk label, this superior Abdullah Ibrahim recording features the pianist/composer with a very strong septet. Such superior musicians as tenor saxophonist Ricky Ford, altoist Carlos Ward, baritonist Charles Davis, and trombonist Dick Griffin are heard at their most creative and emotional on these eight Ibrahim originals. Many of the melodies (particularly “Mandela,” “Song for Sathima,” “Water From an Ancient Well,” and the beautiful “The Wedding”) are among Ibrahim’s finest compositions. Water from an Ancient Well is one of those records that you put on after a long day at work and it just seems to make the problems melt away.
7. Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um
And here we have an artist that is considered by every jazz fan a hands down legend, but is hardly known by those outside the sacred circle. While I usually bristle at those artists that you ‘have’ to like, in this case it makes complete sense. Charles Mingus Jr. (April 22, 1922 – January 5, 1979) was a highly influential American jazz double bassist, composer and bandleader. Mingus’s compositions retained the hot and soulful feel of hard bop and drew heavily from black gospel music while sometimes drawing on elements of Third Stream, free jazz, and classical music. Yet Mingus avoided categorization, forging his own brand of music that fused tradition with unique and unexplored realms of jazz. He once cited Duke Ellington and church as his main influences. Mingus focused on collective improvisation, similar to the old New Orleans jazz parades, paying particular attention to how each band member interacted with the group as a whole. In creating his bands, Mingus looked not only at the skills of the available musicians, but also their personalities. Many musicians passed through his bands and later went on to impressive careers. He recruited talented and sometimes little-known artists whom he assembled into unconventional and revealing configurations. As a performer, Mingus was a pioneer in double bass technique, widely recognized as one of the instrument’s most proficient players.
Nearly as well known as his ambitious music was Mingus’ often fearsome temperament, which earned him the nickname “The Angry Man of Jazz”. His refusal to compromise his musical integrity led to many on-stage eruptions, exhortations to musicians, and dismissals. Because of his brilliant writing for mid-size ensembles, and his catering to and emphasizing the strengths of the musicians in his groups, Mingus is often considered the heir of Duke Ellington, for whom he expressed great admiration. Indeed, Dizzy Gillespie had once claimed Mingus reminded him “of a young Duke”, citing their shared “organizational genius”. Mingus’ music was once believed to be too difficult to play without Mingus’ leadership. However, many musicians play Mingus compositions today, from the repertory bands Mingus Big Band, Mingus Dynasty, and Mingus Orchestra, to the high school students who play the charts and compete in the Charles Mingus High School Competition.
Gunther Schuller has suggested that Mingus should be ranked among the most important American composers, jazz or otherwise. In 1988, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts made possible the cataloging of Mingus compositions, which were then donated to the Music Division of the New York Public Library for public use. In 1993, The Library of Congress acquired Mingus’s collected papers—including scores, sound recordings, correspondence and photos—in what they described as “the most important acquisition of a manuscript collection relating to jazz in the Library’s history”.
In 1959, Mingus and his jazz workshop musicians recorded one of his best-known albums, Mingus Ah Um. Even in a year of standout masterpieces, including Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Bill Evans’ Portrait in Jazz, and Ornette Coleman’s prophetic The Shape of Jazz to Come, this was a major achievement, featuring such classic Mingus compositions as “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (an elegy to Lester Young) and “Fables of Faubus” (a protest against segregationist Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus that features double-time sections). The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD calls this album “an extended tribute to ancestors” (and awards it one of their rare crowns), and Mingus’s musical forebears figure largely throughout. “Better Git It In Your Soul” is inspired by gospel singing and preaching of the sort that Mingus would have heard as a child growing up in Watts, Los Angeles, California, while “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is a reference (by way of his favored headgear) to saxophonist Lester Young (who had died shortly before the album was recorded). The origin and nature of “Boogie Stop Shuffle” is self-explanatory: a twelve-bar blues with four themes and a boogie bass backing that passes from stop time to shuffle and back.
“Self-Portrait in Three Colors” was originally written for John Cassavetes’ first film as director, Shadows, but was never used (for budgetary reasons). “Open Letter to Duke” is a tribute to Duke Ellington, and draws on three of Mingus’s earlier pieces (“Nouroog”, “Duke’s Choice”, and “Slippers”). “Jelly Roll” is a reference to jazz pioneer and pianist Jelly Roll Morton; “Bird Calls,” in Mingus’ own words, was not a reference to bebop legend Charlie “Bird” Parker: “It wasn’t supposed to sound like Charlie Parker. It was supposed to sound like birds – the first part.” “Fables of Faubus” is named after Orval E. Faubus (1910–1994), the Governor of Arkansas infamous for his 1957 stand against integration of Little Rock, Arkansas schools in defiance of U.S. Supreme Court rulings (forcing President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard). It is sometimes claimed that Columbia refused to allow the lyrics to be included on this album, though the liner notes to the 1998 reissue of the album state that the piece started life as an instrumental, and only gained the lyrics later (as can be heard on the 1960 release Presents Charles Mingus.) Mingus Ah Um was one of fifty recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry in 2003.
6. Thelonious Monk – Underground
Three times in my life I have had the pleasure of sitting down with a record and following the story of the music while pouring over every detail of the cover art, as if they were two pieces of a greater whole. The first two were The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home. The third was Thelonious Monk’s Underground. Thelonious Sphere Monk was an American jazz pianist and composer considered one of the giants of American music. Monk had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, including “Epistrophy”, “‘Round Midnight”, “Blue Monk”, “Straight, No Chaser” and “Well, You Needn’t”. Monk is the second-most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, which is particularly remarkable as Ellington composed over 1,000 songs while Monk wrote about 70. His compositions and improvisations are full of dissonant harmonies and angular melodic twists, and are consistent with Monk’s unorthodox approach to the piano, which combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt, dramatic use of silences and hesitations. Since this was not a style universally appreciated, poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin dismissed Monk as “the elephant on the keyboard”. Of course, his explorations in negative space have come to dominate much of the modern jazz environment, proving that legends only improve with time.
Monk’s manner was idiosyncratic. Visually, he was renowned for his distinctive style in suits, hats and sunglasses. He was also noted for the fact that at times, while the other musicians in the band continued playing, he would stop, stand up from the keyboard and dance for a few moments before returning to the piano. He is one of five jazz musicians to have been featured on the cover of Time (the other four being Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, and Dave Brubeck) as of 2010. According to biographer Robin Kelley, the 1964 Time appearance came because “Barry Farrell, who wrote the cover story, wanted to write about a jazz musician and almost by default Monk was chosen, because they thought Ray Charles and Miles Davis were too controversial. … [Monk] wasn’t so political. […O]f course, I challenge that [in the biography],” said Kelley.
By the early sixties, Monk had already established himself as a forced to be reckoned with in the genre. After extended negotiations, Monk signed in 1962 to Columbia Records, one of the big four American record labels of the day along with RCA Victor, Capitol, and Decca. Monk’s relationship with Riverside had soured over disagreements concerning royalty payments and had concluded with a brace of European live albums; he had not recorded a studio album since 5 by Monk by 5 in June 1959. Working with producer Teo Macero on his debut for the label, the sessions in the first week of November had a stable line-up that had been with him for two years: tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse (who worked with Monk from 1959 to 1970), bassist John Ore, and drummer Frankie Dunlop. Monk’s Dream, his earliest Columbia album, was released in 1963.
Columbia’s resources allowed Monk to be promoted more widely than earlier in his career. Monk’s Dream would become the best-selling LP of his lifetime, and on February 28, 1964, he appeared on the cover of Time, being featured in the article “The Loneliest Monk”. He continued to record a number of well-reviewed studio albums, particularly Criss Cross, also from 1963, and Underground, from 1968. But by the Columbia years his compositional output was limited, and only his final Columbia studio record Underground featured a substantial number of new tunes, including his only waltz time piece, “Ugly Beauty”. Although this album is most widely known for its provocative cover image, which depicts Monk as a fictitious French Resistance fighter in the Second World War, it contains a number of new Monk compositions, some of which only appear in recorded form on this album. This is the last Monk album featuring the Thelonious Monk Quartet, and the last featuring Charlie Rouse (who only appears on half the tracks). While Monk is more well-known for his earlier works, I have Underground here because it is my favorite. Smooth from beginning to finish, this is a record that any of us would have been proud to call our final work. It also helps that it was the first Monk recording I experienced and will forever by my favorite as a result.
Monk had disappeared from the scene by the mid-1970s, and made only a small number of appearances during the final decade of his life. His last studio recordings as a leader were made in November 1971 for the English Black Lion label, near the end of a worldwide tour with “The Giants of Jazz,” a group which included Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Al McKibbon and Art Blakey. Bassist Al McKibbon, who had known Monk for over twenty years and played on his final tour in 1971, later said: “On that tour Monk said about two words. I mean literally maybe two words. He didn’t say ‘Good morning’, ‘Goodnight’, ‘What time?’ Nothing. Why, I don’t know. He sent word back after the tour was over that the reason he couldn’t communicate or play was that Art Blakey and I were so ugly.” A different side of Monk is revealed in Lewis Porter’s biography, John Coltrane: His Life and Music; Coltrane states: “Monk is exactly the opposite of Miles [Davis]: he talks about music all the time, and he wants so much for you to understand that if, by chance, you ask him something, he’ll spend hours if necessary to explain it to you.”
The documentary film Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser attributes Monk’s quirky behavior to mental illness. In the film, Monk’s son, T. S. Monk, says that his father sometimes did not recognize him, and he reports that Monk was hospitalized on several occasions due to an unspecified mental illness that worsened in the late 1960s. No reports or diagnoses were ever publicized, but Monk would often become excited for two or three days, pace for days after that, after which he would withdraw and stop speaking. Physicians recommended electroconvulsive therapy as a treatment option for Monk’s illness, but his family would not allow it; antipsychotics and lithium were prescribed instead. Other theories abound: Leslie Gourse, author of the book Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk (1997), reported that at least one of Monk’s psychiatrists failed to find evidence of manic depression or schizophrenia. Another physician maintains that Monk was misdiagnosed and prescribed drugs during his hospital stay that may have caused brain damage. As his health declined, Monk’s last six years were spent as a guest in the Weehawken, New Jersey home of his long-standing patron and friend, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who had also nursed Charlie Parker during his final illness. Monk did not play the piano during this time, even though one was present in his room, and he spoke to few visitors. He died of a stroke on February 17, 1982, and was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. In 1993, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2006, Monk was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation.
5. Duke Ellington – Money Jungle
If Miles Davis and John Coltrane are giants of jazz, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were gods; one of the heart and the latter of the mind. Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was an American composer, pianist, and big-band leader. Ellington wrote over 1,000 compositions. In the opinion of Bob Blumenthal of The Boston Globe, “[i]n the century since his birth, there has been no greater composer, American or otherwise, than Edward Kennedy Ellington.” A major figure in the history of jazz, Ellington’s music stretched into various other genres, including blues, gospel, film scores, popular, and classical. His career spanned more than 50 years and included leading his orchestra, composing an inexhaustible songbook, scoring for movies, composing stage musicals, and world tours. Several of his instrumental works were adapted into songs that became standards. Due to his inventive use of the orchestra, or big band, and thanks to his eloquence and extraordinary charisma, he is generally considered to have elevated the perception of jazz to an art form on a par with other traditional genres of music. His reputation increased after his death and the Pulitzer Prize Board bestowed on him a special posthumous honor in 1999.
Ellington called his music “American Music” rather than jazz, and liked to describe those who impressed him as “beyond category”. These included many of the musicians who were members of his orchestra, some of whom are considered among the best in jazz in their own right, but it was Ellington who melded them into one of the best-known jazz orchestral units in the history of jazz. He often composed specifically for the style and skills of these individuals, such as “Jeep’s Blues” for Johnny Hodges, “Concerto for Cootie” for Cootie Williams, which later became “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me” with Bob Russell’s lyrics, and “The Mooche” for Tricky Sam Nanton and Bubber Miley. He also recorded songs written by his bandsmen, such as Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” and “Perdido” which brought the “Spanish Tinge” to big-band jazz. Several members of the orchestra remained there for several decades. After 1941, he frequently collaborated with composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn, whom he called his “writing and arranging companion”. Ellington recorded for many American record companies, and appeared in several films. Ellington led his band from 1923 until his death in 1974. His son Mercer Ellington, who had already been handling all administrative aspects of his father’s business for several decades, led the band until his own death in 1996. At that point, the original band dissolved. Paul Ellington, Mercer’s youngest son and executor of the Duke Ellington estate, kept the Duke Ellington Orchestra going from Mercer’s death onwards.
In the early 1960s, Ellington embraced recording with artists who had been friendly rivals in the past, or were younger musicians who focused on later styles. The Ellington and Count Basie orchestras recorded together. During a period when he was between recording contracts, he made records with Louis Armstrong (Roulette), Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane (both for Impulse) and participated in a session with Charles Mingus and Max Roach which produced the Money Jungle album. Duke Ellington surprised the jazz world in 1962 with his historic trio session featuring Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Not in a mood to simply rework older compositions, the bulk of the LP focused on music he wrote specifically for the session. “Money Jungle” is a thunderous opener, a blues that might be classified somewhere between post-bop and avant-garde. The gem of the date is the fragile, somewhat haunting ballad “Fleurette Africaine,” where Mingus’ floating bassline and Roach’s understated drumming add to the mystique of an Ellington work that has slowly been gathering steam among jazz musicians as a piece worth exploring more often. Money Jungle sets Ellington apart from all of his contemporaries. Though he was a signature member of the ‘old world’ at this point, the compositions here are as forward thinking as anything being made at the time and Ellington’s ability to direct an avant garde worker like Mingus is the evidence of such. Decades later, Money Jungle proves that the Duke was indeed elegant.
4. Eddie Harris & Les McCann – Swiss Movement
What I noticed while putting this list together was that live performances were much more likely to be included here than I would typically. I think part of the reason for that is that jazz is more set for live performance than any other musical form I have experienced. While it is true that the recording industry likely owes its life to the success of jazz, it is easy to forget that this is a genre that was created for improvisation. For the first period of its existence, players actually didn’t believe that you could put a jazz performance into composition. When it finally did happen (thanks to Jellyroll Morton), jazz composition was purposefully skeletal so that that same piece could open itself to an infinite number of readings, allowing for not only differences between individual performers, but even between individual performances. In jazz, a performance is truly a living thing. Organically growing and changing as it continues. So, rather than being a boring, poorly regurgitated version of what the artist recorded in a studio (as it too often is in other cases), a live jazz recording can just as good as the studio offering. Actually, the tension between members and excitement of the performance itself can be superior to anything done in a studio. Such was the case with Eddie Harris and Les McCann on Swiss Movement. These aren’t two artists that you typically hear mentioned among the ‘greats’, what they were able to do in one night, without rehearsal, made music history. At least, it made history in my own mind.
In 1969, Atlantic Records released Swiss Movement, a recording of McCann with frequent collaborator, saxophonist Eddie Harris, and guest trumpeter Benny Bailey at that year’s Montreux Jazz Festival. Although the musicians had been unable to rehearse, their session was so impressive that it became one of the best-selling jazz albums ever. The album contained the song “Compared To What”, and both the album and the single were huge Billboard pop chart successes. “Compared To What” featured political criticism of the Vietnam War. The song was not written by McCann; fellow Atlantic composer/artist Eugene McDaniels wrote it years earlier. “Compared To What” was initially recorded and released by soul vocalist Roberta Flack. Her version appeared as the opening track on her debut recording, First Take (1969).
After the success of Swiss Movement, McCann — primarily a piano player — began to emphasize his rough-hewn vocals more. He became an innovator in the soul jazz style, merging jazz with funk, soul and world rhythms; much of his early 1970s music prefigures the Stevie Wonder albums of that decade. He was among the first jazz musicians to include electric piano, clavinet, and synthesizer in his music. Though their careers aren’t the banter of jazz documentaries, Swiss Movement (and particularly “Compared To What”) is a pristine moment where two players are completely in sync with one another. Listening to this first song build from beginning to end makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. That’s all you need.
3. The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out
Jazz nerds have this annoying tendency to look down their noses at Dave Brubeck and his ‘West Coast’ contemporaries. It’s unfortunate for them that the man was one of the genre’s most successful in terms of creating music that will survive forever and define its time and place. Brubeck was born in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Concord, California, and grew up in Ione. His father, Peter Howard “Pete” Brubeck, was a cattle rancher, and his mother, Elizabeth, who had studied piano in England under Myra Hess and intended to become a concert pianist, taught piano for extra money. His father had Swiss ancestry (the family surname was originally “Brodbeck”), while his maternal grandparents were English and German, respectively. Brubeck originally did not intend to become a musician (his two older brothers, Henry and Howard, were already on that track), but took lessons from his mother. He could not read music during these early lessons, attributing this difficulty to poor eyesight, but “faked” his way through, well enough that this deficiency went mostly unnoticed. Intending to work with his father on their ranch, Brubeck entered the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California (now the University of the Pacific), studying veterinary science. He changed to music on the urging of the head of zoology, Dr. Arnold, who told him “Brubeck, your mind’s not here. It’s across the lawn in the conservatory. Please go there. Stop wasting my time and yours.” Later, Brubeck was nearly expelled when one of his professors discovered that he could not read music. Several of his professors came forward, arguing that his ability with counterpoint and harmony more than compensated. The college was still afraid that it would cause a scandal, and agreed to let Brubeck graduate only after he had promised never to teach piano.
After graduating in 1942, Brubeck was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served in Europe in the Third Army. He volunteered to play piano at a Red Cross show and was such a hit that he was spared from combat service and ordered to form a band. He created one of the U.S. armed forces’ first racially integrated bands, “The Wolfpack”. While serving in the military, Brubeck met Paul Desmond in early 1944. He returned to college after serving nearly four years in the army, this time attending Mills College in Oakland. He studied under Darius Milhaud, who encouraged him to study fugue and orchestration, but not classical piano. While on active duty, he received two lessons from Arnold Schoenberg at the UCLA in an attempt to connect with High Modernism theory and practice. However, the encounter did not end on good terms since Schoenberg believed that every note should be accounted for, an approach which Brubeck could not accept. Although according to his son Chris Brubeck, there is a twelve-tone row in The Light in the Wilderness, Dave Brubeck’s first oratorio; in it Jesus’s twelve disciples were introduced by each singing their own individual notes. It is described as “quite dramatic, especially when Judas starting singing ‘Repent’ on a high and straining dissonant note.”
After completing his studies under Milhaud, Brubeck worked with an octet (the recording bears his name only because Brubeck was the best-known member at the time), and a trio including Cal Tjader and Ron Crotty. Highly experimental, the group made few recordings and got even fewer paying jobs. The trio was often joined by Paul Desmond on the bandstand, at Desmond’s own insistence. In 1951, Brubeck damaged several neck vertebrae and his spinal cord while diving into the surf in Hawaii. He would later remark that the paramedics who attended had described him as a “DOA” (dead on arrival). Brubeck recovered after a few months, but suffered with residual nerve pain in his hands for years after. The injury also influenced his playing style towards complex, blocky chords rather than speedy, high-dexterity, single-note runs.
Brubeck organized the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951, with Paul Desmond on alto saxophone. They took up a long residency at San Francisco’s Black Hawk nightclub and gained great popularity touring college campuses, recording a series of albums with such titles as Jazz at Oberlin (1953), Jazz at the College of the Pacific (1953), and Brubeck’s debut on Columbia Records, Jazz Goes to College (1954). When Brubeck signed with Fantasy Records, he thought he had a half interest in the company and he worked as a sort of A&R man for the label, encouraging the Weiss brothers to sign other contemporary jazz performers, including Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Red Norvo. When he discovered that all he owned was a half interest in his own recording, he was more than willing to sign with another label, Columbia Records. In 1954, he was featured on the cover of Time, the second jazz musician to be so honored (the first was Louis Armstrong on February 21, 1949). Brubeck personally found this accolade embarrassing, since he considered Duke Ellington more deserving of it and was convinced that he had been favored for being Caucasian. Ellington himself knocked on the door of Brubeck’s hotel room to show him the cover and the only reaction Brubeck could give was, “It should have been you.”
Early bassists for the group included Ron Crotty, Bob Bates, and Bob’s brother Norman Bates; Lloyd Davis and Joe Dodge held the drum chair. In 1956 Brubeck hired drummer Joe Morello, who had been working with Marian McPartland; Morello’s presence made possible the rhythmic experiments that were to come. In 1958 African-American bassist Eugene Wright joined for the group’s U.S. Department of State tour of Europe and Asia. Wright became a permanent member in 1959, making the “classic” Quartet’s personnel complete. During the late 1950s and early 1960s Brubeck canceled several concerts because the club owners or hall managers continued to resist the idea of an integrated band on their stages. He also canceled a television appearance when he found out that the producers intended to keep Wright off-camera.
In 1959, the Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded Time Out, an album about which the record label was enthusiastic but which they were nonetheless hesitant to release. Featuring the album art of S. Neil Fujita, the album contained all original compositions, almost none of which were in common time: 9/8, 5/4, 3/4, and 6/4 were used inspired by Eurasian folk music they experienced during that Department of State sponsored tour. Nonetheless, on the strength of these unusual time signatures (the album included “Take Five”, “Blue Rondo à la Turk”, and “Three To Get Ready”), it quickly went platinum. It was the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies. In 1997, the album was remastered for compact disc by Legacy Records. In 2005, it was one of 50 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. It was also listed in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. In terms of song strength, I have a difficulty thinking of many albums in any genre that are as memorable as Time Out from beginning to end. Brubeck may not have pushed the bar as much as other famous jazz pianists like Thelonious or Bill Evans, he made a single better album than either of them.
2. Nina Simone – Nina Simone at the Village Gate
While almost all discussions of jazz are dominated by the male players, the ladies did make some rather significant contributions to the genre. Not necessarily as players, but definitely as singers. Names like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday are absolutely central to the story of jazz. For my money however, there has not been a better jazz singer on the planet than one Nina Simone. Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known by her stage name Nina Simone, was an American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist widely associated with jazz music. Simone aspired to become a classical pianist while working in a broad range of styles including classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop. Born the sixth child of a preacher’s family in North Carolina, Simone aspired to be a concert pianist. Her musical path changed direction after she was denied a scholarship to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, despite a well-received audition. Simone was later told by someone working at Curtis that she was rejected because she was black. When she began playing in a small club in Philadelphia to fund her continuing musical education and become a classical pianist she was required to sing as well. She was approached for a recording by Bethlehem Records, and her rendering of “I Loves You, Porgy” was a hit in the United States in 1958. Over the length of her career Simone recorded more than 40 albums, mostly between 1958—when she made her debut with Little Girl Blue—and 1974.
Her musical style arose from a fusion of gospel and pop songs with classical music, in particular with influences from her first inspiration, Johann Sebastian Bach, and accompanied with her expressive jazz-like singing in her characteristic contralto. She injected as much of her classical background into her music as possible to give it more depth and quality, as she felt that pop music was inferior to classical. Her intuitive grasp on the audience–performer relationship was gained from a unique background of playing piano accompaniment for church revivals and sermons regularly from the early age of six years old. In the early 1960s, she became involved in the civil rights movement and the direction of her life shifted once again. Simone’s music was highly influential in the fight for equal rights in the United States. In later years, she lived abroad, finally settling in France. In 1993, Simone settled near Aix-en-Provence in Southern France. She had suffered from breast cancer for several years before she died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, Bouches-du-Rhône on April 21, 2003. (In addition, Simone received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in the late 1980s). Her funeral service was attended by singers Miriam Makeba and Patti LaBelle, poet Sonia Sanchez, actor Ossie Davis, and hundreds of others. Elton John sent a floral tribute with the message “You were the greatest and I love you”. Simone’s ashes were scattered in several African countries.
Nina Simone at the Village Gate was released in 1962. It was her third live album for Colpix recorded at the legendary New York jazz venue The Village Gate. It is particularly notable for the amount of folk songs and African related songs on the album early in Simone’s career. Richard Pryor had one of his first nights as a comedian, opening for her at this performance. Nina Simone has the rare ability of really being able to dig into material and bring out unexpected meaning in familiar lyrics. During “He Was Too Good to Me,” Simone sounds absolutely stunned about the end of a love affair. “Brown Baby” is both hopeful and defiant in its call for freedom, while “Zungo” is an African work song. Also from her 1961 trio performance at the Village Gate, Simone performs the overly serious “If He Changed My Name,” the good-time gospel piece “Children Go Where I Send You,” a regretful rendition of “House of the Rising Sun,” and an unpredictable instrumental version of “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Nina Simone, who was always in a category by herself, is heard throughout in her early prime. Nina Simone at the Village Gate is a perfect example of a perfect recorded performance. Nina is in perfect form. Her voice is absolutely intriguing, breathing life into each performance. There are moments here that almost bring one to tears.
1. Herbie Hancock – Empyrean Isles
Herbie Hancock was born in Chicago, Illinois. Like many jazz pianists, Hancock started with a classical music education. He studied from age seven, and his talent was recognized early. Considered a child prodigy, he played the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 5 at a young people’s concert with the Chicago Symphony at age eleven. Through his teens, Hancock never had a jazz teacher, but developed his ear and sense of harmony. He was also influenced by records of the vocal group the Hi-Lo’s. In 1960, he heard Chris Anderson play just once, and begged him to accept him as a student. Hancock often mentions Anderson as his harmonic guru. Hancock left Grinnell College, moved to Chicago and began working with Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins, during which period he also took courses at Roosevelt University. He later graduated from Grinnell with degrees in electrical engineering and music. Grinnell also awarded him an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1972. Donald Byrd was attending the Manhattan School of Music in New York at the time and suggested, that Hancock study composition with Vittorio Giannini, which he did for a short time in 1960. The pianist quickly earned a reputation, and played subsequent sessions with Oliver Nelson and Phil Woods. He recorded his first solo album Takin’ Off for Blue Note Records in 1962. “Watermelon Man” (from Takin’ Off) was to provide Mongo Santamaría with a hit single, but more importantly for Hancock, Takin’ Off caught the attention of Miles Davis, who was at that time assembling a new band. Hancock was introduced to Davis by the young drummer Tony Williams, a member of the new band.
Hancock received considerable attention when, in May 1963, he joined Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet. Davis personally sought out Hancock, whom he saw as one of the most promising talents in jazz. The rhythm section Davis organized was young but effective, comprising bassist Ron Carter, 17-year-old drummer Tony Williams, and Hancock on piano. After George Coleman and Sam Rivers each took a turn at the saxophone spot, the quintet would gel with Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone. This quintet is often regarded as one of the finest jazz ensembles, and the rhythm section has been especially praised for its innovation and flexibility.
The second great quintet was where Hancock found his own voice as a pianist. Not only did he find new ways to use common chords, but he also popularized chords, that had not previously been used in jazz. Hancock also developed a unique taste for “orchestral” accompaniment – using quartal harmony and Debussy-like harmonies, with stark contrasts then unheard of in jazz. With Williams and Carter he wove a labyrinth of rhythmic intricacy on, around and over existing melodic and chordal schemes. In the later half of the 1960s their approach became so sophisticated and unorthodox that conventional chord changes would hardly be discernible; hence their improvisational concept would become known as “Time, No Changes”. While in Davis’s band, Hancock also found time to record dozens of sessions for the Blue Note label, both under his own name and as a sideman with other musicians such as Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Grant Green, Bobby Hutcherson, Sam Rivers, Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard.
Empyrean Isles is the fourth album by American jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, recorded on June 17, 1964 for Blue Note Records. It features the debut of two of his most popular compositions, “One Finger Snap” and “Cantaloupe Island”. Empyrean Isles was one of the most famous and influential jazz LPs of the 1960s, winning praise for both its innovation and accessibility (Thanks in no small part to the jazz rap group US3 having a hit single with “Cantaloop” some twenty five years later). Empyrean Isles featured the Davis rhythm section of Hancock, Carter and Williams with the addition of Freddie Hubbard on cornet. Hancock pushes at the borders of hard bop, finding a brilliantly evocative balance between traditional bop, soul-injected grooves, and experimental, post-modal jazz. Hancock’s four original concepts are loosely based on the myths of the Empyrean Isles, and they are designed to push the limits of the band and of hard bop. Even “Cantaloupe Island,” well-known for its funky piano riff, takes chances and doesn’t just ride the groove. “The Egg,” with its minimal melody and extended solo improvisations, is the riskiest number on the record, but it works because each musician spins inventive, challenging solos that defy convention. From the 1999 reissue liner notes by Bob Blumenthal wrote, “If someone had ordered up a program that explored four distinct areas of jazz expression with equal brilliance, they could not have done better than Empyrean Isles. It is as if Hancock had set out to present ‘changes,’ modal, funk and free playing and delivered each at its apex.” That passion informs all of Empyrean Isles, a record that officially established Hancock as a major artist in his own right.
While it is certainly much ‘cooler’ to name drop Hancock’s breakthrough fusion work Headhunters and his most mainstream commercial success Future Shock (featuring the hit “Rockit”), Empyrean Isles is not just my favorite work from his catalog, but my favorite jazz album period. I’ve made this clear throughout the album, but what I appreciate most about this genre is how the performances can illicit a feeling without needing all of that over thinking. Empyrean Isles is a great example of that. I can put this album on and enter an entirely different world. If anyone asks me where they should begin to dig into this vast genre, this is the first album that comes to mind because it defines what I love about the music.
Think I got something wrong? Want to add your own list or nominations? Make sure and leave a comment below.
No synthesizers whatsoever were used during the writing of this column.
Read previous ‘a list obligatory’ columns here.