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Six Gateway Jazz Albums for Rock Elitists

June 8, 2009  |  7:00am
Six Gateway Jazz Albums for Rock Elitists
Growing up on a strict musical diet of pop and rock, I once viewed jazz as this formless gunk that intellectuals would roll around in to make themselves feel superior to the unkempt masses. It was art for intimidation’s sake: indulgent, self-congratulating and worst of all, boring.

Something tells me I wasn’t alone in that view. People deride jazz not so much for its musicianship, but more so for those insufferable assholes who listen to it. Turtleneck-wearin’, finger-snappin’, rock ‘n’ roll-hatin’, ivory tower elitists! They guard their cultural clubhouse like prepubescent boys on cootie patrol. And who would want to join that sort of club, anyway?

Well, it took awhile, but I eventually had a conversion experience to jazz, not to mention its appreciators. I received my baptism at college (where else?), via a music appreciation course and a psychology professor who would rock stuff like Jaco Pastorius over the speakers before he began his lectures.

My first lesson: Every musical genre is a big tent, and jazz might have the broadest reach of them all. Clearly, any genre that could fit both Sun Ra and Kenny G under its boughs had something to offer for just about any music fan. And so I began my first timid purchases of jazz albums, in search of what worked for me.

Which brings us to the list below. Collected here are some albums that I think work as great entry points for jazz newbies. I write this compendium not as any sort of jazz aficionado or historian... just an amateur explorer, still trying to find his own way.

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Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Moanin’ (1958)
A horribly ill-informed comparison, perhaps, but to me, Art Blakey was the John Bonham of jazz drummers. He had the technical chops to teach a semester-long seminar, but played with such fire and bravado that I always have to sit up and take notice when I listen to his stick work.

Take “The Drum Thunder Suite” off of Moanin’, which is basically an excuse for Blakey to go buck wild while his sidemen take five every few measures. His toms rumble along at a manic clip, while his hi-hat clicks insistently behind. Blakey’s a one-man storm front, swallowing everything in his path.

But like Bonzo, Blakey was just as adept at complementary play as he was at showmanship. The title track is a classic ensemble affair, with Jazz Messengers Bobby Timmons (piano, the song’s composer), Lee Morgan (trumpet) and Benny Golson (saxophone) all getting the chance to shine.

And Blakey? He just hangs out at the back of the swelling arrangement and lets it ride.

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The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Time Out (1959)
Dave Brubeck was math rock long before the term “math rock” was even a twinkle in some rock critic’s eye. Time Out explores a variety of different time signatures, but never to the point of inscrutability.

“Take Five” is probably the one tune neophytes have already heard, in TV commercials, dentist’s offices and shopping malls. But to these ears, “Blue Rondo A La Turk” is the stone-cold classic cut on this record. Band geeks gawk at its shifts between 9/8 and 4/4 time, while the rest of us just marvel at the swirling melody and the ease with which the band pulls it off.

As much as Brubeck is the leader here, the lighter-than-air saxophone playing of Paul Desmond sets the tone throughout Time Out. It’s like a relaxing ocean breeze channeled through a horn, and only adds to the album’s aura of total cool.

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John Coltrane: My Favorite Things (1961)
The title track to this album was the first song my college psychology professor played for our class. After shutting it off, he asked the 100-plus assembled students if they recognized the tune. No one did.

Shame on us. Coltrane’s take on “My Favorite Things” is the sort of thing you put in a capsule and blast off into space, hoping that a sentient race someday finds it and forms a favorable opinion of human culture.

Testing himself on the soprano saxophone for parts of this session, Coltrane spars against the chord changes with as much feistiness as ever. But whereas some of his other releases can come across as showy or (as his career evolved) abstract, My Favorite Things strikes me as a perfect middle ground for first-time listeners. Warm, challenging, melodic, daring, it’s a neat sampler of everything that made Coltrane such a seminal artist.

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Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto: Getz/Gilberto (1963)

Yes, I know: bossa nova, “The Girl From Ipanema”... there’s a ton of cultural baggage that comes with this record. But I hear Stan Getz blow one tender note from his saxophone, and all of those extraneous associations go out the window.

The sound of Getz/Gilberto is not just music for polite dinner parties. It’s what I expect to hear in every grainy, black and white foreign film, as two lovers sit in a café and whisper profundities to each other.

This is a daydreamer’s record, full of melancholy and romantic yearning. And for rockist listeners, Getz/Gilberto’s ascetic contains the seeds for a slew of cosmopolitan indie bands, ranging from Air to Yo La Tengo.

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Wayne Shorter: See No Evil (1964)
I’m a sucker for a strong conceptual hook. Saxophonist Shorter partially based his ensemble’s See No Evil sound off of the darkened mystery of European fairy tales. Not the Disneyfied versions, mind you; these were the ones where any number of gruesome things happened in the name of instilling morality into scared-shitless children.

A creepy, All Hallows Eve mood haunts the proceedings from the get-go. Song titles like “Dance Cadaverous” and “Witch Hunt” conjure up delightfully macabre imagery all on their own, and the players flesh these words out through their instruments. Herbie Hancock's piano runs cast foreboding shadows, the horns sway in the breeze, and the sound of Elvin Jones' ride cymbal hangs in the air like a deep mist.

To these ears, Speak No Evil shares a kindred spirit with the best of goth music. It feeds off of an understated air of menace, but still can disarm with its beauty.

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Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters (1973)

See? Jazz doesn’t have to be all about dour moods and esoteric “statements.” Hancock’s unconscionably funky Head Hunters inspires the hips as much as it does the brain.

Combining the lockstep groove of the Meters with the explosive color of Sly & The Family Stone, Hancock hit upon a breed of jazz music that wasn’t afraid to cut loose.

“Chameleon” might be the most accessible 16-minute track ever, leading with an immortal bass line before shifting hues with all the agile cunning of its namesake. And I’d call the buoyant swagger of “Watermelon Man” the genesis for the Roots, plus pretty much everything else filed under the heading “jazz rap.”

It's pretty much a middle finger to jazz-as-usual, which is why it earns my undying support.

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