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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
the seeds for a slew of cosmopolitan indie bands, ranging from Air to
Yo La Tengo.
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”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.
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.