Jazz. This is something that’s been close to my heart for many a year. It’s off-shoots and tributaries (Hip-Hop, Funk, etc.) have maintained a spot at the forefront of my musical interests for equally as long, but it always comes full circle. It always comes back to Jazz. The roots. The roots of all modern music, really. Now, aside from the number one slot, the list you’re about to read is in no way meant to be definitive, or in order. Just because “Nautilus” comes after “Stax Jam,” it does not mean that “Nautilus” is a better track, nor do I even like it more. This is simply a collection of excellent recordings that I thought could enrich the tastes of a curious listener and the seasoned expert alike. I have split it into separate articles for two reasons; to give each piece breathing room to be appreciated in context, and I wanted to get it out in time to coincide with the first snow that much of Colorado is experiencing. A third reason is that this could be turned into an ongoing series that I will publish whenever I feel inclined to release a new installment. Most of the pieces included range in the Free to Hard-Bop side of the Jazz spectrum, which I feel is perfectly suited to flakes (or leaves) falling on the other side of the glass. So imbibe in a warm drink and enjoy the links while you read.
“Stax Jam” (1996) – Galactic ~~ We’ll start off with something I believe will grab the attention of even the most skeptical or uninitiated of readers. To immediately address the stereotype, NO, Jazz does not have to be some dated form of stuffy old music that’s seen its days. People working in the Jazz medium in the last twenty years have produced some of the most progressive and fine-tuned material to date, and though that may sound blasphemous to some, I have only more proof supporting that statement as you continue reading. A true slow-burning funk masterpiece, “Stax Jam” simply oozes cool from the first note, and is really the kind of song that could have gone on at least twice its length. Whatever the time, this thing is sure to add some sizzle to your simmer.
“Brother John” (1963) – Cannonball Adderly Sextet ~~ With the focal point being Yusef Lateef’s pleading Oboe solos, this track soars from beginning to end. Recorded in 1963, it also shows the immense influence John Coltrane had on the genre with so few years in the game. Killer.
“Blue Train” (1957) – John Coltrane ~~ Speaking of Trane, let’s introduce a certain classic of the Man’s. Coming off the album of the same name, Coltrane alleged in a 1960 interview with Downbeat Magazine that it was his favorite album of his to date. It was comprised entirely of songs he’d composed, and the song I’ve selected here is how it all begins. The meat of the track is full-fledged, definitive Hard-Bop, but it’s the sheer, unabashed boldness of the first forty seconds that always gets me.
“De Drums” (Live 1973 At The Village Vangaurd) – Keith Jarrett ~~ What a feel-good track. Released long after it was recorded on The Impulse Story, this thing just builds and builds with every member playing in fine form. Apparently it was all improvised on the spot, which is even more astounding, given the overall tightness and “composed” feel of the piece. The hook, the layers, the sound quality, everything. Phenomenal. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a link to this audio, and since we’re not Pitchfork, I can’t embed songs onto the page. Please seek it out for yourself, this song needs to be heard. It can be downloaded from all the major outlets, or found at your local library. (You’re also on the internet, I know you can be resourceful.)
“Frames” (2007) – Greg Harris Vibe Quintet ~~ Originally from around the Denver area, these guys are well studied and dedicated to their craft. The intro is truly a great among Jazz music – the way the guitar drops in and everyone just starts goin’ at it is a real treat to hear. They then proceed to even layer some pretty unfamiliar sounding electronics (synths?) into the mix, but it all still gels. BOY does it gel. My favorite factor of the piece remains Matt Fuller’s excellent guitar work throughout. I’m sorry I couldn’t get a legal link to this, but once again, this is something I found at my local library years ago, so it is out there – and I suggest you pick it up, because it’s dudes like this that are keeping the modern Jazz landscape exciting, without resorting to the outer reaches of Avant-garde space odysseys.
“Funkallero” (1971) – Bill Evans ~~ Accompanied by Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums, this is a classically understated jam between three musicians at the peaks of their creativity. Lyrical, but never verbose, it is a subtle session, filled with amazing submissions from each of the players involved. When I first heard this track introduced on the radio, I remember the DJ stating it was the first time Evans ever recorded something with a Fender Rhodes instead of his normal acoustic piano. That immediately got me hung up on it. I had to find this. If Bill Evans on electric piano doesn’t pique your interest, you may be reading the wrong article.
“On Jupiter” (1978) – Sun Ra ~~ This is a very peculiar track. And interestingly enough, I don’t mean peculiar in the way you’d typically think when talking about Sun Ra. The first of a three-song album of the same name, this is also the shortest. What makes it most interesting to me is the fact that it was the first time I was exposed to his output of the later 70’s, where Ra and his Solar Myth Arkestra stepped away from the methods they had been employing for years, and literally, hundreds of recordings. Instead of being overbearingly noisy and dissonant like much of the work I was previously familiar with, (Sun Ra was basically the forefather of Avant-garde and Free Jazz subgenres) the song swings with a certain whimsy previously unheard of by such a group. Another quirk is that it is one of the very few Jazz tracks with vocal accompaniment that I actually enjoy, so take that for what it’s worth.
“Nautilus” (1974) – Bob James ~~ If you think you’ve never heard Bob James before, let me be the first to tell you you’re probably wrong. If you are familiar, then you’re probably also aware that he’s built one of the most sampled bodies of work in music history. This song in particular has been sampled over thirty times by Hip Hop underdogs and overdogs – and for damn good reason (I even remember Sound Tribe Sector 9 covering it during their first big Red Rocks event, my brother and I were probably the only people there who knew what we were hearing). It’s almost like he wrote it to be chopped up and rapped over. And not to say the song is lacking anything all by itself; “Nautilus” and the album One is what kicked James into a successful, critically acclaimed career for years to come. Though he also was a major pioneering force behind what later became “Smooth Jazz,” I’ll forgive him in light of recordings like this one.
“Lee’s Tune” (1958) – Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers ~~ I’ll never forget the way I first encountered this track. It was my very first day DJing at Radio 1190, after literally no prior on-air experience. I was somewhat unprepared and scrambling throughout my three-hour shift, and after I took my final break, I realized I had run out of music to play. I went to find something with a long track, but the CD I was looking for was missing – as was the next one I searched for. I now had twenty seconds to put something up, and as my eye frantically passed over one of the shelves, I noticed this. Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. “Love that Art Blakey, hope this is good,” I thought. I smashed it into the CD player and discovered that everything was either too long (15 min.) or too short (5-6 min.). Except for one. A nice, friendly, eight-minute cut called “Lee’s Tune.” And choosing it was truly a breath of fresh air. The second I heard the piano building over the rhythm section, I knew that I (and everyone listening) was in for something special. While Art Blakey takes a riveting drum solo during the second half of the song, Lee Morgan is obviously the man who needs mention here. This is an absolutely burning horn and drum composition. As well as being a part of one of the greatest Jazz collectives in history, (playing on another forthcoming Jazz Messengers song in this list) the guy had his fingers in some of the most seminal and talented players’ recordings from 1956 until his tragic and untimely death at age 33. I’m talking Hank Mobley, Elvin Jones, Stanley Turrentine, Grant Green, Joe Henderson, Dizzy Gillespie, and oh yeah, remember that Coltrane song up there? He’s got an outstanding solo on it.
There are plenty more awaiting placement on the list, but to reduce congestion, I’ll leave Part One of this article to these ten songs. I hope you’ve already found something you like, and be on the lookout for more.