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Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 (1952)
Any kind of Monk is good Monk, but Genius of Modern Music is a great place to begin. Monk’s virtuosic piano playing is on full display on each track. Whether he’s running down the keys on “Ruby My Dear” or pushing chord melodies on “Nice Work If You Can Get It”, Monk has a true ear for filling in a band’s gaps and holding back when necessary. (His piano doesn’t show up until after the band intro on “Humph”, and even then you have to tune your ear in to catch it.) Monk is probably the most well-known jazz pianist outside of Art Tatum, but his catalog is vast and spans decades. Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 is the perfect primer to his consummate style and, indeed, his genius grasp of modern music that lasted for many more decades.
Out to Lunch! (1964)
Much of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! is a showcase in interplay and tonality. Dolphy and his band members, which include Freddie Hubbard and Bobby Hutcherson, spent most of Out to Lunch! pushing the limits of free jazz and improvisation in the same way Ornette Coleman does on his records. Dolphy is the showman here, though. He alternates from rigid squawks to flourishing runs with no missed time in-between. Out to Lunch! is likely the most adventurous jazz album on the list, but it’s a stunning listen that slams against the boundaries of modern jazz and hard bop. Sadly, Out to Lunch! was Dolphy’s final album. He died of complications from an undiagnosed diabetic condition in Berlin in 1964. Fifty years later, the mind of Dolphy and his seminal recording survives. Out to Lunch is a must-have.
Soul Station (1960)
Hank Mobley is full of surprises, and Soul Station has always surprised me with each and every consecutive listen. Soul Station is a record that can stay in heavy rotation on your turntable and never lose any of its luster. Recorded in 1960, at the edge of new jazz boundaries, Soul Station eschews labels (e.g., bop, hard bop, etc.) in favor of a solid, strong set of performances from a well-versed horn player. Mobley wasn’t necessarily an innovator, but he didn’t need to be. And Soul Station showcases his playing without the aid of any other horn players. He carries the show all the way to the finish line, and he does it with grace and aplomb.
Empyrean Isles (1964)
Herbie Hancock, like Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis, has a long and storied career. From Grammy wins to the Headhunters, from fusion and funk to piano ballads, Hancock’s output is daunting and enormous. Empyrean Isles, however, is one of his earliest records and one of his best. Here we get Hancock unfettered by the later pull of jazz fusion, instead showing off his prowess with a superior band that includes Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, and Anthony Williams. If there’s any complaint to be made about Empyrean Isles, it’s that Hancock isn’t on center stage like he is on later releases. But to hear him take a solo on “Olilqui Valley” is to hear a great pianist that is just starting to flex his fingers. Additionally, Empyrean Isles is rife with imagery, as the title suggests, and Hancock especially can conjure up those images with a well-placed string of notes. Empyrean Isles is a record to come back to, again and again, a Sunday morning breather to gently wake up every sleepy eye in the house.
Blue Train (1957)
Coltrane is one of jazz music’s preeminent fixtures and Blue Train is one of his many staples. Recorded in 1957, Blue Train has Coltrane planted firmly in the moment, drawing from the past (“Lazy Bird”, “I’m Old Fashioned”), and keeping his eye on the future, drawing out his next big move. Those next big moves would come later with Giant Steps and A Love Supreme, but for now, Blue Train is the sound of a giant jazz musician coming alive and finding his groove. Much of Coltrane’s prodigious output was captured as live performances, where he stands out a true improvisor, but his studio records offer the best view of Coltrane’s flexibility and planning. Opening track “Blue Train” is a jazz staple, and its stamp is unmistakable and unforgettable. You can never go wrong with any Coltrane, but Blue Train is very nearly flawless, a piece of art to last for ages to come.