[7 December 2011]
Jazz music began as a popular art form. From its origins in the streets, bars, and brothels of the American South to the speakeasies of Prohibition-era Chicago to the dance floors of Middle America during the big band era, jazz successfully injected the masses with the infectious spirit of swing. After World War II, though, a major shift occurred in America’s beloved music. The innovations of New York musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie would be codified into the style known as bebop, one that emphasized angular melodies, complex rhythms, and virtuoso solos. The music’s primary venue then shifted from the dance floor to the jazz club, and big bands were replaced by small combos. In effect, jazz transformed itself from pop music into art music. Bebop was embraced not by the masses, but rather by a smaller group of devoted followers, including the urbane beatniks (protohipsters, if you will), who found inspiration in the music’s spontaneity and spirit of freedom.
In the post-bop era, the perception of many is that jazz is an elusive music, one that requires lots of “insider” knowledge to appreciate. While jazz’s complexity cannot be denied, much of the music remains accessible to all. The trick is just finding the right tunes and artists, those who have a universal appeal beyond the scope of the typical—admittedly somewhat limited—jazz audience. Below you will find my list of 10 jazz tracks for people who typically don’t like the form. Each of these songs has a strong emotional appeal. While they are all technically brilliant, they never lose the heart and soul amongst the musical intricacy. Many of these tracks are considered foundational to the “jazz canon”, that collection of tunes almost universally agreed upon as among the best work the genre has ever produced. These songs will serve as a “nonthreatening” introduction for those who have been avoiding jazz like the plague or haven’t listened to the music in some time.
Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley is appropriate for those normally skeptical of vocal jazz. It’s one of the most beautiful, emotionally resonant vocal jazz records of all time. The arrangements are deceptively simple, but there’s lots going on beneath the surface. Take the opening track “Save Your Love For Me”. Nancy Wilson’s aggressively fragile voice is perfectly suited to front the Cannonball Adderley quintet. There’s an equal amount of pathos and remarkable musical chops to every note she sings. While the musicians on the record are all technically proficient (at the top of their game in fact), they all play sensitively to the musical moment. During the first verse of “Save Your Love For Me”, cornetist Nat Adderley plays understated, quiet background fills behind Wilsonl. On the second verse, Cannonball takes a more aggressive approach, playing more complex, yet insanely melodic, lines to support the vocalist. “Save Your Love For Me” proves that vocal jazz doesn’t have to be a “watered down” version of the music, but can have just as much integrity, passion, and complexity as the best instrumental jazz performances.
Virtually every music lover arrives at one point or another at Thelonious Monk. The unconventional pianist is known for being the jazz musician most loved by rock ‘n’ roll fans, perhaps because of his quirky musical personality and the aggressiveness with which he attacks the instrument. While Monk’s catalog is quite large and is all well worth listening to, Solo Monk brings out the pianist’s personality more clearly than any other record. We get to hear him on his own, away from the normal “restrictions” of a band. All of the tracks on Solo Monk are killers, but “Everything Happens to Me” is notable for its contrast in moods and styles. It begins as a quiet, dirge-like ballad, turns into a jaunty Stride-style rag, and later evolves into a piece of virtual abstract expressionism. When I listen to Monk, I hear the whole history of jazz radiating through every passionately played note. There’s the mischievous spirit of ragtime, the angularity of bebop, and the indelible spirit of swing. It’s a lot of jazz for your money.
Anyone who says free jazz is inaccessible to the “uninitiated” hasn’t listened much to Ornette Coleman. The Shape of Jazz to Come finds the saxophonist at that stage when he was abandoning some of the principles of tonality that had anchored jazz for its first fiftyish years, but hadn’t completely given up the ideals of structure and melody. “Lonely Woman”, above all, has one of the most expansive, expressive melodies in all of jazz. The musicians—including Coleman on alto sax, Don Cherry on cornet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums—react to one another and create a melancholy, almost desperate, mood that reinforces the song’s title. Higgins’ ride cymbal sounds like it belongs in a fast bebop tune, but Coleman and Cherry’s melodic line sounds like a soulful ballad. Haden, a former country bassist on the Grand Ole Opry, plays a bass line striking in its simultaneous melodic simplicity and rhythmic complexity. Somehow it all manages to come together. It truly lives up to the word “free”.
Ever since Miles Davis’ electric fusion innovations of the 1970s, many jazz musicians have tried to incorporate the pop music of the day into their genre. Some would say this is a noble attempt to reach a larger, more sympathetic audience with the power of jazz, whereas others would say this fusion of styles has the singular effect of making the music more commercially viable. Nevertheless, there is no denying that many fusion musicians have made daring, envelope-pushing, just-plain-fun, music. The Bad Plus, an acoustic piano trio from Minnesota, are among the most popular artists of the last decade to fuse the improvisational spirit and acoustic instrumentation of mainstream jazz with rock music of different sorts. While this trio has recorded creative covers of songs by the likes of Nirvana, Pink Floyd, and Wilco, my favorite is their version of the Pixies song “Velouria”. The trio takes an already strong melody and deconstructs it to the point where it is almost unrecognizable. The thing that really drives the song, though, is the insane rhythmic propulsion. The song builds to the point where you think it’s going to explode and, indeed, it does.
The fusion of soul, gospel, and jazz music known as hard bop is a great entry point for those who love music for its undefinable spiritual qualities. How can someone listen to a track as downright soulful as “Moanin’” without being at least a little moved? Drummer Art Blakey lays down a perfect shuffle groove. The piano part and horn lines invoke the carnality of a Saturday night and the spiritual devotion of a Sunday morning. Then there’s that breathtaking moment in which trumpeter Lee Morgan ends his solo with a beautifully melodic blues line, only to have tenor saxophonist Benny Golson transpose the line to another key at the start of his own solo. It’s an incredible example of musicians listening to one another and adapting to each other’s playing in the moment, which is one of the most enjoyable, adventurous qualities of jazz music for listeners.
The piano trio has been a ubiquitous ensemble type virtually since the beginning of jazz. Bill Evans and his incredible trio of the late 1950s and early 1960s brought the form to a whole new level, though. Evans, along with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian (recently deceased), crafted the kind of laid-back, mellow vibes that you may expect to hear played in a hotel lobby or classy wedding reception. There’s a lot more going on beneath the surface than first meets the ear, though. This trio is simply one of the most dynamically interactive in all of jazz. Each musician responds intuitively to what the other plays. The bass lines are never predictable and the drum patterns are always adventurous. It may have been called the Bill Evans Trio, but LaFaro and Motian were just as integral to the ensemble’s success as the frontman. “Come Rain or Come Shine” is a good introduction to the group because the melody is insanely beautiful, LaFaro’s bass line is insanely sensitive, and Evans’ piano solo is… well, just insane.
If a more beautiful melody has ever been written in the history of Western civilization, please let me know. Mingus, in addition to being one of the most innovative bassists in all of jazz, was also a composer of fantastic musical integrity and creativity. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was written as a tribute to the late saxophonist Lester Young, but its melancholy vibe has a universal appeal. The thing that strikes me about the song’s central melody every time I hear it is the sense of urgency and forward motion. It’s highly chromatic, meaning that virtually every note on the piano (both white keys and black keys) is used in its construction. Somehow amidst all the complexity it evokes simple emotions, though. It’s a tribute that even the great elegiac poet Thomas Gray would probably stand at in awe.
Everyone arrives at Herbie Hancock at some point, jazz fan or not. While he became known to the masses through his fusion work in the 1970s and 1980s and won a Grammy in the 21st century for his tribute album to Joni Mitchell, the 1965 record Maiden Voyage arguably represents his best, most important work. It’s a concept album of such, one that’s supposed to invoke the feelings of being out at sea. It succeeds in showing us that jazz can use its central elements—melody, rhythm, improvisation, and texture—to produce the feeling of a distinctive setting, much like a skilled writer describing a location through loaded language and vivid imagery. The song “Maiden Voyage” takes us on a nautical journey, indeed, as its sparse melody and dynamic solos produce the laidback feeling of a calm sea.
It’s no wonder that saxophonist and bebop founder Charlie Parker often cited his solo on this tune as his personal favorite out of all those e had ever played. On this number, Parker achieves the perfect balance of accessibility and technical brilliance, the hallmark of great jazz. “Just Friends” was one of many tracks recorded in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the saxophone legend with a string section. The mini-orchestra provides a unique sonic background upon which the Bird can lay his angular and wildly energetic licks. This is a fine place to start for anyone who cringes upon hearing the word bebop, thinking perhaps that it is the music of jazz snobs with nothing better to do than to sit around and analyze Lydian scales. No, there’s more to bebop than the technical virtuosity. Who can look upon this take of “Just Friends” without smiling on the inside?
The fact that “Blue in Green” is my favorite song of all time, jazz or otherwise, did not in any way influence the inclusion of this track on my list. Well, okay, maybe it did. But, how can I resist sharing the tune that has been with me through so many life experiences, both good and bad? There’s a reason why I have listened to this song every time I have experienced death or other significant losses. There’s something simultaneously tragic and reassuring about Davis’ playing on this tune. John Coltrane’s tenor sax solo here is probably the simplest, most emotionally direct one he ever played—it sounds both like a funeral dirge and a new beginning. The modulations through various major and minor keys mean that the emotional landscape of the song is constantly shifting. If ever a jazz song has invoked every emotion that is possible for music to conjure up, perhaps it’s this one.