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.
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(Portrait in Jazz, (1959)
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.
(Mingus Ah Um, 1959)
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.
(Maiden Voyage, 1965)
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.
(Charlie Parker with Strings, 1950)
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?
(Kind of Blue, 1959)
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.