Friday, April 10, 2009

Essentials in Jazz

Growing up playing the saxophone, I've always had a slight affinity for jazz. I played "Mercy Mercy Mercy" in my high school jazz band at age 16, and "Take the A-Train" at 17. However, I was always swept up with the hip punk rock scene, and jazz music was filed next to classical music on the "old people music" shelf of my teenage life.

Seven years later, it has become pretty much the only music in my life. Aside from a handful of bands, jazz has taken up the majority of my listening time. Tonight, I want to highlight a few great albums I've been listening to lately that you should all check out.

Roland Kirk - Volunteered Slavery (1968)

This album is one of the best saxophone albums I've ever heard. Roland Kirk, blind genius and multi-instrumentalist, mixes snippets of popular songs in with his freestyle saxophone. "I Say A Little Prayer For You" bounds into a Coltrane tribute (with the album below), which explodes into a free-jazz extravaganza. Occasionally, Kirk will warble along with his flute or just yell nonsense. This is the most fun jazz album I've heard in a long time.

John Coltrane - A Love Supreme (1965)

One of the most highly regarded jazz albums of all time, and for good reason. Coltrane kills it on this one. He's in the foreground and nothing else. The songs grow and morph from beautiful melodies into improvisational masterpieces. The drum solo on this album is probably the best I've ever heard. So good.

Charles Mingus - Mingus Ah Um (1959)

This is another upbeat, bebop jazz album reminiscent of old New Orleans jazz. Mingus records with an ensemble, alternating from a main melody line into a turn-based improv section. I hold a special place in my heart for Charles Mingus for his involvement with John Cassavetes, doing the entire soundtrack of Shadows.

Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz To Come (1959)

Coleman pioneered improvisational jazz with this album. Primarily blues based, the saxophone wails and screams through seemingly tempo-less structures. The absence of a piano creates room for the other instruments to really explore the space. The spontaneity of this album makes it great.

Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Out

Kicking off with "Blue Rondo A La Turk" in 9/8, Dave Brubeck designs this entire album around the waltz, shifting from 5/4 to 9/8 to 3/4. Probably the album that spawned "cool jazz" or "lounge," using Brubeck's sauntering piano to drive most of the songs. Such a laid back album, I love it.

Miles Davis - Bitches Brew (1970)

It took a while to narrow down my Miles Davis collection to one standout album, but I think Bitches Brew takes the cake. Miles was there for the dawn of avant-garde jazz, the conversion to electric, and then took jazz to the next level of improvisation. The electric guitar, synthesizer, and percussion led to the fusion of jazz and rock music. This album also utilized tape loops and reverb chambers, almost unheard of before this point. Miles is the king of jazz, hands down.

There are many more I could write about, but I think this is a good cross-section of what I've been listening to. Needless to say, the late 1950's were a great era for jazz music, evolving from a traditional music into an experimental phenomenon. The musicians were pure soul, playing what they felt at the moment. It's pure emotion, and the saxophone can convey it the best. I've been dying to get back into playing jazz in New York, and would love to play sax with a small group one or two nights a week, just to get back into the swing of things.

I really want people to add to this list. If you have a jazz album you can't live without, put it down here. I really want to expand on my collection.

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