“There are only two kinds of music, good and bad.”
Duke Ellington made famous this quote and I firmly agree. I like to think there are redeeming qualities in every genre of music and that people who like music probably like all music, in spite of their own preconceptions. From J.S. Bach to the Iggy Pop and John Coltrane to The Unicorns, good music is good music, whatever you want to call it.
Nevertheless, my mother does not like jazz. I always felt that changing her mind was just a matter of introduction. In other words, if I presented her with that perfect record or concert experience, she would change her mind to all jazz. During my undergraduate she came to visit and take in a jazz show with myself and a few of my friends. The concert was Gary Thomas (tenor sax), Paul Bollenback (electric guitar), George Colligan (keyboard), and Terri Lyne Carrington (drums). It was an absolute happening. It was one of those rare performances when every musician on stage was locked in and performing at the peak of their own capability. After the show we stood around the lobby for a while without talking – the show had knocked us flat. When I finally asked what my mother what she thought, her answer was succinct. “Fuck.”
This is not only my favorite concert review of all time, but it was also exactly what I was looking for. The musicians that night reached out to an audience member and changed her mind about an entire genre with their performance. As April is jazz appreciation month I wanted to share with you my list for the top five jazz records for people who don’t like jazz. I hope to share within this list a small sampling of the canonical and the contemporary as a means of making accessible an entire category of sound to an audience that are not entirely comfortable with jazz, or wouldn’t classify themselves as fluent in the genre.
I don’t intend to make this a history or music theory lesson. The point of this list is to share sound for the sake of sound, and not to get tied up in the extra curricular knowledge in and around these records.
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
In my opinion, the intimacy and immediacy of this record are what make it so important and accessible to the listener. The featured personal are: Miles Davis (trumpet) Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly (piano) Paul Chambers (bass) & Jimmy Cobb (drums). Miles Davis champions cool with this album. He did this by slowing down the harmonic motion of his compositions and allowing the musicians the opportunity to focus on note choice and melodic interest.
Bill Evans Trio – Portrait in Jazz
Bill Evans sounds like a coffee shop and I personally have a very treasured routine that includes breakfast and Bill Evans. The trio on this recording consisted of Bill Evans (piano) Scott LaFaro (bass) & Paul Motian (drums) and they perform jazz standards better than anyone. Like the Miles Davis, I believe that this record needs to be on this list because of its accessibility. The simplicity of melodic direction and clarity between the composed and the improvised help to maintain the listeners attention and absorption. Interestingly enough, both Kind of Blue and Portrait in Jazz were released in 1959 only eight months removed from each other.
Happy Apple – Back on Top
I have three words for this record: intelligible, contemporary, and badass. This trio is atypical in that it is composed of David King (drums) Michael Lewis (saxophone) & Erik Fratzke (electric bass). There is nothing polite about how these three play music. There is no such thing as a polite drum or bass accompaniment to facilitate the improvised section. These three drive each other relentless towards creativity and artistry. I imagine this record as a foothold for the potential jazz fan who is coming from the perspective of harder rock and heavier distortion.
Roy Haynes – We Three
Another exemplar trio album, the featured musicians are: Roy Haynes (drums) Phineas Newborn Jr. (piano) Paul Chambers (bass). I recommend this album because it is slightly off the beaten path of the jazz canon and maybe you have been waiting for something other than Miles and Coltrane. This record is also unique because the drummer is the marquee name. In spite of this, there remains an equipoise of importance among the ensemble, and this is really their selling point. This is an ensemble, it is not a collection of soloists. We three is one cast working in harmony to perform music with subtly and discrimination. Give this one the time it deserves; don’t miss it.
Keith Jarrett – The Melody At Night, With You
This one is an absolute gem. It is a solo piano album and it creates its appeal from exposure – exposed melodies as well as exposed harmonies. This bareness is what makes it comprehensible. In addition, the austerity of Jarrett’s playing and his ballad-centric song choice give the performances a highly sentimental appeal. This is an ideal record for a bottle of wine and the company of your affection. Trust me.
Live with these records. Do not listen once and move on. Spend the time to get acquainted with these records intimately. Discover the nuances of their style and sound. Create personal associations with these artists and how they fit within the context of your life. They will not only mean more to you this way, but your listening skill set with expand to include not just what is jazz, but also how to listen (really Listen) and absorb this music.
As always, we love feedback and want to hear from you. If these records have touched you and your library and an indelible way, let us know how. Of course, I have inevitably left out huge chunks of jazz history and if I breezed past your favorite record, feel free to leave a response and recommendation. You dig?
-Words by Dave