Having shared in Part 1 a few of my favorite jazz albums from the bebop and post-bop period, I would like to share these selections that cover big band jazz and also albums that span the mid-’60’s through the 21st century.
To the Limits of Orchestral and Big Band:
1. Thelonious Monk Big Band and Quartet in Concert (1963, Columbia)
This is a double CD recording of Thelonious Monk with an outstanding band performing live at Philharmonic Hall in New York. Monk performs adroitly for what sounds like a packed house, and Butch Warren’s bass sounds golden. Drummer Frank Dunlop has some really crisp and rhythmically coordinated solos on the album, and the brass and reed soloists including Thad Jones and Steve Lacy are in superb form. One of my favorite cuts is Monk’s solo piano rendition of a song I’d never heard before or since, “When it’s Darkness on the Delta.” It is five minutes of good humor, philosophy and storytelling all delivered solely through the medium of black and white keys. For some it might be a stagey, inaccessible album; I think of it as a high-water mark in the history of the music.
2. Charlie Parker with Strings: The Master Takes (Recorded 1949-1952, Verve)
These recordings are a treasure trove— a double album’s worth of legendary alto saxophonist and composer Charlie “Bird” Parker improvising and soloing with full symphonic support and the great Buddy Rich on drums. The sound of the harp creates an almost heavenly feel to the proceedings, and the material is almost exclusively pop songs and show tunes performed with Bird’s sense of aplomb and inventive faculties in full effect.
3. April in Paris (1956, Verve) – Count Basie and His Orchestra
While I don’t have deep experience with Basie’s impressive discography, this album has all the punch and sophistication one could ask for in big band jazz. One of the subtle delights is Freddie Green’s acoustic guitar giving the music a wonderful pulse (joonk-joonk-joonk), and the horn players can really rip with precision. Basie sounds right at home on piano, and the album is a classic that evokes a bygone era of vibrant music.
4. Focus (1961, Verve) – Stan Getz / Arrangements by Eddie Sauter
A year before his famous excursions in Brazilian jazz, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz recorded this album with a group of string musicians. Getz plays solos on this album like a man with wings, gliding and swooping as the violins and cellos bow and pluck in perfect coordination behind him. The opener “I’m Late, I’m Late” riffs on Alice in Wonderland’s elusive rabbit, and Getz imbues the music with grace and grit while the outstanding Roy Hanes drums like some kind of harmonizing sharpshooter. Building on the groundwork of Charlie Parker with Strings, this impressive album is almost cinematic in its sound and design—listening to it is the musical equivalent of watching a great Kurosawa or Hitchcock film.
5. Peter and the Wolf (1966, Verve) – Jimmy Smith / Orchestra Conducted and Arranged by Oliver Nelson
This is Prokofiev’s classic symphony with no narration but plenty of inspiration and improvisation added by Nelson and Smith. Jimmy’s Hammond organ, the electric guitar, and the bass of Richard Davis all bring a classic rhythm and blues quality to these proceedings. Smith really revs up the engine on some blues-drenched solos, especially on “Peter’s Theme.” The whole album is a knowledgeable tribute and a genuine adventure in musical cross-pollination.
6. Movin’ Wes (1964, Verve) – Wes Montgomery
This album pairs the great guitar octavist (in my enthusiasm I’m coining words now) Montgomery with a full orchestra with arrangements by Johnny Pate. Wes’s guitar hums and sings on every tune, and the album is heavy on pop tunes and latin-flavored tracks. My favorite of the bunch is Wes’s philosophical take on the Streisand associated song “People.” Bobby Scott provides thoughtful accompaniment on piano, and the brass really gets it going on quite a few tracks. The album manages to be both fun and accessible as well as distinctly true to the musical instincts of the one and only Wes.
7. Change of Scenes (1971, Verve) – Stan Getz & The Boland-Clarke Big Band
Ten years after the amazing Focus recording, Getz teamed up to make an avante-garde big band recording with Francy Boland and Kenny Clarke’s gifted group. You read that correctly: avant-garde big band recording. This album is not for the faint of heart. It’s not a noisy, cacophonous wall of sound kind of thing, but rather a very strategic blend of melodies, moods, and dissonant sound sections. Basses are acoustic and electric. Reeds include oboes and soprano saxes. Boland wrote all six tunes—and they’re brilliant! Getz solos bravely and confidently in this strange world. Exciting and off the beaten path.
8. The Firebird: Jazz Meets the Symphony #3 (1995, Aleph) – Lalo Schifrin
For an adventurous but well-constructed fusion of classical music with jazz, look no further. Lalo Schifrin, jazz pianist and composer extraordinaire provides a remarkable musical integration that brings together such selections as Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” with Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” Jon Faddis’s trumpet sounds great in the service of Schifrin’s charts and adapted tunes. “Vignettes of Fats Waller” has lots of pomp and presentation to it, and the gifted saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera performs magnificently on the album’s extended finale “The Firebird,” which pairs Stravinsky’s work with the music of Charlie Parker. a very complete and robust set of musical portraits.
9. Concerto Grosso in D Blues (1968, Atlantic) – Herbie Mann
This album journeys through aspects of jazz from the traditional to the avante-garde but with a chamber music feel that in no way diminishes the passion and intensity of the themes. The title track is a full 28 minutes long, and features melodic opening and closing sections that bookend the “outside” yet contemplative middle section that features Sonny Sharrock’s electric guitar solo. Herbie’s flute solo on “My Little Ones” is full of improvisational fire. Also, along with Ron Carter’s resonant bass, the great Roy Ayers is featured on vibraphones in this genuinely accomplished recording.
10. Consummation (1970, Blue Note) – The Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra
Thad Jones is a richly creative trumpet/flugelhorn/cornet player who also happens to be one of Jazz’s greatest field generals in the art of big band arrangement. He and his drummer co-leader Mel Lewis are a superb team, especially with the buoyant support of pianist Sir Roland Hanna. This music has a blend of funkiness (apropos of the time), whimsy, and at times a strong sense of tradition and ceremony. “A Child is Born” is a landmark ballad and a highlight in Thad Jones’s career as a composer (as is the entire album—he wrote every single composition).
11. Close-up in Swing & A New Kind of Love (1961 & 1963) – Erroll Garner
I couldn’t resist the inclusion of this 2-for-1 CD released by Telarc Jazz in 1997. The ’61 session Close-up in Swing is a very delightful trio recording, but the music with Garner and orchestral support on A New Kind of Love is an outstanding work of big band jazz that expertly realizes this romantic soundtrack. The subject was the Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward film of the same name for which Garner composed most of this music. A New Kind of Love is an album that sneaks up on you—it is simply rapturous in its evocation and painting of nights on the town and lovers strolling in the park. I’ve never seen the film, but this music is worth more than the proverbial thousand words. The 5’4’’ Erroll Garner was a giant in the annals of jazz music, and in this pair of recordings, that fact is fully on display.
Beyond the Conventions of Post-Bop
12. Sonny Rollins On Impulse! (1965, Impulse)
What a great supporting group to back the masterful Sonny Rollins on this album. Nobody in this rhythm section is phoning it in. Ray Bryant plays some gorgeous piano, and Walter Booker plays a stunningly sensitive bass solo on the extended take of “Everything Happens to Me.” The opener “On Green Dolphin Street” has a probing, almost harrowing intro with Sonny’s horn saying, “Wake up! This isn’t your standard jazz album, folks.” Mickey Roker uses brushes and cymbals with such poise and provides the punctuating thwacks right where they’re called for. All this and there’s a calypso! Fifty years after it was recorded, this album still sounds as innovative and persuasive as ever.
13. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! (1966, Capitol) – the Cannonball Adderley Quintet
Josef Zawinul’s title track broke through with some radio airplay and brought Cannonball fame beyond just the jazz audience. Nat Adderley’s “Games” is a particularly driving tune, on which Nat’s cornet is full of power and swing. All of the material is original and penned by group members. Cannon’s alto saxophone and the performances serve as a bridge of soul music and jazz with vibrant results.
14. Light as a Feather (1972, Polydor/Verve) – Chick Corea & Return to Forever
This much-revered album is a thorough illustration of all the places that jazz can go. Corea’s electric piano is a repository of joy and virtuosity, and the vocals of Flora Purim are a superb complement to the instrumental skill on display. One of my favorite elements of the album is Joe Farrell’s flute, which really helps to make the track “Spain” the monumental work that it is—along with the superior bass performance of Stanley Clarke.
15. Miles Smiles (1967, Columbia) – The Miles Davis Quintet
This is a modern jazz super-group performing at peak creativity. Tony Williams is about 21 years old and sounds like a masterful veteran on drums. Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter all contribute to an interplay along with Miles that fulfills the cliché “more than the sum of its parts.” This album introduced Shorter’s classic “Footprints,” and the rendition of “Freedom Jazz Dance” ripples with attitude and insight. Not always easily accessible, but it is vivid, transcendent music.
16. Heavy Weather (1977, Columbia) – Weather Report
There was no way that this album wouldn’t make my list. It’s hard to listen to “Birdland” without feeling great happiness, and it’s difficult to listen to “A Remark You Made” without wondering if it is the closest approximation to heavenly beauty that is available in musical form. Jaco Pastorius plays electric base like an avatar from the Platonic realm of forms on “Teen Town,” and Zawinul’s keyboards sound like science fiction and magic. Drummers Acuna and Badrena provide crisp textures and propulsion. Wayne Shorter’s “Harlequin” is attractively surprising, and his “Palladium” shines like a funky new element. An unassailable and enduring classic.
17. Changes One (1975, Rhino) – Charles Mingus
This album, along with its sibling recording Changes Two, showed how much acoustic jazz still had to offer well into the era of electronics and r&b music. Bassist and composer Mingus had the personality and musical genius of an angry titan, and all of his seriousness, provocation, and depth come through here. Piano player Don Pullen is particularly important in his role as a rich melodist and a champion in the use of targeted dissonance. The 17-minute “Sue’s Changes” (titled in honor of Mingus’s wife) is an adventure in jazz—swinging, snappy, chaotic, and moving, each in different sections. Georgie Adams is the tenor saxophonist who also sings a raspy vocal on “Devil Blues,” which craftily sends up the new-agey notions of the time with cynical imagery and mocking lyrics. The closer, “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” eschews all tonal harshness and provides one of the most gentle and beautiful jazz lullabies that you will ever hear. This song is a Mingus original that weds melodic elements of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” with Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Lush Life.” Mingus was one of the most intelligent and complicated minds in music history.
18. A Love Supreme (1964, Impulse) – John Coltrane
One of the most spiritual albums of all time, this music has been a guiding light of influence on generations of jazz and rock musicians alike. One section of the album is called “Pursuance,” and this term perfectly captures the sincere and yearning quality to the music. There are very few stylistic tricks or recognizable, jazzy contrivances here. It’s pure music that feels like the voyage of a lifetime. Coltrane, composer of all sections, plays the tenor saxophone, and the rhythm section supports his spiritual transits with perfect empathy and skill.
19. Don’t Ask (1979, Milestone) – Sonny Rollins
This album introduced me to Rollins’s incredible ability to play tenor saxophone along with the astounding guitar mastery of Larry Coryell. The opener “Harlem Boys” is a perfect jazz-funk opus—ready made for dancing and fully equipped to improve one’s spirits. Coryell’s “The File” is a street-smart vehicle for a duet with acoustic guitar and tenor sax. The song “Disco Monk” was apparently an inside joke/throwaway tune. For me, it’s pure platinum complete with tempo changes, varied instrumentation, a monster sax solo, and my favorite electric guitar solo in any genre. The closer “And Then My Love I Found You” is high-powered funk-jazz romanticism. My rejoinder to the album’s title is, “Just listen.”
20. Night Passage (1980, Columbia) – Weather Report
Only Joe Zawinul could blend strange synthesizers and things called “Dream Clock” with Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” and obtain very formidable and coherent results. This Night Passage is a very intimate journey into the heartland of jazz via electronics and cosmic atmospheres. Wayne Shorter’s “Port of Entry” and Zawinul’s “Fast City” have a sense of mystery and action about them that always has me coming back for more. My favorite track here is Jaco Pastorius’s “Three Views of a Secret” (what a great title!)—the tune really builds and comes from different angles, and Shorter lays down a saxophone solo that seems to channel exactly the feeling that Jaco wanted to create. This is a very good recording by a master group of artists.
21. The Pat Metheny Group (1978, ECM)
Pat Metheny is certainly one of the most accomplished and successful musicians in the history of jazz. This album was the beginning of his phenomenal and always expanding career as a leader, and it introduced both his lyrical guitar style and his decidedly moving ability to take his listeners on a journey, song by song. The opener “San Lorenzo” sounds like a radiant and arresting place to visit, and the electric bass of Mark Egan never lets us forget how pretty that instrument can sound. This album is the opposite of avante-garde in a very good and powerfully creative way. The music is folk and country tinged while also having great mini-hooks and riffs, yet it is somehow squarely in the jazz tradition—because jazz’s tradition is to grow and constantly show that creativity and improvisation have limitless places to go.
New frontiers in Music
22. Spaces Revisited (1997, Shanachie) – Larry Coryell
On the original recording Spaces in 1969, Larry Coryell teamed up with the gifted John McGlaughlin for a cosmic-themed guitar summit meeting. Here, Coryell and the drummer from that earlier session, Billy Cobham, reunite and explore new quadrants of the jazz galaxy with guitarist Bireli LaGrene and bassist Richard Bona. The set list is astoundingly well-chosen, featuring Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo,” Bonfa’s “The Morning of the Carnival,” and Thelonious Monk’s gem “Ruby, My Dear” among other notable selections. The instruments sound vibrantly fluid in the hands of these players, and the guitars hum with celestial beauty. This album is quite an effective way to examine the deep spaces of true jazz improvisation.
23. Tango: Zero Hour (Recorded 1986, Nonesuch) – Astor Piazzolla
This masterful recording is the culmination of years of writing and orchestration by Argentinean Tango music genius Astor Piazzolla. It is a revolutionary, jazz-inflected approach to Tango music, and Piazzolla’s group famously enlivens the music with intriguing bits of percussion and sound effects via unorthodox use of the instruments. Piazolla plays the bandoneon, a smaller alternate version of the accordion, and the electric guitar in the group contributes to the modernity of the group’s sound. Piazzolla is the writer of all tracks on the album, and the music is positively electrifying, particularly if one enjoys music that conveys a sense of intense romance and adventure.
24. Earfood (2008, EmArcy/Universal) – The Roy Hargrove Quintet
Opening with a stirring rendition of Cedar Walton’s “I’m Not So Sure,” this album maintains a high level of artistry throughout the proceedings. Hargrove’s trumpet has plenty of beauty and bite to it, and the supporting cast really cooks up some great flavors with him. Immerse yourself in “The Starmaker”—it’s a composition of unwonted beauty. “To Wisdom the Prize” has wonderful shades of Freddie Hubbard, and the final tune blows things out with a Sam Cooke classic.
25, Don’t Follow the Crowd (2011, High Note) – Eric Alexander
Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander and pianist Harold Mabern are a very skilled duo when it comes to melodizing in the jazz context. This album incorporates uncommon items such as the theme from the 1960s movie Charade with Gordon Parks’s somber gem “Don’t Misunderstand.” Mabern’s piano playing is excellent on “Footsteps,” and the tune is reminiscent of some of the soulful, modern craftsmanship of Cannonball Adderley’s superb groups. I once saw Eric perform live at the Philadelphia Art Museum in the early 2000s, and his musical instincts are well-honed. This album is a 21st century illustration of how great acoustic jazz can be.
26. Highway Rider (2010, Nonesuch) – Brad Mehldau
This album by the brilliant pianist Mehldau makes use of a gifted set of string musicians and the very capable tenor saxophone of Joshua Redman to deliver some serious high-concept jazz. It is a double CD that runs the gamut between very listenable, melodic tunes and somewhat more bracing and exploratory sounds at times with an epic soundtrack feel to it. On disc one, “The Falcon Will Fly Again” conveys a sense of hope and revelry as hand-claps and vocal la-la-la’s help to bring the number home. My favorite is “Sky Turning Grey (for Elliott Smith)” in which Mehldau’s piano, Redman’s tenor, and the drummer get to cooking on one of the catchiest melodies I’ve ever come across. This is truly intelligent music that makes a strong statement.
27. Gerald Albright Live at Birdland West (1991, Atlantic)
Mr. Albright has quite a way with the saxophone—both tenor and alto. His performance on the Coltrane tune “Impressions” is very potent and catchy, and the album is an interesting blend of straight-ahead jazz with some touches of r&b, strings and some atmospheric synthesizers on a few of the cuts that work pretty well. The performance of “Georgia on My Mind” is rich in musical passion and bluesy warmth, featuring a captivating organ solo by Patrick Moten and Albright’s balladry on reeds. Patrice Rushen and Joe Sample are also heard to great effect on keyboards on a few of the selections, and Albright’s playing is very confident and listenable.
28. Sci-Fi (2000, Universal/Verve) – Christian McBride
As a fan of both science fiction and great jazz, this album works quite well for me. Philadelphia’s Christian McBride is a superior musician on both the acoustic double bass and the various forms of electric bass. This album provides a stirring look at his interpretations of the music of Sting and Steely Dan while also proffering very catchy originals. Dianne Reeves contributes a distinctive wordless vocal on “Lullaby for a Ladybug,” and Christian’s bass solo and overall performance on Jaco’s tune “Havona” are absolutely breathtaking. To put it in chess terminology, Christian McBride is an international grandmaster of jazz.
29. Road Shows, Vol. 1 (Recorded 1980-2007, Doxy / EmArcy) – Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins is an inspiring artist who embodies respect and appreciation for the music’s pioneering forerunners while he also proceeds boldly according to his own muse. These selections from a period of two and a half decades of Sonny’s work put forth music that is scintillating and magnetic. The classic ballad performances are lilting and accessible. The mid- to up-tempo originals are revelatory. “Best Wishes” is the opener that bursts with enthusiasm and drive, and “Blossom” struts some of Sonny’s best stuff on tenor saxophone with a Latin flavor and superb interplay with the talented Mark Soskin on piano. I consider myself lucky to have this kind of musical document of the Rollins magic during the second half of his great career.
30. Tokyo ‘96 (1998, ECM) – The Keith Jarrett Trio
This outstanding trio recording is also thoroughly accessible. It can be played for the enjoyment of a wide audience because Jarrett does not try to befuddle the listener with virtuosity and technique at the grand piano. The group understands each other, and their takes of these standard tunes make for very rewarding listening. It’s a classic acoustic piano trio that builds on the great tradition of masters such as Bill Evans, Bud Powell, and Tommy Flanagan.
31. Tango & All That Jazz (2005, Kind of Blue)
The Pablo Ziegler Quintet w/ Stefon Harris
The music is spontaneous and yet rich in ceremony—a festival of sound with impeccable precision. 19 years after performing on Tango Zero Hour with Astor Piazzolla, pianist Pablo Ziegler anchors his own group and introduces several brilliant original compositions on this album. Pablo also has a secret weapon in the person of brilliant vibraphonist Stefon Harris as a special guest. On the Piazzolla classic “Michelangelo ’70,” Harris plays my favorite vibraphone solo that I’ve ever heard on a record. The whole affair is expertly conducted, and the passion, reflection, and creativity displayed in this album deliver a superb musical experience.
No list can ever capture all of the greatest music, so I’m simply giving some special and sometimes unfair attention to albums that have captured my interest and moved me. Jazz is a very collaborative and disciplined music, and yet it is also remarkable for its skyways of freedom. In this way it will always be an important part of American culture for me. Jazz is not a superior form of music over others—it is a certain way of doing things musically. This way, this path is always new to me, and I am thankful to all of the musicians such as Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, Cannonball Adderley, and Art Blakey who have served as champions and ambassadors of this art form.
A Few Other Notable Jazz Recordings:
Study in Brown (1955, Emarcy) – The Max Roach / Clifford Brown Quintet
Time Out (1959, Columbia) – The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Ellington At Newport (1956, Columbia) – Duke Ellington and his Orchestra
We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (1961, Candid) – Max Roach with Abbey Lincoln and Coleman Hawkins
Perceptual (1999, Blue Note) – Brian Blade Fellowship
The Dynamic Duo: Jimmy & Wes (1966, Verve) – Wes Montgomery & Jimmy Smith
Wandering Moon (2000, Sony Music Distribution/Columbia) – Terence Blanchard
Destiny is Yours (1989, Steeple Chase) – The Billy Harper Quintet
People Time (1991, Verve) – Kenny Barron and Stan Getz
5 by Monk by 5 (1959, Riverside) – Thelonious Monk with Thad Jones
The Grand Wazoo (1973, Rykodisc) – Frank Zappa
Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (1967, Reprise)
The Individualism of Gil Evans (1965, Verve)