Welcome to Jazz Club, our sort-of-but-not-really regular column that expounds one of the greatest – and perhaps most alienating – genres ever. Today we’re going to go back to square one, and talk about some key albums to spin if you’re interested in possibly listening to jazz. Obviously, these are our opinions; if you don’t agree, feel free to send us hate in the comments.
Scott Murphy: So we’ve done three Jazz Clubs thus far, each of which touched upon rather different areas of the genre. While these included some of my favorite jazz subgenres (free jazz, spiritual jazz, avant-garde jazz, etc.), Jimmy suggested we step back for a moment and publish an in-depth Starter Kit for people who want to get into Jazz but aren’t entirely sure which albums and artists to place on the turntable first.
Jimmy Mullett: Yup! And in a few weeks (I think) we’ll be doing one more geared towards metal listeners. Today, though, you all have to suffer through being a regular music fan. Honestly, coming out with this list has been like picking a needle out of a haystack made of needles; there are so many great jazz albums out there, and only so many we can choose.
Scott: Totally agree, and regardless of your genre preferences, I feel as though jazz is one of the core foundations of music you should learn to appreciate at a bare minimum, though I’d advocate for the mad obsession Jimmy and I have.
Jimmy: Definitely agreed with that latter statement. Admittedly, though, jazz can be a little difficult to get into, depending on what you grew up listening to. However, we’re here to act as creepy guides during this. Or just guides. Whatever.
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (1959)
Scott: So for me, the first album I felt was mandatory for our discussion was Miles Davis‘ Kind of Blue. It was the first jazz album that truly grabbed me back in high school, and I’ve listened to it more than any other record in the genre. It strikes a perfect balance between accessibility and depth; multiple layers of brilliant compositions that are also insanely smooth and the epitome of “cool.”
Jimmy: Oh, yeah. The first jazz albums I listened to were Kind of Blue and Headhunters, so even beyond the staggering legacy that Kind of Blue has in the music world, it also has a special little place in my heart. I think what sets the album apart from the rest of the jazz spectrum is the strange middle ground it takes. For those not familiar, Kind of Blue was one of the first modal jazz albums, which allowed for its time a significant amount of improvisation and freedom by the musicians involved.
Scott: And those musicians made for one hell of a lineup.
Jimmy: Seriously, there are some great guys on this album. John Coltrane and Davis, obviously, but Bill Evans does a great job on piano, and Cannonball Adderly is a great sax player as well. The lineup was one of the greatest in jazz history. At the time of recording, essentially every one of them was in their musical prime. Except Coltrane; he could be an exception.
Scott: Yeah, Coltrane kind of had an eternal prime, more or less.
Jimmy: Actually, you’d be surprised; in his early years, he was critically hated. That’s what happens when you’re so damn ahead, I guess…But that’s more reception than being in one’s prime.
Scott: Oh absolutely. As I mentioned in our Jazz Club on Ornette Coleman, people LOATHED what he was doing back in that day. And that included Davis.
Jimmy: Anyway, let’s get into Kind of Blue. I assume your favorite track is the opener, “So What?”
Scott: It’s funny; I didn’t notice until I watched a documentary on the album that the beginning riff is literally saying “so what.” But while that’s a highlight, the track that gets me every time is “Blue in Green.” Davis’ and Evans’ playing is just dripping with emotion, and the composition’s sparse beauty makes me tear up every time (especially when I’ve had wine, which is often).
Jimmy: I was actually going to say that “Blue in Green” is probably my favorite track as well. Miles’ solo in that is just incredible. It’s one of my favorite things to play when I’m practicing. Actually, scratch that: “So What” I think is my favorite. Miles’ “So What” solo basically got me into jazz. Even now, listening to it transports me to 1950s Manhattan, as a taxi just took off onto Fifth Ave. It’s just gorgeous in every way.
Scott: Honestly, the only track I don’t absolutely love is “Freddie Freeloader;” it’s great, but not as amazing as the rest of the album. The jittering piano intro to “All Blues” is another one of my favorite moments, and I love the way that “Flamenco Sketches” mirrors what I adore about “Blues is Green,” while switching it up to give Coltrane a chance to shine.
Jimmy: There’s not much new to say about Kind of Blue that hasn’t already been said. It’s (supposedly) the best-selling jazz album ever, and it pioneered a new breakthrough in sound for jazz at the time (moving away from more strict composition to moderate improvisation). It’s simply a landmark album in every way.
Scott: Agree completely; if I could only give a jazz virgin one album, I’d choose Kind of Blue without hesitation.
Jimmy: Oh yeah, without a doubt. I mean, I think anything by Miles is essential jazz listening, though.
Scott: And the agreement continues.
John Coltrane – Giant Steps (1960)
Scott: Well, since we were already talking about Coltrane, want to move on to him next?
Jimmy: Sounds good. Tough choice, though; classic Coltrane (i.e. pre-free jazz Coltrane) has a lot of great albums.
Scott: I know man…it’s a tough one. What do you think? Blue Train? Giant Steps? My Favorite Things? I love them all.
Jimmy: I mean, those are all fair game. I think that Giant Steps is probably his biggest achievement before he started to branch off.
Scott: Let’s step on in, then.
Jimmy: Giant Steps…I mean, the title says it all, in a way; it’s a huge move forward for bebop, and just jazz in general. And this is actually a good contrast to Kind of Blue; while that album has a looser feel, Giant Steps is all about composition from beginning to end. It’s a difference one can definitely hear. And, “Naima”…my god, what a beautiful song. I think the only ballad I like more than “Naima” is Thelonious Monk‘s “Ruby My Dear,” which is probably my favorite jazz tune ever.
Scott: Along with Kind of Blue, this was one of the many jazz records I snagged from the library back in high school. And while I thought I loved sax before, Coltrane’s playing absolutely blew me away at the time. He still does. I’ve spent a lot more time with Coltrane’s later work, but Giant Steps first grabbed my attention and proved why his discography is an essential one to explore.
Jimmy: Yeah, when it comes to sheer skill, you can’t beat John Coltrane. We’re talking about a man who would spend almost all his waking time practicing. He’d go through packs upon packs of reeds just to find the right one for what he wanted to do. What’s interesting about Giant Steps in particular, as opposed to Coltrane’s other early work, though, is his use of what is now called “sheets of sound:” strings of arpeggios played incredibly fast as to create a solid form of sound, hence the name.
Scott: The speed of the record was another big draw for me. One of my favorite styles of jazz drumming is the quick shuffle that relies heavily on the ride. Before Giant Steps, I’d really only heard easy listening and jazz standards from Frank Sinatra and the like, so to hear such upbeat, direct and infectious jazz was invigorating for me.
Jimmy: The speed was something that surprised people back in Coltrane’s days as well. Even though bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were years before Coltrane, Giant Steps still blew minds, especially in a scene that at the time was gravitating more towards Cool and West Coast jazz.
Duke Ellington – Ellington at Newport (1956)
Scott: Where to next, James?
Jimmy: Well, Scottford, I was thinking of something a little different, but still incredibly essential to the jazz world: Duke Ellington’s Ellington At Newport. I know you haven’t listened to this, Scott, but it’s a great album.
Scott: Yeah, I’m not as familiar with Duke, except for his collaborative record with Coltrane, which is fantastic. His opening piano riff on that album is spectacular.
Jimmy: Duke is worth checking out, no matter where you are in jazz; he took the traditional big band sound, which had gotten pretty stagnant, and essentially turned it on its head with intelligent composition.
Scott: I was going to say, I love what I’m hearing from Ellington at Newport so far; it sounds like an upgraded version of big band music. I’ve always loved jazz clarinet so much because it reminds me of my favorite Pixar movies from when I was kid.
Jimmy: Yup. Duke experimented a lot with his work, though perhaps not to the point that other musicians in the future like Coleman and Coltrane and Davis took it. I think that Ellington and a lot of big band music gets overlooked, honestly; it seems like we tend to think of jazz as something that either a small group plays or a large group with a singer plays, when it can actually be a combination of the two. Swing and big band music definitely wasn’t much of a genre in terms of experimentation (considering that Duke was basically the king of that at the time), but it’s an important time in jazz music that deserves a little more attention.
Scott: I’m definitely guilty of overlooking this era of jazz, and you’re right about it deserving more attention than it gets. I’m not sure why I’ve overlooked it…maybe because it’s not covered as much elsewhere?
Jimmy: I think it’s because big band carries a little bit of a stigma to it. We don’t really think of big bands usually doing anything beyond supporting Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. And, it’s true to a point; swing was really the first commercialized jazz form ever, so it quickly became oversaturated with a lot of platitudinous musicianship. Of course, though, there are exceptions, even beyond Duke. Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller weren’t as incredible as Ellington, sure, but they still managed to do great things with a format that was even in its time pretty stale.
Scott: That’s definitely a fair summation. My introduction to Jazz in general was through my grandfather and mom, who had a bunch of Sinatra records and some stuff from Louis Armstrong. So once I grew up and got into more “high-class” and “critic endorsed” jazz, I looked down on the early stuff I’d heard as lame and old-fashioned. It was an unfair assessment, for sure.
Jimmy: I mean, to a point. As much as I love Sinatra (and Armstrong, for that matter), you have to admit that they’re very much one-trick ponies.
Scott: That’s true, but it’s still important, especially in a formative sense for me personally. Being exposed to Sinatra at an early age paved my way into the genre, allowing me to build up my palette to be able to listen to and enjoy obnoxious, free-wheeling avant-garde jazz.
Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil (1966)
Scott: I think we should wrap this up with one more; what do you think?
Jimmy: One more sounds just right. And what better to end than an often-overlooked gem, Wayne Shorter‘s Speak No Evil?
Scott: I can certainly get behind that pick.
Jimmy: It’s probably worth saying here that we’ve mostly talked about the various forms of bop. While Kind of Blue (and technically Speak No Evil) have a lot of modal elements, they have very obvious roots in bop music. Now, there’s obviously a lot more, but bop is a good go-to if you’re just starting out; it was arguably the most important movement in jazz, and probably the most critically lauded. Again, though, it’s not the only thing out there; we’ll list some albums on the bottom of this page if you’re completely sick of everything to do with bop.
Scott: I remember you picking this up at Bull Moose WAY back in the day, but I never listened to it when you lent it to me because my jazz phase had kind of waned at that point, unfortunately. But when I finally listened to it recently, I kicked myself for not spinning it sooner. An introduction like “With Hunt” should easily convert even the most ardent of jazz detractors.
Jimmy: There is something magical about “Witch Hunt,” pun not intended. I was initially turned off a little by the simplicity of its main riff (which, if you play it on trumpet, consists of an annoying amount of open notes), but I quickly found it to be just…awesome. I personally like “Wildflower” and “Infant Eyes” more, but, really, there isn’t a bad track here.
Scott: Similar to Kind of Blue, this album has a bit of star studded lineup, with Shorter enlisting both Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard for the album’s sessions.
Jimmy: It’s funny how much those three collaborated, but I love it. Although I enjoy Miles Davis much more, I love Freddie Hubbard’s style and tone.
Scott: A lot of Hancock’s playing on the record gets me nostalgic about Maiden Voyage, which was one of the very first jazz records I bought.
Jimmy: I say this album is underrated which isn’t exactly true; it’s been very critically acclaimed, and Wayne Shorter is still considered one of the best sax players ever. But when you’re in a scene that has musicians like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis, you can definitely be a little overlooked.
Scott: I see where you’re coming from. This may not be one of the first albums people mention when asked to list jazz classics, but once you mention it, anyone into the genre will immediately agree and provide their endorsement.
Jimmy: Exactly! Shorter is a musician worth paying attention to, though. He may not be the most well known of the jazz pantheon, but he’s played an important role in it, though probably more during the jazz fusion movement, where he contributed to Miles Davis’s electric era (including the seminal Bitches Brew) and later started the fusion band Weather Report, now considered one of the most important fusion groups ever.
Jimmy: Well, I think that finishes things up. You have anything else to add, Smurphy Brown?
Scott: I think we’ve covered quite a bit of important ground, J2. I’m glad we finally sat down and laid out the foundational context for the genre we both love. Hopefully this will help people dive into a prolific and complex genre. And as promised, we’ve listed some additional suggestions below, along with an accompanying Spotify playlist:
- Sarah Vaughan – Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown
- John Coltrane – Blue Train / My Favorite Things
- Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um
- Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus
- Thelonious Monk – Thelonious Monk Trio
- Bill Evans Trio – Moon Beams
- Cannonball Adderly – Somethin’ Else
- Miles Davis – Birth of the Cool / Milestones
- Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook / Ella and Louis
- Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage / Empyrean Isles
- Dave Brubeck – Time Out
- Dexter Gordon – Go! / Our Man in Paris
- Dizzy Gillespie & Charlie Parker – Bird and Diz
- Freddie Hubbard – Ready For Freddie / Open Sesame
- Hank Mobley – Soul Station
- Wayne Shorter – Wayning Moments / The Soothsayer