The Best Jazz Ever Released Digitally
OK… so you want to have some really cool jazz in your CD collection, but don't have a lot of dough. This could be the answer to all your beboppin' prayers. A list of twenty CDs that cover the highlights of jazz history. Also included are a few notes on what to say when you pull them off the shelf.
1) Louis Armstrong, Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, 1926-28 (Columbia)
Armstrong is probably the single most important figure in jazz history because he popularised the concept of improvised music. His nickname was Satchmo and he rose to fame in New Orleans playing what is now often referred to as 'trad jazz'. Best known as a trumpeter, he played cornet in his early years. These recordings are very old, but digital remastering makes them sound a lot better. Some budget-priced CDs are available that sound terrific and have most of the important recordings.
2) Count Basie, The Best of Early Basie, 1936-39 (Decca)
3) Duke Ellington, The Blanton Webster Band, 1939-42 (RCA Bluebird)
Basie and Ellington, both piano players, were the royalty of the swing era - leading large orchestras and composing/arranging much of their own music. White artists recording at the time (race was an issue) generally couldn't hold a candle to them, although Benny Goodman wasn't far off the mark. Basie's band hailed out of Kansas City and his early Decca recordings are the ones to have. Ellington had a long and illustrious career, but critics generally agree that the 1939-42 Blanton-Webster recordings - so named for key members of the orchestra - represent the creative peak of his career. It is hard to find budget-friendly Ellington CDs that specifically focus on the era, but the link above usually yields some passable results.
4) Charlie Parker, Savoy & Dial Studio Sessions, 1944-48 (Savoy/Dial)
Alto saxophonist Parker was the key figure in bebop… a style generally featuring small groups that played improvised jazz at a relatively fast pace. His best recordings were made from 1944-48 for the Savoy and Dial labels, after which he mainly recorded for Verve. Parker was a heroin addict and a tragic figure, with the doctor attending his death estimating his age at 65 when he was only 34! The 'Best of' is a nicely packaged CD and an excellent choice for those after the earlier stuff when he was really smokin'.
5) Mulligan/Baker, The Best of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker,
1952-53 (Pacific Jazz/Capitol)
6) Dave Brubeck, Time Out, 1959 (Columbia)
'West Coast cool' jazz is typified by its laidback style, with many contemporary critics saying that it lacked emotion. Regardless, it was very popular in its day and still attracts significant attention from modern listeners. Like so many jazz artists of the time, Mulligan and Baker were involved in hard drugs. Drugs were most likely the root of the problem when trumpeter Baker got his face bashed in and lost his matinee idol good looks, eventually dying in suspicious circumstances in 1988. Pianist Brubeck caused a stir in the jazz world because of his white middle-class origins and fascination with classical music. The song 'Take Five' penned by band member Paul Desmond was a huge hit and is a recognised jazz classic.
7) Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, 1959 (Columbia)
8) John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, 1964 (Impulse!)
The top two jazz albums of all time by a country mile. Trumpeter Davis is credited with leading several recordings that quite literally changed the course of jazz history. Kind of Blue is the most famous and the pinnacle of the 'modal jazz' concept in which songs are built on chords and scales rather than the key they are in. Musicians were unable to play along with the original LP because some tracks were recorded off-key. Digital remastering has corrected the faults and the record is now virtually flawless. Saxophonist Coltrane plays on the record, but was later sacked from the band because of his drug problems. Love Supreme is regarded as the crowning achievement in his journey to personal redemption. It is a sometimes turbulent record that may challenge the melodic sensitivities of some modern listeners.
9) Art Blakey, Moanin', 1958 (Blue Note)
'Hard bop' records are exceptionally hip again and digital remastering makes them sound fresh as a daisy. Alfred Lion's Blue Note label dominated the jazz scene for years and is still influential. Blakey was a drumming bandleader who gave birth to hard bop when he slowed the bebop pace and added a bit of sleazy sophistication to the mix.
10) Various Artists, Cole Porter Songbook - Night and Day, 1990 (Verve)
Somewhere in your collection you are going to need some singers and you can never really tell who is going to like what. This one is a virtual honour roll… with Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and many more. A nicely packaged record with liner notes absolutely stuffed with fascinating trivia and a picture of Cole Porter looking very suave.
11) Sun Ra & His Arkestra, Jazz in Silhouette, 1958 (Evidence)
Everyone needs something basically off-the-wall in their collection to highlight their eclectic individualism. Sun Ra claimed he was born on Saturn, wore outrageously mystical clothing and his music sounds like it was recorded in a garage. That said, this is a great progressive bop record and, in the absence of psychedelic drugs, it is difficult to listen to any music he made afterwards without an element of discomfort.
12) Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um, 1959 (Columbia)
Perhaps the premier bass player in jazz, in the liner notes to one of Mingus' records he actually talks about his psychiatric problems. Regardless, this is a great record featuring an eclectic mix of jazz styles and has to be heard to be truly appreciated. In addition, Mingus' legacy lives on… there is a noted big band around that is devoted entirely to playing modern arrangements of his music. Be forewarned though, it is a listening record and not something to casually toss on as background music.
13) Jimmy Smith, Back at the Chicken Shack, 1960 (Blue Note)
Although most associate soul jazz with the Hammond organ, in reality there are lots of fine records that fit the category - such as guitarist Grant Green's Idle Moments (1963) and tenor Ben Webster's Soulville (1957) which probably started it all. That said, Jimmy Smith is certainly the greatest hero of the Hammond and this was a very popular record in its day.
14) Ornette Coleman, Free Jazz, 1960 (Atlantic)
Basically the record features two quartets playing improvised music into different stereo channels. Quite inventive, but you really have to be in the right mood to listen to it. Coleman is the alto saxophonist credited with defining the free jazz style.
15) Stan Getz & João Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto, 1963 (Verve)
This record was a café hit in the mid-60s and it features a couple of Brazil's finest bossa novans. It's hard to go past 'Girl From Ipanema' as the top Latin jazz song of all time and Stan Getz had one of the coolest tenors around. The song was originally penned as 'Boy From Ipanema', which may risk putting a damper on any heterosexual proceedings, even though it is a wonderful piece of trivia.
16) Miles Davis, Bitches Brew, 1969 (Columbia) [2CDs]
By using electric instruments Davis set the purists howling, but a major jazz artist was going to do it sooner or later. Davis took the bull by the horns as well as the electric guitars. The music is turbulent and the musicians featured represent a virtual honour roll of the future of jazz.
17) Keith Jarrett, The Koln Concert, 1975 (ECM)
18) Wynton Marsalis, Black Codes (From the Underground), 1985 (Columbia)
Jazz took some very different turns from the 1970s onwards. There was a lot of really bad music made, too many recycled ideas, and only a few things worthy of note. Keith Jarrett is a fine pianist who is still pumping out brilliant records, despite his battles with chronic fatigue. Köln Concert is one long extended performance consisting of improvised piano solos. Wynton Marsalis is the trumpeter who led the 'Young Lions' movement of the 1980s that steered jazz back towards its acoustic roots. Black Codes is his finest and, by far, least pretentious record.
19) Haden & Metheny, Beyond the Missouri Sky, 1996 (Verve)
20) Diana Krall, Love Scenes, 1997 (Impulse!)
It is hard to say which modern jazz records will withstand the test of time. One suspects these two will be around for a while. Missouri Sky is one of the most intimate jazz guitar albums ever made, with veteran bassist Charlie Haden typical of the old freeform stagers who are beginning to mellow. Diana Krall is probably the best singer/pianist in jazz today. Love Scenes was a big hit and features a terrific jazz trio. Other artists still recording and worth checking out include Brad Mehldau, Dave Holland, Wayne Shorter and Joshua Redman.
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