Let me preface this column by saying I recommend listening to any jazz. Like any form of music though, understand that there is good jazz and there is bad jazz. Jazz is also one of the hardest music genres to delve into, being that there is now nearly a century’s worth of the music recorded. As time has gone on though, what remains as so called “classic” jazz albums are generally just that, and deserve to be listened to. There are three albums that I would recommend as a jumping off point if you are interested in familiarizing yourself with this beautiful, uniquely American, long standing musical tradition.
The first album is Moanin’ by Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, recorded in 1958. The personnel are: Art Blakey on drums, Benny Golson on tenor sax, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Bobby Timmons on piano, and Jymie Merritt on bass.
Moanin’ (along with many other masterpieces that Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers have produced) is full of great material. Mostly written Golson, the saxophonist, it truly defines the hard bop subcategory of jazz that dominated the late ’50s and early ’60s. As with most line-ups that would form the ever changing group that was the “Jazz Messengers,” Blakey did a phenomenal job choosing this roster. All are masters of their instruments, accomplished composers, and improvisers. Blakey would go down in history for starting a career as a giant-to-be in the jazz world. To name a few in the “Jazz Messengers” alumni: Wynton Kelly, Horace Silver, Keith Jarrett, Benny Green, Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis (of the amazing Marsalis family of musicians), Hank Mobley, Terence Blanchard, Clifford Brown, Wynton Marsalis (brother of Branford), Kenny Dorham, Curtis Fuller, and the list goes on. I would highly recommend checking out any of these artists as well, many considered to be innovators and masters of the like. Moanin’ would go down in history as being one of the most influential and classic jazz recordings of all time. I think out of the three, this album may be the least accessible, but it certainly has the most swing and groove to it. Give it a listen.
The second album is Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis, recorded in 1959. The personnel are: Davis on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
Yes. That’s right. Putting Kind Of Blue on this list is sort of like putting Jimi Hendrix at the top of a Greatest Guitarist list. It’s predictable, obvious and sort of tired. But I can’t stress this enough: if you havent heard this record, listen to it. This is the jazz album. There is a reason that it went 4x platinum in the United States, is ranked #12 on Rolling Stone’s ‘500 Greatest Albums of All Time’, has received too many other awards and recognition to name, and rave reviews from a diverse audience of critics. I think what really makes Kind Of Blue spectacular is that it was a snapshot of time. At the time of its release, it was the amalgamation of all jazz music that had come before it and yet was new and fresh. It is certainly very approachable to any average listener, yet die-hard jazz fans and musicians dissect it tirelessly. To quote the drummer on the record, Jimmy Cobb, who was asked to reflect on the album, he simply said: “It must have been made in heaven.” It’s influence is still being felt today. It changed jazz music the way Louis Armstrong did back in the ’20s. Nobody had heard music like this, and that’s how they were going to try and play it from then on. Davis was already sort of known for going against the grain musically at this point in time. When everybody was playing be-bop hard and fast, he was playing ballads and relaxing the music. He is a quintessential figure in what is known as the “cool-school” of jazz. It’s cool, it swings, and it’s breathtaking. Check it out. The third and final album on the list is The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery by Wes Montgomery recorded in 1960. The personnel are: Wes Montgomery on guitar, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Albert Heath on drums.
This was the first record that really got me into jazz, especially because I’m a guitar player. It’s only now after I’ve really been listening and studying the music that I realize how amazing the playing on it really is. I highly recommend this record to anyone, but in particular guitar players. I know there are a lot of you out there. Montgomery has a way of phrasing and injecting the blues into his playing that would catch anybody’s ears. The songs consist of a mix of originals (some of which would become his signature tunes i.e. “Four on Six” and “West Coast Blues”) and standards. Two thirds of the rhythm section makes up two thirds of the Heath brothers (the only one missing is Jimmy Heath, a tenor saxophone player) who all had successful careers playing jazz music. In fact they played with some of the best who ever lived (Davis, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie). Montgomery was the standard for jazz guitar playing at this time. He set the bar for guitar as a lead/solo instrument in the genre. It really is “Incredible Jazz Guitar”.
All of the records I have mentioned are available at the VIU library. This is a very small fragment of all the jazz that is out there. As I mentioned at the start of this article, I urge you just to dip your toe into the music. You’ll be amazed at what you find. The albums I have recommended are sort of what you would describe as “straight up the middle” jazz, very basic, archetypical jazz. If that is not your thing, look into other forms of jazz. Jazz music has so many sub-category’s and has been fused with essentially every other genre that has also spurred some amazing music. If you actually looked at the history of the music, I think you’d be hard pressed to find something you didn’t like.