by Richard Southard The River Editor
My very first exposure to jazz came in the form of a Spongebob Squarepants episode, when I was about six years old. In the episode, Patrick informs Spongebob that he should “acquire a taste for freeform jazz”, in which a short sound clip of a composition by Duncan Lamont (which I later learned was titled “Pressure Point”) plays. For years, every time I even heard the word, it was the only sound that came to mind (albeit, it was a good one).
Funny how that episode, along with the writings of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, brought a curiosity to explore the music years later. I am now a fan. What I find interesting is how, when asking others about jazz music, most feelings have been surprisingly indifferent. It’s a different case than genres like country, or metal, where I often find that opinions are a strong like or an even stronger dislike. While it is certainly a genre well-explored by its fans, and highly studied for its history, it seems to be music that is untouched by many avid music lovers.
And that’s a shame, as jazz, like many genres, is home to many diverse styles and ideas. The idea of it only being “smooth” or “soothing” couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a jazz album for just about every situation and mood. Here are a few that I’d recommend checking out (in no particular order), especially if you haven’t listened to much jazz before.
Charles Mingus – Blues and Roots
An absolute essential album, Blues and Roots not only captures a blues sound but extends it. The “swinging”, gospel-inspired tunes come through in tracks such as “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” and “Moanin'”. But as Mingus said himself: “blues can do more than just swing”. And that it does. It shouts, jumps, whispers, and jams, guiding the listener along a soulful and brilliant journey.
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme
Perhaps the most conceptual album on this list, A Love Supreme is widely considered to be Coltrane’s masterpiece. Its four segments are highly distinct, yet connected through their overall improvisational style and changing nature. In the final portion, “Psalm”, Coltrane performs a “musical narration”, reciting a poem he wrote of the same name through his saxophone playing. The result is a section that musically resembles preaching, with loud, flowing notes that reach beyond the other instrumentals. The drums are also fantastic, especially during part three.
Miles Davis – Sketches of Spain
Last week, I raved about another one of Miles Davis’ albums, Bitches’ Brew. Sketches of Spain is another tone of Davis, but by no means less genius. As the title suggests, this album captures a culture, utilizing a variety of percussion instruments and a very free, somewhat formless structure. The first composition, “Concierto de Aranjuez”, takes up almost half the album, but becomes audibly iconic just after the first listen. The melody that leaves and returns throughout the piece is simply marvelous, with an arrangement that sets the Spanish atmosphere on point. And all of that is only the first track. By the start of “Will O’ the Wisp”, the album was already ingrained as one of my favorites.
Wadada Leo Smith & Ed Blackwell – The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer
Unlike some other albums in this post, The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer takes a more raw and minimalistic approach. With the trumpet playing of Wadada Leo Smith and the drumming of Ed Blackwell, this album creates a vast array of arrangements and patterns through just two instruments. Throughout many of the tracks, Blackwell sets a form of foundation while Smith creates passionate, improvised trumpet segments. Inspired by different flavors of African music, Blackwell also plays numerous solos and interludes that will make your heart race.
Duke Ellington & John Coltrane – Duke Ellington & John Coltrane
A Love Supreme shows the amazing talent of John Coltrane, and Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer shows what can happen when two musical masters collaborate. So, there isn’t much mystery as to how this album is excellent. Duke Ellington’s piano playing is at its finest here, and Coltrane’s saxophone is a perfect pairing. The drums, with a more laid-back nature, make a quiet background to the musical conversations that the two make. While I made a comment earlier that not all jazz needs to be smooth, this album no doubt is. “In a Sentimental Mood” is the starting track for the album, and “My Little Brown Book” has one of the most memorable piano melodies I’ve heard to this date.
If jazz hasn’t yet made a hit in your music collection yet, then by all means, do give one of these a try. While I am by no means giving all the essentials, any one of them would be a great place to start. Whether you’re in the car driving to or from work, studying for a big exam, running a marathon, or just sitting by a fire enjoying a tea (or coffee, whatever your fancy is), they’re all an experience to listen to.