Lucky for me, my love for jazz is often awakened because, well, I'm blessed with such a dope family of musicians. My aunt and uncle are both accomplished jazz heads. My uncle somewhat reluctantly, at times--referring to his style of composition as "death jazz." Because musicians rarely walk alone, an already vast family musicians is always followed by friends of a family of musicians. Sometimes reunions, weddings or weekend jams can turn into entire symphonies of kazooists, bassists, saxaphonists, pianists, drummers and an accordion for good measure.
I guess Mingus was my first love. When I was a kid, my aunt gave me a copy of Mingus' Epitaph on double-cassette. It was a super-heady symphonic composition and noisy as hell. I couldn't make any sense of the recording. I was only ten years old. The music confused me, pissed me off. I was thinking, "Man, if this is jazz. I'll take my Run DMC." My aunt really never made much of it. It was one of her students, Edward, that said something that would stick for me for the rest of my life. One day, Edward noticed the Mingus double-cassette I owned and, giving me a way too much cool-credit, asked, "Man, you like Mingus?!"
"Nah, not really. My aunt gave it to me."
"Eh, you will one day."
At the time, I really didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I couldn't listen to it at all. Not only that, but no one my age listened to jazz.
I'd find that, whaddya know, Edward was right.
By high school, I had begun finding players that I liked. By college, I was full blown. Over time, I would be able to name players out of an ensemble of some ten or fifteen players. I started calling certain records "the Abbey Road of jazz." I despised Charlie Parker just to piss off the greying purists. I named percussionists like Tony Williams and Max Roach to raise eyebrows in conversations. I laughed at pretentious assholes who evoke that silly beatnik idiocy--talking about the genius of Cecil Taylor. I listened to jazz because I was different not because I aspired to be. There's a difference.
All that said and done, here are my top ten jazz records. They're probably not all considered the popular favorites although I know a couple certainly might meet the requirements. It's funny. I actually went and read reviews of the titles I selected for this post and found some rather scathing remarks by a few reputable critics regarding some of the recordings contained herein. That's many's frustrations with jazz--sometimes the most listenable recordings are absolute critical failures while other albums that can hardly qualify as music are reverred as "classic."
I just know that these ten records are my favorite. You don't like 'em, get your own damn blog and write about records that no one cares about.
Jimmy Smith's Root Down (***) What can I say, it's where I took my name. This incredible Jimmy Smith recording finds one the illest Hammond player in jazz/rhythm and blues history scorching the set with the slammin' title track as well as an insane version of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." It captures Jimmy Smith as he's nears anominity until, of course, the Beasties would cleverly sample "Root Down" for their song by the same name off of Ill Communication. Says the jazz guide, "Unpromising as it might look, this is actually a terrific Smith date, and a rare example of Smith's idiom in successful transition." Dude's got an obsession with the word "idiom."
Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters (****) Head Hunters was my first in many regards. It was my first funk record. It was my first Hancock record. It was the first time I would learn about long-play funk tracks--three of the four songs topping almost ten minutes in duration. It would mark the first time I'd rewind a track because I heard a LL Cool J sample ("Watermelon Man"). Head Hunters is a paramount record. Anyone wanting to get into funk, I would start here. James Brown next. Says the jazz guide, "Miles legetimized a view of black musical history that made room for Sly Stone and James Brown, as well as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Head Hunters--and yes, it is two words at this stage (Editor's Note: "Man, whatta prick.") --was a direct result, an infectiously funky and thoroughly joyous record."
Thad Jones's Fabulous Thad Jones (***) Hailing from the Basie School of Jazz, Thad Jones is one of those cats that heads just don't acknowledge enough. He really hit stride at the same time that some dude named Miles started packing concert halls and playing the blues. Thad's natural abilities save many of his recordings from every sounding forced. He's like the Billy Gibbon's of jazz--just pick up that horn and do yo thing, homie. This recording features, among others, the great Mingus, Max Roach and brother Hank Jones. Says the jazz guide, "The sessions for Mingus's and Roach's Debut Label are very good indeed."
Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come (****) Only really cocky muddahs name an album The Shape of ________ to Come. I mean, you gotta have cohones the size of Dallas to name a record that. Luckily for us, Ornette did have cohones (musically) the size of Dallas and, coincidentally, he hailed from Fort Worth. I would never suggest that an Ornette Coleman record is for anyone looking to get into jazz because, let's face it, he falls closer to the pretentious end of the spectrum than tradition. What you have with The Shape, is a trailblazing record that, over the course of one listen, pushes and bends the boundaries of jazz probably more than they ever had been up to 1960 by one single recording. Says the jazz guide, "Difficult--perhaps impossible--to reconstruct the impact of these records had [Ornette's first eight records--the first of which is The Shape] when they first appeared or the frustration that some of the players understandably evinced in trying to get to grips with Coleman's ideas. Bassist Jimmy Garrison is said to have lost his temper on the stand one night, baffled by playing off-notes rather than chords, increasingly convinced that the whole thing was a scam."
Charles Mingus's Mingus at Carnegie Hall (***) One of my very favorite live jazz records, Mingus's Carnegie performance is not perfect, but it represents, to a certain extent, and older but still fiery Mingus passing the torch to a score of young players (including the prominently featured Gillespie student, Jon Faddis). Charles, as band leader, is much like a circus master--yelling at players or simply just hollering--sometimes singing joyfully as he grunts through basslines. Here, with a standard C blues and "Perdido" playing host to, essentially, a series of solos, Mingus and friends absolutely tear Carnegie down. Highlighted by the soloing of Rahsaan Roland Kirk who's solos are so bad they're just rude. They're just indignant. Says the jazz guide, "To be frank, there are better Mingus albums and even the more chaotic live appearances delivered more compelling music than anything here." Geez. Thanks, asshole.
Ron Carter's Blues Farm (***) As a bassist and hailing from a family filled with bass players, I was always surprised that bassist Ron Carter didn't come up more in conversations between players. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard my father, aunt or uncle speak of Ron Carter at all. Nonetheless, his craftsmanship as a piccolo bassist are strikingly tasty. Unlike many of his peers, he turns out the illest solo work on a bass--taking the instrument to much more conversational form--able to play solos with the movement and dexterity of a zoot trumpeter. As we hear on Blues Farm, when paired with the great Bob James, his talent is featured fully and uncensored. This session is just one cool recording--it's an incredibly easy listen that never pushes or urges. It just rolls. Says the jazz guide, "An attractive yet rather dated record." Prick.
Charles Mingus's Right Now: Live at the Jazz Workshop (***) While the Carnegie performance highlights Mingus as part of a larger ensemble, Right Now, illustrates his dynamic personality and musicianship as part of a quintet. The result is a delightfully raw performance which finds Charles audibly yelling at pianist Jane Getz when she falls off key. Regardless, his seering and scorching performance will leave listeners stunned. It's an intimate and furious session which serves a great representation of Mingus's most elemental contributions to the artform. Says the jazz guide, "Although not up to the passionate level of the Mingus-Dolphy Quintet, this underrrated unit holds it own."
Rahsaan Roland Kirk's Bright Moments (***) Rahsaan's forte was always experimentation and trickery. When you're a blind man who plays three saxaphones at once (often also playing a nose kazoo), "trickery" is a word that follows you. Here, on Bright Moments, Kirk is in prime form. As band leader, his humor and, sometimes, sarcasm takes center stage when he addresses the crowd both vocally or with instrument. The recording starts out with the band simulating a train leaving the station. Fitting because by the end of the record, this shit is interstellar. Says the jazz guide, "Bright Moments is a disconcertingly bland (and overlong, scarcely justifying two CDs-worth) and for the first time Kirk's multi-instrumentation began to seem a mere gimmick." Thanks, jerkoff.
Miles Davis's On the Corner (**) Miles, who spent most of his career in a state of musical transition, gave us this uber-funky session (which was just released in complete form--all six discs worth). Moving from more trumpet-led compositions to, here, rhythmically suffocating sessions, On the Corner is a headache for lovers of the balladeer Miles Davis. For the fans of Bitches Brew, Big Fun and The Jack Johnson Sessions, this is right up your alley. It's an often confused record and rightfully so. For a man who made his name by playing straight-forward blues numbers, On the Corner absolutely destroys such connotation. It's an explosion of wayward instrumentation and, for me, remains one of my very favorite Miles albums. Says the jazz guide, "The critics hated it. Mostly they were right. On the Corner is pretty unrelieved, chugging funk, and one has to dig a little bit for the experimental subtleties that lie Miles's most unpromising records. Where electronics gave him a sinister, underground sound at the apocalyptic Osaka concert documented on Agharta and Pangaea, here the sound is tinny and unfocused. The supporting cast is also questionable."
Jazz critics--whaddya gon' do? Oh, did I mention this Peterson cat's guilty as hell?