Thursday, June 28, 2007

Essential Jazz Recordings

May I just say, first of all, that this is an impossible task. So I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway. There are plenty of places on ye olde internette to find top 100 jazz recordings of all times. Go here for a page that lists a few of the lists. This list of CDs is exhaustive and well chosen. I've just looked through a few of these attempts to codify the "essential" or "must have" CDs. I'm going to have a whack at it here, with a couple of caveats: I'm not going to set a number limit to begin with. I'm going to choose artists of historical importance (mainly old guys and dead guys who influenced the many musicians who came on the scene later). I'm going to choose stuff I personally love unless it is something I don't care for but is too influential to omit.

Louis Armstrong: Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, Ella and Louis (with Ella Fitzgerald and the Oscar Peterson trio)
Duke Ellington: Blanton/Webster Band, Great Paris Concert
Count Basie: Sinatra at the Sands, April in Paris
Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach: Jazz At Massey Hall
Stan Getz: Getz/Gilberto
Oscar Peterson: Night Train
Cannonball Adderley: Somethin' Else, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, Cookin', Steamin', Workin', Relaxin', Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, E.S.P., Nefertiti...
John Coltrane: Giant Steps, A Love Supreme
Bill Evans: Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Intermodulation (w/Jim Hall), Portrait in Jazz, Waltz for Debbie
Charles Mingus: Presents the Charles Mingus Quartet, Great Concert of...
Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus, Tenor Madness, The Bridge
Thelonious Monk: Monk's Music, Brilliant Corners, Carnegie Hall Concert (w/ Coltrane)
Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil, Alegria
Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage, Empyrean Isles, Speak Like a Child
Dexter Gordon: Our Man in Paris, Go
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Moanin', Free for All
Horace Silver: Song For My Father,
Joe Henderson: Inner Urge
Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder
Wes Montgomery: The Incredible Jazz Guitar of ..., Smokin' at the Half Note
Charlie Parker: Complete Dial and Savoy recordings
Dave Brubeck: Time Out
Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come, This Is Our Music, Free Jazz
Clifford Brown and Max Roach: Study in Brown
Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, Light As A Feather
McCoy Tyner: The Real McCoy
Lester Young: with the Oscar Peterson Trio, Billie Holiday and Lester Young
Jaco Pastorius: Jaco Pastorius
Weather Report: Heavy Weather
Dave Holland: Conference of the Birds, Prime Directive, Not for Nothin', Triplicate
Cecil Taylor: Unit Structures
Pat Metheny: Bright Size Life
Coleman Hawkins: Body and Soul
Art Tatum: Solo Masterpieces
Bud Powell: The Genius of ...
Eric Dolphy: Out To Lunch
Lee Konitz: w/Wayne Marsh and Lennie Tristano

OK, that's all for now. I have left out some excellent contemporary artists and CDs due to lack of time, but I will come back to this soon. Whew!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Jazz Art Paintings by Ann deLorge

This iconic image is entitled "Jazz In Red". I have the full size print in my home teaching studio and it never ceases to elicit oohs and aahs from students and friends.

When I was designing the look of my jazz education website I happened upon the work of New Orleans painter Ann deLorge. As soon as I saw her work I knew I had stumbled upon some extraordinary images and contacted her with the idea of using her artwork as an integral part of my site. Turned out she was very enthusiastic about the idea and we've been "in biz" ever since.

Here's a more traditional New Orleans image:

She seems to have a "thing" for bass players, and you KNOW I like that:

Or how about this one, which somehow reminds me of Andrew Hill:

If you're a jazz enthusiast, you owe yourself a visit to Ann's site. The prints are very reasonably priced and there are a lot of other jazz and N.O. related images there. Have some fun!

Listening to Jazz 101

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Friends and family members, musicians and civilians alike, all seem to get "lost" when listening to jazz. To most, once the melody of the song has been stated, the rest of the performance sounds like cacophony. Since it is the improvising that most interests us players (creative beings that we are) I'd like to offer a little assistance to those who don't understand what "all that noise" is.

Let's take a simple song, like Pop Goes the Weasel. I unfortunately hear this one WAY too much played by my friendly neighborhood ice cream truck, but it is one I think we can all sing in our heads. This internal singing mechanism is the key to being able to enjoy a jazz performance, in my opinion. OK, here's my version of the song (speak to the hand if you don't agree with the lyrics - these are the ones I grew up with):

All around the mulberry bush
The monkey chased the weasel,
The monkey stopped to pull up his sock,
Pop! goes the weasel.

A penny for a spool of thread,
A penny for a needle,
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.

OK, got it? When the ice cream truck stops in front of my house, that song plays over and over and over again, without variation of any kind. Same stupid melody, same harmony, same rhythm, same tempo, same form. (We're not going to worry our pretty little heads about most of these terms, so don't sweat it.)

This repetition of all the elements of the song is precisely what happens in a jazz performance (leaving aside "free" jazz and music that is through-composed -- again, don't fret).

Everything about the music keeps repeating like a loop EXCEPT for the melody. What happens to that, you ask? That is what the jazz soloist is creating in the moment: a new melody based on the form, harmony, tempo etc of the originally stated piece of music.

Simply put, the jazz soloist takes the original song and plays variations of the given melody based on the harmony (what we refer to as "the changes"). And yes, this IS just what is meant in classical music by "theme and variations", the only difference is that the variations are being spontaneously composed as you're listening. It's pretty cool when you think about it.

So how does this help you listen to real jazz (as opposed to our fictional PGTW version)?
It's best to start by listening to a jazz version of a song you already know, because your task is to keep the melody playing in your mind DURING the improvised choruses. So, while the solo is going on you are using the melody as a backdrop for what the player is doing. [This, by the way, is how most jazz musicians keep their place in the music as it is being played.] If you keep the melody playing in your head you will be able to hear the soloist's new melody as a variation of the one you already know. Try it - it works.

Eventually you will be able to hear certain song forms through repetition. For example, there are many songs in the jazz repertoire based upon George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm. If you can hear that song internally then you can hear and appreciate the way a jazz musician solos on that song form. That covers a lot of territory. Same thing goes for the blues -- and there are hundreds (thousands, maybe) of jazz songs based on the blues.

Find a recording of a song you know performed by a known artist (Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, you get the idea). You'll have to "practice" listening if you want to get this, but it won't be hard work, just a fun way to open yourself to a whole world of beautiful music that is by no means cacophonous!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Feel vs Content

Decades ago I went to a club in Chicago to hear some local legends play. They were the venerable "old guys" that some of us younger players were supposed to be in awe of. I remember sitting there thinking that this was supposed to be really good; I was supposed to feel transported by this music. But the truth for me was that it didn't sound particularly good to me. The friend I was with summed it up pithily: "This music feels a lot better than it sounds." In other words, the rhythm section was happening but the soloists sounded pretty tired and uninteresting. Since then that criterion has been central to my ability to judge the music I play and the music I hear.

Sometimes the groove can be great, but the other aspects of the music are flaccid. The tune, singer or soloist can be boring or lame. So it feels good but doesn't sound very good. Or there can be a great composition or an inspired performance by an individual, but the rhythm section might not be clicking. Sounds good, feels bad. When you get both aspects of the music in the plus category, then you've got something extraordinary. Both of Miles' quintets are in this lofty category.

I've been playing this music for more than 30 years, so I do have an idea how it's supposed to sound and feel. As a bass player I'm primarily responsible for the feel side of things but I give almost equal mental bandwidth to the "sound" as well. I try to stay with the song form, play in tune, and shape good bass melodies, whether I'm accompanying or soloing.

There's an argument to be made that if it feels good (ie, if the rhythm section is taking care of business) then everything else will fall into place. I have witnessed that. But there are occasions when no amount of groove can compensate for an untalented horn player or singer.

So, this blog: I'm going for feel AND content, striving for a balance between readable and provocative.