Happy International Jazz Day, everyone! We’re all celebrating, right?
As every school child knows, April 30 has been designated as International Jazz Day by UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations.
April 30 is also National Honesty Day. So, let’s be honest. Most people don’t listen to jazz or know much about it. I say that based on personal experience, and it’s backed up by recording industry data, radio station ratings and surveys on concert attendance. The reasons for this are complicated, and the jazz blogosphere is filled with thoughtful analysis.
For the sake of this post, however, let’s say you’re at least somewhat interested in jazz, but perhaps you don’t know where to start.
Admittedly, jazz can be confusing. It’s a broad genre, encompassing (rightly or wrongly) everything from noisy experimental “free jazz” to WWII-era big band music to the “smooth jazz” heard when you’re waiting for your conference call to begin. Also, most jazz greats had prolific recording careers spanning several decades, resulting in massive, imposing discographies.
For those interested in sampling this great, American-born music but aren’t sure where to start, here are a few totally-biased suggestions. First, we’ll look at some classic jazz, then at a handful of more recent recordings.
Duke Ellington: Ellington at Newport (1956)
This live album from Ellington’s triumphant turn at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival works as a great introduction to the pianist-composer-bandleader’s music. Included are some of Duke’s earliest works, dating back to the 20s, as well as new music written for the occasion. This has it all — power, humor, beauty and above all, madly infectious swing. Note: The original LP contained some music recreated in the studio, so for the best sound quality and complete performance, look for the “complete” version issued as a two-CD set in 1999.
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Ella and Louis (1956)
This is the first of three utterly charming albums recorded together for Verve Records by this pair of preeminent vocalists. Backed by Oscar Peterson’s small group, Ella and Pops (only squares call him Satchmo) explore the Great American Songbook with effortless grace and class.
Bill Evans: Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961)
Widely hailed as one of the top live jazz recordings ever, this album captures the impressionistic and highly-lyrical pianist Bill Evans with one of his best trios. His idea that the bass and drums are equal voices in the group, not merely accompanists for the piano, is fully realized here with bassist Scott LaFaro (who tragically died soon after) and drummer Paul Motian. Waltz For Debby is an equally essential album from the same sessions.
John Coltrane: My Favorite Things (1961)
The influential and incendiary saxophonist went through a few distinct periods in his too-brief career, so it’s important for newbies to jump in at the right place. While A Love Supreme from 1965 is his undisputed masterpiece, My Favorite Things may be better for the uninitiated. The hypnotic title track is Coltrane’s remarkable reinvention of Rogers and Hammerstein’s popular song from The Sound of Music.
Miles Davis: In a Silent Way (1969)
While you almost can’t go wrong with anything Miles recorded in the 50s or 60s, for today I’ll suggest In a Silent Way, which divided critics upon its release due to its use of “electric” instruments and the influence of rock music. With its otherworldly sounds and gorgeous textures, this album would prove highly influential not only in jazz and rock, but also in ambient music and electronica.
Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny: Beyond the Missouri Sky (1997)
This intimate duet record from bassist Haden and guitarist Metheny shimmers with a straightforward beauty borne of the musicians’ shared roots in the American heartland. The eclectic program mixes originals with tunes from the likes of Henry Mancini, Roy Acuff and film composer Ennio Morricone.
Gregory Porter: Liquid Spirit (2013)
Porter, born in 1971, is one of the most lauded singers to appear in recent years, with this album winning a Grammy for vocal jazz in 2014. Porter’s rich baritone has an earthy quality perfectly suited to his highly personal style of songwriting. Like some others in his generation, he tends to favor his own material over the jazz standards of yesteryear, and while rooted in jazz, he owes just as much to R&B greats like Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye.
Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band: Landmarks (2014)
One of the busiest drummers of the last 20 years, Brian Blade has released four albums with his Fellowship Band. The music here is rich in melody, cinematic in scope and informed by Blade’s upbringing in Shreveport, Louisiana, touching on gospel, folk and rock, as well as jazz.
Want to hear some live music? There are events all over the globe, and you can catch a live webcast of this year’s “All-Star Global Concert,” featuring Herbie Hancock and others at 1 p.m. EDT.
Mark is Art Director at Half Price Books Corporate.