I received a few comments and queries in response to my last post, asking what my personal favorite jazz music is and what I would recommend, especially to those who don’t know jazz and would like an introduction. Tough assignment. There are literally hundreds of songs I put on my favorite favorites list, but I’ve boiled it down to a small sample of 11 (plus Dear Lord, the John Coltrane song that I previously cited as my initiation into jazz). I think they are a good introduction to the genre. They are what I would might want if I were stuck on a desert island or just in traffic and could only listen to a dozen jazz selections. I claim no expertise. I don't know music theory. I never learned to play an instrument. They're just some of the music I enjoy and think you will, too.
KIND OF BLUE — 1959 classic album by Miles Davis backed by an all-star band that included sax greats John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans on piano. Every song is a gem starting with the iconic opening number, So What.
IN A SILENT WAY — From the album of the same name by Miles. Sit back, listen with full attention and let it carry you away. Gorgeous. At the time of its release in 1969, critics were puzzled and some displeased by the electronic sound and early fusion of jazz with rock elements. That’s John McLaughlin on guitar just a few years before he formed Mahavishnu Orchestra, who I saw in concert several times and always loved.
A LOVE SUPREME — Album by John Coltrane and his quartet at its peak. It is a thematic album with four movements, each one powerful and eloquent. A masterpiece and accessible.
AUTUMN LEAVES — Song by Keith Jarrett trio. He’s done a few versions over the years. My favorite is the one on his live double album Still/Live. I’ve seen Jarrett perform live maybe half a dozen times, either solo or with his trio. You never knew what kind of mood he’d be in — jovial or petulant — but he always delivered. Sadly, he hasn’t been able to record or perform since suffering a stroke a few years ago.
IN WALKED BUD — Song by Thelonious Monk. A fun, happy swinging tune, but put on the headphones or earbuds and appreciate the delightful complexity of a jazz piano genius — a word I try to use sparingly — at work. Monk recorded several renditions of In Walked Bud. I like the one from his Underground album with Jon Hendricks scatting. (Who’s Bud? The late, great trailblazing jazz pianist Bud Powell).
I LOVE BEING HERE WITH YOU — Pianist/singer Diana Krall swings on this fun, hard driving version of a standard that opens her Live In Paris CD. I found another live version on YouTube — Live in Rio — that I like even better.
LAYLA — By legendary rock/blues guitarist Eric Clapton and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. You think you know Layla from the original Derek & the Dominoes album and Clapton’s later acoustic version? Recorded live at Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, Clapton and Wynton give it a wonderful jazzy/bluesy interpretation. They were cooking that night … and I don’t mean in a kitchen.
THEMBI — By saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. I had to put something by Sanders on this list if only because a live set of his that I caught at Hollywood’s Catalina Jazz Club (just re-opened) was one of the most memorable live jazz performances I’ve ever seen (heard?) So much to choose from his massive body of work, but I’ll go with Thembi, which was my introduction to him when I was still new to jazz.
MOUNTAIN OF THE NIGHT — Song by pianist Lynne Arriale and her trio from their 2002 Inspiration album. Soulful and soothing. Check out the live version on YouTube.
TAKE FIVE — By pianist Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond on alto sax. Even if you don’t think you know it, it may sound familiar. Sixty years since its release, you can still hear it on the radio. It’s part of the jazz canon, although I’ve read some purists don’t care for it. I like it, especially the silky sound of Desmond. The 1961 release remains to this day the biggest selling jazz single.
MY FAVORITE THINGS — A tune jazz fans usually associate with Coltrane. I like Mehldau’s solo piano version on his Life At Marciac CD. I’ve seen him perform many times : solo, in a trio, in his early days backing saxophonist Josh Redman, even a solo classical concert. He plays beautifully and has a very distinctive style or sound. I can recognize Mehldau‘s playing almost instantly.
When Covid hit in 2020, he was touring abroad and he was unable to get back to the U.S. for many months. He and his family lived in Amsterdam where he composed 12 songs that would together comprise a suite on an album called Suite: April 2020, his ruminations -- his word -- about life during the pandemic.
In a videotaped intro to a performance of one of the songs, Remembering Before All This, Mehldau said, “Many musicians are suffering now because from one day to the next we were suddenly without income that we usually get from performing. And for many musicians who support themselves from gig to gig like that it’s been very difficult.”
Mehldau says he donated money from the sales of Suite: April 2020 to an organization, Jazz Foundation of America, that assists musicians with insurance and rent subsidies. I have never heard of the group, but it certainly sounds like a worthy cause.
Brad Mehldau at Smoke Jazz Club, NYC