In this article, I want to tell you a bit about why I consider jazz to be the greatest music on the planet and, if you are not a fan yet, why you should be. At the bottom of the post you’ll find six album suggestions to help you jump in and discover what you’ve been missing!
People who are not jazz fans often have very polarised views about what jazz is. On the one hand you have those who perceive it as being very cool but somewhat incomprehensible. Sharp suited hipsters in shades – some cool dude blowing on a tenor sax (the coolest instrument ever invented), dark and sexy clubs with intimate booths and cocktail waitresses. That sort of thing.
On the other hand, jazz can be regarded as an anachronistic form of music listened to by people who don’t really like it but who are too up themselves to admit it. Remember ‘The Fast Show’ spoof of a late night jazz TV show? “Nice!” That sketch very cleverly tapped into what most people probably imagine jazz is about. Completely incomprehensible, elitist twaddle. Why the hell would you want to get into that?
I have to declare an interest here – I am a jazz fan and have been for almost all of my adult life, having gotten into it through an earlier love of jazz-funk and the purchase of a saxophone when I was in my early 20s.
With those many years of listening, I have to tell you, The Fast Show sketch was not completely wrong. There is a percentage of jazz (not a large percentage, but it is there, nonetheless) which is hard to listen to and very difficult to get into. The music of certain players like, for instance, Anthony Braxton would never be recommended listening for somebody taking their first tentative steps into exploring this sort of music.
Unfortunately, though, it tends to be the stuff on the edges of listenability which gets focussed on by jazz detractors. Jazz though is a very broad church and as a genre is very varied. For every 15 minute long free-jazz solo by a combo consisting of bass clarinet, sitar and re-purposed air-raid siren, there are a few dozen beautiful recordings by consummate musicians which will provoke, delight and soothe.
Nobody would suggest that death metal is representative of rock music as a whole and there are plenty who would describe themselves as devoted rock fans who find death metal unlistenable. So it is with jazz.
So why bother getting into jazz? Why not just keep listening to pop or whatever. Well, firstly, you can! Nobody said that you have to give up listening to chart music if that is your bag, I just want to encourage you to widen your horizons and try some new sounds which you might find that you like.
Jazz can be an acquired taste but, like most things in this life which are worthwhile, it is a taste worth acquiring. I liken it to reading a novel. If you pick up a book by James Patterson, for example, you will probably find it a very easy read and an acceptable way of passing a few hours on your sun lounger.
If, instead, you were to pick up a book by, say, Kazuo Ishiguro or Margaret Atwood or Angela Carter, you would probably find that book a bit more challenging. It may require something from you but once you have adjusted to interacting with the authors ideas rather than being a passive sponge, you will find a level of enjoyment and fulfilment which you will not find in the easier book. Superior literature stays with you. It enriches you and your life experience, and there is nothing weird or elitist about that.
Jazz is the much same. Some people point to jazz soloing as being in some way ‘self-indulgent’. You had might as well accuse a painter of being self indulgent for using a very large canvass or a chef of being self indulgent for using an exotic ingredient. In order to explore and communicate musical ideas which go beyond the audience-baiting 8-bar solo, you need room to stretch out. You also need mastery of your instrument and the ability to compose an engaging solo spontaneously. Make no mistake, if you want to hear the highest levels of musicianship, look no further than jazz.
If there is a drawback to getting onto jazz it is that other music can sometimes seem a bit lame and predictable by comparison. Jazz is always about spontaneous reinterpretation and reinvention. Feeling like modern pop is a bit lacking in sincerity? Jazz is the antidote.
So, bearing in mind that jazz can be an acquired taste, how do you go about acquiring it?
Well, I think that the best way is to listen to jazz which incorporates areas or music which you may already be familiar with and, therefore, be comfortable with. Jazz has always borrowed liberally from other sources and absorbed those influences as well as being an influence on other forms of music. Spend a little time listening and you will hear a lot of blues, funk, soul, and rock in jazz music. I’ll bet that if you spend a bit of time with the albums which I suggest below that you will find a lot more that feels familiar than you might expect, but with a fresh twist which will hopefully excite your ears and prompt some further exploration.
These days with streaming services such as ‘Napster’ or the high fidelity service ‘Tidal’ (which I heartily recommend) you can try music out without having to buy CDs or downloads. There are also curated playlists on both services which will introduce you to a lot of different artists and their music and I recommend this as well for broadening your horizons.
In the meantime though, here are some suggestions of albums which I recommend you give a try. There is nothing here which should scare you. All of these selections would go well with a chilled evening in or a lazy Sunday morning. If you like one particularly, use it as a springboard for further exploration, other albums by that artist or suggestions from your chosen streaming service for things you might like as well.
‘Midnight Blue’ – Kenny Burrell
The period from the 50s to early 60s was something of a golden age for jazz. This 1963 cut by guitar master Burrell is on almost every essential list that you can find. It is very ‘late night blues’ with catchy themes and elegant, unfussy improvisation. Oh – and it has the tenor sax legend Stanley Turrentine on it too. Definitely your first port of call.
‘The Sidewinder’ – Lee Morgan
Another early 60s Album. This is probably the most famous ‘soul jazz’ recording which was wildly popular at the time and is still fantastically listenable. The title track was a hit in the pop charts and the band features some of the best musicians you will ever hear. The featured sax player on this album is Joe Henderson, one of the greatest players to ever pick up a saxophone. If you like his playing on this check out his own stellar debut album ‘Page One‘.
‘The Look of Love’ – Diana Krall
God, I love Diana Krall. She is the consummate jazz performer, a monster piano player and a voice like smoky single malt whiskey. I could have picked any of her albums for this – I love them all – but this is a great introduction. It is an album of ‘ballads and bossas’ (bossa novas), with an orchestra supporting her own jazz combo. Lush strings, exquisite playing and singing. If you put this on when you have a special friend around for the evening and you don’t score, you really are doing something wrong. If you love this, check out her other albums. ‘Quiet Nights’ is an album of similar material and is just as satisfying as this set.
‘Chet Baker Sings’ – Chet Baker
Another great album for romancing to. Chet Baker is the archetypical drugs-related jazz tragedy. In his youth he was achingly cool – slim, handsome and stylish. He was also an extraordinarily gifted musician, being able to find his way faultlessly through complex chord progressions entirely by ear. His solos, whether sung or with his trumpet’s gentle tone are masterpieces of melodic construction. As with quite a few jazz geniuses Chet had issues which led to drug abuse and an untimely end. At least we are left with the legacy of his incredible music.
‘Go!’ – Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon is the quintessential jazz saxophonist. His playing is replete with melody, humour, invention and power; his tone full and warm. This set is widely regarded as his finest collection but check out his Ballads album. It is utterly wonderful.
‘Kind of Blue’ – Miles Davis
This is the one. Probably the greatest jazz album ever. The players are like a roll-call of jazz legends: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, ‘Cannonball’ Adderley, Paul Chambers, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb. As the title suggests, the blues is the golden thread running through this album. Miles was experimenting with a concept called ‘modal jazz’ where the focus shifted from the rapidly changing chords which jazz had become known for to a much more static harmony. This fact, along with the moderate tempos, not to mention the dream-like piano playing gives the album a hypnotic quality. Few albums are genuinely indispensable. This is one that is. It has influenced myriad artists which came afterward from jazz, classical, rock and pop. You need this music in your life.