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Jazz In The Easy Chair: Five Favorite Albums
Just Plain Cozy
Jazz. I have been listening to this music for more than half my life. During these twenty-plus years my appreciation, love, and respect for jazz has grown deep roots and pervades my being. A prime example of this is the way I connect upon hearing some really good jazz. The best way to describe this connection is that it's like settling down into a favorite comfy chair by a warm flickering fire and being transported into a reverie of something else. While unknown records heard on the radio have produced this effect, nothing is so adept as the many timeless recordings that have accompanied me throughout the years. These timeless tunes and songs envelope my mind in a warm, furry aura and cast my gaze towards the distant horizon. This is jazz in the easy chair and it is just plain cozy.
When it comes to classic jazz recordings, one stands out from all the rest. This is Miles Davis' 1959 release 'Kind Of Blue'. Miles put together an all-star cast including Julian 'Cannonball' Adderly, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb, and Paul "Mr. P.C." Chambers. With minimal instruction, some basic charts, and no rehearsal, these geniuses laid it down..and I mean Laid It Down. 'Kind Of Blue' is music that was created in the spontaneity of the moment but which is timeless in its appeal. Every track but the last, 'Flamenco Sketches', was the first take in the studio. The version of 'Flamenco Sketches' released on the original was the second take. This speaks volumes to these musicians' improvisational prowess. Combine that with the fact that this recording is the all-time best selling jazz record and there can be no argument that this is some truly amazing music. I originally had this on cassette tape and when that wore out I went and got it on CD. What more can I say about it? If you were to have but one jazz recording in your collection, this would probably be it. Even people who "don't like jazz" like 'Kind Of Blue'. Yeah.
Billie Holiday's 'Lady In Satin', recorded in 1958, maybe the most intimate portrait of an artist from the twentieth century. It is an exquisite expression of Billie's love and heartache, trials and triumphs. From the first line of 'I'm A Fool To Want You" I am hooked. The songs flow seamlessly, like a brook full of introspection. By the time the last notes of 'The End Of A Love Affair' fade, I realize I have been thoroughly engrossed in floating down the heart-felt stream of Lady Day's song. As sad as this record seems, after listening to it I find not that I am sad nor elated but more in a state of acceptance that unfortunate things happen but with grace and dignity, we can make something of beauty out of the pieces of our broken dreams. This is her testament that in times of our greatest frailty, we are capable of the most poignant offerings. With such titles as 'You Don't Know What Love Is', 'It's Easy To Remember', and 'Glad To Be Unhappy' one would expect this to be depressing at best. It is not. I believe the reason is because Billie poured all the love she had left into this effort. She knew the brightness and buoyancy of her voice had faded. What she had left to give were her unique phrasing, her devout communion with melody, the deep emotional content of her soul, and the willingness of her spirit to shine her light despite the encroaching darkness. We are the benefactors of her gifts. Talking about it makes me want to cry, but listening to it is transcendent.
The third record I would like to discuss is Charles Mingus' 'Mingus Dynasty', recorded in late 1959. From the opening jubilee of 'Slop', complete with hand-clapping and shouts, to the bonus track 'Strollin', this is a timeless classic. If I put it on, it's gonna play right through from beginning to end. This record has a flow all it's own, full of variety and surprises ranging from outright intensity to subtle beauty. Mingus pays homage to his roots in blues and gospel but is never cliched in his use of elements of these forms. He contextualizes a fresh perspective and a vibrant execution. A prime example is with one of the two Ellington standards, 'Mood Indigo'. This rendition is drenched in the blues, as if to elicit just how dark a blue indigo is. 'Far Wells, Mill Valley' is a prime example of Mingus' ability to fuse seemingly disparate influences into a unique composition which challenges our notions of tradition. Think of it as a survey of the boundaries of tradition's territory. 'Gunslingin' Bird' may be my favorite on the whole. A distinctly slippery affair, this track is smokin' like the barrel of a Colt 45 at high noon in the center of town. While 'Mingus Dynasty' may not have all of the ethereal, relaxing qualities of 'Kind Of Blue' or the tenuous eloquence of 'Lady In Satin', it is nevertheless just as sublime and engaging and displays the finest qualities of Charles Mingus as a robust composer, arranger, and bandleader.
Number four in this short list is a live recording made over the span of two nights in 1967 by one Dizzy Gillespie with his band, entitled 'Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac'. The first time I heard the title track on the radio years ago, I said to myself, "I've gotta get that". I did and have never regretted it. The opener is the the title track, in which Dizzy and reedman James Moody trade call and response chants with a touch of humor. After singing the chorus, the band breaks into a high-charged and swinging instrumental portion with a fine solo by Diz. This is followed by another rendition of the chorus, followed by Dizzy singing a stanza about shoes and heaven and wings..."gonna FLY!"...after which the band winds it down 'til Dizzy closes it, saying, "Old Cadillacs never die, the finance company just fade 'em away." 'Mas Que Nada' is the second selection and is a heavy duty latin-jazz number complete with solos from both Gillespie and Moody. This is a fast six minutes of sheer joy and bubbling brilliance and is over before I want it to be. The next number, 'Bye', is a short set closer lasting all of a minute and almost a half. "Short and sweet", as they say. 'Something In Your Smile' is a little ballad from the soundtrack to a movie current at the time. At just under three minutes, with Dizzy singing the lovely lyrics with all the tunefulness he can muster, this is just short enough. For me, it is a perfect foil for the gravity of the final track, 'Kush'. At sixteen minutes, 'Kush' is the standout on this record. To be succinct, it is the combination of the driving rhythm and syncopation with outstanding solos and dynamic range that make this a wondrous musical pilgrimage. James Moody's solo blows my mind every time when he switches from bluesy half-time phrases to double-time runs, back to half-time and again to double while the rhythm support keeps a steady driving tempo midway in between. This is truly amazing stuff and I never tire of listening to it.
In late 1972, Creed Taylor put together a recording session for Milt Jackson with some of the finest players the world has known. The result was 'Sunflower', one of many classic recordings produced by Creed Taylor for his CTI label. In true Creed Taylor style, this production is top shelf in everything from the enticing cover photograph of ostriches backlit b to the orchestral use of strings, woodwinds, french horns, and even a harp, all masterfully arranged by Don Sebesky. The featured musicians are none but the best and brightest. With Freddie Hubbard on flugelhorn, Herbie Hancock on the electric piano, Ron Carter on bass, Billy Cobham on drums, and the mighty Milt Jackson on the vibraphone this record is like Botticelli for the ears: sumptuous textures, refined detail, a full tonal range, and beautiful subject matter. Don't let the subdued and melodic intro fool you into writing this one off as background music. The dynamics will sneak up and before you know it you've been blind-sided by a crescendo of rogue wave proportions. And just as quickly as it has arisen and swamped your head it rescinds back into sublime calm. I can't stress enough the rapport these five musicians establish throughout this record. They are so tuned in to each other and work so cohesively as a whole that it seems they have ESP. The third track, an instrumental cover of the Stylistics' 'People Make The World Go 'Round', is an exercise in understated funk. I said earlier that if you were to have but one jazz record it would probably be 'Kind Of Blue'. Well, I am the exception to that. If I were to have but one jazz record, it would be Milt Jackson's 'Sunflower'.
The Wrap Up
My purpose in writing this piece is not to define the top five records in the history of jazz. That would be a presumptuous task. There are literally thousands of records and any 'best of' list I could come up with would inevitably exceed five and wind up superfluously busting at the seams. My intent has been to share a selection of five jazz records which I find to be unique and enjoyable in their entirety. Despite my familiarity with each and numerous times hearing them all, I still find these recordings to be rewarding listening experiences from start to finish. I do not expect everybody to share my taste and opinions. I do hope that this little essay will perhaps inspire others to dig into the music and find their own "jazz in the easy chair".
Miles Davis, 'Kind Of Blue' Columbia Records, 1959
- Amazon.com: Kind of Blue: Miles Davis: Music
Amazon.com: Kind of Blue: Miles Davis: Music
Billie Holiday, 'Lady In Satin' Columbia Records, 1958
- Ray Ellis & His Orchestra - Lady In Satin CD Album
Ray Ellis & His Orchestra - Lady In Satin music CD album $11.69 in stock at CD Universe, Recorded in New York, New York from February 19-21, 1958, Originally.
Charles Mingus, 'Mingus Dynasty' Columbia Records, 1960
Dizzy Gillespie, 'Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac' Impulse Records, 1967
Milt Jackson, 'Sunflower' CTI Records, 19732
- Dusty Groove America - Milt Jackson: Sunflower (remastered edition)
Brazil, latin, soul, jazz, funk, and hip hop on CDs, LPs and 45s.