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Top 10 Jazz CDs – Tony McGregor's Picks
The rich variety of jazz
Jazz is a music of ever-increasing diversity and variety. In its history it has evolved and changed, not least in the years since the Second World War, when new forms sprouted so often that the fans split into factions – some preferred this style and these artists, others preferred that style and those artists, and then these in turn split further, so that jazz now runs the gamut from the “traditional” or “Dixieland” style all the way to the radical music of the free improvisers.
Jazz has also, since the war, spread across the world with active jazz playing communities developing in almost every country, from the frozen north to the hot south.
This Top 10 list is going to concentrate on the players from North America that I have found that I enjoy and relate to. I will do a follow-up Hubs on the South African and the European Top 10s in due course. These might entail music that is less familiar to listeners and fans.
This list is ordered by recording date and so does not reflect a hierarchy of preferences on my part. They are all great albums, each eminently worthy of a place in anyone's library. They are all in my collection and the reason for them being on this list is simply that they tend to get the heaviest rotation through my CD player. I just love listening time and again to these great albums. Hope you do too!
Jazz at Massey Hall
This is a classic album, recorded in 1953 in Toronto and often referred to as the greatest jazz concert ever. It certainly boasts one of the most stellar quintets ever put together: Charlie Parker on alto, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums. With a line-up like that it's no wonder that the music is quite exceptional. It is bebop at the top of the wave, with all its great inventiveness and originality on display. The one drawback is that it was not properly recorded – for some reason no-one had thought to arrange for the gig to be recorded and so it was left to Mingus to capture it all on his own personal tape recorder through the public address system. The sound is not what most listeners have come to expect. But the vibrancy and beauty and energy of the music rewards anyone who is prepared to listen past that that. It's hard-hitting, swinging music of the highest order.
Such Sweet Thunder
Recorded between August 1956 and May 1957, this great suite by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn is a tribute to the great William Shakespeare. The suite was commissioned by the Stratford (Ontario – not England) Shakespeare Festival in 1956 and reflects the Duke's take on many of the characters in the great plays. The titles are all witty takes on the characters, like “Sonnet For Caesar”, “Lady Mac”, one my personal favourites, “Madness in Great Ones (Hamlet)” and “Sonnet for Hank Cinq.” A wonderful tribute, with some great playing by all the Ellingtonian favourites like Cat Anderson going sky-high, Harry Carney growling low and, of course, the great Johnny Hodges sweetly swinging.
Sonny Rollins, together with Oscar Pettiford on bass and Max Roach on drums, created one of the iconic sounds of the Civil Rights Movement in this 1958 recording. The title track, at 20 minutes, was an early extended jazz track and the other tracks were wonderful jazz interpretations of pop songs like “Till There was You” and “Someday I'll Find You”. The tenor, bass, drums line-up was also unusual but in the hands of these three masters, extremely effective. Each player is so in tune with the other two that they really work as a unit. A.B Spellman on National Public Radio described this playing: “I think that people, in listening to this, must pay close attention to Roach and Pettiford and how they integrate. Because this is not mere accompaniment, this is real partnership in playing.” Great stuff!
Count Basie – One More Time
This is a rather strange album in my collection, as I have it on an album called Count Basie Plays Quincy Jones and Neal Hefti, which I have not been able to locate on any Basie discography yet. So I'll stick to the original album title and release. It was recorded in 1959 and I bought a copy in about 1967 and have loved it since. The tracks are all Jones originals and he also did the arranging, and it is superb. The arrangements are tight and the band swings in typical Basie style, with Basie's typical piano interpolations – spare, almost minimalistic, and yet so meaningful. A great album to listen to, under whichever title!
A Night In Tunisia
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers really give Dizzy's tune, the title track, some superb playing. This incarnation of the Messengers, always the breeding ground for jazz stars, was exceptionally great: Lee Morgan on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor, Bobby Timmons on piano and Jymie Merritt on bass, with, of course, Blakey himself keeping it all together from the drum kit. With a line-up like that, what could one expect besides some of the greatest jazz to be found anywhere? It was recorded and released in 1960. This just happened to be one of the first jazz albums I ever bought, back in about 1965, and I have loved it ever since.
Mingus at Antibes
This great performance of the classic Mingus quintet was recorded at the Antibes Jazz Festival in France in 1960. It features some of the greatest playing by these stellar performers: Mingus himself, Ted Curson on trumpet, Eric Dolphy on alto and bass clarinet, Booker Ervin on tenor and Dannie Richmond on drums. Bud Powell appears as a guest on the track “I'll Remember April”. There is something wonderful about this album which has some totally stunning solos and ensemble work. One of my favourites.
The Blues and the Abstract Truth
This just has to be one of the greatest jazz albums ever! Look at the line-up: Oliver Nelson on alto (he also arranged all the tracks), Eric Dolphy on alto and flute, George Barrow on baritone, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. The arrangements are so great – nothing overpowering, just providing the background for great soloists to do their things, which they do wonderfully. The album was recorded and released in 1961, with the famous Creed Taylor handling production issues. This album is playing (loudly) as I write!
Charles Mingus again – this live performance at the Jazz Workshop has long ben a favourite of mine. Recorded in 1964 it has only two tracks: “New Fables” and “Meditation for a Pair of Wire Cutters” each running a little over 23 minutes. The players again are just superb: Mingus himself accompanied by Clifford Jordan on tenor, John Handy of alto (only on the first track), Jane Getz (remember, “whatever Jane wants, Stan Getz”?) on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums. Some of Mingus's greatest playing.
In a Silent Way
Well, what can one say of this album? Recorded and released in 1969 it was a turning point for Miles Davis which led the way to Bitches Brew. I would have put the latter on this list but it has been given so much airing that I thought to put this one on the list instead. In addition, I prefer this album which I think has some of the downright sexiest music in jazz. It is just so beautiful. This really is music for lovers! The line-up is so impressive and innovative – Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinulon keyboards, Wayne Shorter on tenor, Miles on trumpet, John McLaughlin on guitar, Dave Holland on bass and Tony Williams on drums. If that doesn't whet your appetite (to coin a phrase!), what would?
Remembering Bud Powell
One day in 1997 I walked into my favourite record shop in Johannesburg and the music they were playing over their system just blew me away. I said to myself, “I've got to get this album, Who the hell is it?” So I asked and they told me it was this album. Now I'm not normally a big Chick Corea fan, but this album just spoke to me and of course I spent money I didn't have to get it. And I still love it. The line-up features Roy Haynes on drums, Kenny Garrett on alto, Christian McBride on bass, Joshua Redman on tenor and Wallace Roney on trumpet. All the tracks are Powell originals except for one track simply titled “Bud Powell” which is a Corea original. A truly great tribute to a truly great pianist.
Watch this space!
There are many, many more albums that I love to listen to. I have left out great swatches of music – Anthony Davis, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and many others that I love – but I guess if I were pressed on which I would have to take if I were only allowed ten albums, these would be the ones I would choose. It is not easy to choose only ten albums of a genre in which there is such a rich variety, and just so many albums. Let's say this is a first take. Maybe there will be follow-up Hubs on the subject. Watch this space!
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© Tony McGregor 2009