Sunday, January 26, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Jazz Albums

Oftentimes when I listen to jazz, I listen to one album at a time. I like hearing a collection of songs that were recorded at one time. It's like a piece of history, a moment in time. How did someone improvise in one moment of time? 

And out of all the albums that I've listened to, I found it very difficult to pick my top five favorite. I love so many albums, and admire so many musicians, that many albums are tied. Yet, these following five came to mind when I had to really think about it: 

My Top 5 Favorite Jazz Albums
(Links to Youtube attached) 

1. Sonny Stitt Sits in with the Oscar Peterson Trio 
This album features Sonny Stitt on alto and tenor saxophones, Oscar Peterson on piano, Ray Brown on bass, and Ed Thigpen on drums. The album has the feel of a jam session in its improvisation and lax nature. It seems like everyone is just hanging out like good friends. The album is mostly standards in its song choices. I love the way Sonny Stitt plays on this album- he sounds so free and happy. His tone is bright and cheery- this album always cheers me up! 

Here's "I didn't know what time it was" off of the album:

2. Stanley Turrentine Sugar 
The song "Sugar" features Stanley Turrentine on tenor saxophone, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, George Benson on guitar, Lonnie Smith on electric piano, Ron Carter on bass, Billy Kaye on drums. The rest of the album features many more personnel. I love this album for its soulfulness, and the great solos. I love the way everyone interacts- there is such a strong coherence between everyone in the group. In my opinion, Turrentine has the best saxophone tone I've ever listened to. 

Here's "Sugar" off of the album:

3. Miles Davis Nefertiti 

It seemed pretty impossible to pick a favorite Miles Davis album in particular, but this is one that I always go back to because of my love of the "second great quintet". This album features Miles Davis's "second great quintet" comprised of Miles Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Tony Williams on drums, and Ron Carter on bass. "Nefertiti"- the title track- is known for having the melodic instruments repeat the melody with the rhythm section improvising underneath the melodic line- this was a new concept. I love when Miles and Wayne offset each other in the melody, and I love the layering effect. I think this band interacts and communicates very well with each other- it's like they can read each other's minds! 

4. Eric Dolphy Live in Europe 
This album features multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, and a European rhythm section. There are two volumes of this album, and I suggest to listen to them both. Dolphy is one of my favorite jazz musicians- he is sometimes considered to be "free jazz", but he is also rooted in bebop and classical music. I love that when you listen to him, you can hear a sort of honesty that you can't find in many artists. He is very vocal in his approach to improvising. It is so amazing to hear him play and improvise on several instruments so well- I want to be able to do that! 

Here's "Oleo" off of the album (Dolphy on bass clarinet):

5. Charlie Parker with Strings

I have talked about this album, and other songs from this album on previous blogs, but it truly is one of the most beautiful albums I have ever listened to! This album features Charlie Parker on alto saxophone, along with a group of string, wind, and rhythm section instruments. The album is all standards in its song choices. Yet, Charlie Parker plays every standard with so much emotion and honesty. His improvisation is tasteful and engaging. There's not much more to say other than to check it out! 

Final Thoughts: 
And I know this list left out many of my other favorite albums, (I'll do more blogs on those!) but these came to mind as ones I love to listen to all of the time. So check them out- maybe you'll find a new favorite jazz album too! 

Leave a comment below sharing your favorite jazz album(s)! 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Where to start listening to jazz

Miles Davis. Duke Ellington. Ella Fitzgerald. 

Jazz music can seem like an overwhelming genre when you first start listening to it. There are so many musicians, sub-genres, albums, and songs to sort through. Just where do you start?

When I first started listening to jazz, I started with the jazz musicians Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and listened to them. Then I looked up Charlie Parker and noticed that he also played with guys like Miles Davis and Max Roach. So I looked those musicians up and noticed that they played with people like John Coltrane and Clifford Brown. And they played with others too, and so on.

So that's how I really started. It just takes one person- and soon you'll notice that everyone seems to be interconnected. So here's a list of some people that can be your starting point:

Where to start listening to jazz
A list of some jazz artists to start with
(Links to Youtube attached)

1. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie 
As I just said, they were really my starting point. A music teacher told me to listen to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, so I went home and started going from song to song. Charlie Parker played alto saxophone, and Dizzy Gillespie played trumpet. These two musicians played in a band together, and were responsible for the sub-genre of jazz called be-bop. Check out "Yardbird Suite"- one of the first jazz recordings I ever listened to!

Yardbird Suite:

2. Miles Davis

Miles Davis was a trumpeter, composer, bandleader, and a true innovator in jazz. He led many famous groups, including what are called his "first great quintet" and his "second great quintet". Miles Davis played a part in many sub-genres of jazz like be-bop, hard bop. cool jazz, fusion, etc. His album "Kind of Blue" is the best selling jazz album of all time. Check out "So What"- a famous track off of that album!

So What:

3. Duke Ellington 
Duke Ellington was a composer, pianist, and leader of one of the greatest jazz orchestras in history. His group had many famous soloists in it, like Johnny Hodges, and Ben Webster, among others. Duke often collaborated with Billy Strayhorn, and wrote all the compositions for the group- and many of his songs have become standards. Check out his classic song,  "Take the A Train"!

Take the A Train:

4. Ella Fitzgerald 
Ella is one of the most famous jazz singers. She was, and still is, an enormous influence to many modern day jazz and pop vocalists. She has a wide range, a clear tone, and she even scats in some songs. Check out "Summertime", which also features jazz legend Louis Armstrong!


5. Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong is a monumental figure in jazz. He was a key figure in the foundation of the genre- his influence gave a focus on solo playing rather than the collective improvisation that is often seen in early New Orleans Dixieland style jazz. He was also a famous singer, and legend has it that he invented scat singing when he dropped his music at a recording session. Check out his famous recordings of "What a Wonderful World" and "When the Saints Go Marching In"- which weren't just jazz hits, but also popular songs!

What a Wonderful World:

When the Saints Go Marching In:

6. Dave Brubeck 
Dave Brubeck was a pianist and composer. Brubeck was a major innovator in the sub-genre of cool jazz, and his group with Paul Desmond is highly regarded. His album "Time Out" is one of the most famous jazz albums, and it employs many different time signatures. Check out his classic songs "Take Five"- (which is actually in five four time) and "Blue Rondo A La Turk" (which is actually in nine eight time)!

Take Five:

Blue Rondo a la Turk:

7. Herbie Hancock 
Herbie Hancock is a pianist, keyboardist, composer, and bandleader. He was one of the first jazz musicians to embrace funk and electronic elements in his jazz music. His music is pretty accessible to younger audiences- and he has had a few crossover hits. I was thrilled to see him play live last summer at the Newport Jazz Festival when he sat in with Wayne Shorter! Check out his song "Chameleon"- and listen to that famous bass line!


8. Stan Getz
Stan Getz was a tenor saxophonist, and played a variety of styles of jazz. Yet, he is most famous for popularizing the bossa nova style of jazz- gaining influence from Brazilian music. This style became a craze even outside of jazz, crossing over to outside audiences. Check out "The Girl from Ipanema"!

The Girl from Ipanema:

9. John Coltrane

John Coltrane was a tenor saxophonist and composer. He played in many famous groups, with greats like Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. He spanned be-bop, hard bop, and helped to influence early free jazz. Check out his song "Blue Train"- which is an example of the sub-genre of hard bop!

Blue Train:

10. Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins is a tenor saxophonist and composer. He is one of the most individual voices in jazz, and continues to play in his 80s. In 2011, he was awarded a Kennedy Center Award from the President Obama for his work in jazz and the arts. Check out "Tenor Madness"- which also features John Coltrane. Sonny Rollins's solo on this song was actually the first solo that I transcribed- or learned by ear. (his solo starts at 2:12)

Tenor Madness:

Final Thoughts:  This is by no means a list representing the sound of all jazz. This is just a list of some people that are, in my opinion, an easy way to start listening to jazz because they are so famous and accessible within the genre.

And, from my experience, it only really takes one artist in order to branch out and listen to a multitude of players.

Also, leave a comment below saying who was the first jazz musician that you listened to! Mine was Charlie Parker- what about you?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Individuality in jazz

Individuality. Noun. The quality or character of a particular person or thing that distinguishes them from others of the same kind.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment". And I would have to agree- wanting to be yourself can be a difficult thing, especially  if you compare yourself to others, which is so easy to do.

In jazz, individuality is not only celebrated- it is expected. Yes, there are jazz standards- classic repertoire that everybody learns. And yes, jazz musicians are expected to know a vast amount of history  about famous recordings, musicians, albums, etc. But, by learning the history and how others have played jazz, you can take that and expand on it to make it your own. Like when you learn how to write poetry you might imitate the line structure or word choice of Robert Frost, or when you learn to draw you might imitate the brush strokes or color choices of Picasso. Learning from the masters with the intention of pursuing your own vision is individuality.

So to illustrate what I mean, I took a popular standard- "All the Things You Are"- and found ten different versions of that one song. Different artists can take the same song and have a completely different approach to it.

Individuality in jazz
"All the Things You Are" in various ways 
(Links to Youtube attached)
1. Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker approaches the song in a standard jazz combo setting. He plays the melody quite sweetly with touches of embellishments. The rest of his group trades solos, with a similar effect of embellishments and bebop language. 

2. Chris Potter
In this version, modern day saxophonist Chris Potter plays "All the Things You Are" a cappella- without accompaniment. (Which for a melodic instrument like saxophone is quite challenging) He comes up with some amazingly creative, original ideas- all while outlining the structure of the original song. 

3. Chet Baker and Stan Getz
This version is very cool (as in from the cool school of jazz). Cool in the way that everything seems laid back, hushed, and lighter than other kinds of jazz. 

4. Ella Fitzgerald 
This is a vocal version of the standard, with a full orchestra backing up Ella while she sings. The orchestra plays quite a role in propelling the song forward, and Ella really focuses on the lyrics. 

5. Modern Jazz Quartet
This version brings in some interesting instrumentation with the addition of a vibraphone. There are a lot of rhythmic fills, and the mood of the song is quite exuberant. 

6. Grant Green
This version has Grant Green on guitar playing the melody, and has a very clean sound. It is a jazz trio with guitar, bass, and drums. 

7. Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley
This version presents a larger jazz combo. Everyone within the group approaches their solo differently, but it comes together cohesively. 

8. Johnny Griffin
This version combines Johnny Griffin on saxophone, with a stellar rhythm section. During the melody they even go into a latin feel. 

9. Art Tatum
Tatum approaches the standard from a solo piano setting. He brings in his characteristic virtuosity, and his flourishing runs. 

10. Bill Evans
Evans also approaches the standard from a solo piano setting. He brings in his characteristic lush chords, and melodic lines. And even though Art Tatum also did a solo piano recording of this song- by the chords Evans uses, and his type of embellishments, you can tell it is uniquely him. 

Final Thoughts: 
And even though that's already ten different versions of "All the Things You Are", there are still way more out there. Even with a standard song, there are an infinite amount of possibilities. And I think knowing that there are places where individuality is celebrated makes it a bit less daunting to want to be yourself. 

If there are any particular versions of "All the Things You Are" that I didn't include and you think people should check out- please post your suggestions in the comment section. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Jazz songs for when you're feeling blue

Most of jazz is improvised- or composed on the spot. That means that the musicians are so skilled they can compose beautiful melodies and haunting lines- oftentimes over a set chord structure- while they are in the moment.

And is improvisation really a new concept for us as humans? Everyday we improvise! When we walk, when we speak, when we do just about everything! We don't plan every second of every single day- we improvise most of our lives.

So I think that jazz is great music for when you're feeling down. I find so much comfort in listening to jazz because it's like someone is speaking to me. These musicians pour their heart out in the moment- and that amount of rawness gives me the most genuine experience. Whenever I feel like I have no one to talk to or nowhere to go, I turn to certain jazz songs.

So, here's a list of some jazz songs for when you're feeling blue that have helped me in my life:

Jazz songs for when you're feeling blue
(Song title, Artist(s), Album) 
(Links to Youtube after description) 

1. "In a Sentimental Mood"...Duke Ellington and John Coltrane..."Duke Ellington and John Coltrane"
I've already mentioned this song on my blog "Reasons why I love jazz", but I just have to reiterate how this song is my saving grace. I can't think of a song that has helped me more than this one. There have been times that I've secluded myself in a room and listened to this song over and over for what seems like hours- that's how much this song means to me. Every note and every line just hits me so hard. With every trouble and heartache I turn to this song, and for the amount of comfort it has brought me, I am forever grateful.

2. "Solitude"...Billie Holiday..."The Complete Commodore/Decca Masters" 
Just as the title implies, this song really is for when you're feeling alone, or if you're missing someone. It's just so introspective, and thoughtful. Billie Holiday is my favorite jazz singer. The way she sings a lyric is so simple, but so full of a raw kind of emotion. She had a hard life and it's like she can put all those life experiences into songs so that I can gradually feel better.

3. "Darn that Dream"...Miles Davis..."Birth of the Cool" 
I can't even start to explain how many times I've listened to this song. I love how the lyrics to this song describe heartache in such a idealistic way. Kenny Hagood on vocals makes every word so personal, and so flowing. And Miles Davis's section of this song just pours out so smoothly. My favorite lyric is "Darn that dream and bless it too, Without that dream I never would have you", and I think the romance and blindness in that lyric is so beautiful.

4. "I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry"...Dexter Gordon..."Go!" 
From Dexter's first note, I become completely absorbed into his tone, the mood, the story. Dexter Gordon really knows how to communicate the most sad sorts of songs, and I feel like he isn't playing a saxophone- he is talking to me. And that element of just talking- musical communication on the highest level- makes me feel so much better. He's not flashy, he's just real- one hundred percent real- and that's a rare thing to hear.

5. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"...Charles Mingus..."Mingus Ah Um"
This song was originally written to remember the life and note the death of jazz legend Lester Young. It's a classic Mingus song, and I have to say the composition is so heartfelt. John Handy on alto saxophone just preaches when he solos. It's so soulful, and you can tell everyone in the band truly was working together to really create something special.

6. "If I Should Lose You"...Charlie Parker.."Charlie Parker with Strings"
Besides being one of the most heartfelt jazz standards, and one of my favorite jazz albums, this song just encapsulates a sort of love that most people can't emote. The strings are so beautiful, and Charlie Parker just sings. From the first note of the string introduction I am hooked- and Charlie Parker's first octave jump in the melody just crushes my heart. I don't know if love can be expressed more lovingly than this.

7. "Body and Soul"...Coleman Hawkins..."Body and Soul"
Besides being one of the most famous jazz recordings of all time, this is also one of the most beautiful recordings I can think of. It's so sweet, and he has something so individual to say- I admire that so much. Later on in his solo, he builds intensity in the most endearing way.

8. "Infant Eyes"...Wayne Shorter..."Speak No Evil"
Wayne Shorter is one of the most amazing jazz musicians and composers. I had the privilege of hearing him play live at the Newport Jazz Festival this past summer- and even though his style has changed and he is eighty years old now- he is still all about emotional intensity and communication. And that sort of honesty to your self and your music is so amazing.

9. "Along Came Betty"...Art Blakey and the jazz messengers..."Moanin'" 
Truly a gorgeous song, and such a wonderful band! I love every second of this song. I love the amount of communication between the players, the fluidity, and the unity. Lee Morgan on trumpet and Benny Golson on saxophone play the melody together in such a haunting way.

10. "Acknowledgment"...John Coltrane..."A Love Supreme" 
I would consider it almost a crime to not talk about John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" on this blog post. This entire album is meant to be a spiritual album, and what strikes me most about this album is the sense of purity in Coltrane's playing. The sense of abandonment and focus in his playing is so strong. He uses sound in all ranges and textures to celebrate his love of life and his creator. It goes beyond this world.

Final Thoughts: 
So I encourage you to check out all of these songs. I know these songs have helped me before, so I can only hope they can help others too.

Just know that even when you feel that you are alone or when everything seems to be changing, music will always be there for you to cleanse and to purify.