My buddy Tyson texted me tonight. He sent me a list from Vinyl Me, Please of “The 10 Best Albums for a Jazz Beginner” and it was interesting. I love Vinyl Me, Please. It’s a perfect subscription record club and blog site for a vinyl head/music nerd like me. Like any good list, this one kind of pissed me off. Nobody’s list is perfect to anyone but themselves. A good list is thought provoking and should piss people off. I think they got a lot of things right, but I think they missed the mark on a few as well. So, as someone who has been listening to jazz for the better part of three decades and even used to play a little bit back in the day, I thought I’d come up with my own list. After all, it’d be weak to just rip it and not come back with a list of my own, right?
So, inspired by the great folks at Vinyl Me, Please, I’m revealing my own list of 10 albums for a jazz beginner. My one rule is only one album per musician. They may appear on multiple, but I’m not just making this a list of Miles and Trane records. I’d also like to emphasize a few points before I start: My brother and I just had a conversation about how some of the best jazz might scare off a beginner. The VMP list included Out to Lunch by Eric Dolphy and The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman. Dolphy and Coleman were brilliant musicians and composers. I would NOT include them on any list of jazz for beginners because they were so experimental. When I hear neophytes discuss jazz a common complaint is, “It’s just noise. They’re not even playing music.” They’re talking about Coleman and Dolphy (among others). I would use these albums to scare off beginners. There’s plenty of Miles and Trane that would scare off beginners, too.
My other issue with this is that I find “jazz” difficult to define. Some of my favorite “jazz” is Grant Green and at some point he’s just playing funk music. When does it stop being jazz and start being funk? Another name I hear a lot is Kamasi Washington. The current savior of “jazz” music. When I listen to him I’m hearing new age music with a saxophone. There will be none of that on this list. My list is going to be what I’d consider straightforward jazz…whatever that means. Again, I’m not sure how to define it, but I’m confident that I know it when I hear it. On with the list!
A Charlie Brown Christmas – Vince Guaraldi Trio – 1965
Let me get the controversial pick out of the way immediately. If someone approached me and said, “I want to get in to jazz. What do you recommend?” my response would probably be, “Have you ever seen A Charlie Brown Christmas? Did you like the music?” That’s jazz. Vince Guraladi is now known by the masses as the Charlie Brown guy, but he’s a bad ass jazz pianist and has an impressive catalog that extends well past his work with the Peanuts gang. As far as I’m concerned “Christmas Time is Here (Instrumental)” is one of the best jazz songs ever written. How many other Christmas songs do you know that feature improvisational piano and bass solos? My love of jazz started with this record.
Kind of Blue – Miles Davis – 1959
This was also on VMP’s list. It had to be. There’s a scene in the criminally underrated movie Wayne’s World 2 when Wayne’s girlfriend mentions that she picked up a copy of Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive at a garage sale. Wayne’s response was, “Everybody in the world has Frampton Comes Alive. If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide.” That’s how I feel about Kind of Blue. If you want to listen to jazz you start here. Everyone considering jazz needs to hear this. It routinely appears not only on lists of the greatest jazz albums of all time, but just the greatest albums of all time, period. Even if you don’t listen to jazz you’ve almost certainly heard the first song, “So What”, without even realizing it. You’d recognize that bass line and say, “Oh yeah, that song. I’ve heard that.”
I give honorable mention here to Miles’s Birth of the Cool which was my introduction to him. It came out only two years earlier, but somehow feels much older and quite plain when compared to Kind of Blue. The music is simpler. There are 11 songs and they all come in between two and three minutes. Blue has five songs that range anywhere from 5:30 to 11:30 in duration so the solos have more room to meander. Even the audio quality on the recording of Cool sounds like it’s from a much earlier time. Still a great album and worthy of mention here.
I will add this: Miles isn’t all hard bop or traditional jazz. You can press play on Bitches Brew, Aura, Tutu, or several other albums and be blown away. If you played me Bitches Brew 20 years ago my response would’ve been, “Who would listen to this?” Now I love it. Very experimental. Way too “out there” for a beginner.
Blue Train – John Coltrane – 1958
Let’s get the other titan of jazz out of the way right now. Much of what I said about Miles applies here. Coltrane runs the gamut. His early stuff is more digestible for beginners. As he got older and more experimental, he had some music that would likely scare people back to whatever genre they were listening to prior. The VMP list had Coltrane represented with A Love Supreme. An all-time great record, no doubt, but not the one I’d choose for beginners. A real appreciation of A Love Supreme requires some laps in the shallow end of the jazz pool first. Blue Train comes out of that sweet spot in the late-50’s when many of the greats were coming in to their own and hadn’t started experimenting quite so heavily yet. My personal Coltrane favorite is Giant Steps. Another honorable mention to consider if you liked Blue Train and want to try something slightly more advanced.
A Night at Birdland – Art Blakey Quintet – 1954
I wrote extensively about this album just a few weeks ago. More than any other jazz album, this one strikes me as what it must have felt like hearing live jazz in a club in the 1950’s. There are two volumes of this album recorded over a weekend at Birdland in Manhattan in 1954. Just smoking hot grooves and amazing solos featuring the brilliant Clifford Brown on trumpet and Horace Silver on piano. In my opinion, if you’re not tapping your foot and or bobbing your head to this music within the first few minutes, you just don’t like jazz and should probably not pursue it any further.
Jazz Samba – Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd – 1962
I’m trying to diversify a bit here. Everything can’t be hard bop from the late-50’s. This album is technically “bossa nova” which must be Brazilian for smooth shit because that’s what this album is. Stan Getz brings his typical flawless, subdued tenor sax on this album, but the adjustment for jazz beginners is Charlie Byrd’s acoustic guitar. It took me a bit to get used to guitar in jazz, but this is a nice introduction. The two trade solos throughout this album and the result is an ultra-cool peek in to popular Brazilian music in the early-60’s.
Idle Moments – Grant Green – 1965
Let’s stick with the guitar for a minute. Up until about 10-15 years ago I had no use for a guitar in my jazz. To me, jazz was a drummer, bass player, pianist, a sax player or two, and a trumpet player. That’s it. Then streaming music happened and I got to explore. The title track on this album is a masterpiece. Green’s guitar is a master class in control. I’ve heard him play solos so fast you’d think there was smoke coming off the guitar, but on this track he pulls back beautifully. Bobby Hutcherson on the vibes is a revelation. I had no idea I could enjoy jazz without horns until I heard this album. Joe Henderson sprinkles in some tenor sax, but this album is all about Green and Hutcherson. One of my all-time favorites.
One Flight Up – Dexter Gordon – 1965
I love tenor sax. I played trumpet, but I still prefer the sound of a tenor sax. Contrary to what you may have heard, John Coltrane wasn’t the only tenor sax player who ever lived. There is an extensive list of greats. Coltrane rightfully sits at the top, but somewhere not too far down any list should be Dexter Gordon. Many list his 1964 classic Go as an all-time jazz great and I wholeheartedly agree. However, when I want to hear some Gordon my go-to album is One Flight Up for one main reason: “Darn that Dream”. Written in 1939 and performed by dozens of jazz musicians and singers, it’s one of my favorite ballads. In my opinion, nobody nails that song quite like Gordon does on Side B of this record. 7:30 of beautiful, hypnotic tenor sax. Special shout out to Kenny Drew and his lovely piano work as well on that song. The rest of One Flight Up is rock solid as well, but Gordon’s interpretation of “Darn that Dream” puts this album over the top of his others for me.
The Sidewinder – Lee Morgan – 1964
I’ll say the same thing about Morgan I said above about Gordon on the tenor sax: The list of great jazz trumpet players does not begin and end with Miles Davis. It certainly begins with him, but there is a long line of trumpet greats who are routinely lost in the long shadow cast by Miles’s greatness. Among them is Lee Morgan. I was at The Exclusive Company in Appleton years ago digging through their selection of jazz records when a complete stranger approached me. He stuck his hand right in the same row of records I was perusing and pulled out The Sidewinder. He put it right in my face and said, “If you don’t have this album you need to get it. Best jazz album I’ve ever heard.” He was so brash I kind of wanted to tell him to get his hand and his record out of my face. At the same time, he was so damned confident I just took it from him and said, “Looks good. I’ll buy it.” He won me over with his audacity. He then proceeded to rave about the album for another three minutes to a point where it rubbed me the wrong way. Calm down, Lee Morgan guy. You made your point. I said I’d buy it. While it’s not the best jazz album I’ve ever heard, it sure as hell is great. I love the opening minutes of the title track when Morgan and tenor sax player Joe Henderson (once again) harmonize together. Not something you hear every day and they sound so crisp and perfect together. A fun jazz record for beginners.
Song For My Father – Horace Silver Quintet – 1965
Man, I’ve got a lot of music from the 1962 – 1965 range on this list. That was not necessarily my intention coming in, but I guess that’s the output. Silver himself doesn’t do anything specific that I love on this album, but it’s just an enjoyable collection of songs from start to finish and it covers a lot of ground. Slow stuff, fast stuff, and everything in between, including some more bossa nova! I love the title track, where Joe Henderson appears once again to steal the show on tenor sax. “The Kicker” is reminiscent of the hottest stuff on the Art Blakey Birdland album. “Que Pasa?” brings that Brazilian flavor like Stan Getz. “Lonely Woman” is a lovely ballad. This album has a taste of everything. Call it a jazz sampler for beginners.
But Not For Me: At the Pershing – Ahmad Jamal – 1958
Another album that I’ve written about in the past. I have repeatedly mentioned Miles Davis and John Coltrane as the obvious kings of their respective instruments. I find it more difficult hearing the subtle differences in jass pianists. I’ve already mentioned Vince Guaraldi, Kenny Drew, and Horace Silver on this list. Chick Corea, Duke Elligton, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett…the list goes on and on. Many consider Thelonious Monk to be the G.O.A.T. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I did not include him on this list as his style and music might be a bitter pill for a beginner to swallow. Of the pianists I’ve heard, the one who stands out for me is Ahmad Jamal. While some pianists sound like they’re pounding the keys, Jamal sounds as if his fingers are lightly fluttering over the top of them. He wanders off on improvisational solos for minutes at a time only to come back in perfect lock step with the band. The percussion work of Vernel Fournier deserves mention on this album as well, particularly his work on the stunning “Poinciana”. I only first discovered Ahmad Jamal and this album about a year ago, but it is fast becoming one of my favorites and I would highly recommend it for someone getting started in jazz.
That’s my list. I hope it inspires someone (my brother?) enough to pick it apart the same way I did the VMP list. What did I miss? What shouldn’t be here? Let me know what you think.