Jazz for Dummies: Definitive albums

Jazz 300 pix

Because jazz makes you cooler

By Alex Stanton, Staff Writer

“Aggressive, boastful, complex, extremely heavy”—these words describe very well not only this particular genre of music, but also the greats who created it. Many of them were virtuosos and by the time a lot of them graduated high school, they were experts of their choice instruments, moving their fingers up and down their instruments so quickly that you’d need to be in bullet-time to see even 10 per cent of the moves they were making. Some lived fast and died young. A lot of them were born into less-than-desirable circumstances and music was their only escape from their troubles. Many of these legends were mentally ill, and many of them were heroin addicts. Most, as it happens, were both. But in any case, they were masters of their craft and are considered to be some of history’s most talented composers and instrumentalists.

I’m not talking about extreme metal, though to mix up these two genres from a description like that would be totally understandable. Replace seven-string electric guitars and lightning speed double bass with an alto saxophone and a double-time swing beat, and you’re close. I’m talking about jazz.

I’ve been a big jazz geek for about three or four years now, and this is a list of albums that I believe provides essential aural experiences for anyone who decides to become more musically educated. I picked every album for different reasons. Some are really accessible, and some require repeated spins and your undivided attention. Some are low-key and soft, and some are among the most musically complex sound recordings ever. But all of them are must-hear albums for anyone who wants to take “experiencing jazz” off of their bucket list.

Blue Train (1957) by John Coltrane

This is one of those albums where you start it from the top and it captures your attention within the first 10 seconds. The opening notes of the title track sting you like a shoe-dwelling scorpion before they begin the song properly and execute perfectly timed switches between really fast and impossibly fast; this goes for the band, of course, but more so for ‘Trane himself, who rolls into the station and walks out on a velvet red carpet to uproarious fanfare every time he plays a saxophone solo. Coltrane and his merry musical men kick off the hard bop revolution with his best album of the 1950s. Lend an ear out for “Locomotive” and “Lazy Bird” if you want to hear what beats per minute can conceivably measure. Other than Psytrance fans, you all should consider sticking to it.

Time Out (1959) by The Dave Brubeck Quartet

The coolest of cool jazz, this album got its catchy name from the fact that with every single tune on this record, piano player Dave Brubeck decided to have a little fun with unorthodox time signatures. In layman’s terms, if you’ve ever listened to a song and thought, “That’s a pretty odd place to end/begin that part of the song,” you were probably listening to a not quite four-to-the-floor beat. You’ll likely have these thoughts every few seconds or so listening to this record, most notably with “Take Five,” a composition written solely by saxophone player Paul Desmond; the quartet’s signature songs “Blue Rondo à la Turk” and “Strange Meadowlark” can and will make your head spin with their time changes; and yet, they still manage to be pretty damn catchy and easy to digest overall.

The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady (1963) by Charles Mingus

When it comes to the mythical career of bassist/composer extraordinaire Charles Mingus, this is the cream of the crop. Composed as a ballet, which Mingus himself describes as “ethnic folk-dance music”, the record-length piece tap dances on the thin line between listenable and experimental. At times, it’s subtle and haunting; at others, your senses are drowned in a thick, sticky layer of cacophony. The fact that the album sounds entirely improvisational is no accident; this record is the best example of Charles Mingus being Charles Mingus. In meticulously composing and recording an album, from start to finish, not a note off from his vision of the album that would be remembered as challenging and emotionally draining, yet ultimately gorgeous and a worthwhile work of art. If I were giving out an award for best of the list, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady would take the cake.

Pastel Blues (1965) by Nina Simone

If this album didn’t exist, I’m not quite sure there would be room for vocal jazz on this list. Consisting of 35 minutes of jazz, blues, and folk, this easily digestible gem doesn’t overstay its welcome. Whether it’s an original tune or a superior version of a Billie Holiday number, when Nina Simone brings her husky voice to the table, it sounds like doves weeping tears of unfiltered joy. The stand-out track is the epic gospel standard “Sinnerman,” taken to a whole new level by Simone’s aggressive piano playing. “Strange Fruit” doesn’t put Holiday’s original to shame, but it is the definitive arrangement of the protest song.

Headhunters (1973) by Herbie Hancock

By the 1970s, a big chunk of the old guard jazz musicians that hadn’t succumbed to substance abuse were experimenting with electric instruments. The result was a spacey, funky version of jazz, born of greats such as Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and Herbie Hancock. Davis missed the mark with On the Corner the same year, and Zappa was still finding himself, but Hancock came in and set the bar to a height that still hasn’t been reached in the world of electric jazz. Two of Hancock’s finest compositions grace the first side of the record; a 15-minute-long electric synth jam through time and space called “Chameleon,” and “Watermelon Man,” a modern do-over of one of his old standards. Over the course of just four tracks, Hancock solidified his place as the king of jazz fusion and a massive influence of funk music.

Last time I checked, the libraries at both campuses of Douglas College had all of these CDs, along with about two dozen more fine albums to represent a genre I’m passionate about. I do think that these five albums are a perfect place to start for anyone who wants to step their jazz game up a tad. Who knows; maybe you’ll be like me and find that jazz music makes you feel a little bit cooler.