Jazz. What it is and how to get it. 🎹
I will do my best
The "rope station" at the top of Mount Hakone, Japan, overlooks Mt. Fuji and the Tokyo metro basin.
A coworker once asked me "What was some good jazz music to get into?"
Oh boy! What a great question! Someone is open to this lost art form!
I say "lost art" somewhat seriously. Yes, plenty of great players out there today. And a few of the players from Bird's time are still alive (as of this writing), e.g. Barry Harris, Ahmad Jamal. But we just lost Tyner this year (2020). Barry, bless his soul, still gives workshops in NYC. So yes, plenty of great players killing "the scene" today. But the era of jazz is long gone. You see? This is about culture. This is where the term "lost art" comes back. There's no need to get into the silly conversation about how "our jazz" of today is alive and well, and that I'm missing the point of exactly what jazz is about: change.
It turns out, I didn't give my coworker any helpful advice on where to turn for jazz music, but it wasn't without trying. My first question was, "What are you listening to now?"
"Anything, everything," he said.
"Everything what?" I asked.
"Everything on KPLU," he replied. KPLU is, of course, Seattle/Tacoma's NPR affiliate and as I like to call them: "easy listening".
I don't do easy listening. I find easy listening to be tedious listening because it does not challenge the mind. I'm looking for puzzles. I'm looking for complexity in simplicity. Easy example, but not the best, is this: there is no "outside playing" on this station. Very little.
Don't get me wrong. I love the tunes they play. Most of the good stuff is the old stuff. It's classic. You can’t go wrong. So, like classic rock radio stations, playing all the super safe stuff that was in the top 40 over the last half century, jazz music finds itself in the same predicament of being "classic".
So this whole time I’m thinking: I can’t help this guy.
Music is about feeling and about intelligence, as in: thinking. Both those things make experience personal. Those two things alone are what makes us human. Those two things combined provide your awareness with plenty of things to do.
That is really all there is to it. A drum says boom boom boom and you start tapping your foot. That's feeling. You start counting beats and make connections to things in your own life. That's thinking. So you can see that all music is about being human, which is this mash of feeling and thinking, at the core.
So rather than blabber on about philosophy I just ran my list of players. I told this guy, "Ok, you want some stuff to bend your ear…"
- "…Listen to some Bill Evans." Authors notes: With Bill Evans, you can start anywhere. It's all good, because Bill is mind blowing. He invites you in. One of his best trio albums (and there's a lot) is "Since We Met". Marty Morrell on drums and Eddie Gomez on bass. Bill was always a tight player, always. This band at this moment in time on this record is some of the tightest sounding shit I've ever heard. I always come back to this record to reset the bar.
- "Listen to some Kenny Dorham." Specifically, the "Round About Midnight At The Cafe" record. His band was so cool. His playing was so cool.
- "Listen to some Elvin Jones." I like the album "Remembrance". It's got Pat LaBarbera on horn. Remember that Pat's brother, Joe, played in another of Bill Evans' finest trios. Roland Prince's guitar playing on Remembrance is just right. His tone is a little grungy, too, which I like. But you can hear all the notes in the chords he plays, usually just triads on the top strings. I also really, really like Dave Liebman’s sax playing on "Earth Jones". Here he also does quite a bit of haunting flute work. There’s a big set of records called "Elvin Jones: The Capitol Vaults Jazz Series" which features numerous "head-cutting" sessions between Liebman and Steve Grossman. A good track from that comes from the "Mr. Jones" album, the tune is "One’s Native Place." "Illumination!" is another great Elvin Jones record. This one has McCoy Tyner and the Jimmy Garrison Sextet. This is bad ass music. Which brings us to:
- "Go listen to Coltrane."
You see? I told you I gave this guy terrible advice. These are all my players. Even my other musician friends typically don’t listen to Coltrane’s "Afro Blue Impressions" live album back to back every day for over a year. Do they? No, they do not. This album, and another live album titled "One Down, One Up: Live At The Half Note", really changed my life, in that I started to get how to move through any chord with any note. I transcribed many tunes from these albums to come to my own conception of chromatics, deconstruction and phrasing. I’m one of the people that say everything he did was amazing. Any Coltrane album from any of his eras will teach you something.
- "Listen to some Ahmad Jamal," I told him. There was a particular version of a song he performed called Bellows. A huge foundation of my jazz playing is based on this song, in that he does an infinite II-V-I thing in the middle. It’s fourths playing. I learned the fretboard from this tune. So that, coupled with thirds playing (as Miles called it), can take you a long way in jazz improvisation. And of course, sixths playing, as Barry Harris would like you to know. Anyway, two splendid Ahmad albums are "The Awakening" and "Crystal".
- "Go listen to some Bud Powell," I said. To me, the best Bud Powell albums are early ones. "Piano Interpretations by Bud Powell" is excellent all the way through. So is "The Lonely One". The time period was 1955/56, the Rock Around the Clock era. So Bud was already up against the wall here.
Now right about here a reader will point out that this is all stuff you can sometimes hear on the radio, but nowadays you can always hear it online in numerous places. Anything you want is out there.
To this I agree, of course. Hunt down whatever suits your fancy. And that is my actual listening advice. If you need to ask others what to listen to, you might be looking for new ideas or you might be looking for easy answers, in which case easy listening might be suited to your listening ambitions. But music is about a feeling. Right? That’s what they always say. But you must add the "thinking" part to the equation. Even the most wildly played tune with complete reckless abandon starts with a "thought". There is yin and yang here.
I kept going with my list:
- "Go listen to some Miles Davis," I said. Go listen to all of it (it’ll take you about a year, maybe two, of intense listening to cover all of the records, never mind all the video footage on YouTube). Miles. Because of what he did in the Fifties. And then he reinvented the entire genre, took it from the era of Bird and Parker and delivered it into the Sixties, and then did it again, carving a big hole for the music to go through so it could get into the Seventies.
- "Go listen to Woody Shaw." Any of it is good. I like the "Live in Bremen, Germany" record.
- And while you're in the trumpet sections, try Freddy Hubbard and Woody Shaw with "Double Take".
- Listen to Bobby Timmons play “My Funny Valentine".
- Listen to Alice Coltrane play “Turiya & Ramakrishna".
- Listen to Japanese pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi play “Hakone Twilight".
- Since you’re in Japan, try Kei Akagi’s take on "Lester Left Town". Breathtaking stuff. It’s worth noting that there still is a jazz scene somewhere other than Europe, and it’s always been in Japan. I could list name after name of players you’ve never heard of, all killer players. It’s not just in Tokyo either, it’s in Nagoya and the other big cities.
- "Go listen to Wayne Shorter." "Night Dreamer", "Speak No Evil", and "The Soothsayer". Shorter, the master of understatement. Listen to him with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams on “Miles Smiles". That’s a good record. There’s a making-of version of that record called “Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5" that is filled with inter-song chatter of Miles art directing the sessions. Quite interesting stuff! And funny stuff. You hear Miles offer Wayne his sandwich as he walks into the room. I also got a real understanding of how Shorter pulls everything together melodically while Miles does his Miles thing, which, at the core, I think was great “art direction". Mood. That thinking and feeling thing again.
- Oscar Peterson’s "The London House Sessions" is so hot that it’ll strip the paint off your house.
- "You want outside playing?" I asked, mockingly. Try George Russell’s "It’s About Time". George actually wrote the book on outside playing. And inside playing. The Lydian Chromatic Concept deserves your attention. It is said that he and Miles invented modal playing. Of course, this is a silly thing to say. But George codified it and Miles turned it into a thing.
Another reader will point out: what about so-and-so? What about these guys over here and those guys over there? What about Duke for chrissakes!?
Yes. We all have our players. Jazz is personal.
As for Duke, I like the "Duke Ellington & John Coltrane" record. There's something pretty melancholy happening here. Like a goodbye. I find it to be a hauntingly beautiful record.
"Now go listen to Bird. All of it."
— Arlo Emerson, North Bend, Washington April 2020.