Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die
Because there are multiple decades of jazz, it's almost impossible to pick the top ten albums of all time; the hip cats with their canes and cool shades will throw their used saxophone reeds in my direction and call me a young whippersnapper.
But so many people out there, young or even a bit older, are curious about jazz, and they're not exactly sure where to start. Think of this as a jazz bucket list, filled with masterpieces of a true American music. Let's go!
See Also: - Top Ten Jazz Shows in NYC This Month10. Ornette Coleman The Shape of Jazz to Come The title of this album, when it came out in 1959, was the equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing to the fences or Muhammad Ali proclaiming he was the greatest. It was an album that said, you hear this sound, you hear what I'm laying down, everything is about to change. Ornette Coleman went from playing the sax to the trumpet, and he received scorn from Miles Davis who publicly questioned Coleman's sanity and technical ability. And because the album is often credited as being the anchor to avant-garde jazz albums, it might just sound a bit strange to the newbie's ear. But Coleman was trying to move away from tradition, shattering conventional ideas of harmony and axing the piano, to create a new dimension of sound. Give it a shot -- free of expectations.
9. Sonny Rollins The Bridge When you put on The Bridge, take a tumbler of whiskey and imagine you're staring out at New York City. After a sabbatical from music, Sonny Rollins returned triumphantly in 1962 with this work, whose title track was named after the Williamsburg Bridge, which connects Manhattan to Brooklyn. It's where Rollins used to head to practice. He's a sax player who wanted to be his own man, an individual. This album is accessible to the novice.
8. Herbie Hancock Head Hunters Herbie Hancock helped bring the synthesizer and the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano to mass appeal. This 1973 album was influenced by Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone. Even if you don't like jazz but you love funk and soul, you'll likely enjoy this one. At one point, Head Hunters was the best selling jazz album of all time. Be warned though, there is experimentation happening here. Still, the funky drums should keep you driving forward.
6. Miles Davis Bitches Brew I'm not saying that you have to like this album. But it's one you just have to listen to before you die; it's kind of like looking at Abstract Expressionism or listening to Morton Feldman -- it just might not jive with you. Bitches Brew was released in 1970. The first time I heard this album, I thought it was a joke. In fact, I was kind of pissed. Where was the melody? Where was the catchy rhythm? Well, it's so shocking the first time you hear it that it forces you to question what jazz and music can be. It makes you think about structure and limitations of our current music. The prison of the human ear. Ah, enough of that. Just listen to the album. Chaos and cacophony defined.
5. The Thelonious Monk Quartet Monk's Dream Probably one of the hippest figures in jazz, Thelonious Monk was a genius who was able to see notes on the piano that didn't even exist in Western music. When he would sit down on the piano, he would strike two half notes (notes next to each other that sound awful when played together) to simulate the imaginary notes between the two piano keys. He was so out there and amazing, and Monk's Dream (1963) is just one example, an imprint of strange and beautiful blaps and boops that were being electrified in his mind. The work is about color; it's a visual experience as much as an auditory one.
3. Charles Mingus Ah Um Charles Mingus is the godfather of the upright bass, and in 1959, he put out Ah Um, which many consider to be a masterpiece and cemented his status as a legendary composer. He combined elements of gospel and blues. The opening track, "Better Get It Into Your Soul," is not just a ruckus jubilation; it's a command -- the driving brass, the dixie-land rapture and the voice calling out in joy -- to stop doing whatever you're doing and take into your heart and body this music. It's a roller coaster ride through fast and slow tempos, cacophony and perfect harmony, and a touch of madness.
2. John Coltrane Blue Train John Coltrane is clearly one of the leaders of the jazz identity. If you think about the course of hip-hop, then can you really imagine groups like Tribe Called Quest or even someone like Tupac without a cultural and musical prophet like Coltrane? Of course, A Love Supreme is an incredible album, but Blue Train just has so much life and color that it's impossible to ignore. Recorded in 1957 on Blue Note, Blue Train was Coltrane's favorite album. It will likely become one of yours soon, too.
Joseph Lapin is a journalist, author, and photographer living in San Diego, California.
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