Lesser-Known Jazz Classics

Lesser-known Jazz Classics That Might Help You Score With Smart People


It’s easy to find top-ten lists of all-time classic jazz recordings, and there are quite a few sites that are dedicated to giving advice to people who are just starting out their jazz collections. You can be sure that I’ll be doing a Ten Greatest Jazz Albums column sooner or later, and it will look something like this:

1) Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
2) John Coltrane: A Love Supreme
3) Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus
4) Duke Ellington: The Blanton – Webster Band
5) Louis Armstrong: Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines
6) Art Tatum: Group Masterpieces vol. 8
7) Bill Evans: Sunday at the Village Vanguard
8) Charlie Parker: Yardbird Suite
9) Thelonious Monk: Brilliant Corners
10) Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come

Those are all pretty safe choices, in the sense that they are generally regarded as great albums by the majority of critics. They are also recordings that I love dearly and listen to often. As I pointed out here, however, it is often more interesting to take a look at the places where personal taste diverge from critical consensus.

What I’d like to do in this column is write about five jazz CDs that I love and that I listen to often but which rarely, if ever, make an appearance on a typical Greatest Ever type list.


Just look at the picture on the album cover, with the two musicians relaxing on barstools, casually dressed. The music that they make together reflects that wonderfully carefree and unconstrained atmosphere. Peterson would have been in his early 30s and Armstrong in his late 50s when the tracks on this album were recorded (1957). Peterson had already been discovered by promoter and producer Norman Granz, and was popular enough to have been voted pianist of the year six consecutive times in the Downbeat poll (1950-55). Armstrong was already an international superstar. Both were, frankly, falling gracefully out of fashion as young lions like Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins moved into the spotlight. As a result the sessions feel like they were made under no pressure whatsoever, neither man having anything to prove, or anything to lose. There is a genuine sense of joy to all of the songs, even the sad ballads and the smoky blues numbers. When Satchmo sings I get no kick from champagne, you can tell that he is really thinking, Mmmmmm, champagne! The album is valuable because it is a chance to hear Armstrong in fine late 50s from in a bare-bones setting, and it is a good listen because he is working with a magnificent rhythm section. Peterson, guitarist Herb Ellis, and bassist Ray Brown had been working together for years and drummer Louis Bellson added just the right pinch of spice to the sonic brew. What makes the album great, in my opinion, is that it works like auditory Prozac. It is virtually impossible to feel anything other than happy and relaxed after listening to just a couple of tracks.


Now we move to the opposite end of the spectrum, with perhaps the least laid-back and relaxing jazz album ever made. Taken at face value, Mediations can be heard as approximately 40 minutes of unrelenting cacophony. If you are more willing to let the music wash over you and take you along on the journey, this can be felt as some of the most deeply spiritual and expressive music ever made. It is definitely not for casual listening. Meditations is a highly experimental composition, without any formal structure and using saxophone special effects like honks and squeaks as the foundation material instead of reserving them for occasional highlights. The innovation extends to the recording. Coltrane and the extremely abstract drummer Rashied Ali can be heard only on the left channel, and the highly abrasive Tenor saxophone of Pharoah Sanders and the brilliant drumming of Elvin Jones can be heard only on the right. Jimmy Garrison’s piano and McCoy Tyner’s bass can be heard in full stereo. If you try to hard to make sense of the album it can come across as far to intense and difficult. If you are able to just accept that the music isn’t concerned with typical ideas like beauty and structure, you might find that an incredible kind of peace arises out of the seeming chaos. This is music of discovery and revelation, and it amply rewards open-minded listening.


Program music is music that attempts to paint a sound picture of a material object. Duke Ellington’s Harlem Air Shaft was one of the first truly successful experiments with jazz program music. On this album Mingus, who greatly admired Ellington, takes the concept to perhaps its furthest extreme. The title track, based around one of the greatest bass lines ever written, paints a musical tapestry of the repeated rise, pride, fall, and destruction of early man. The composition manages to achieve this while still being fun to listen to, which in my opinion earns it a place among the greatest jazz tracks ever recorded. The second track, A Foggy Day, applies similar treatment to the classic Gershwin tune. While never losing track of the melody, the musicians evoke a variety of sounds that might be heard on a foggy day in San Francisco, from taxis honking their horns to the ferry creaking in to the docks. The end result is both brilliant and funny. Profile of Jackie is a pretty showcase for Jackie McLean’s alto sax and Love Chant is a relaxed and enjoyable 15-minute piece, but it is the undeniable cleverness of the first two tracks that keep me coming back to this album.


A lot of people get into jazz through the all time masterpiece, Kind of Blue. Almost every serious jazz fan has been asked at one time or another, Can you recommend something similar to Kind of Blue? and the best answer is that there is, sadly, nothing else like it and there never will be. Two tracks on this album, however, sound very much like they could be outtakes from The Greatest Jazz Recording of All Time. Both Autumn Leaves and One for Daddy-O feature expansive, muted, minor-key solos from Davis, and both evoke the simultaneously beautiful and lonesome feeling that he was the absolute master of. Cannonball was, of course, the alto saxophonist on Kind of Blue and he is in fine form here as well. Adderley’s slow blues solo on Daddy-O is absolutely gorgeous. The rhythm section is absolutely phenomenal in support of the two horns, and pianist Hank Jones gets in some tasteful soloing. Jones’introduction to Love for Sale is a real charmer. Somethin’ Else is an excellent album for anyone looking to expand their jazz collections, as it gives you a chance to hear Davis in a slightly different setting, and it is also a decent showcase for the soulful Adderley, the debonair Jones, and the wonderful drummer Art Blakey.


In a lot of ways, collecting Jazz records is like collecting Japanese wrestling matches on video. Maybe the Benoit vs. Liger match on Hard Knocks leads someone to check out more Liger, and that leads them to Liger vs. Ohtani and then to Ohtani vs. Kanemoto, and maybe back to Kanemoto vs. Benoit, and pretty soon their collection starts getting out of hand. If Blakey’s drumming on Somethin’ Else makes someone want to hear more, this is one of the best places to go next; but there is a pretty good chance that the musicians you will be introduced to here might lead to your collection getting out of hand. The Jazz Messengers were one of the great proving grounds of Jazz, and most of the great players of the late 50s and early 60s had some connection to the group. A Night in Tunisia captures the 1960 edition of the Messengers at their very best. Tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter would go on to fill John Coltrane’s very large shoes in the second great Miles Davis Quintet. Trumpeter Lee Morgan joined the
Messengers hot off of a stint with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, and would go on to write and record a blues tune called The Sidewinder, which is one of the few jazz records to become a major crossover hit. The title track is a Dizzy Gillespie tune, and the group does the unthinkable in outshining the original. All five men tear into the tune with an almost crazed ferocity. The other standout track is a gorgeously romantic ballad written by the pianist Bobby Timmons. So Tired is definitely a song that can help you score with smart people.

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