Jazz Starter Kit - 50 Albums


Monday, April 30, is International Jazz Day, proclaimed by UNESCO goodwill ambassador Herbie Hancock. There will be streaming concerts and much more on jazzday.com. It seems like an apt time for a solid historical overview of jazz. Over the years, people have asked me, "I've just started listening to jazz, what should I get?" and "What jazz albums do you think everyone should have in their collection?" Here are my top recommendations to provide a broad foundation for understanding jazz through classic performances that have stood the test of time.

By putting the essential albums in chronological order, the development of jazz is outlined. Usually I recommend just one album per artist, but there are three among them who tower over the history of jazz so monumentally that they are represented by multiple albums: Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Figures as protean as these three cannot be represented by just one album; their styles changed considerably over the decades, producing several genuine milestones each along the way. Also, for a number of the artists, box sets (usually containing the listed albums) will also be suggested; anyone fairly sure he or she will enjoy a particular artist's work may reap benefits from the total immersion experience a big box set can provide, and they're less expensive than individually acquiring all the albums they contain.

This is not a list of the most popular or famous jazz albums, nor my personal favorites. Sometimes, one of my most favorite albums by a listed artist is not included (Coltrane's Blue Train, for instance) because other albums more directly display his most historically important characteristics. Nor is any slight intended to artists left off the list. Some wonderful players who developed distinctive sounds, such as Sonny Stitt, are just less historically important than similar players. Note, however, that sometimes artists that seem to be missing are on a listed album under somebody else's name, sometimes quite prominently so: Benny Goodman actually lead the most significant band featuring Charlie Christian, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter worked closely with Miles Davis, and so on.

These albums do belong in the collection of every sophisticated music-lover. After all, jazz is the United States' greatest contribution to the world of arts. It has developed over the last 100 years in leaps and bounds, moving quickly from primitive roots to extreme sophistication and grabbing the public's attention in a big way. In fact, jazz was pop in the 1920s and 1930s, recorded to fit on 78-rpm records that held around three minutes per side (the pre-1950 albums here were compiled after the fact). But even then, men such as Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington had artistic ambitions that went beyond merely catching the public's attention with a catchy tune and a snappy beat.

Enough prolog! Here are the essential jazz albums:

Armstrong, a trumpet and cornet player from New Orleans, was the first superstar improvisational jazz soloist (Sid Bechet misses that title not for lack of skill but because of less fame), and directly or indirectly is an influence on every jazz musician who followed him. He had a long and productive career and became a superstar before the term was in use. These tracks, recorded (with one exception) in 1928, mostly with an all-star group, also document the importance of pianist Earl Hines's style, which made horn-like right-hand lines the focus. Armstrong's introductory cadenza on "West End Blues" remains the epitome of spontaneous improvisation 80 years later; other famous tracks here are "Basin Street Blues," "Hear Me Talkin' to Ya," "St. James Infirmary," "Tight Like This," and the astonishing Armstrong/Hines duet "Weather Bird."

Big spenders should go straight to

The Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings (Columbia Legacy)

Most of the above tracks feature Armstrong with His Hot Five (though on the original 78 RPM discs, the group name varied). This four-CD set offers a more complete look at Armstrong's 1925-29 small-group recordings, with additional jazz milestones "Gut Bucket Blues," "Muskrat Ramble," "Hotter Than That," "Potato Head Blues," "Wild Man Blues," "Struttin' with Some Barbeque," and many more, almost every one featuring an Armstrong solo any trumpeter then or since would be proud to have conceived. Oh, and his singing's pretty mind-blowing as well.

Morton, something of an egotist even by the standards of professional musicians, liked to claim that he'd invented jazz. That's a clear exaggeration, but Morton's extremely important 1926-1930 recordings for Victor with his Red Hot Peppers band are crucial documents of the development of jazz in New Orleans (albeit captured after the fact in Chicago and New York), including three of his best-known tunes, "Black Bottom Stomp," "Wolverine Blues" and "The Pearls." The players include such New Orleans heroes as trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen, trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetists Johnny Dodds and Barney Bigard, and drummers Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton; there are many inspired solos, but Morton also carefully arranged much of this music. There used to be a five-CD set on RCA (Centennial: His Complete Victor Recordings) that included all 1926-30 Victor tracks plus eight songs recorded in 1939 (with four alternate takes), but RCA hasn't bothered to keep it available even digitally, much less in print. It can be found at reasonable prices on Amazon if you don't mind not having its outer longbox.

Make no mistake, Waller would be a jazz legend if he'd never opened his mouth. A pupil of James P. Johnson (leaving the great Johnson off this list pains me greatly), Waller was an excellent stride pianist himself and also a superb songwriter who penned, often with lyricist Andy Razaf, some of the most popular songs in jazz history. Hardcore jazz fans tend to prefer Waller's solo piano recordings, which are best heard on the two-CD set Turn on the Heat: The Fats Waller Piano Solos(RCA Bluebird), which ranges from 1927 to '41, over half classic 1929 tracks. But for the hits, it's this present compilation, which does include such piano showpieces as "Handful of Keys" and "Smashin' Thirds" but focuses on such vocal favorites as "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Honeysuckle Rose," "The Joint Is Jumping," "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," and "The Jitterbug Waltz" (all co-credited to Waller).

This 20-song CD selecting from Brunswick and Vocalion recordings showcases the so-called Jungle Band, the sonically colorful group that made Ellington a star at the Cotton Club in Harlem (they were named the Washingtonians when they opened the club in 1927). Already, with "Creole Rhapsody" and "Mood Indigo," Ellington was aiming at more than just catchy tunes or keeping dancers moving. Not that there aren't plenty of catchy classics here: "East St. Louis Toodle-O" (covered by Steely Dan!), "The Mooche," and the super-groovin' "Rockin' in Rhythm." "Black and Tan Fantasy," among others from the 1926-29 period, displays the superb effects Bubber Miley was able to draw from his trumpet using a plunger mute. After Miley's drinking became too much of a problem, he was replaced by Cootie Williams, who lasted decades. There are plenty of other great soloists to be heard here as well.

Big spenders should go straight to

The Complete Brunswick and Vocalion Recordings of Duke Ellington (1926-1931) (Decca/MCA)

Among many wonderful items this three-CD, 67-track set includes that are missing from the above single disc is a wonderful Ellingtonian look back at an early jazz classic with an extended "Tiger Rag," the last great showcase for Miley.

Tatum is often considered the most technically superb pianist in jazz history, a prodigious talent whose performances inspired praise from classical pianists. He also expanded jazz harmony with chords going far beyond simple triads, an aspect of his playing that eventually influenced the beboppers. The four solo tracks that open this collection, from 1933, were his non-sideman recording debut, and he was clearly out to prove his prowess, as his florid "Tiger Rag" demonstrates. The rest of the album is drawn from a 1949 solo concert, and his elegance and breadth of repertoire are as impressive as his technique.

Basie wasn't as compositionally ambitious as Ellington, but he had the most swinging big band around.  The group came out of the Kansas City scene, rose to fame in the 1930s, and periodically renewed itself. The 1937-39 recordings on these three CDs are arguably the peak of the Swing style as danceable popular art. This band made several members into stars, not only singers Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes, but also tenor saxophonist Lester Young (who doubled on clarinet) and trumpeters Harry "Sweets" Edison and Buck Clayton. Less famous members including Herschel Evans (tenor sax), trombonist Dickie Wells, and trombonist/guitarist Eddie Durham also contribute many scintillating solos. But above all, there are the interlocking or contrasting riffs of the different instrumental sections. Sometimes they were arranged by Don Redman, or Durham (the band's most prolific chart-writer), or Clayton, or others, but most famously they were sometimes spontaneous creations, "head" arrangements worked out in action by the band. These head arrangements are among the catchiest and most thrilling: "Jumpin' at the Woodside," "Oh, Lady Be Good," "Panassie Stomp," "Boogie Woogie (I May Be Wrong)," and possibly "Sent for You Yesterday" (another great Rushing vehicle), which might also be a Durham job. Durham's many charts, playing perfectly proportioned section riffs off each other, often have the feel of head arrangements: "One O'Clock Jump," "John's Idea," "Swingin' the Blues," and possibly "Doggin' Around."

Holiday is the greatest jazz singer ever. There's not very many jazz aficionados who would argue that statement, either; she stands above the competition by a wide margin in the estimates of musicians (including singers), fans, and critics alike. Even in her early days (she was just 18 when the first recordings here were made), before hard living ravaged her body and soul, Holiday didn't have much of a voice compared to many other big band singers, but what she did with what she had is amazing. Her phrasing plays with the beat, often lagging behind it and then catching up, yet indubitably swinging. No singer has ever surpassed Holiday's sensitivity in conveying lyrics, and her intonation was capable of conveying a vast range of moods, often suggesting several simultaneously. She invests even the corniest lyrics with heartfelt emotion without overburdening them with grand gestures. And if a melody as written didn't seem ideal to her, she would revise it; the way she would streamline a melody's contours and emphasize "blue" notes often showed the influence of the blues singers she grew up listening to. Here she is heard with some of the greatest musicians of the day, mostly veterans of the bands of Count Basie (with which she was a featured attraction for a while) and Benny Goodman: sax greats Lester Young and Ben Webster, trumpeter Buck Clayton, pianist Teddy Wilson, and Goodman himself. Her warm versions of "That's Life I Guess" and "I Must Have That Man" -- among many others here -- are classics.

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Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles (Columbia Legacy)
Drawn from the ten-CD, 230-track box set Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944, this four-CD set's 80 tracks will probably suffice unless you are a very big-spending completist. It basically captures the best of Holiday's first decade of recording (without the concert material or many alternate takes of the bigger set), when her voice was still fresh and bad habits had not taken a noticeable toll. The joys of this material include its variety: Holiday was not yet typecast (as she would be in the 1950s) as a mournful songbird abused by her lovers, so many upbeat and uptempo songs (even ones she'd continue singing in later years) move with greater alacrity in her youthful era.

"Hawk" was the first great tenor saxophonist, the man who took the instrument from a jazz joke to a serious tool of expression. But he was much more than just an advocate of his specific instrument. There are two versions of the title song on this compilation, one the famous 1939 recording that showed Hawkins to be as harmonically advanced as any non-pianist jazz player. In effect, it triumphantly announced his return from a five-year stay in Europe and proved that he was still, Lester Young notwithstanding, the greatest tenorman on the scene. There's also some later material here, including a 1947 session with arrangements by Tadd Dameron, that shows that Hawk's style fit well with bebop, as well it should have considering the inspiration many boppers found in Hawk's harmonic innovations.

The Duke Ellington big band of 1940-42, covered in depth by this crucial three-CD set, was the most talented and historically important band of the swing era. Two reasons for that are shown in the title of this collection. From the moment the Ellington band became popular in the mid-1920s through the end of the '30s, its stars (beyond the leader, of course) were trumpeters and trombonists. When Ben Webster joined in 1940, he was the group's first important saxophonist. He learned saxophone from Budd Johnson and Lester Young, but it was Coleman Hawkins, the first man to establish the tenor sax as a serious solo instrument, who provided Webster with a model. With Ellington, Webster became famous for "Cotton Tail," an uptempo number that was his signature tune with the band. But it was as a ballad player that he was most distinctive and influential. On "All Too Soon," his languorous phrasing and broad, breathy, yet full tone show the style that would forever be identified with him. The other half of the title is Jimmy Blanton, who in his short life established the potential of the bass as a melodic and solo instrument (born in 1918, he died in mid-1942 of tuberculosis). Moving away from simple 4/4 thumping on the roots of chords, he was agile whether plucking or bowing and produced a big enough sound to hold his own. "Ko Ko," "Jack the Bear," and "Concerto for Cootie" feature the first important bass solos in the history of jazz. (After Blanton became ill, Junior Raglin had the formidable task of replacing him starting in December '41.) But the third major element in the transformation of the band's sound was composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn, who began working with Ellington in 1939. Strayhorn had a profound understanding of classical music and a strong fondness for the Impressionists, leanings Ellington shared to some extent but which were amplified on the arrival of Strayhorn, who became Ellington's right-hand man. And when Ellington had a dispute with ASCAP in 1940-41, which led to his songs not being played on the radio, Strayhorn filled the gap with "Take the 'A' Train," "After All," "Clementine," "Chelsea Bridge," "Raincheck," and "Johnny Come Lately" (all included here), on many of which Strayhorn plays piano instead of Ellington, and often solos. There were many other talents in the group during this period: trumpeters Cootie Williams and then Ray Nance, sonically original cornetist Rex Stewart, trombonists Tricky Sam Nanton, Lawrence Brown, and Juan Tizol (composer of "Perdido" and "Bakiff" and, before this period, "Caravan"), reedmen Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, and Harry Carney, drummer Sonny Greer, and vocalists Ivie Anderson and Herb Jeffries (who had a big hit with "Flamingo" and is, at age 98 as I write this, the last living member of the band). And, of course, there was Ellington himself -- no man has ever voiced a saxophone section more exquisitely or distinctively. Whether luxuriating in such lush items as "Sepia Panorama" or romping through "The 'C' Jam Blues," this was an immediately identifiable group that made an indelible mark in jazz history and has been making listeners smile for six decades.

Big spenders should go straight to

The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1927-1973(RCA Victor)

This is a serious box set: 24 CDs with a 128-page, 10"x10" full color book. No other set so well allows listeners to chart the course of his development, though there is a large gap between 1946 and 1965 that's plugged only slightly by a 1952 Seattle concert. But the 1927-34 material here is just as enjoyable as the Brunswick stuff (with the most famous numbers mentioned above in different recordings here by basically the same personnel), there's twice as much 1940-42 material, there's three discs of highly underrated 1944-46 material (including the first recordings from his first major suite, Black, Brown and Beige), all three of his Sacred Concerts (1965/68/73), his two most praised '60s albums, The Far East Suite (1966), a beautiful bit of exotica inspired by locales passed through on a band tour, and a rollicking 1973 concert performance. The best of all the late stuff, an album I almost recommended separately on this list, is also here: …and His Mother Called Him Bill (1967), a heartfelt tribute to long-time collaborator Billy Strayhorn, who'd died of cancer earlier that year. It's devoted to 15 of his compositions, from "Lotus Blossom" and other mainstays of the Ellington band book to his last piece, "Blood Count," and is capped by a deeply touching solo piano version of the lovely "Lotus Blossom." Alas, this box is out of print, but can be found used on Amazon.

Christian was the first great electric guitarist and defined the instrument's solo role in jazz by playing it like a horn, but he was much more than just a guitar innovator. Though he mostly recording in a big-band swing context, the way he stretched phrases across normal lengths and in more even eighth notes than the swing norm was a big influence on bebop. Improvising with unceasing invention, his solos are always highlights, even given the sterling Benny Goodman Band musicians he's heard with on many tracks on this disc compiling 1939-41 recordings by both large and small groups.

The Genius of the Electric Guitar (Sony)

Confusingly, Sony's four-CD box has the same title as its earlier one-CD compilation. While the final disc includes interrupted takes and the like, which only specialists will want to listen to repeatedly, Christian's artistry is so stunning that one easily forgives the fourth disc in light of the great bounty found on the first three CDs.

The 1940s saw the decline of the big bands that had propagated the swing style and the rise of small combos playing the more harmonically complex bebop style and its variants – cool jazz, hard bop, and more. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and many more were still playing pop tunes sometimes, but with a different purpose, transmuting them into great art. With the introduction of the long-playing record, artists were able to stretch out, whether with longer solos or multi-section compositions. In combination with prosperity returning after a long period where the Depression and World War II had adversely affected business, there was a great flowering of innovation and artistry. Many of these developments made the music more complex and less commercially suited for the pop market, but jazz still retained a broad audience.

Parker is another frequent candidate for the much-debated honors of "greatest jazz musician" and "inventor of bebop." There's certainly no single figure who can definitively claim either crown, but he certainly was the finest horn soloist since Coleman Hawkins, was the epitome of bebop, and is generally acclaimed the greatest alto saxophonist ever. The 1945-47 sessions that are the focus of this three-CD set are as crucial to jazz's legacy as anything ever recorded: "Moose the Mooche," "Ornithology," "A Night in Tunisia," "Relaxin' at Camarillo," "Bird of Paradise," "Scrapple from the Apple," and many more, full of ground-breaking improvisations by the leader and sometimes by his band-mates, including at various times trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie (the Lou Gehrig to Parker's Babe Ruth), Howard McGhee, and Miles Davis, tenor saxophonists Wardell Gray and Lucky Thompson, trombonist J.J. Johnson, pianists Bud Powell, Errol Garner, John Lewis, and the underrated Dodo Marmarosa and Duke Jordan, and drummer Max Roach.

Big spenders should go straight to

The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings (1944-1948) (Savoy)

This out-of-print eight-CD set may seem like overkill, but Parker didn't tend to repeat himself on alternate takes, and occasionally he played his best solos on takes where the other musicians hadn't quite gotten down their parts, takes that therefore didn't become masters. Yes, the average person should be quite happy with just the above three-CD set, especially considering the bigger compilation will require a search, but the additional material here hardly seems redundant, and there is also some rarer stuff from a few smaller labels, including an excellent session led by vibraphonist Red Norvo.

Bud Powell (1924-66)
The Definitive Bud Powell (Blue Note)

Bud remains the epitome of bebop piano, the player who first succeeded in applying Parker's playing style to the instrument by ditching the heavy left hand (moving away from a regular beat and bass line in favor of a few well-placed chords) and emphasizing speedy single-note lines in his right hand, in effect making him the bop Earl Hines to Parker's Armstrong (note that on solo outings and some ballads with accompaniment, Powell continued using a fuller, more lush style derived from Art Tatum via Thelonious Monk). Powell's playing style can be heard on the Parker set already recommended, so I picked this compilation because it highlights Bud's underrated composing (11 out of 13 tracks). One highlight is "Glass Enclosure," an uneasy, harmonically shifting depiction of Powell's state of mind either while institutionalized or while being a virtual prisoner in his own apartment in a period when the manager of Birdland restricted Powell's freedom to guarantee that he'd show up for his nightly gig. That's a 1953 trio track (with bassist George Duvivier and drummer Art Taylor); aside from the opening "Bud's Bubble" from 1947, all the rest are from 1949 (a classic quintet with trumpeter Fats Navarro and tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins along with bassist Tommy Potter and drummer Roy Haynes) and '51 (a trio with bassist Curly Russell and drummer Max Roach, same as in '47). Powell was not exactly a prolific composer, but did create enough during his peak period that there's another Blue Note compilation, The Best of Bud Powell, spanning 1947-63 that's also mostly originals (11 of 15 tracks, for $4 more than Definitive) and only duplicates four tunes (in one case, using different recordings). The rest of Powell's Blue Note/Roost albums have been reconfigured to proceed in chronological order, including plenty of alternate takes, so in a way there's actually less duplication between these two compilations than on most single CDs of this material. That makes it especially annoying that Blue Note hasn't kept Definitive or Best in print or available on iTunes, but used copies are easily found.

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The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings (Blue Note)

This out-of-print four-CD set has a self-explanatory yet slightly false title (for some reason, "I've Got You Under My Skin" from his 1953 session is missing, though it's on The Amazing Bud Powell vol. 2). It covers his 1947-58 recordings along with one 1963 trio recorded in Paris (after Bud had moved to France for five years) at the end of Dexter Gordon Our Man in Paris session (none of the tracks with Gordon are included in the Powell box). Powell became increasingly erratic after 1951, but the quality of his Blue Note material remained high (which can't always be said of his efforts for Verve, collected on a five-CD set also worth hearing), so this is well worth tracking down.

In a period when the bebop trumpet ideal was Dizzy Gillespie's bright virtuosity, Davis carved out an instantly recognizable new sound built on space and light tone rather than speed and robustness (though he could muster both of the latter when he wished). Though the components of this album barely sold when they came out, these 1949-50 recordings soon gave birth to the highly influential "cool jazz" style (a more composed -- in both senses of the word -- style than bebop). The lush nonet arrangements of Davis, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, and Johnny Carisi, and the playing of key alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, were a reaction to the hot improvisations of bebop, emphasizing instead the interplay of instrumental colors in carefully sculpted settings -- and providing a context in which Davis's fragile trumpet sound was beautifully displayed.

Slightly bigger spenders should go straight to

The Complete Birth of the Cool (Capitol)

This is also a single CD that includes the 12 studio tracks on the above disc and adds 11 songs (plus a theme and announcement) recorded at the Royal Roost in 1948 by an earlier version of the band. One live track, Lewis's "S'il Vous Plait," was not recorded in the studio. If you were buying the Mona Lisa and the seller told you that for another five bucks (or just one on iTunes!) he'd throw in the only existing preliminary sketch, what would you do?

This album, recorded in late 1954 and early '55, is often cited as the first hard bop record. Silver co-leads with drummer Art Blakey; the other players are Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Hank Mobley (tenor sax), and Doug Watkins (bass). Silver's catchy compositions, notably "The Preacher" and "Doodlin'," defined the East Coast-based hard bop style with their gospel inflections and strong blues flavor, bringing the sometimes abstract flights of earlier bebop down to earth and counteracting the cool jazz trend with hard-swinging grooves. (When Silver struck out on his own, Blakey kept the Jazz Messengers going -- for another three-and-a-half decades.)

Thelonious Monk (1917-82)

Though he was in at the invention of bebop, this pianist's uniqueness always made him stand apart from any movement. He had an oddly squared-off yet irresistible sense of swing, favored angular lines and spare harmonies alternately widely spaced or in piquant clusters, and had a propensity to improvise on the tune or motivic cells rather than merely over the chord progression. He also had a fondness for whole-tone scales that, in jazz, was quite ahead of the times. These distinctive characteristics were embodied in both his playing and his vastly influential compositions. Paradoxically, at the same time critics were misperceiving his highly personal piano style as merely incompetent (mostly because he didn't favor the quicksilver right-hand figures Bud Powell made his fame with), musicians were complaining that Monk's compositions were sometimes too hard to learn, full of unexpected (though logical) juxtapositions and unusual structures that still sound modern. For all the fine musicianship on this 1956 album, from the leader and a band including tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Max Roach (with alto saxophonist Ernie Henry added on three tracks, and trumpeter Clark Terry on one), it is Monk's tricky and memorable compositions -- the title track had to be pieced together from multiple takes, because the band never made it all the way through without problems -- that make the most profound impression.

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The Complete Riverside Recordings (Riverside)

Few 15-CD sets are as consistently rewarding as this one. Starting with two efforts specifically designed to ease the public into Monk's unique sound -- trio albums of standards and Ellington tunes -- it proceeds to such peaks of creativity as the above-mentioned Brilliant Corners, collaborations with tenor sax greats Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane and baritone saxist Gerry Mulligan, the Five Spot club concerts with tenorman Johnny Griffin that might be Monk's best live albums, the famous Town Hall big band concert, and much more. I look at Monk's legacy, covering many of the Riverside LPs, in this overview

Of all the albums from Davis's prolific and influential period on the Prestige label, Relaxin' may operate at the most consistently high level of excellence. The classic quintet with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones is heard near the beginning of its existence -- but the end of its time on Prestige, which resulted in the famously prolific contract-fulfilling 1956 recording sessions that produced this and three other albums -- on such gentle gems of spontaneity as "If I Were a Bell."

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Chronicles: The Complete Prestige Recordings (1951-1956) (Prestige)

An eight-CD set with 17 sessions that are the epitome of Davis's reinvention of bebop. While it's true that Davis was not at his best, technically speaking, on the early material it contains, there were still interesting ideas and exciting new players (Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins) on the dates. The rest of the stuff here is undeniably classic, and a good percentage of it is by the same quintet.

This 1956 quartet album is where it became clear that tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins was not merely good, but truly an exceptional player with an important approach. "Blue 7" is one of the most analyzed and respected improvisations in jazz, with Rollins's often-subtle manipulations of motivic cells showing the influence Monk had on him. "St. Thomas" unveiled his fondness for calypso and his ability to take practically any music and make it top-flight jazz. Jazz improvisation rarely gets more ecstatic than Rollins in full flight. Here he's accompanied by pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Doug Watkins, and drummer Max Roach.

Clifford Brown quickly established himself as one of the finest, most lyrical and exciting trumpeters in jazz, then died young in a tragic car accident. He reached his most stimulating heights in this quintet co-lead by master drummer Max Roach that also included Sonny Rollins, pianist Richie Powell (Bud's brother), and bassist George Morrow. Highlights on this 1956 platter (not, despite its title, a concert recording) include a mercurial "What Is This Thing Called Love" (by Cole Porter) that brilliantly refurbishes the old standard and Tadd Dameron's "The Scene Is Clean." The trumpet sound that has perhaps influenced the most players in recent decades stars is at its peak here.

Smith didn't single-handedly make the organ a hip jazz instrument -- he used two hands and his feet. An instrument that had mostly been considered an unwieldy curiosity (though Fats Waller got around on a pipe organ pretty handily a few decades earlier) suddenly in the 1950s was a hot property thanks to Smith's ingenious virtuosity. In the 1960s, Smith would lean more heavily on blues in moving into a soul-jazz sound; here, recorded in 1958 at Small's Paradise, he's in a bebop bag (the title track's a Charlie Parker song) with alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson (very Bird-influenced), under-recorded tenorman Tina Brooks, guitarist Eddie McFadden, and on drums, Art Blakey for half the disc, Donald Bailey on the rest. For Smith's bluesier sound, get Back at the Chicken Shack (1960); among its many merits, it was tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine's first important session.

Davis's collaborations with master arranger Gil Evans reached their apex on this 1958 selection of music from the Gershwin opera depicting life in the South. The richly textured charts for a large group (descended from Ellington's more lush efforts) are like a jeweler's elaborate settings for the gems that are Davis's spare yet beautiful, emotionally phrased melodic statements. Two of the other Davis/Evans collaborations, Miles Ahead (1957) and Sketches of Spain (1960), are also fairly crucial albums, but note that Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings, the box set that includes them all, is for fanatics only, as some of the minutia it focuses on at length is of only marginal interest to non-scholars.

In the '50s a number of players expanded the sounds of jazz with time signatures beyond the usual 4/4 and 3/4 meters; none with more elan and greater popular impact than the Brubeck Quartet's famous "Take Five," a 1959 track in 5/4 time. Brubeck's heavy, two-handed piano work was perfectly complemented by the light, dry tone of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond (who wrote "Take Five"), while Joe Morello's spare, thoughtful drumming contributed greatly to the success of Brubeck's metric experiments. "Blue Rondo a la Turk" is another successful experiment, mixing Mozart and the blues. Brubeck's clean-cut image (and, for some listeners back then, his whiteness) helped him bring modern jazz to many more mainstream listeners than most jazzmen could reach, but his talents were real. I have more to say about this album here.

Mingus was one of the greatest bassists and composers in jazz history, an important figure in bebop who anchored a Parker-Gillespie band at one point but who later developed in very different directions. This 1959 album has Mingus's two most famous tunes, the rollicking, gospel-influenced "Better Git It In Your Soul" and the tender Lester Young tribute "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." The loose (in the best sense of the word) interplay among the musicians, most prominently trombonist Jimmy Knepper, saxophonists John Handy, Booker Ervin, and Pepper Adams, pianist Horace Parlan, Mingus, and drummer Dannie Richmond, pointed the way to many later developments, from soul jazz to the avant-garde. The nearly as great Mingus Dynasty, from later that year, is included as the second CD of the 50th anniversary edition of Ah Um. Handy, Ervin, Knepper, and Richmond are holdovers from Ah Um; vibraphonist Teddy Charles, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, baritone saxophonist Jerome Richardson, trumpeters Don Ellis Richard Williams, and pianist Roland Hanna are the major new contributors. Highlights include Ellington favorites "Mood Indigo" and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" (the Duke was a big influence on Mingus's arranging). I wrote about these albums at length in this article. culturecatch.com/music/1959-jazz-charles-mingus-4-lps-3-labels

Recorded after Davis had already established himself several times over as a forward-thinking jazz superstar, this landmark 1959 sextet album took the modal experiments he and pianist Bill Evans had worked on in the previous year to new heights of expressiveness and spareness. Exceptional saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley are very different but equally effective complements to the leader's style. Kind of Blue is considered by many to be the greatest LP in jazz history, and is certainly one of the most influential, as its modal approach was quickly adopted by progressive jazzmen.

This was Coltrane's first album entirely made up of his own compositions. Over four decades on from this 1959 classic, the tricky chord changes of the title track still represent an improvisational proving ground for tenor saxophonists, arguably the apex of playing on chord changes. It's not all fast-moving fireworks, though; the beautiful ballad "Naima" is now a jazz standard.

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Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Atlantic/Rhino)

This gorgeously designed box thoroughly chronicles the brief but fertile period (1959-61) on Atlantic Records that turned Coltrane from a respected sideman into a star. It includes seven albums (along with plenty of outtakes and alternate takes) besides Giant Steps, most crucially My Favorite Things, where modality for the masses and the resurgence of the soprano saxophone meet on that 1960 recording's popular title track, showing how complex simplicity can be and vice versa -- and how quickly Coltrane's playing style was changing in this period. The genesis of Trane's classic Quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones starts there. His quartet sound came together quickly and immediately changed the sound of jazz, in the process setting the template for modal improvisation that was followed by the majority of jazz players since then. This box also contains Coltrane's first foray into The Avant-Garde, an underrated album with Ornette Coleman sidemen Don Cherry (trumpet), Charlie Haden (bass), and Ed Blackwell (drums).

Completely self-taught and remarkably unprolific, Gil Evans nonetheless ranks among the greatest arrangers in jazz history, surpassed in my opinion only by Duke Ellington. Though musically he could be a perfectionist, he was distinctly unassertive in terms of self-promotion, and his career follows one of the oddest trajectories ever seen in the competitive world of jazz. He first gained fame (within a small circle) arranging for Claude Thornhill's innovative big band, whose sound intrigued Miles Davis and led to the collaboration discussed above. A rare six-week engagement in 1960 at the Jazz Gallery in New York, alternating sets with the John Coltrane Quartet, led to Evans's best-known album, Out of the Cool, recorded that year. The long Evans original "La Nevada" (Spanish for “The Snowfall”) kicks off the album and somewhat foreshadows his later style. The gorgeous, mesmerizing "Where Flamingos Fly" (written by John Benson Brooks) is prototypical Evans, shimmering gently under Jimmy Knepper's solo. Kurt Weill's "Bilbao Song" is the ultimate arranger's showcase. George Russell's blues "Stratusphunk" is also heavily arranged, but allows a little room for improvisation. Evans's "Sunken Treasure" is a successful experiment in melody-less thematic material, with trumpeter Johnny Coles (who throughout the album fills the Miles Davis role exquisitely) providing the element of melody in his solo improvisation. Left off the original LP -- presumably because it’s in a completely different mood from the rest of the material -- but included on the CD is Evans's funky take on Horace Silver's "Sister Sadie," proving that hard bop and cool jazz could intersect magnificently.

Jazz's innovations continued into the 1960s, but the split between pop-oriented jazz such as Wes Montgomery and Cannonball Adderley and the avant-garde music of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and other musical revolutionaries polarized the jazz community just as rock 'n' roll and the Beatles became more respectable and took away a big chunk of the music-listening audience. In reaction, by the end of the decade some jazz artists co-opted the electricity and rhythms of rock and funk to create the Fusion style (Miles Davis, Weather Report, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, etc.), and this further fractured the jazz community.

Still controversial over three decades after it was recorded, this influential 1960 album of free improvisation without reference to chord progressions ("outside" playing) or steady beats named a major movement and cemented Coleman's reputation as a jazz visionary. Coleman put together a double quartet for the occasion: his usual group with trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins mirrored by Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Scott LaFaro, and drummer Ed Blackwell. They played with a roughly conceived form of preset thematic cues and with a greater equality between foreground and background than was the norm in the bebop they were reacting against.

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Beauty Is a Rare Thing:The Complete Atlantic Recordings (6 CD, Rhino/Atlantic)

This six-CD set contains The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, This Is Our Music, Free Jazz, Ornette!, Ornette on Tenor, and three albums’ worth of additional tracks not released at the time of this fertile 1959-61 period, which was comparable in intensity and influence to Coltrane's contemporaneous outpouring on the same label. Nowadays, even mainstream figures such as Branford Marsalis acknowledge the compositional influence of at least the first three albums, starring Ornette's classic quartet with Cherry, Haden, and either Billy Higgins or Blackwell. There's not a minute of dross here.

Evans is one of the most influential piano stylists of the past half-century. He was subtler, more Impressionistic, and quieter than the jazz norm. At times, it even seemed  that he is trying to shyly retreat from the spotlight and be nearly a sideman, a hard thing for the pianist in a piano trio to achieve; this 1961 concert recording is important not only for Evans but also for the interaction of his classic trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, who redefined their instruments' roles in this format. The two originals here are both by LaFaro (who died ten days later in a car crash), and the quietest, the one that features LaFaro the most, "Jade Visions," is my favorite.

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The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (Riverside)

This three-CD set, which I reviewed on its release, includes all of Sunday and its companion LP, Waltz for Debby, plus all the other material recorded at these shows.

Coltrane and his famous quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones finally came together in 1961 as Trane signed with the Impulse! label. Producer Bob Thiele, apparently aware of just how significant they were, recorded them assiduously regardless of whether there seemed to be more stuff in the can than could be used; some of it's still appearing nowadays. This album started as a three-song LP, but Thiele recorded so much that it's now a four-CD set. It contains some of the most magical concert improvisation ever captured, with guests including fellow intrepid sonic explorer Eric Dolphy. Sure, there are multiple versions of the epic trio blues "Chasin' the Trane," the keening "India," etc., but with the imaginations at work here, no two sound the same. More than the studio recordings, this set (which I discussed at greater length here) demonstrates the white-hot passion and transcendence that made Trane a legend.

Jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood helped revive interest in this suave vocalist by using a number of Hartman songs in the soundtrack of The Bridges of Madison County, while Coltrane fans know Hartman for an eponymous 1963 collaboration. I Just Stopped By to Say Hello, from the same year, provides a full dose of Hartman's mellow vocal magic, his honeyed tones coating such great standards as "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" (better than Sinatra!) and "Stairway to the Stars" with a deeply affecting wistfulness. Arguably the greatest ballad crooner ever yet also a true jazz singer, he works in wonderful tandem here with tenor saxman Illinois Jacquet.

Dolphy is another jazz great who died young; diabetes took his life at age 36. In his short career he was both prolific and adventurous, and this, his last American studio recording, is generally considered his finest album. Dolphy plays alto sax, flute, and bass clarinet with an all-star group of Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphone), Richard Davis (bass), and Tony Williams (drums). Dolphy would die later that year, so this is his most mature and fully realized studio album. Though Dolphy is sometimes lumped in with the free jazz players, he said every note he played had a harmonic basis, though his highly angular style made that hard for some listeners to hear. Here, some of his best-proportioned compositions receive consistently inspired realizations thanks to his own development as a player and to the extremely high level of playing by the band.

Tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler is one of the most controversial and revolutionary figures in jazz. When he first came along, he was the freest player out there; Coltrane and Dolphy sounded like they were playing over changes even when they weren't, and Coleman at least wrote structured music with a clear relationship to jazz and blues. To the uninitiated, Ayler just seemed to blurt spontaneously, with no regard for beautiful tone or much of anything else that supposedly characterized quality music-making. While he was extremely spontaneous and didn't much care about harmony, he delivered other assets in an original and imaginative manner. He commanded a huge tone and a dazzling array of timbres on his horn, and if most of them weren't pretty, they were compelling. His sense of rhythm was highly natural and unconstructed -- somewhat akin to the earliest bluesmen, before 12-bar forms dominated. His sense of melody was equally organic in conception. He soon influenced Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Frank Wright, and others to take the same musical road, and has since influenced David Murray, David S. Ware, Charles Gayle, and other tenor saxophonists. Ayler made seven albums in 1964; its trio format makes it the purest example of his musical thinking and arguably the most comprehensible Ayler experience for people not used to his sound. Bassist Gary Peacock and (especially) drummer Sunny Murray, the finest rhythm section he worked with in the studio, are heard here re-imagining their instruments' roles.

The classic Coltrane Quartet infused modal jazz with deeper meaning. This challenging yet accessible and much-loved album recorded in December 1964 is not only the peak of the Coltrane Quartet's modal style, but also a new level of emotionality and spirituality. Coltrane's playing sounds like primal vocalization and draws listeners into its profound musical utterances through chant-like themes and exploratory, heaven-seeking improvisations. If there's such a thing as "the greatest jazz album," this is an automatic contender. For a more complete look at it, there's now a Deluxe Edition with some rare outtakes and the only concert recording of all four pieces that make up the album.

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This eight-CD set of 1961-65 recordings includes four complete classic albums (Coltrane, Ballads, A Love Supreme, Crescent)and much more, offering a comprehensive look at one of the greatest, most adventurous bands ever.

In many ways, jazz doesn't get more far-out than the late Sun Ra, who claimed to be from Saturn; while on Earth, he made more than 200 albums. Ra's big band (his "Arkestra") lived communally, dressed in flamboyant costumes, and included dancers. Long-time Ra tenorman John Gilmore influenced Coltrane's explorations of atonality. Ra's more cacophonic efforts probably cleared more rooms than anything ever heard. The Magic City (which was what Ra's real hometown of Birmingham, AL called itself) was recorded in New York in 1965, a time of "anything goes," and that's the spirit on the completely improvised, unplanned 27:22 title track, which rambles but has amazing solos by Gilmore and alto saxophonist Marshall Allen. The three shorter pieces show Ra's compositional discipline at its strictest and, if less ambitious, are more consistent.

It's good that the two mind-blowing 40-minute free improvisations each known as Ascension are now available on a single disc without the lesser efforts that were attached to them in their first CD incarnation. Ascension ranks among the densest, most intense music in the "energy" vein of free improv and remains a landmark. Modeled to an extent on Ornette's Free Jazz, it uses an expanded group with Coltrane, Tyner, Garrison, and Jones joined by saxophonists Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, John Tchicai, and Marion Brown, trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johnson, and bassist Art Davis. Dissenting critics consider the playing to be mere screaming, but rarely have screams been so eloquent.

Davis's reaction to the 1960s avant-garde took a while to develop, but shook the jazz world when he found new creative life in the mid-'60s with another classic quintet, this time featuring tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams. This configuration's output remains highly influential, both for the style of group interaction and the individual sounds of Davis's pensive trumpet, Shorter's elliptical improvisations, Hancock's spare comping, Carter's drive, and Williams's new approach to metric pulse. Miles Smiles (1966) was their single greatest creative statement, with complex yet accessible tunes that have become touchstones for succeeding generations of players.

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Quintet 1965-1968 (Columbia Legacy)

This handsome box collects all the studio recordings by Davis's second classic quintet, encompassing all or generally most of the tracks on the albums E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro plus rehearsal takes, outtakes, and alternate versions. Seductive on its surface, this music remained innately challenging at its core.

Alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley paid his dues both as a Charlie Parker-influenced bopper who turned the Miles Davis Quintet into a sextet (the group that recorded Kind of Blue), but also in R&B bands (when he recorded R&B, he used the pseudonym Buckshot LeFonque). When hard bop mutated into soul jazz by adding even more gospel and R&B roots, aiming for popularity and actually getting jukebox and radio play, Adderley was a key figure, though always retaining his high jazz standards in the process. This rousing 1966 session, recorded live in front of a studio audience, truly is one of the most soulful jazz albums ever and includes not only pianist Joe Zawinul's memorable title track but also fine tunes by Cannonball and his brother Nat (cornet).

This 1969 double album -- with an expanded electric band -- took the then-revolutionary Fusion style combining jazz and rock (mostly just rock's electric instruments and more aggressive beats) to more avant-garde realms. Though jazz purists were aghast, it actually is as texturally based and colorful in timbre (notably shaded by Benny Maupin's bass clarinet) as Davis's work with Gil Evans -- but it grooves a lot harder and shouts where the earlier stuff whispered.

If nobody has really come along to build on the amazing legacy of multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, it's because in his case the phrase "one of a kind" truly applies. Primarily a tenor saxophonist, he also played a wide range of related but obscure instruments (stritch, manzello, etc.) along with flute, clarinet, organ, kalimba (AKA "thumb piano"), reed trumpet, kazoo (he makes it sound like a serious instrument, not a joke), nose flute (ditto), and more, some self-constructed. His circular breathing abilities are legendary (he once held a note for a bit over two hours), and until his 1975 stroke he could play two or three saxophones simultaneously (afterwards, with the use of just one hand, he could only play one saxophone, but that he continued to play at all is in a way even more of a tribute to his determination; when you've been blind since age two, what's the loss of an arm but another setback to overcome?). Most of all, he structured his solos masterfully; if he'd played nothing but tenor sax his whole life, he'd still be considered one of the greatest. This album, consisting mostly of live recordings from a Christmas 1969 show at the Village Vanguard, opens with the one studio track, the polystylistic suite "The Seeker," practically a history of jazz. Later Kirk plays "Going Home" (a spiritual famous to some from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World") and "Sentimental Journey" at the same time on two horns, then plays three horns at once in harmony on "Lover." No, it's not a gimmick, and it sure as hell ain't overdubbed (remember, it's a concert) -- it's a unique musical mind expressing itself in what to Kirk was a natural way. (He also plays two saxes on Ellington's "Satin Doll.") His between-songs talks deliver healthy doses of extravagant fantasy, outrageous wit, and musical insight. For the multi-horn displays and the head-on encounter with Kirk's personality, this disc is the pick from his many great albums. And the band on some tracks is pretty damn good in itself, including Leroy Jenkins (violin), Ron Burton (piano), Sonelius Smith (celeste, piano), Howard Johnson (tuba), Dick Griffin (trombone), plus bass and three percussionists.

There was much talk of Fusion capturing the power of rock, but in most cases it just borrowed the beats and the electricity. Guitarist John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra really did have the power; probably the only rock bands that could have matched them in 1971, when they made their debut with The Inner Mounting Flame, were King Crimson, the Stooges, and the MC5. McLaughlin had paid his dues with Tony Williams Lifetime and with Miles Davis, but Mahavishnu's music was much flashier; McLaughlin had apparently been holding back previously, because in this context he showed that the electric guitar had capacities undreamt of in jazz until he showed the way. Where Davis's music was eerie and subversive, Mahavishnu's would just snap your neck. The other members contributed mightily too. Drummer Billy Cobham's powerhouse drumming was less subtle than Tony Williams's, but made up for that with sheer brutal strength and speed. Jerry Goodman managed to make the electric violin an instrument of aggression. Keyboardist Jan Hammer and bassist Rick Laird filled in every crack in the sound to create an impenetrable wall. (They do quiet down for the lovely "A Lotus on Irish Streams.") It remains an iconic sound.

With the classic John Coltrane Quartet in 1960-65, Tyner constructed a dense modal style that as a pianistic prototype ranks alongside Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk for current players. Tyner is also a superb composer and arranger whose deep discography as a leader can stand alongside anyone's. It was his work on Milestone (from 1972 through 1980) that made it eminently clear that he was a creative force in his own right beyond the reputation he had built working with Coltrane. A pair of live albums featuring under-recorded tenor and soprano saxophonist Azar Lawrence are the most brilliant of Tyner's many sparkling gems from the period, recapturing the vastness and overflowing creative spirit of the classic Coltrane Quartet, but with Tyner’s own special flavor dominating. The highlights of 1973's Enlightenment are the contrasting moods of the three-movement title suite and the 25-minute blues workout "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit." (The following year, Atlantis recaptured the magic. The solo piano "In a Sentimental Mood" offers a nostalgic but entirely relevant nod from one master to another, and is also something of a sonic breather after the epic title track rhythmically stoked by drummer Wilby Fletcher's powerful polyrhythms.)

No other jazz group has ever had the same personnel for as long as the MJQ consisted of Milt Jackson (vibraphone), John Lewis (piano), Percy Heath (bass), and Connie Kay (drums). The group arose from the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band's rhythm section, and thus is securely grounded in bebop, but became famous for albums exploring the fusion of jazz, classical, and mildly avant-garde musics. This 11/25/74 gig came just before the band broke up, hence its title, though fortunately a long reunion eventually took place; this two-CD set finds them relaxing and stretching out (especially Jackson) on brilliant solos.

Cecil Taylor has long been a polarizing figure, even getting dissed in the otherwise relentlessly positive Ken Burns' Jazz (Taylor did have the honor of playing for Jimmy Carter at the White House). Some, such as curmudgeonly critic Stanley Crouch, have said that what he plays isn't jazz. Certainly there are aspects of it that come from avant-garde classical music, yet I find it hard to imagine this largely or entirely improvised, highly kinetic music being played by anyone not coming from a jazz background, and on his early recordings in the late 1950s Taylor definitely played jazz. It's often been said that Taylor plays the piano as though it were 88 tuned drums, and he does frequently deploy a highly percussive, aggressive sound, but he is also capable of quiet lyricism. Taylor's band music is also important and inspired (his '60s albums Unit Structures and Conquistador! are excellent), but this virtuosic solo concert recorded July 2, 1974 at the Montreux Jazz Festival gives the best idea of the essence of his approach.

Jarrett has created music in four distinct formats in which he sounds almost like four different people: free-form solo piano, piano trios mostly extending the Bill Evans model, slightly larger groups with one or more horns that range from post-bop to avant-garde, and written-out composition (he also has had a parallel career in recent decades as a classical performer on piano and harpsichord, with fine recordings of Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Shostakovich works). But there's no question whatsoever that this 1975 solo concert is the pinnacle of his creativity and the album that displays his most important style in its purest and most inspired essence. On some of his other solo concert albums, the vamps sound like he's treading water trying to think of something; here, the vamps are propulsive and engaging even before he puts melodies over them; when the melodies appear, having been organically conceived, the effect is positively orgasmic. This is free jazz in the sense that it's pretty much all improvised in the moment, but when a solo pianist is doing free improv, he gets to include material that can easily cohere tonally (or modally) and rhythmically because all the notes are being controlled by just one brain. Jarrett's solo style is often strongly grounded in gospel-flavored grooves (which is certainly the case on this disc) but also takes in aspects of Bill Evans, Bud Powell, and Paul Bley (an underrated master), and it often extends to classical influences (especially Chopin and Scriabin). He can also turn on a dime, switching instantaneously from a loud, jangling groove (that's been likened to strumming and even to bagpipe drones) to spare, quiet lyricism. This disc is intensely compelling.

This Detroit native was one of the first female bebop singers, earning her the nickname "Betty Bebop" from Lionel Hampton when she was his featured singer in 1948-51. She forged an agile style that found her comfortable at faster tempos than other singers dared attempt, dazzling the cognoscenti but never achieving the widespread fame of some contemporaries. She also wielded considerable sex appeal, and there was a wide vein of sensuality and suggestiveness in her singing that balanced the technical virtuosity. Recorded live in December 1979 with the backing trio of pianist John Hicks, bassist Curtis Lundy, and drummer Kenny Washington, this 91-minute, two-CD set (originally on Carter's self-run label Bet-Car) opens with a 25-minute version of Carter's song "Sounds (Movin' On)," as good a demonstration of how she uses her voice like a horn (or, actually, a succession of several horns, because she varies her timbre considerably). Not only does she roll out some of the most exciting, unclichéd scatting ever, the line between parts with words and without is very thin. The standard "The Trolley Song," which can sound corny from other singers, is clever here, well-suited to Carter's style. She's not just adept at these uptempo songs; ballads such as the standard "Everything I Have Is Yours" and one of her trademark standard interpretations, "Spring  Can Really Hang You Up the Most," are masterful. Her medley of the ballad standards "Can't We Talk It Over" and "Either It's Love or It Isn't" is simultaneously witty and emotionally intense, not an easy combination to pull off but one repeated with a straight face (the humor is all in the accompaniment) on Rudy Vallee's campy "Deep Night." In the '90s, Carter's pitch control slipped, but here she was still at the peak of her powers.

In the 1980s, spearheaded by Wynton Marsalis, mainstream jazz looked more to its past, and soon the introduction of CDs and the resulting reissue craze spurred record companies to do the same, even while some artists (usually on smaller, independent labels) continued innovating. Unlike Ken Burns, I don't believe (or pretend to believe -- some folks think he just doesn't like the jazz of the past four decades) that one cannot include recent music on a list like this. In fact, I think that a list without some current artists is cowardly and less useful.

The World Saxophone Quartet, one of the first permanent sax quartets to record regularly without a rhythm section, originated when free-jazz veterans Oliver Lake, Hamiett Bluiett, and Julius Hemphill joined with rising star David Murray for a festival performance in 1976. At first the quartet was primarily a vehicle for free improvisation, but soon moved towards an integration of improv with compositions and arrangements, and the WSQ's arrangements often have the spontaneous looseness allied with precision of a small, hot swing band playing head arrangements. The band's fourth album, from 1982, remains its most appealing and coherent statement, full of Ellingtonian scoring alternated with gutbucket riffing and patches of free improvisation. One of the most exciting tactics is for three of the horns to riff behind a soloist in flight; conversely, sometimes Bluiett nails down the tune with his huge baritone sax sound on a repeating figure while the other three horns improvise intertwining lines above him. At times, individual players are unaccompanied, and the textures are varied even more by Hemphill and Lake playing flutes. This is a kaleidoscopic triumph.

This free-improv super-group brought together four veteran leaders: "skronk" guitarist Sonny Sharrock, who'd played with Miles Davis and Pharoah Sanders; hard-blowing German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann; Bill Laswell, master conceptualist/monster bassist; and technically and imaginatively awesome drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, who's contributed significantly to records by Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Cecil Taylor. Reviving the spontaneous spirit of '60s free jazz when it was at a low ebb, they eschewed rehearsals but played with a level of intensity rarely matched. But actually, free jazz had rarely been this brutally powerful, though it had often aimed at such in-your-face impact.The Noise of Trouble ranks among the hottest concerts ever recorded. Drawing on two nights in October 1986 (with Japanese saxist Akira Sakata joining throughout and Herbie Hancock contributing effectively on acoustic piano on the final track), it balances the free-for-all improvisation with actual songs and a healthy dose of blues from Sharrock and Jackson.

Randy Weston was been a pioneer in emphasizing the African roots of jazz and the connections between the two styles, even before he lived in Africa for six years. In addition, he is a superb Monk-influenced pianist and a distinctive composer whose jazz waltz "Hi-Fly" has become a standard. This bold, questing two-CD set from 1992 explores jazz's Africanicity, with Weston's angular piano style set jewel-like amidst Melba Liston's arrangements for an almost-big band. Guests Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax and gaita (a high-pitched African horn) and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie show how expansive the parameters of Weston's vision are, but everything's grounded in loping rhythms that swing no matter how far-out the playing gets. It contains a number of classic Weston tunes, from "Blue Moses," "The Healers," and "African Cookbook" to "African Village Bedford-Stuyvesant" (heard in two versions), "African Sunrise," and "A Prayer for Us All" -- 10 tracks in all, and though there was also a one-CD selection available, the entire original double album is a must-own.

David S. Ware (1949- )
Flight of i (DIW)

David Ware is a tenor saxophonist of power and imagination. Although Ware is identified with free jazz, Sonny Rollins was his mentor, and in his own way Ware draws on the breadth of jazz history. He has a broad, meaty tone in all ranges of his horn, even in the altissimo register. In 1990 he began recording with a quartet including pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker, and with changes in the drum chair, that was Ware's group until it dissolved in 2006, one of the most cohesive units on the scene. This 1992 release is the best of the Quartet albums with Marc Edwards on drums and perhaps Ware's most accessible disc. It contains two familiar standards, "There Will Never Be Another You" and "Yesterdays," and the opening track, "Aquarian Sound," is a modal groover with an easy-to-follow structure. On the stunning title track, Ware's sustained circular-breathing solo flies with hair-raising intensity above bell-like chords that vividly shows Shipp's relation to Scriabinesque harmony. This is free jazz, yes, but not in the sense of anything-goes; even at its most "outside" Flight of i shows careful planning, and the quartet's method of building its music from Ware-penned patterns is at its clearest.

There are a lot of attempts to "update" jazz that end up merely condescending, cheesy, pandering, or otherwise misguided -- or just not jazz. Trumpeter Dave Douglas has never fallen into any of those traps; he's naturally forward-looking, and catholic in his musical tastes. He called this 2002 release, which includes electronics in its sound, "my largest ensemble recording to date, but this is truly small ensemble music." That's certainly reflected in the creative reflexes of the players involved: Chris Speed (clarinet, tenor sax), Bryan Carrott (vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel), Joshua Roseman (trombone on four tracks), Mark Feldman (violin), Joe Daley (tuba), Drew Gress (bass), Michael Sarin (drums), and Ikue Mori (electronic percussion). The line dividing composed sections and improvisation is sometimes thrillingly hard to define, but this is definitely organized music with strong and memorable themes. The concern for instrumental color that has always been such a focus of Douglas's style is present more than ever with such a kaleidoscopic range of timbres available to him with this versatile group.

Arguably the most important pianist of his generation, Shipp has become a major figure on the New York avant-jazz scene. His playingis more pan-harmonic than atonal and rarely sounds like his avowed influences Andrew Hill and Bill Evans, more often suggesting harmonically adventurous 20th-century classical composers, especially Scriabin. His lines rumble and swirl in a thoughtful, organic way, sometimes punctuated by massive chiming chords. This two-CD set, recorded at 2010 concerts, has a solo disc and a trio disc and provides the most up-to-date documentation of his ever-evolving style, notably the suite-like way he frames his solo improvisations amid compositions and the occasional standard. The quicksilver shifting of textures makes it seem like a particularly interactive sort of listening experience. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. Early this month he edited and mixed the recording of his song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach, which can be heard here.


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