Jazz Recommendations
February 14, 2005 9:12 PM   Subscribe

I've always hated jazz. Loathed it. But in the last year, it has snuck up on me. I can't stop listening to Miles Davis's Kind of Blue but am scared of his Bitches Brew. I really enjoy the melancholy and soft aspects of the former, but am certainly wanting to spend more time with the likes of the latter. What else should I listen to?
posted by xmutex to Media & Arts (45 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Ha! xmutex, I asked almost the exact thing in the same context back in Dec.

After listening to a large number of the recommendations, I still go back to Kind of Blue...
posted by Quartermass at 9:16 PM on February 14, 2005

You should check out his soundtrack to L'ascenseur pour l'echafaud. Also lovely, and in that same mood, are Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain.

You might also want to look into other recordings by the core group from Kind of Blue. Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderly, early Coltrane.

You might also like Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth.
posted by macrone at 9:23 PM on February 14, 2005

I can't recommend Charles Mingus's The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady highly enough. It has what is to me the most beautiful melodic theme that's repeated throughout, but most notably in the 4th track.
posted by feloniousmonk at 9:42 PM on February 14, 2005

Blues and the Abstract Truth is a great recommendation; heartily seconded as a fantastic intro to smart jazz. Bill Evans and early Blue Note Herbie Hancock are great, too, for a thoughtful, somewhat melancholy sound.

Sketches and Porgy are a bit over-orchestrated for my taste; if you like the small-group thing, try any of the Davis/Coltrane quintet LPs from 55-57 (Relaxin', Steamin', Cookin', Workin', etc). There are tons of great ballads on those, and the upbeat tracks will groove you as well. The versions of "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and "Salt Peanuts" on Steamin' are just plain among the most fun recorded jazz you'll ever hear. Davis' understated, melancholy style of trumpet also influenced a ton of folks; try Chet Baker next, maybe, or just go for the players on any album you like.

Also, one thing that helped me was to pay attention to particularly appealing instruments, and then use that to organize more exploration. Once I got hooked on Milt Jackson's 1950s vibes playing, for instance, I used Allmusic.com to find albums with him from that time period and went nuts.
posted by mediareport at 9:46 PM on February 14, 2005

Oops, meant to link to Allmusic's glowing review of Steamin', "arguably the sweetest and otherwise most swinging interactions known to have existed between musicians."
posted by mediareport at 9:52 PM on February 14, 2005

My favorite modern jazz artist is Jean Luc Ponty. His primary instrument is electric violin, and he seriously cooks. I've seen him live a couple times, too. My favorite album from him is Cosmic Messenger, which has been around at least since the 70's. Some tracks are very fast, and some are very dreamy.
posted by Goofyy at 9:59 PM on February 14, 2005

I would really, seriously, honestly look into Charlie Parker. If you like that softer-style, Lester Young is your man. If you want more Davis, look into his earlier stuff with Gill Evans, in particular the nonet (9-piece) featuring Davis that was later issued as Birth of Cool.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:05 PM on February 14, 2005

I can't recommend Charles Mingus's The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady highly enough.

Seconding. Mingus' music is heartachingly gorgeous. Lush and complex. But I'd probably start with the album Ah um.
posted by vacapinta at 10:15 PM on February 14, 2005

I second pretty much all of the previous suggestions, and would like to add Django Reinhardt as another alternative. He's nothing like Miles, Coltrane, et. al. but very good jazz guitar in my opinion. And he did it all with only two fingers on his left hand.
posted by sanko at 10:31 PM on February 14, 2005

Dexter Gordon's "Ballads" is one of my favorites, definitely very cool music with the same shadings as Miles in his pre-"Kind of Blue" days. "Long Tall Dexter" is a compilation of Gordon's music that still holds up very well today.

These other suggestions are, to my ear, also excellent. But you have to bear in mind that "Kind of Blue" is probably the greatest jazz album ever recorded. As a transition from it to "Bitches Brew" I'd highly recommend Miles Davis's "In a Silent Way," where you can hear the very early elements of that fusion style that he would soon help to pioneer.

Finally, the first couple of Weather Report albums accomplish much of what Miles was after with "Bitches Brew" in a way that's a bit more accessible (in my opinion).
posted by ghostwriter at 10:35 PM on February 14, 2005

If you want more of the latter, some of Miles' live albums from his electric period are amazing. I'd suggest Pangea, which is a recording from February 1975 at the Osaka Festival Hall in Japan. The style of music is similar to Bitches Brew, but more accessible because of the wild funk, continuity (literally, one track per side), and the band playing at an incredibly high energy level. Listen to it in a store if you can: if you dig the drum intro, you'll dig the rest. There are stretches where I just start pounding on the car doors and dash, caught up in the music, and I don't typically do that.
posted by letitrain at 10:53 PM on February 14, 2005

And he did it all with only two fingers on his left hand.

Woah, hold on. Was he left handed or right handed? That is, were those his picking hands or playing hands? Because that's too incredible if it was his playing hands.

And letitrain, thanks for the Pangea suggestion. I'd just recently been thinking what kind of stuff I should be downloading. The interwebs is a very nice place to find things.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:29 PM on February 14, 2005

Kind of Blue was my introduction to Jazz, too. The next album that held my attention at that level was Coltrane's Blue Train. Very different, but the same sort of accessibility.
posted by dong_resin at 11:37 PM on February 14, 2005

What else should I listen to?
Now that your mind is opened a little, everything!

• Anything by Booker Little, Clifford Brown, Clark Terry.
• More modern, but just as 'dreamy,' try Jon Hassell, especially the album 'Power Spot.'
• Pharoah Sanders: "Tauhid,' 'Karma,' 'Black Unity.'
• Cannonball Adderley, 50's & 60's: "Somethin' Else,' especially.
• John Coltrane, middle period: 'Giant Steps,' 'Blue Trane,' 'Crescent,' 'A Love Supreme.'
• Miles Davis: The already mentioned ones, plus 'Sketches of Spain' and 'Porgy & Bess.'
• The already mentioned Charles Mingus, plus 'New Tijuana Moods' and 'Blues and Roots.'
• [I could go on all week. Shout if you want more.]
Keep listening!
posted by al_fresco at 12:09 AM on February 15, 2005

And he did it all with only two fingers on his left hand.

Holy cow that was his playing hand.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:59 AM on February 15, 2005

for blues that is more accessible and yet more unconventional, I always recommend beautiful south (quench is a 'specially good one, fatboy slim came back and helped out with the rhythm bits)
posted by dorian at 3:00 AM on February 15, 2005

Ornette Coleman, "Shape of Jazz to Come", and Miles's "E.S.P."

Those two and Coltrane's "Giant Steps" were the ones that got me hooked. Strangely enough, I didn't pick up "Kind of Blue" until years later.
posted by psmealey at 3:07 AM on February 15, 2005

Oh, and also, "Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes" , but Wes Montgomery and the recently deceased Jimmy Smith.
posted by psmealey at 3:12 AM on February 15, 2005

I second Clifford Brown - check out his albums with Max Roach, particularly "Inc." and the self-titled album.
posted by skwm at 4:31 AM on February 15, 2005

If you've hated Jazz in the past, you need to proceed slowly. It's kind of a cliche, but the key to appreciating good Jazz is listening. As noted above, the Workin', Cookin', etc. series is great, especially Workin' (IMO). The early John Coltrane such as "My Favorite Things" and "Giant Steps" are must have additions.

Another thing to try is the Smithsonian Collection of Piano Jazz. There are four cds with a large collection of jazz piano cuts from the last 75 years or so. You can sample styles and then research what you like. You can usually find these for cheap online.

Also, Thelonius Monk, for some, the reason why they "don't get it", but Monk is often an introduction for many to "Smart Jazz". Reserve a few hours to yourself and listen to the solo version of "Round Midnight" (Link to audio clip when you scroll down). And then listen to it again and again. The doors will either break open or they won't- but there's your test.

Also, this may sound like a strange suggestion, but try reading "Red Dirt Marijuana and other Tastes" by Terry Southern. This will perhaps get you in the mood to listen.
posted by jeremias at 4:47 AM on February 15, 2005

Cannonball Adderley seconded, particularly Somethin' Else (on which Miles plays) and Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.
posted by mookieproof at 5:31 AM on February 15, 2005

Another recommendation for Mingus, my favorite is "Three or Four Shades of Blue."
posted by greasy_skillet at 5:59 AM on February 15, 2005

I'm certainly no jazz expert, but for me it's all about Chet Baker. Also, I second Sketches of Spain.
posted by willpie at 6:38 AM on February 15, 2005

Kind of Blue is the best jazz album ever made. Also in my top 10 is Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane. Start out slow - you're not ready for Bitches Brew yet.
posted by matildaben at 7:11 AM on February 15, 2005

More modern, but just as 'dreamy,' try Jon Hassell

Ooo, seconded with a specific recommendation for his album Fascinoma.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 7:24 AM on February 15, 2005

Check out anything by Jaco Pastorius, the bassist from Weather Report.
posted by Laugh_track at 7:33 AM on February 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm a big, big fan of Mingus and Monk.
For the former, I second "Ah Um" and add "Blues & Roots".
For the latter, I can't recommend "Live at the It Club" and "Monk Alone" (both recent re-releases) enough.
posted by Jako at 8:07 AM on February 15, 2005

I would second or third the Sketches of Spain and Something Else. But, I'll also say that if you get Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" you won't be able to stop whistling the title track for a month.
posted by trbrts at 8:10 AM on February 15, 2005

Be sure and read through the Quartermass thread linked in the second comment, one of the best AskMe threads ever. I could single out this comment, but there were dozens of great ones. (I'll also repeat my link to the very useful list of the recommended albums from the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD (an essential purchase if you're going to really get into jazz). To the excellent suggestions already made here let me add Shelley Manne's Live At The Blackhawk records (the quintessence of '50s small-group jazz), Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus (I can't believe nobody's mentioned Rollins!), Krysztof Komeda's Astigmatic, Cecil Taylor's Nefertiti, Steve Lacy's Reflections and Anthony Braxton's Six Monk's Compositions (1987) (two very different but equally glorious renditions of some of Monk's best tunes), Mal Waldron's Seagulls Of Kristiansund (a wonderful pianist live at the Vanguard), John Lewis's Evolution and Evolution II (the distillation of a lifetime of elegant pianism), David Murray's Ming, Horace Tapscott's The Dark Tree, and pretty much anything by Monk, Mingus, and Jelly Roll Morton.

On preview:
if you get Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" you won't be able to stop whistling the title track for a month

I'll never forget first hearing this track: I had hated the movie tune, and Coltrane blew the saccharine shit right out of it and left it pure and astringent and perfect. But I'm here to tell you that it is possible to get sick of even the Coltrane version. For some reason it's become particularly popular lately, and after hearing it on about the fifth jazz station in a row in the space of a couple of days, I said "Screw it, I don't care if I hear this for another year." Phil Schaap did the same thing to Bird's Ko Ko -- ruined it for me by playing it a thousand times in a row. Just one of the reasons I can't stand Phil, even though he's incredibly knowledgeable about jazz.
posted by languagehat at 8:29 AM on February 15, 2005

well, i like to listen to jazz a lot, but wouldn't call myself an expert. i like the sounds of brad mehldau, though some of it tends to get to abstract (i think 'The Art Of The Trio - Volume One' is a good beginner). Frenchman Serge Gainsbourg made a nice jazz album as well called 'Du jazz dans le ravin', french vocals. enjoy!
posted by mailhans at 8:33 AM on February 15, 2005

If you find yourself getting into the jazz classics and you live in a major city, I would urge you to also go see anyone you can see live. If you like recorded jazz, you'll love live jazz a thousand times more, and the sad fact of life is that almost all the jazz greats of the 50s-60s either recently died or are close to it. I've seen about a dozen greats live that are no longer with us (saw Jimmy Smith last year) and I can't describe how great they were to hear live, after hearing them recorded for years and years.
posted by mathowie at 8:48 AM on February 15, 2005

Contrary to the suggestions so far, not all good jazz must be old.

Charles Lloyd's recent comeback has produced string of brilliantly produced, quite wonderful records on the fantastic -- I can't emphasize this enough -- the fantastic German ECM label, which is famous for its clean, crisp sound, among other things. Lloyd is a follower of Coltrane, and his records are pleasant, smoky and lush. I particularly recommend The Water is Wide and Lift Every Voice.

If you want to try something slightly different, check out From a Green Hill by Tomasz Stanko, one of the finest living trumpet players. It's like an Eastern-European film noir soundtrack: a little cool, a little dangerous, and lots of bittersweet melancholia. Among the performers are Dino Saluzzi, an Argentinian bandoneonist; the great John Surman on sax and clarinet; and Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen. One of my favourite jazz records. Some would call this avant garde jazz, but it's totally accessible.

You might also enjoy John Surman's Coruscating, which is Surman playing saxophone with a string quartet and a bass player. Melancholic, dark, contemplative and very beautiful.
posted by gentle at 9:04 AM on February 15, 2005

Stan Getz also comes to mind, now that I think of it. The Getz/Gilberto stuff is terrific.
posted by willpie at 9:39 AM on February 15, 2005

Contrary to the suggestions so far, not all good jazz must be old.

Of course not, but time has a great ability to separate the wheat from the chaff for you.

In fact, I'd recommend going much older. Louis Armstrong was the greatest jazz musician who ever lived. He recorded great stuff throughout his career but his truly groundbreaking stuff was done in the twenties and thirties. Listening to that will give you a greater appreciation of where the later people were coming from. Like Miles said,
You can't play nothing on modern trumpet that doesn't come from him, not even modern shit. I can't even remember a time when he sounded bad playing the trumpet. Never. Not even one time. He had great feeling up in his playing and he always played on the beat. I just loved the way he played and sang.
I'd also second mathowie's suggestion about seeing as much live jazz as possible. Jazz is all about spontaneous creation and it's revelatory to see it as it happens.
posted by timeistight at 10:15 AM on February 15, 2005

I already told xmutex this in person, but I'll repeat it here in case it is helpful to someone else: A friend of mine says the best way to get into jazz is to listen to Kind of Blue, then listen to albums by everyone who is on Kind of Blue, then listen to albums by everyone who is on those albums, etc....
posted by matildaben at 10:26 AM on February 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm currently producing an educational CD-ROM about jazz for middle school kids. Wynton Marsalis chose the following chronological lineup for introducing kids to jazz (and it's worked quite nicely for me, too): Scott Joplin, JellyRoll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and John Coltrane.

No one has mentioned Brubeck yet, but I've grown quite fond of him while sifting through a lot of jazz footage.
posted by hsoltz at 10:45 AM on February 15, 2005

civil_disobedient mentioned Birth of the Cool -- it's also Miles Davis, and very accessible to jazz beginners. It was my introduction to jazz and remains one of my favorite albums.
posted by chickenmagazine at 11:00 AM on February 15, 2005

The Bad Plus…

…and second Brad Mehldau. Big fan. Try Largo for something a little different. Pop-influenced and still very cool.
posted by al_fresco at 11:22 AM on February 15, 2005

A hearty seconding of gentle's recommendations of Charles Lloyd and Tomasz Stanko (whom I recommended here, and that's another thread you should check out). And yeah, Brad Mehldau is wonderful.

And of course mathowie is right: go to the clubs and support the musicians live! (And you can see the stars of tomorrow cheaply as they play their early gigs at low-cover places -- or no-cover dives...)
posted by languagehat at 2:11 PM on February 15, 2005

Another recommendation for Coltrane, and I'd also add the Modern Jazz Quartet's Concorde.

Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus is an interesting take on Mingus' music, which might appeal to someone approaching jazz from a rock background.
posted by me3dia at 2:40 PM on February 15, 2005

I would recommend most of the 4 CD Proper box sets in the jazz vein, both single artist and themes. The Be Bop Spoken Here, for example, The Arrangers Touch or The Engine Room: A History Of Jazz Drumming or Hittin On All Six: A History Of The Jazz Guitar for your various artists. Then there are gems like Cool Cole: The King Cole Trio Story, Django Reinhardt - Swing De Paris or Coleman Hawkins - The Bebop Years among the single artist collections. And just look at the other singers they have--early Sinatra, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, Mildred Bailey, Dinah Washington or Anita O'day--what a line up.

I've gone on many times before about these collections but to my mind there is nothing better at the price. They are so well put together and provide so much music. The blues and western swing collections, which are collections I own, are just as fine--all contain many obscure gems I had never come across anywhere else. Of the ones mentioned above, I own Cool Cole and I've heard Swing De Paris, so I'm guessing that the ones linked are just as well produced and comprehensive. They all have complete discographys and really ample and informative notes and all come at the astonishingly low price of $20 to $22.50, depending on where you buy them. You just can't beat them for being introductory albums on the topic. I suspect you will love any of the collections mentioned above.
posted by y2karl at 2:50 PM on February 15, 2005

My heartfelt belief is that the best way to go with Jazz is backwards. I started with Sun Ra (which is a lot like Miles Davis, and which you'd probably really like, too); I then moved to Coltrane, and quickly on to Charles Mingus. From Mingus, it's an easy step to Duke Ellington, whom he idolized, and who he based a lot of his stuff on; from Ellington, most of the prewar stuff is available, and that's still the best Jazz, in my humble opinion.

Also, you can move directly to Louis Armstrong, if you like. Miles had very high praise for him.
posted by koeselitz at 4:43 PM on February 15, 2005

Two further suggestions, because I happen to love them: the compositions of Billy Strayhorn, who wrote many of Duke Ellington's best-known hits, and Andy Bey's American Song, released last year and featuring the best version of Strayhorn's "Lush Life" I have ever heard. Ever.
posted by deliriouscool at 6:16 AM on February 16, 2005

Late to the party, I know, but I just tripped across this at J-Walk Blog.
posted by Doohickie at 9:40 AM on February 16, 2005

An amazing jazz album with a Middle Eastern flare is Rabih Abou-Khalil's Blue Camel. Beautiful packaging on most of his releases as well.
And yes:
Miles's On the Corner (brilliant, but almost funk)
Sun Ra's Space is the Place (great video to this as well, and IMO, he is nothing like Miles).
Coltrane's Africa is great.
I'll repeat the Getz/Gilberto praise. Also on the latin tip is Cal Tjader. And you could just rent Buena Vista Social Club and see if you like the music (it's still a good movie otherwise).
Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery's The Dynamic Duo.
Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson are two great vibes players.
Okay, i'll stop here.

And as mentioned before, AllMusic is an invaluable resource for finding out about the unknown. They even have clips if you register, and are usually pretty right on with their recommendations (checked albums). Also, the library is a great way to find out about alot of the classics for free.
posted by hellbient at 1:55 PM on February 18, 2005

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