Anthony Braxton – Five Pieces 1975 Arista AL 4064 (1975)
Anthony Braxton has to be one of the last jazz musicians to achieve “giant” status before the genre’s popularity declined to the point where doing so became an impossibility. It has been noted that when he was the first jazz signing to the new major label Arista, he promised to be some kind of crossover success (see the liner notes to The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton and a November 2008 essay in The Wire magazine discussing its release). Well, success he certainly did achieve. Despite the widely-held belief that new jazz was no longer profitable for labels or musicians from the mid-1970s onward, Braxton’s series of albums for Arista all sold relatively well–enough for the label to break even even if Braxton himself never financially profited. In terms of being a “crossover” artist, that is a bit more difficult to assess. Leading up to his tenure with Arista, he had recorded works like For Alto that extended into the territory of modern composition (of the likes of John Cage), but he also worked with more traditional jazz material on albums like In the Tradition. And that has remained his mode of operation since–drifting back and forth between the twin poles of traditional jazz and avant-garde composition. But does that constitute a “crossover”? It would seem most of the time the answer is no. But Five Pieces 1975 and some other Arista recordings do make strides at crossing the divide between traditional jazz and modern composition, achieving a new synthesis of both within a given piece. It seems for that reason it manages to be one of his best efforts.
The success of Five Pieces 1975 certainly has a lot to do with the superb band surrounding Braxton. They are up to the challenge of each piece and every performer is a match for the next. There is a balance achieved between them that evidences a complete mastery of both the compositional elements and the more liberal improvisational sensibilities at work. If the album could be improved, it would be to replace “You Stepped Out of a Dream” with something like “Opus 40P” or even “Maple Leaf Rag” from Duets 1976 to add more variety. But then again, why tamper.
Musicians labeled “prolific” are usually also saddled with the label “inconsistent”, if nothing else due to the almost inherent lack of editorial decisions to provide some kind of focus. Anthony Braxton is saddled with both those labels, as well as the one calling his music “difficult”. Yet through the years he’s also managed to do some things the “jazz-industrial complex” (his term, like the military-industrial complex and prison-industrial complex) doesn’t normally allow. Thanks largely to a source of income teaching in later years, he has managed to keep writing and recording challenging works without giving up on his mellower, more lyrical and accessible impulses. He has also managed to come about as close to being a household name as any modern jazz musician since Coltrane’s era (apart from certain members of the Marsalis family and a few pop musicians masquerading as jazz artists). So aside from his purely musical contributions, which are indeed numerous, he has presented an image of jazz that contrasts with the accepted one. That may be his most enduring achievement. It means that there will be more than one path forward.
David Bowie – The Best of David Bowie 1969/1974 Virgin 7243 8 21849-2 8 (1997)
If there was ever a single rock star who epitomized the dawn of the modern rock era, it would have to be David Bowie. This collection of his glam rock works from 1969-74 is quite nice. But aside from being an absolute blast to hear, there is something to be said for the significance of David Bowie. He really jumps into the spotlight in the post-’68 time frame. That shouldn’t be slogged off to mere coincidence. Compare Bowie’s 1973 version of The Rolling Stones‘ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (originally released in 1967). For the Stones, the song was something edgy for its time, but still held back. For an appearance on Ed Sullivan’s American TV show, the Stones had to change the words to “let’s spend some time together.” In just six-and-a-half years, Bowie’s version is a sweaty, breathy explosion of sexuality. It’s that, plus Bowie’s persona is that of a high-heeled, jump-suited, make-up wearing, androgynous space creature. Who would have envisioned that back when Elvis could only be shown on TV from the waist up? Before ’68 Bowie’s look and sound would not have rocketed him to the top of the charts, it would have put him in position to be lynched. Here was something out in the open that would have never been permitted just a few years earlier. While Bowie had nothing to do with that social transformation, he encapsulates how those changes embodied themselves in music and popular culture. He sort of perfectly represented how someone could step into the whole new territory that had opened up. What made him the best, though, was that he made it all seem so genuine.
In his early phase, as in later phases, Bowie was mashing up different styles. In much the same way photographer Robert Mapplethorpe would cross art deco formalism with taboo gay subculture, Bowie would take something like early rock and roll and doo-wop of the ’50s and add camp (i.e., a gay subtext). This was the case with the likes of “Changes” (1971), the 1972 single “John, I’m Only Dancing,” “Drive-in Saturday” (1973) and the B-side leftover “Velvet Goldmine” (1975). Then “Ziggy Stardust” and “Rock & Roll Suicide” from 1972’s breakout success The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars blended 1960s urban folk with the bombast of rock opera. When he was at his best, as he was throughout the entire 1970s, these mash-ups could work wonderfully. His seemingly heartfelt interest in the various styles carried everything to new heights that were more than just the sum of the parts–later in his career he tended to be more of a hanger-on following whatever fad or trend was in fashion as the “new thing” that year. Of course, his experiments didn’t always work even when he was in his prime. Most of his early albums feature a lot of undeniably great songs. Yet those same albums can feel weighted down by some mediocre material. The albums as a whole, however good, never fully live up to the commanding heights of the few best individual songs they feature (it was in the late ’70s in his “Berlin” phase that Bowie turned out his very best album-length statements). In some ways that’s an unfairly high standard to match. But it holds true. It also points toward a compilation like this. On this you get the highlights without anything to bring you down. Sure, it’s not complete. “Queen Bitch” from Hunky Dory is missed. Some tracks might be called superfluous. “Space Oddity” is not really the necessity most Bowie comps make it out to be. Still, this collection may still be about the best available option for exploring his early career. The more mature themes and new stylistic turns of his next period in 1975-79 are summarized on the arguably even better companion set The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979–consider The Best of David Bowie 1980/1987 to be a low priority as it marks Bowie’s decline and separation from relevance.
Big Star – #1 Record Ardent ADS-2803 (1972)
Big Star’s debut, distributed by Stax no less, was a watershed event for pop music. This would be a little hard to guess at the time since it only sold maybe 4,000 copies on release.
Disillusioned with phony hit makers The Box Tops, Alex Chilton joined up with Chris Bell (and the group Icewater) to form Big Star. Memphis was certainly known for blending musical styles, but Big star was different. Call it power pop or whatever, it was “experimental” pop music. The group took big catchy melodies and combined them with smooth harmonies. This was not unusual, as British Invasion groups showed a few years before. The difference was the amount of “pop” they could cram into a song. They also used a personal and honest approach. These songs portray everyday life with a complexity and compassion not found elsewhere.
Though Alex Chilton was the big name (simply for coming from The Box Tops) that attracted the most attention, Chris Bell is perhaps the biggest force on #1 Record. Only briefly do the songs touch on the dark insecurities that Chilton later brought out. When they do, it is more of a recollection of times passed. Here, Bell conveys hope and perseverance. “My Life Is Right” shows satisfaction. “Watch the Sunrise” is triumphant in telling of the future success. Bell brings in some religion on the brilliant “the Ballad of El Goodo” and more explicitly on “Try Again.” Again, the beauty lies in the complexity of the emotions. “Thirteen” is about innocent teenage romance but it speaks only of timeless hopes that still remain.
The emphasis on acoustic guitars and smooth vocals is unique to the group’s debut. There is an “indie rock” kind of feel. It’s natural. #1 Record also has enough personal recollection and noble aspirations to make the material meaningful. Big Star had a vision of the world that is easy to accept. It is real, honest, and fun.
#1 Record was the last effort to really include Chris Bell. After the record’s commercial failure, the group split up. They did reform (actually multiple times), but Alex Chilton took control of the band. Bell turned suicidal and largely due to artistic differences did not take any credit for some contributions to the group’s second album. Big Star consistently released brilliant material but met stiff commercial opposition. Such a situation (think Vincent Van Gogh) is hard to take. Bell spiraled out of control, and died in a car wreck a few years later (recording just one solo album, posthumously released over a decade after his death). Alex Chilton alternated between heavy drinking and a solo career. But Big Star, especially on #1 Record, always sounded right.
Stax may have been failing, but groups like Big Star and Black Nasty proved there was great music still to be made — even if only on the fringes.
The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main ST Rolling Stones Records COC 69100 (1972)
A sprawling thing, Exile On Main ST runs through blues, county, gospel, soul and rock with reckless abandon. Exile is a stellar affirmation of American music, strangely enough coming from some boys from the U.K.
Most of the album writhes in murk (akin to Sly & the Family’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On). Jagger’s vocals sound muffled. Half the time you can’t hear a damn thing he sings. “I Just Want to See His Face” sounds like you stumbled onto some backwoods gospel revival tearing through what turns out to be an anti-gospel song. Jagger moans in front of some backup singers who scream passionately but seem caught on record only by chance. That mystique of careless luck gives Exile its grandeur. The entire album stays true to its desire for unrefined expression.
This is basically the most important Stones album. It would be hard to predict the Stones would have done anything in the 70s after they kicked founder Brian Jones out of the band (and Jones died shortly thereafter). Mick Taylor finds himself settled into the band, finally. His slide guitar works magic on the masterpiece of uncontrollable longing and charismatic bombast “All Down the Line.”
Backup singers belt out harmonies behind Jagger with horns blasting in a fever. Even Billy Preston stretches out for a guest spot on organ and piano on “Shine A Light.” Every piece of Exile comes together.
None of the individual songs achieved quite the popularity of earlier hits, like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” because they are so uniformly brilliant. The album is still greater than the sum of its magnificent parts. Battered losers and hopeless wrecks parade through honky-tonks and the open road, holding on to what they can. Like the Fellini-esque Robert Frank photo collage on the album jacket, freaks stand placed in a precarious kind of order. When you see a song named “Soul Survivor,” you can hardly take the Stones’ word that they in fact “survived.” Rather, listening to the song reveals they barely made it this time (and may not the next). It’s easy to identify with the characters’ endless attempts to find compassion.
Rebellion is a prerequisite for rock and roll. The German artist Joseph Beuys said art is the science of freedom. In the Twentieth Century at least, the pursuit of freedom necessarily involved the rebel attitude so deeply ingrained in the fabric of rock and roll. The Rolling Stones certainly did their part. They always slid in some raunchy songs that chipped away at the establishment. “Loving Cup” and “Rocks Off” are sleazier tunes than they appear and reveal much more than idle ramblings of libertines. Their vices haunt them as they search for something to hold onto. They testify to the simple joys of common failures. You also have the deconstructionist spin of English boys redefining the musical traditions of another land. The Stones carried with the basic ideals of American music while they wandered into new territory.
An album of this breadth and consistency is a rare thing indeed. Exile is never too polished. It is at the same time familiar and new. It seems so real because the results are so fragile.
Derek Bailey – Ballads Tzadik TZ 7607 (2002)
It’s interesting how some people can walk into an art museum and say they would only respect an abstract expressionist if they could paint in a literal, classical way. But does anyone have a requirement that a classicist be able to paint like an abstract expressionist? For that matter, why should an artist have to be either/or?
Derek Bailey is a master of creating sound from a guitar. For him to do an album of ballads might seem like a waste of talent. But is it such a waste? Ballads is an amazing album. It’s one that belongs with the most important work of the most important artists. This isn’t just a success for Derek Bailey but a grand achievement of the highest order.
To begin with, Bailey can set hearts aflutter with only the briefest use of melodies. He moves quite deftly between furious free improvisation and flowing chord progressions.
Quite simply, Bailey makes more of the ballads he plays. None are reduced or trivialized. The ballads don’t hinder Bailey’s improvisation. They are part of an evolving music placing no more relative value on any particular forms. What we have is a total recreation of how structure fits into a program of improvisation. It is fair to say this was no easy task. Ballads come with certain inherent limits. Certain rhythms and certain tempos can overpower a ballad. Percussive qualities too are generally hindered by the delicate melodies and narrow harmonic flexibility of a ballad. Of course, these used to be the inherent limits of ballads. There are limits no more.
Ballads simply has me beguiled, enchanted. There are three Hoagy Carmichael songs, not to mention “Stella By Starlight,” “Body and Soul” and two renditions each of “Gone With the Wind” and “Rockin’ Chair.” In a cunning little way, “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” concludes the disc. Hearing the whole disc, I feel like nothing was taken from me, everything given to me. The timeless nature resounds with each pluck and bang on Bailey’s guitar. When his strings resonate, so too does the shapeless possibility of playing ballads without limits. Hearing limitless music like this is most definitely a captivating experience.
Bailey says, “It was Zorn’s idea.” John Zorn and his Tzadik record label deserve much credit then. Ballads isn’t the kind of record you would expect Bailey to make. That perhaps is a large measure of what makes it such a success. Making a record unlike his others tends to eliminate an easy consistency with what he knows of himself. Ironically, Bailey takes a huge risk by entering familiar ground. He opens himself up to all kinds of judgments when he adds a reference point playing a standard. Preserving his natural freedom amidst the structures of these ballads requires some choice of what he himself can do while still advancing the overall structure. If this approach makes Bailey guilty of violating the rules of both balladeering and free improv, then he is a great criminal. We need that kind of spirit.
This is your ticket to learning about jazz. I have collected here resources for people who wish to gain a basic understanding of the “jazz” musical genre as a whole, while avoiding explicit suggestions to particular albums by particular artists or biographic material about particular artists. There are many resources on the genre available, and my goal here is to provide references to only the most reliable sources, rather than to provide a comprehensive listing. Where appropriate, I have placed definitive and exceptional resources in bold font.
Concise Guide to Jazz by Mark Gridley
Jazz 101 by John Szwed
The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond by Joachim E. Berendt
Jazz Styles: History and Analysis by Mark Gridley
Understanding Jazz by Leroy Ostransky
What Is Jazz? by Leonard Bernstein
Was ist Jazz? by Joachim-Ernst Berendt
The best place to start if you are a novice trying to learn about and understand jazz is probably an introductory book. These are worth reading even before you start listing to the music. The reason for this suggestion is that an explanation of some of the broad musical concepts that are common to the genre can help you to listen to jazz music on its own terms, while reducing the chance that predispositions from listening to other musical genres might cloud or inhibit your appreciation of jazz. The best introductory books present a more or less objective background into general concepts without persuading or coercing readers to like or dislike particular artists, songs, or historical movements.
Introductory Compilation Albums
The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (unparalleled overview of jazz up to the early 1960s)
JAZZ: The Smithsonian Anthology
Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America’s Music (good overview up to ~1960 and kind of erratic after that)
Collection of Modern Jazz
Jazz: The Definitive Performances
The World’s Greatest Jazz Collection
The Ultimate Jazz Archive
Les trésors du jazz 1898-1943 (pre-jazz influences and early jazz, dixieland and swing)
History of Jazz: 1917-1939 (early jazz, dixieland and swing)
Kings of Swing (late big band swing era, ~1930s-40s)
Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz (~1950s to mid-1960s mainstream) This set being too long.
Impulse! Records Compilation, Red Hot on Impulse, Impulse Energy Essentials: A Developmental & Historical Introduction to the New Music or The House That Trane Built: The Best of Impulse Records (~1960s and early 1970s mainstream and avant-garde jazz)
Faith & Power: An ESP-Disk Sampler (1960s free jazz)
Jazzactuel: A Collection of Avant Garde / Free Jazz / Psychedelia From the BYG/Actuel Catalogue of 1969-1971
The Saxophone: A Critical Analytic Guide to the Major Trends in the Development of the Contemporary Saxophone Tradition
For Example: Workshop Freie Musik 1969-1978 (European jazz)
Wildflowers: Loft Jazz New York 1976 (New York City)
Freedom, Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz & the Civil Rights Movement 1963-82
Universal Sounds of America and New Thing! Deep Jazz From the USA
Meltdown: The Birth of Fusion, The Real Birth of Fusion or Classic Jazz: The Seventies (~fusion)
Classic Jazz: The Eighties (mainstream)
Howard Mandel: Future Jazz (~1990s New York City)
The Blue Series Sampler: The Shape of Jazz to Come (~late 1990s to early 2000s)
Pi Recordings 2009 Amazon Sampler (~ late 2000s)
I would recommend listening to a good, well-rounded jazz compilation even before looking to what might be classified as essential jazz albums. These collections can complement an introductory book nicely. There are numerous compilations available that give a representative overview of jazz from its birth through about 1960, but subsequent to that time frame a single representative set does not exist yet (though for a “virtual” compilation of this sort, see Collection of Modern Jazz). Until such a better compilation is made available, I have made some selections from among compilations limited to particular time periods, genres and records labels, though some are certainly imperfect and may still be hard to find. Even with these concessions, some time periods, labels and sub-genres are still not well represented on my list due to the lack of suitable albums for me to mention.
Jazz History Books
A New History of Jazz by Alyn Shipton
The History of Jazz by Ted Gioia
A History of Jazz Music 1900-2000 by Piero Scaruffi
Blues People by LeRoi Jones (a/k/a Amiri Baraka)
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis
Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told by the Men Who Made It by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff
Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development by Gunther Schuller
The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 by Gunther Schuller
Free Jazz/Black Power by Philippe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli
As Serious As Your Life: John Coltrane and Beyond by Valerie Wilmer
Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times by Robin D.G. Kelley
Some jazz history books can be a chore to read, but not the better ones. Others can be overly congratulatory or dismissive of certain historical movements or styles, but not the better ones. Some of these “history” books overlap with my category of introductory books, as well as that for musicology and ethnomusicology. But I’ve tried to list here the ones with more widespread appeal, and the ones that complement a basic introduction to jazz music for beginners.
The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings by Richard Cook and Brian Morton
Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, Ninth Edition (2008): Core Collection
25 DISCOS DE JAZZ: UNA GUÍA ESENCIAL (+ 40) (or English translation)
The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz by Ben Ratliff
A Suggested Jazz Starter Kit
Jazz Core Collection
What I call an essential Jazz collection
A Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz
Ethan Iverson’s “Jazz: 1973-1990”
Downtown Jazz: New York City 1979-2009
Jazz – RYMers 80s Choices
Jazz – RYMers 90s Choices
Jazz – RYMers 00s Choices
The Rough Guide to Jazz by Ian Carr, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley
All Music Guide Jazz Page
RateYourMusic Jazz Page
Top Rated Jazz Albums on RateYourMusic
The Jazz Discography by Tom Lord
Album guides can be great resources even if you ignore completely any ratings assigned to particular albums. The better ones are those that are relatively comprehensive in coverage, have an easy to navigate layout, are revised often and include information about personnel, recording dates and other album-specific factual data.
Jazz Writing and Critical Analysis
Black Music by LeRoi Jones (a/k/a Amiri Baraka)
Jazz Is by Nat Hentoff
The Jazz Life by Nat Hentoff
Living With Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings by Ralph Ellison
All About Jazz
Down Beat Magazine
Jazz Improv Magazine
Writings by music critics and the like can be tremendously invigorating and can often cultivate enthusiasm for the jazz genre. However, I would recommend setting this kind of stuff aside until after you have heard some of the music for yourself. React to the music on your own. Then find out how others react to it.
Jazz Musicology, Ethnomusicology and Musical Theory
The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine
Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music by Derek Bailey
The Anatomy of Jazz by Leroy Ostransky
Musicology (and/or enthomusicology) and musical theory books can quickly become dense and technical. In other words, many are not for a beginning listener. Actually, a lot of highly academic works that might fall into this category (or the jazz history one) are slight and unenlightening even for experts and jazz insiders. There certainly is no shortage of them. But in the end, this category of resources is recommended for people with a special interest in more of the technical details associated with the performance of jazz music or intensive academic analysis of the music’s history, and perhaps not so much those with only a general interest in listening to jazz music.
Unfortunately, I find that many documentary films and TV programs on jazz tend to present rather poor introductions to and overviews of jazz as a whole. Books, compilation albums, and websites make better starting points.
Get out there to a live jazz performance! While your ability to do this may depend upon where you live, attending a concert is a great way to learn about jazz even if you have no clue beforehand what you’re getting yourself into. Don’t shy away. I’ve often heard people comment that appreciating jazz can be a far simpler task when you have the opportunity to see musicians while they perform, as opposed to just hearing them on a recording.
The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album Capitol T-2164 (1964)
The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album is short, at less than thirty minutes, but has the classic “Little Saint Nick” and some other good songs (“Merry Christmas, Baby,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are”). It’s decent for what it is, but it’s nothing essential. The songs with orchestral backing sound almost like instrumental tracks cut for Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby on which somebody slapped Beach Boys vocals.
Jim O’Rourke – Insignificance Drag City dc202cd (2001)
I’m not entirely sure why, but somehow Insignificance seems to be one of the great albums of its age. As a lyricist O’Rourke may not be Bob Dylan, even if most of the time he’s channeling the same mean spirit that populates “Positively Fourth Street” or Blood on the Tracks. He’s also probably not anyone’s idea of a charismatic singer. But pairing the underachieving, utter non-event of the words and vocals with the the nuanced, finely orchestrated — yet still hard driving — instrumentals and arrangements is a masterstroke of genius. Dylan carried the soul of the Beat generation to someplace new. O’Rourke carried the angst of alternative and indie rock to its pointedly ironic pinnacle. This music has an empty sophistication and sense of aimlessness that mark it as something totally representative of its time. I find the fact that it’s somewhat unnoticed to be all the more a hallmark of the diffuseness of everything it stands for.
Cecil Taylor – The Willisau Concert Intakt Records CD 072 (2002)
Quite possibly the most high-fidelity Cecil Taylor solo piano recording in existence. It would be hard to find another artist as deserving of such attention to detail. The performance is quite excellent too. The speed, percussive force, and density of the music provide an intensity that is very nearly that of Taylor’s monumental 1970s recordings Silent Tongues and Indent, despite his advancing years. It’s so great to see someone as boldly daring and iconoclastic as Taylor still able to keep making music like this, and for music that has changed so little over the years to still sound so fresh. It goes to show that with enough conviction the power of statements like this almost never fades.