Miles Davis – Big Fun Columbia PG 32866 (1974)
It is somewhat amazing to think that despite the intense creative peak Miles Davis achieved in the early 1970s, On the Corner from 1972 was the last proper studio album he consciously assembled for roughly ten years, until The Man With the Horn in 1981. Everything in between was either archival in nature, a live recording, or, like Big Fun and Get Up With It, an amalgamation of leftovers spanning a period of many years. When it comes to Big Fun, rather than taking the rather disparate material — from the moody, atmospheric “Great Expectations/Orange Lady” and “Lonely Fire” from the late-1960s Bitches Brew era to the grinding rock of “Go Ahead John” from the Jack Johnson period to the murky, paranoid, Eastern-flavored “Ife” that was recorded following the On the Corner sessions — and either accepting the incongruity or else massaging the material in the editing process to homogenize it, Davis and producer Teo Macero take a third path. What happens is that they take raw material as if in a highly elemental form, and Macero uses studio effects and cut-and-paste techniques to transform a lot of it into something different than any of its origins. This is perhaps most apparent in the harshly chopped and distorted editing of guitarist John McLaughlin‘s solo(s) and Jack DeJohnette‘s drums on “Go Ahead John.” This was remarkable stuff. The editing process was a conscious and audible part of the final work. There were precedents. Modern composers had made similar experiments. For instance, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (whom Davis greatly admired) stitched together national anthems for his Hymnen, and Steve Reich chopped up a spoken word sample to create Come Out previously. But Davis and Macero were taking those techniques and trying to apply them to popular music. This was meant for the masses!
Often relegated to at best a second-class status, Big Fun is a better record than that spotted critical history suggests. Yet it also isn’t the most immediately impressive entry into the long line of great 70s fusion albums from Miles. Most listeners will perhaps want to put this further down the list of Davis albums of the period to check out. But bear in mind that if anything from the period hooks you, you will almost inevitably seek out the rest, and Big Fun definitely earns its place in that search. This has a more agitated and fiery flavor than the earliest of Davis fusion efforts in the late 1960s, but also a more ambient quality than much of the dense and funky early/mid 1970s recordings. If there was a way to convey the tumult of the times, this would have to be it though. It’s a record that isn’t always satisfying, at least not for more than moments. If that sort of approach isn’t for you, then the album won’t necessarily be for you.
Wynton Marsalis – Black Codes (From the Underground) Columbia FC 40009 (1985)
Wynton Marsalis has become the poster child of the conservative movement in post-1970s jazz, which tends to view the genre as something entirely mapped out with well defined boundaries that has survived certain “failed” formulations that are only worthy of being derided or ignored. He is relied upon as the “definitive” musician-commentator on jazz. And so he has been regularly featured in films, etc. pontificating about the meaning of the music as a whole. Naturally he does so from within the narrow confines of his own definitions of what jazz is and should be. And, naturally, I hate his fucking guts for that. But Black Codes (From the Underground) is still a success. In spite of its scarcely-concealed agenda of skipping over all jazz history since Miles Davis’ second great quintet from the mid-1960s, there is conviction behind it. This doesn’t exactly wow or thrill me, or even surprise me. I still have to admit that this is a good album.
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.
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
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.
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.
Cecil Taylor – For Olim Soul Note SN 1150 (1987)
Taylor continued to expand his palette on this mid-1980s solo outing. Although known as an innovator for approaching modern jazz from a background in modern classical, here he incorporates a few R&B influences. Good stuff, though newcomers should probably start with his 1970s solo outings first.
Cecil Taylor – One too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye HatHut 3R02 (1980)
It’s not often that Cecil Taylor is outdone, but I think his band outdoes him here. The duets and drum solo that open the album are the highlights for me, though the rest ain’t too shabby either.
Cecil Taylor – Cecil Taylor All Stars Featuring Buell Niedlinger CBS/Sony SONF01107 (1974)
A grab bag of stuff that doesn’t seem to belong together on one album. But it’s interesting nonetheless. “Jumpin’ Punkins” is the most intriguing because it’s a full-on Ellingtonian piece, and Taylor plays strange yet oddly fitting comping.
Cecil Taylor – Indent Unit Core 30555 (1973)
Cecil Taylor solo, live, in peak form. Similar to Silent Tongues, and though Silent Tongues may be the better of the two, this one is fantastic nonetheless. Cecil’s playing is more precise and focused here, though on the other it is more dynamic. I recommend both.