5 Essential Recordings for Beginning Jazz Musicians

If there’s any single universal rule to the study of jazz, it is to listen as much as possible.  There are resources everywhere these days for learning to improvise, including countless books, articles, instructional DVDs and websites, and all of them implore the student to listen.  There is no substitute for truly living with a record knowing it by ear from top to bottom – something lost on us in the age of streaming music and easy (read: cheap) access to millions of recordings.  Having so many resources at our disposal is overwhelming.  My strategy was (and continues to be) to listen in my car, loading my CD changer up and not changing the discs for a month or more.  While there’s a certain danger in assembling “top” or “essential” lists of anything, these are five records I find myself recommending to my students over and over, for a variety of reasons:

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1. Miles Davis — Kind of Blue

I know, I know, Kind of Blue is on practically every single list of essential jazz recordings, ever.  While that may be true, it’s for very good reasons – here are three:

1) This is Miles at his most focused, lucid, and serene. This record is simply dripping with vibe — Miles’ intense and standoffish presence is felt here in a huge way, more on this record than any before.  While Davis’ previous records on Verve (Steamin’, Workin’, etc.) firmly established him as a bandleader and virtuoso in his own right, Kind of Blue is Miles’ first true mark as a unique voice and innovative musical force.  His solos on the record are restrained, Apollonian, anti-bop perfection.

2) The repertoire is unique, accessible, and ubiquitous.  From the alternating bass and horn motifs of So What, to the subtle stirring tension of All Blues, to the soft, dark shimmer of Blue In Green, the repertoire on Kind Of Blue is ubiquitous.  Everybody knows these tunes and the solos – find me any jazz musician worth their salt who can’t sing a all the solos on So What or Freddie Freeloader at minimum!

3) The sidemen are some of the biggest players of the day.  John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb, Winton Kelly, Paul Chambers.  Miles was a true genius and visionary, but perhaps one of his greatest accomplishments was in the personnel of the groups he assembled.  Throughout his career, Miles strategically surrounded himself with musicians who provided contrast and pushed him in new directions.  Evans’ harmonic sense (via George Russell), Cannonball’s exuberance, Coltrane’s glassy sheen, and the deep swing of Cobb, Chambers, and Kelly – each strategically chosen and exploited to their full potential.

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2. Bill Evans Trio — Sunday at the Village Vanguard

The Bill Evans Trio with Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro on drums and double bass is arguably the inception of the modern jazz piano trio.  The symbiosis of Motian’s subtle, colorful drumming, Evans’ unmatched harmonic and melodic sensibilities, and LeFaro’s very forward approach, at times almost challenging Evans, made this a trio of the highest order.  The repertoire (including two LeFaro originals – Gloria’s Step and Jade Visions) pushes the trio in a variety of directions, from the Evans’ delicate opening on Alice In Wonderland, to LeFaro’s explosive, blues-infused solo on Gershwin’s My Man’s Gone Now, to the burning interplay between piano and Motian’s drums on Solar.  There are so many lessons to be learned here – try listening through this record just for the bass, then just for the drumming, then hearing only comping, then focus back on the whole.

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3. Charles Mingus — Mingus Ah Um

Charles Mingus’ music is ubiquitous – his bands and tunes are instantly recognizable.  Mingus found his musical niche by pulling together the wall of sound created by the great big bands, the crying and wailing of the dirtiest gutbucket blues, the ferocious virtuosity of bebop, and the uninhibited expression of free jazz.  His band here, a group of Mingus stalwarts and not well known in their own right, finds an incredible balance between ensemble coordination and individual expression – Danny Richmond’s drumming stands out in particular.  The tunes are some of Mingus’ best known: Better Get Hit In Your Soul and Boogie Stop Shuffle bring the blues, and Fables of Faubus brings the controversy (the lyrics are censored here, but can be heard on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus). In addition, Mingus’ three tributes, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Open Letter to Duke, and Jelly Roll (to Lester Young, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton) pay homage to Mingus’ musical inspirations in a manner which is truly his own.

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4. Hank Mobley — Soul Station

Hank Mobley didn’t possess staggering instrumental technique, super modern melodic and harmonic concepts, or even a particularly notable sound, but his record Soul Station is quintessentially Blue Note.  There is perhaps no other record which more perfectly captures the sound and the vibe coming out of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ in the late 50’s and early 60’s.  The band swings hard, thanks to Art Blakey on drums and Paul chambers on bass, and Mobley’s cool, clear melodic sensibility finds a perfect foil in the slightly more blues-tinged playing of Wynton Kelly.  The repertoire is classic Blue Note as well – from the straight ahead readings of Remember and If I Should Lose You to the modal-inspired This I Dig Of You and Split Feelin’s and the blues infused swing of Soul Station and Dig Dis.  Mobley is not so much a giant among men as a player of the people, who is never more comfortable and accessible as on Soul Station.

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5. Wes Montgomery — Smokin’ at the Half Note

Wes Montgomery is the transformative and definitive jazz guitarist.  With a style firmly rooted in equal parts Charlie Christian and the blues, Montgomery remains the highest influence for budding jazz guitarists.  The opener No Blues is an encyclopedia of the blues, in which we hear Montgomery’s signature formula at its best: single note lines building to his ubiquitous octaves, building to a virtual shout chorus with Wes’ chords leading the way.  The group (Wynton Kelly’s trio plus Montgomery) also swings its way though great readings of hard-bop classics Four on Six and Unit 7.  Perhaps the record’s most inspired moment, however, is Montgomery’s brilliant solo on the medium-tempo reading of If You Could See Me Now – a solo deserving of much wider recognition among Montgomery’s many fine records.

While all of these records are 40+ years old at this point, they do come from a golden age in the development of small group jazz – never before or since has there been so much development and diversity in such a short span.  It’s important for those studying jazz (or anything) to be informed of and inspired by the tradition – as one of my former teachers so often said, “What is our relationship with tradition?  What is our responsibility to tradition?”.  Only by truly digging into that past can we ever attempt to answer these questions.  Pick a record and live with it for a while, and see what happens when you do.  Happy listening!