Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 10 Jazz Albums

Here are my 10 favorite jazz albums.

I've talked before how much I loathe the jazz purists who think that the avant-garde after 1965 is "self-indulgent bullshit," to quote Branford Marsalis from the Ken Burns Jazz series. To make these kinds of statement misses the entire point of jazz and the experimentalism that dominated the medium from its beginning. At some point, that experimentalism was going to challenge the listener in ways that would drive some people away. The only other alternative is to declare to music dead and then to ossify it in a canon to be played the same way by people 100 years from now. This is what most jazz fans and many jazz artists, particularly Wynton Marsalis, are comfortable with.

Not me. An experimental album from 2008 is likely to be just as good as one from 1959. My list reflects this I think.

In no particular order:

Medeski, Martin, and Wood, It's a Jungle in Here
This album from the mid 90s came out before they got really big. I think it holds up far better than their appeals to the jam band and festival elements. This album demonstrates the best of these three players amazing skills, including some of my favorite covers of any jazz albums with some top notch originals. The album has some of the funk and groove stuff that made them popular but also a lot of more traditional jazz elements. First rate stuff.

Miles Davis, In a Silent Way
If I was ordering the albums, this would probably be #1. I think this is a much better work than Bitches Brew. I held the line at 1 album per artist, otherwise perhaps there would be more Miles here. This album captures Miles at that key transition point when he was just moving into the rock-oriented stuff. I like most of that too (especially the Jack Johnson album), but this is his music at the most beautiful.

Bill Frisell, This Land
My favorite contemporary jazz artists, Frisell is the greatest guitarist playing today. It was really hard picking one Frisell album. I went with this mid-90s album that was my first introduction to Frisell. It's a bit more uptempo than most of his albums, with great side players, including Joey Baron, Don Byron, and Curtis Fowlkes. Certainly though, one could argue for the Quartet album, Floratone, The Intercontinentals, Gone Just Like a Train or Unspeakable as a top 10 album. Frisell, like Miles, plays the silence as well as he plays the notes, painting a musical landscape of almost unspeakable beauty. Some of this has been used in what might be termed "Americana" projects, which theoretically would turn me off. This Land would be one of those projects. But it is so amazing that any inherent resistance to Americana is completely blown away. In recent years, he has turned to more production and a more international feel, which has led to a new height of awesomeness. Check him out!

Billy Bang, Vietnam, The Aftermath
No album I have heard about Vietnam blows me away as much as this. Bang, a Vietnam vet and violinist, got a bunch of other vets together to record this album about their experiences in Vietnam. Without a spoken word, this album captures the incredible sadness of the war. There's always the question of whether jazz without vocals can do politics. Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra is probably the most famous attempt to do so. Those are good albums but a) don't hold up that well sometimes because of how blatantly they romanticize revolutionary leaders and b) sometimes resort to musical cliche to express a political point. Bang never does either of these. Plus, he's an amazing violinist who has pushed the boundaries of jazz for the last 25 years.

Sun Ra, Purple Night
My favorite Sun Ra album is actually not one of his craziest ones. From the late 80s I think, Purple Night is a move back to the big band stuff of his earlier career, except it's big band with a serious touch of experimentation. The album works so well I think because it starts off fairly conventionally, with some beautiful arrangements. And then starting with his version of "Stars Fell on Alabama" things get pretty out there. Going experimental while also respecting the tradition of jazz is very appealing to me and no one did it better than Ra.

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
What can be said about this that hasn't already? In many ways, the beginning of the modern experimental movement and the point where the more traditionally minded began to tune out, this is one of the most beautiful albums ever conceived in any genre.

David S. Ware, Surrendered
One of the most appealing things about experimental jazz is the spirituality so dominant in the music. To me, almost no album better epitomizes this than Surrendered. This is also an incredibly beautiful piece of music; in fact, listening to it and A Love Supreme back to back is something I strongly recommend as Surrendered is quite complimentary to that earlier landmark.

Lester Young, Lester Leaps Again
I like older stuff too! Lester Young is awesome, as most jazz fans know. I came to him somewhat late. What a mistake. This is my favorite album, others may disagree.

Duke Ellington, Black, Brown, & Beige
So much Ellington to choose from, but I probably listen to this more than anything else. Again, what can I say that others have not?

Wayne Shorter, Super Nova
A classic from the fusion era, Super Nova is far and away Shorter's best solo album. Beautiful and awesomely kick-ass at the same time. It makes me sad that so much of the fusion stuff died so quickly. The musicians didn't seem to know where to go. A lot of the later fusion albums are unspeakably bad. Many of the musicians either went back to their more traditional roots (Shorter, Herbie Hancock), continued with unsatisfactory and disappointing projects (Chick Corea), or just went into really bad and cheesy music (a lot of people). The job of pushing the envelope mostly went to the descendants of Coltrane's experimentalism rather than Miles. Pharaoh Sanders, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and later William Parker, Matthew Shipp, and David S. Ware have done a lot more than Hancock, Shorter, John McLaughlin, Corea and that group. The latter have made much more money but left less artistic impact, at least since 1975. I don't know why this is, but listening to Super Nova reminds me of the great potential these artists had.

I'll have at least a couple more of these lists in the new year.