Lately I’ve been pretty fascinated with jazz music. It’s probably one of the most daunting genres to get into and I think I started off on the wrong foot when I first listened to Miles Davis’ historic 1959 album, Kind of Blue. Most people will tell you that its the perfect place to start for a jazz virgin but I beg to differ. Sure it’s nice and all, but it wasn’t that appealing to my rock-trained ears at the time. I wonder how I would have reacted if I’d heard something a bit more funky instead. Some Charles Mingus maybe; who, in my opinion, is the perfect starting point for anyone curious about jazz music. I guess I’ve been trying to make up for that early misstep by getting back-to-basics.
Before I go any further, it’s probably good idea for me to explain what drew me to jazz in the first place and why I remain fascinated by it to this very day. I think that one of the things that first sparked my curiosity was the sheer awesomeness of the distinctive Blue Note (perhaps the most famous of all jazz record labels) album covers. They are just about the coolest thing you’ll ever see and they all stick to the same aesthetic theme no matter what. So yeah, that’s a pretty superficial reason but it’s the truth. There are two big reasons why I continue to be interested by jazz music. Numero uno: it’s democratic. Every member in a group of jazz musicians gets a turn to show off, however I never fail to get a kick out of hearing every member of a band playing as a cohesive unit. That brings me to the second reason: jazz’s harmonic nature. The way all the instruments blend together in good jazz always astounds me. So there you have it. A little bit of context never hurt anyone. I don’t think.
The most accessible form of jazz music is (debatably) hard bop. Hard bop is an offshoot of the bebop style which is known for its quick tempos, melodic soloing and harmony between the various instruments. The difference between hard bop and bebop is largely a matter of what influenced the players of each style musically. Hard bop came into prominence in the 1950s and so its musicians mostly grew up listening to a combination of blues and bebop music as opposed to the more limited range of music that was available to the older generation of jazz-cats. Therefore, hard bop music often borrows from blues in terms of structure. So I’ve been trawling the discographies of many prominent musicians that recorded in the style of hard bop at any point in time, looking for the ideal gateways to jazz that I never had.
I already had a modest collection of jazz music when I decided to do a bit more exploration of the genre a couple of weeks ago. Some albums I already had in my posession include Miles Davis’ Cookin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet (1957), John Coltrane’s Blue Train (1957) and Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um (1959). All of these are hard bop recordings so I was already pretty well-versed on the subject but I wanted to become even more familiar with it. I knew that once I listened to enough hard bop albums, I would be ready to embrace more avant-garde stuff like free jazz (a very loose style that focuses more on emotion than structure and harmony) and Miles’ fusion work.
Last week, I listened to jazz trumpeter, Lee Morgan’s 1964 album, The Sidewinder. I almost instantly fell in love with the self-titled and first track of the record. It’s very groovy and has some fantastic soloing from Morgan and pianist, Barry Harris. The rest of the album is good too but it never tops the first track. Like Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, The Sidewinder would serve as a great starting point for anyone curious about jazz. The next album I listened to was Monk’s Music (1957) by pianist, Thelonious Monk. I didn’t enjoy it a great deal. It doesn’t really ‘bop’ enough for me, if that makes any sense. My favorite hard bop records put a decent emphasis on the blues element of the style e.g. The Sidewinder. A young John Coltrane plays saxophone on most of the tracks but even he’s in underwhelming form. Playing on this probably schooled him a bit though as he’d only just finished his debut album for Prestige (a prominent jazz-oriented record label).
Although it’s not exactly a hard bop record, I’ve also given Coltrane’s 1961 long player, My Favorite Things a few spins recently. It doesn’t groove like Morgan’s stuff but the title track in particular is hauntingly beautiful. It’s a rendition of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from The Sound of Music. Coltrane plays the vocal melodies on saxophone and it’s very pretty. The emotional tone of Coltrane’s cover is nothing like the original, which is a whimsical ode to life. Coltrane tackles it differently, suggesting darkness and evoking a sense of foreboding in the listener while still retaining the simple beauty of the melody. I need to listen to the entire album a few more times before I can form a final opinion of it, but I can safely say that the first track alone is worth the price of admission.
I still have much to learn and discover when it comes to jazz and that’s an exciting prospect. The hardest part is knowing where to go next!
Oh, and I’m also enjoying Deerhunter. They’re great.