Ten important jazz albums

01:58, Jul 10 2014

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned ten important blues albums - meaning ten albums I considered stepping stones, ten albums that sent me into the genre and then, in some cases, helped define that genre. And as with previous times - when I've offered up my lists around ten important albums in punk, reggae, country, electronica, metal and hip-hop I copped a wee bit of flak because my list wasn't your list. And because my list of blues albums included - gasp! - white people! 

And because if this blog is anything it's a study in not being deterred by idiocy, since - hey - my own has clearly never stopped me, then with that, here we go again - this time ten important jazz albums. And if you can't think of your own list you could always just tell me that mine sucks.

1. The Buddy Rich Big Band, Big Swing Face:  I mentioned it recently on my list of ten 'drum' albums. This was played to me when I decided I wanted to play the drums. It scared me, baffled me, excited me - and though there are plenty of times when I haven't really enjoyed the relentless approach of Buddy Rich as big-band driver, I would say as often as not actually, this was still among the very first jazz albums I heard; it would have been the first time I sat and listened to a jazz album all the way through, side to side. I've kept this record. I still play it. I was ten years old when I first heard it.

2. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue: When the family got its first CD player we had won some competition so scored a bunch of free CDs with it, including Miles Davis' Tutu. That was cool. The whole family was into it - we only had about five CDs to choose from (others included Santana, Prince and The Animals). The collection grew pretty quickly from there and as that was the introduction to Miles Davis for all of us we decided to get something older, one of his "classic" albums. You can't get more classic than this. I've collected up over a hundred Miles Davis recordings and all because of this. Miles - and this album to start with - became a way to learn about other great players. Every musician on Kind of Blue is represented in my collection across a bunch of other albums, some with them as the leader, sometimes, as with here, they're simply part of a magical line-up.

3. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme: My brother used to return home from university with albums he'd picked up on sale, with new artists he'd been tipped off about. He, being older, introduced me to The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Hello Sailor, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Th' Dudes, The Who and many other great artists. Long-term, long-time favourites. He also brought home this album - one of my all-time favourite records by anyone ever; a life-changing experience. I took the dive headlong into Coltrane's music from hearing this album.

4. Chet Baker/Art Pepper, Picture of Heath: Yet another star-studded cast here. And my introduction to some of these players came from hearing this album. Prior to knowing this they were just names - or in the case of Chet Baker I knew a whole other sound only. My memory of this album is caught up, too, in the importance of great advisers. I had worked with Colin Morris in a record store, had visited him when he has his own store and I had met Seamus when he was running the chain store where I lined up all night for the midnight opening to "be first in the world" to buy Pink Floyd's P.U.L.S.E. With Colin and Seamus together working at Fisheye Discs they made a formidable team; weekly visits taught me so much. They were good friends and they turned me on to so many great albums - so many classics. Among them, this. A gift idea for my father. I had to get a second copy for myself. (Side note: one time Seamus hand-delivered a CD to my father in Hawke's Bay. A birthday present that would have been late otherwise. He didn't know my dad, and had no reason to offer that service, that kindness. He was simply going to be driving up to Hawke's Bay that day to start a holiday. He found my father's work and personally delivered the album he'd recommended to me. He was the best).

5. Art Pepper, Meets The Rhythm Section: On the Art Pepper tip I got pretty hooked - a part of the charm, a part of the story was his sad tale of addiction. This was around the time that books like Melvin Burgess' Junk, William S. Burroughs' Junkie and the films Trainspotting and The Basketball Diaries were part of a huge interest in that slide. A sort of romanticising of the junkie life - without ever moving beyond the cheerleading stage. The Beat writers and Bukowski's booze tales, flagging university classes, listening to jazz. It all seemed to fit together nicely. The story about Pepper working with "The Rhythm Section" - Miles Davis' crack band of the time was the allure with this album. Then of course there's the music. A favourite to this day.

6. Sonny Rollins, Tenor Madness: The selling point was the "battle" - Rollins and Coltrane going at it, at each other, attacking the tune - the title track. But then I just kept coming back to this album and from there to all that Rollins offers. There's a kindness in his playing, a joy, such a spirit. The recent documentary on Sky's Arts Channel currently is worth a look. I consider getting the chance to interview Sonny Rollins a career highlight (if I could ever call what I do a career - probably not). But certainly talking to Rollins, seeing him play, being moved by his story sent me back to this album again just recently.

7. Ornette Coleman, Free Jazz: It was fairly early on in my jazz listening that I heard this - a cacophony, two blended quartets. Well, the novelty was that you could switch between the speakers and hear the two quartets playing independent of one another; the real intention of the album was to hear the overlap, the colouring over the lines of this burst of noise. I reckon I stayed - the first time - because I knew Don Cherry from his appearance with Lou Reed on a live version of Heroin that I really liked. I stayed - the second time - because I was obsessed with hearing great jazz drummers. This album didn't feature one - it had two. I stayed, from there, because for the longest time I had nothing else in my collection of music this freeing. I used to come home after high school hockey matches and put this on and just sit with it. Back in the days when there was time.

8. Keith Jarrett, The Koln Concert: One of the most beautiful albums I know - an album I don't think I could ever get sick of, and my introduction to the solo works of Jarrett. I'm discovering his music - he's still releasing wonderful new stuff too. I knew him as part of Miles' big band in the fusion days, I knew some of his lovely Standards Trio work but this album - again the story around it, a first-time promoter, less than ideal situations, a one-off performance caught on tape. That all feeds into it, sure. But for me while this album is on nothing else in the world matters.

9. Louis Armstrong, The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Sessions: I liked What A Wonderful World, the first thing I knew about/by Louis Armstrong. It wasn't until a couple of years later that I found out that it was a late-in-the-career piece, almost a novelty-song when compared with the stuff he had done to make his name. So back to the source I went. Via a couple of "20 Greatest Hits"-styled teasers. I ordered this box-set - it was always such a treat, such a big move to commit to ordering over the counter a box-set. And the wait was a big part of it, the build-up...this music knocks me out. Couldn't ever be without it. And you know I still like What A Wonderful World too - time and place. I'm no Louis Armstrong purist, I can handle the late-career schmaltz and cheese too.

10. Duke Ellington/Charlie Mingus/Max Roach, Money Jungle: Well there's three giants here and you could come to this album for any one of them - I knew them all by the time I found out about this but, going in, my big interest was Roach. He's my all-time favourite jazz drummer (if I had to pick just one). I loved so much of Mingus' work and Ellington's too - in both cases, particularly their compositional approach. Here you get to hear Ellington the player more so than in other cases, where he's the arranger, bandleader, composer - he's playing too. But he's playing as orchestrator/leader/conductor. Here it's a swinging, hard bop trio. There's an edge to his playing that I haven't found on other albums. Mingus is brutal - well, of course. And Roach is wonderful. The supergroup-aspect is what interested me about this. The way this set just hums, bristles, bounces - that's what's kept me listening.

Harder than any other genre to pick just ten - these are the ten I thought of today when trying to remember a few key moments, albums that opened doors, that blew my mind. Albums thatushered in jazz or returned me to the sound. Of course I could name ten more straight away. And then again. And then again. But part of the fun of it - the challenge - is in trying to narrow it down to just ten. Have a go.

What do you consider your ten important jazz albums? And see anything there on the list above you like, agree with or are keen to try? 

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