Five Steps In an Exploration of Jazz

posted by Tom Moon on November 10, 2008 at 9:36 pm
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If You’re Just Beginning an Exploration of Jazz: Five Steps Beyond Kind of Blue.

Tell a jazz aesthete that you intend to begin exploring “America’s classical music,” and you can usually count on an automatic response: Start with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, the most famous jazz album of all time. That’s perfectly reasonable advice, as Davis’ 1959 masterwork offers thrilling explorations of mood and color, and contributions from some of the form’s legendary soloists. If you’re enchanted by it, here are five suggestions for further exploration.

Count Basie and His Orchestra: Complete Decca Recordings (2000, Decca/MCA). This anthology offers the essential DNA of swing rhythm circa the 1930s, as played by a super-alert (and highly polished) band.

Ahmad Jamal: But Not For Me: Live at the Pershing (1958, MCA). Sometimes jazz can seem like the “look-at-me” grandstanding of attention-mongers. But it can also be a realm of poise and understatement, as this shimmering live date from 1962 demonstrates. Cue up the jukebox hit “Poinciana” to hear piano trio music at a sauntering, serene, easygoing peak.

Bill Evans and Jim Hall: Undercurrent (1962, Blue Note). At its best, jazz is a constantly evolving conversation between musicians. This recording presents two master improvisors, the coloristic pianist Bill Evans and guitar virtuoso Jim Hall, deeply immersed in a musical exchange. There are no distractions.

Booker Little: Out Front (1961, Candid). Recorded just as “free jazz” was hitting its stride, this fiery date led by trumpeter and composer Booker Little strives for – and achieves – a balance of old (hard bop) and new (free jazz) thinking that’s unlike anything else.

The Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane: At Carnegie Hall (2005, Blue Note). This recently unearthed live performance from 1957 showcases the herculean tenor saxophonist John Coltrane tackling some of Thelonious Monk’s most challenging compositions. It’s a crucial “lost chapter” of music history.

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#1 from April Donut, NY, NY - 11/13/2008 2:09

Interesting choices, and obviously one could question the lack of Ellington, Bird, Mingus, etc, hewing to the after “Kind of Blue” formulation. But that argument is undercut by the appearance of Basie….SO…you absolutely must travel back one more decade: truly, trying to get a handle on America’s “classical music” without a grounding in Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens is like trying to understand Western classic music without Bach. Can’t be done.

#2 from Tom Moon - 11/13/2008 8:04

Excellent point.

My goal with these “introductions” is to provide a newbie some choices for pleasure listening, not necessarily within a historical framework. That said, the Hot Fives and Sevens of Louis Armstrong (featured in 1000 Recordings on pg. 26-27) offer pure thrills in rapid succession, and are an excellent way to begin exploring jazz.

Thanks for that.


#3 from Randy Pitts, Nashville,TN - 11/19/2008 3:50

Hey Tom
    I’m the guy from The Fairfield Four’s booking agent you met at your book signing last night in Nashville.I’ve often found Wes Montgomery’s recordings a way to introduce jazz to those who claim they don’t “understand” jazz, after first asking, “What’s to understand?  You listen, you like it, or you don’t.”  Nearly everyone likes Wes Montgomery, and he made some great jazz albums, early on.

#4 from Tom Moon - 11/20/2008 2:44

Amen and thanks for that suggestion re Wes Montgomery!
some of the ones I wrestled with before deciding on Smokin’ At the Half Note:

Boss Guitar
James & Wes (with Jimmy Smith)
Full House
The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of…


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