Fifteen Great Jazz Albums

by Tom on October 4, 2003

Norman Geras is running another of his music-related polls, this one on readers’ nominations for their top 15 jazz albums.

The list I sent Norm isn’t ordered, since I refuse to give myself that big a headache; nor can I reasonably say that it what’s on it constitutes ‘the greatest etc.’, since I’ve no doubt the list would almost certainly be rather different if my CD collection were larger. (As a corollary, it’ll be different in sixth months time – like John Holbo, I’m apt to spend a ridiculously hefty proportion of any hike in my income on music.)

So, I offer this list in the spirit that these are fifteen albums that I really, really like, and maybe you would too:

  • John Coltrane, ‘Giant Steps’. Coltrane’s playing on the title track is just a force of nature, and ‘Naima’ is very pretty indeed.
  • Miles Davis, ‘The Best of the Quintet, 1965-8’. Since I can’t have the Plugged Nickel sessions in their entirety within the rules of the poll, this’ll do as representative of that band’s amazing achievements.
  • Wayne Shorter, ‘Juju’. Unbelievable energy and surprise here.
  • McCoy Tyner, ‘The Real McCoy’. Tyner’s way with harmony still knocks me over whenever I listen to him; if only I could work out exactly what he was up to and reproduce something like it myself …
  • Joe Pass, ‘Virtuoso Vol. 4’. Gorgeous, joyful, artful solo guitar.
  • Miles Davis, ‘Kind of Blue’. Comment superflous.
  • Charlie Parker, Savoy Sessions vol 5. (Any decent Parker compilation will do the trick, but since we’re confined to LP’s here, I’ll pick out this out of the feasible set partly because it’s the first bit of Bird I ever bought, partly because I particularly love ‘Parker’s Mood’.)
  • Brecker, Hancock, Hargrove, ‘New Directions in Music’. Smart, edgy, endlessly inventive reinvention of the legacies of Coltrane and Miles. Damn I wish I’d seen that band when they toured.
  • Miles Davis, ‘Decoy’. Miles takes fewer drugs, sacks the conga player, and finally does something really interesting with electric instruments. The presence of Branford Marsalis and John Scofield doesn’t hurt, it has to be said.
  • Ella Fitzgerald, ‘Ella Sings Gershwin’. This being the single CD from the big Verve release of the whole American Songbook, (which I can’t have by the ‘no boxed-set’ rule, damn it). ‘Embraceable You’ is worth the price of admission on its own.
  • Keith Jarrett Trio, ‘Still Live’. Jarrett’s improvised introduction to ‘My Funny Valentine’ is a minor masterpiece.
  • Martin Taylor, ‘In Concert’. Technically jaw-dropping, harmonically fiendish but wonderfully entertaining solo set.
  • John Scofield, ‘Flat Out’. Clever, abstracted acoustic funk with great interplay between Sco and Terri Lyne Carrington on the drums. ‘All The Things You Are’ never sounded like this before. And if ‘Sissy Strut’ doesn’t make you want to dance, well, I dunno… (I speak as someone who is notorious for being close to impossible to persuade to dance.)
  • Wayne Shorter, ‘Live Evil’. Rather like the Hancock/Brecker album in giving us a chance to listen to the very finest players rework the ground-breaking stuff from the ‘sixties, and none the worse for that.
  • Bill Evans and Jim Hall, ‘Undercurrent’. Introverted, thoughtful, humane, unmissable stuff.

    If you’ve a list in mind, do tell Norm about it by emailing him here. Your deadline is midnight Sunday GMT – my bad for not mentioning it earlier.

    Update: Kieran correctly points out in the comments that I probably meant to recommend the work of Miles Davis, rather than that of the all-too-plausible titan of ‘the Treorchy pitster scene’, Miles Davies. I’ve now changed the list to make this clear.

    My apologies to the ghosts of both gentlemen for any crisis of identity this confusion may have provoked.



    Zizka 10.05.03 at 12:08 am

    I can’t find any way to contact the dude at his site, so here goes:

    Charlie Christian: Greatest Hits Compilation (he never released a record during his short life).

    Thelonius Monk: Brilliant Corners (or, as Geras said, something else of his).

    Max Roach / Clifford Brown

    John Coltrane: Africa/Brass and Impressions (with “India”) (2)

    Ornette Coleman: This is Our Music and Change of the Century (2)

    Miles Davis: Bitches Brew, Agharta (2)

    John Handy: Spanish Lady

    Charlie Mingus: Oh Yeah

    Jan Garbarek: Dis, Places (2)

    Marion Brown: Geechee Recollections, Sweet Earth Flying (2)

    As you can see, my jazz tastes are pretty tightly clustered. And I easily could have left off Charlie Christian and Clifford Brown, producing an even tighter cluster.


    Frank Quist 10.05.03 at 12:35 am

    Zizka, the contact adress can be found in the ‘House’ part of his side bar.


    Kieran Healy 10.05.03 at 2:23 am

    It’s about time that Miles Davies, that little known Welsh horn player, got his due. The cultural influence of the Treorchy pitster scene has been unjustifiably overshadowed by the Boyceans. Granted, lyric masterpieces such as ‘9-3 are assured their place in literary history, but neglect of Davies’ recordings is still criminal.


    NC 10.05.03 at 7:47 am

    Mr. Butler said the book proposal had erroneously dropped a few words from a quotation attributed to Mr. Schwarzenegger. According to Mr. Butler’s reading of the transcript, Mr. Schwarzenegger followed his comments about Hitler’s public speaking by adding, “But I didn’t admire him for what he did with it.” He did not say, “I admire him for being such a good public speaker and for what he did with it,” as he was quoted in the book proposal and in early editions of The Times.

    Mr. Butler said he could not explain the inaccuracy. “I am amazed that something like that escaped me.”

    Mr. Butler also read other sentences of the transcript, spoken in Mr. Schwarzenegger’s then-imperfect English, that related to the subject. “Yes, in Germany they used power and authority but it was used in the wrong way,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said, according to Mr. Butler. “But it was misused on the power. First, it started having, I mean, getting Germany out of the great recession and having everybody jobs and so on and then it was just misused. And they said, let’s take this country, and so on.” Mr. Schwarzenegger concluded: “That’s bad.”

    but the lofty ethics bores of American journalism apparently have no problem with opening up their front page for anonymous one-sided accusations of ancient improper advances. In that case, did I mention the time Gray Davis grabbed me by the crotch and whispered in my ear: “Have you ever had a man tax you up the wazoo?” Or, if the issue is the violent grabbing of anonymous women, how about this? “He just went into one of his rants of, `F— the f—ing f—, f—, f—!’ He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me until my teeth rattled. I was so stunned I said, `Good God, Gray! Think what you are doing to me!’ And he just could not stop.” That’s a former staffer of Davis, as reported by Jill Stewart in New Times LA in 1997.


    Tom 10.05.03 at 3:17 pm

    Oh dear. I’ve sprained my imagination very nastily trying to work out what Miles would have sounded like had he been Welsh – my apologies to anyone who has been similarly injured as a consequence of my mistake on this point.

    I’ve posted an update fixing it.


    msw 10.05.03 at 3:25 pm

    When I saw this list, I thought – no “Time Out”? Then, over at normblog I see “There are some as turn up their noses at Brubeck.”

    It this a common opinion for serious jazz afficionados? Can someone explain why to me?



    Tom 10.05.03 at 3:40 pm

    I’ve no beef with Brubeck – he’s not a personal fave (hence absence from my list), but I’ve got a compilation CD of his that I listen to semi-regularly. It’s good stuff.

    The obvious reason why a certain type of jazzer might disdain DB is just that he was very, very popular in the mainstream and made a lot of money.

    Jazz is a lifestyle accoutrement for some people, and I suppose it’s hard to sustain your goateed hipster self-conception when your mum keeps borrowing bits of your record collection.


    Norman Geras 10.05.03 at 3:47 pm

    “Often derided as a white, middle-class formalist with a rather buttoned-down image and an unhealthy obsession with classical parallels and clever-clever time signatures…”

    This is from Cook and Morton’s Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, where it is also disputed.


    a 10.05.03 at 6:16 pm

    Sunday, October 05, 2003

    MODO GETS ONE THING RIGHT: “Feminism died in 1998 when Hillary allowed henchlings and Democrats to demonize Monica as an unbalanced stalker, and when Gloria Steinem defended Mr. Clinton against Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones by saying he had merely made clumsy passes, then accepted rejection, so there was no sexual harassment involved. As to his dallying with an emotionally immature 21-year-old, Ms. Steinem noted, ‘Welcome sexual behavior is about as relevant to sexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one.’ Surely what’s good for the Comeback Kid is good for the Terminator.” – from her column today. Sorry, Democratic-party-hacks-pretending-to-be-feminists. (That means you, Pollitt, Steinem and Streisand.) One grope and you’re ok. Them’s your rules. I stand by the distinctions I made yesterday.


    Zizka 10.05.03 at 8:05 pm and, thanks for sharing!


    dsquared 10.05.03 at 10:48 pm

    I’d also like to read another of zizka’s conspiracy theory addled essays, if this has turned into “Requests Hour”


    Zizka 10.05.03 at 11:30 pm

    I have new stuff up at my site. Actually, mostly restatements of the same thing I’ve been saying all along. For me, the neo-Confederates, Armageddon Christians, and other Grover Norquist types never lose their fascination.


    Tom 10.06.03 at 12:06 am

    Arses, I’ve completely buggered up the continuity haven’t I?

    I take it that Daniel is replying to a (now deleted) troll barfing that Zizka should, ahem, jolly well go away and write another one of his excellent political essays.

    Like Daniel, I concur with the last bit.


    theCoach 10.06.03 at 5:24 am

    One vote for including Mingus Ah Um


    Ian 10.06.03 at 11:35 am

    Since I’ve missed the deadline here’s some from my list (although I would be perfectly happy if it was simply any 15 by Ellington):

    Billie Holiday – Lady in Satin
    Duke Ellington – Black Brown and Beige
    Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
    Louis Armstrong – anything by the Hot Five (I don’t actually own one of these which is a huge gap I must remedy)
    Bill Evans – Conversations with myself
    Oscar Peterson – Night Train
    Ellington/Mingus/Roach – Money Jungle
    Chris McGregor – Brotherhood of Breath
    Ellington – Ellington at Newport 1946


    Thlayli 10.06.03 at 2:37 pm

    All these Miles fans, and no votes for “Birth of the Cool”….


    Zizka 10.06.03 at 5:04 pm

    Coach — Ah Um was the last one I cut to make 15. I now realize that I broke the rules by not listing 15 different artists. But actually, my list isn’t the 15 greatest jazz albums anyway. It’s basically just my favorites.


    Matt Weiner 10.06.03 at 5:08 pm

    If available in your territory, and possibly even if not, get the JSP box of the “complete hot fives and sevens.” 4 CDs–two disks of the hot fives and sevens with Ory and Dodds, one of the hot five with Hines, one of big bands–superb remastering, and it cost me $25 with tax included. Thank heaven for the expiration of copyright. (Not just because it’s cheap. Columbia did a poor job of remastering these records until their most recent issue, according to Cook and Morton–and I’m sure they wouldn’t have improved if not for the JSP competition.)

    Louis Armstrong “Compete Hot Fives and Sevens”
    Jelly Roll Morton “Vols. One through Five” (the Victor recordings–also on JSP)
    Duke Ellington “The Blanton-Webster Band” (currently released as “Never No Lament”)
    Charles Mingus “Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” (or “Ah Um”)
    Ornette Coleman “Beauty Is a Rare Thing”
    Jimmy Giuffre 3 “1961”
    George Lewis “Homage to Charles Parker”
    Arthur Blythe “Lenox Avenue Breakdown”
    Cecil Taylor “Air Above Mountains (buildings within)”
    Derek Bailey “Aida”
    Sonny Sharrock “Guitar”
    Henry Threadgill “Where’s Your Cup”
    Peter Brotzmann “Chicago Octet/Tentet”
    John Zorn “The Big Gundown”
    Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” (I was sorely tempted to put in “Big Fun,” just to counter what Norman says about “Decoy” as the first good electric Miles album, but KoB is really the best)

    If we’re going for “Best,” there should be some Charlie Parker on there, but I went for something more like personal faves.


    Matt Weiner 10.06.03 at 10:00 pm

    Whoops, that was Tom with “Decoy.” I mean, taking fewer drugs was supposed to be a good thing here?
    (Actually, jazz is unlike rock in that most musicians seem to do better about cleaning up, but I’ll take 70s Miles over 80s Miles any day. De gustibus.)


    Matt Weiner 10.06.03 at 10:01 pm

    Most jazz musicians do better work after cleaning up. Don’t post on an empty stomach, weiner.


    Patrick Nielsen Hayden 10.07.03 at 2:54 am

    Mingus Ah Um. Essential.

    Thelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners.

    Ellington, Mingus, Roach, Money Jungle.

    The Quintet, Jazz at Massey Hall.

    And my personal eccentric choice: Duke Ellington, New Orleans Suite.


    cw 10.07.03 at 4:49 am

    Some other worthy albums:

    And his mother called him Bill- ellington

    Max Roach in 3/4 time

    Rasshan Roland Kirk–voluntered slavery

    Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto– best of two worlds (or something like that)

    mingus Tiajuana moods. (there’s a lot of really good ones, Blues and Roots for instance).

    Water babies–miles davis (not a “greatest” but something really, really interesting, a wierd offshoot of the sixties music.)


    S. Baum 10.07.03 at 8:05 pm

    Seeing how many of my faves have already been covered, and not feeling like being obscure for the sake of obscurity at the moment, I’ll just add a list of jazz lists I recently compiled while in work avoidance mode. The obscure stuff occasionally shows up on my soapbox during those moments I’m not grinding my axe. Mebbe I’ll try a real list tonight as the grog relaxes me.

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