A few weeks ago a former professor of mine shared an article on Facebook from the Village Voice that listed the Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die. Usually it seems like the “ten whatevers you need to do/visit/read/listen before you die” lists are things that people probably haven’t done, are not likely to do, or heard of, or whatever – you know, visit the Taj Mahal, see some epic-ly awesome cave, skydive, things out of the ordinary. But I was kind of disappointed by this list. Not because the albums aren’t good – they are all great. The thing is, it was about as predictable as could be. Chances are tons of people have already heard these albums, or part of them, without even knowing it – whether in a coffee shop, commercial, movie, and hell, I remember as a kid seeing some pairs figure skaters in the Olympics (’88 Calgary games, I believe) doing their thing to “Take Five” (which was probably the first time I heard Paul Desmond, who would become my favorite saxophonist). And except for Ornette – and maybe Bitches Brew – there’s nothing that will challenge the listener. And there’s nothing past 1973 when Headhunters came out.
So, this got me thinking, what would I put on my list? So I started putting one together. At first I wasn’t going to limit myself to any particular time period. But then I thought it would be neat to do a list that only included albums recorded during my lifetime (since 1980, for the curious). What follows is not what I think are the best albums, or the most important, or whatever. They are just ten albums that I think are really good, offer something new and potentially challenging to the listener, that one probably wouldn’t encounter in everyday life, and represent the diversity of approaches that have flourished in the last 30+ years. I’m sure people will say this list is pretty whack, or too obscure, or whatever, but it’s my list. Put them on your bucket list.
There’s a ton more albums I could have put on here, but here goes, in no particular order (with YouTube clips where I could find them):
Liam Sillery, Phenomenology (OA2) – Out of the maybe 70-80 albums I reviewed for Downbeat, this is the only one I gave a 5 star, or “masterpiece,” rating. This album is a kind of update of those great mid- to late- 60s outward leaning albums on Blue Note from folks such as Andrew Hill, Eric Dolphy, and Jackie McLean. But the great thing is, it doesn’t sound like any of them. It is its own unique artistic statement. You can find my review in the October 2010 issue of Downbeat.
Paul Motian/Joe Lovano/Bill Frisell, I Have the Room Above Her (ECM) – This is the first album I heard by this trio, which was one of the great working groups of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. This is collective, ego-less music making at its finest, and an absolutely gorgeous and perfect album.
Cuong Vu, Vu-tet (Artist Share) – Make no mistakes, Cuong Vu will rock your shit. This was maybe the fourth or fifth CD I ever reviewed that was published. In this case, in the small Seattle-based Earshot Jazz. I remember going back and forth with my very patient editor on this one, as I had trouble capturing just how fresh, surprising, and affectively charged this music is. Vu is one of the most underrated players and composers today. Check my review of his latest project.
David Murray Octet, Ming (Black Saint) – All of Murray’s octets from the early ’80s are outstanding, and I could have listed any of them here, but I’m partial to Ming. What I love about Murray’s writing is how he updates swing and bebop writing, gives it a twist, and adds a healthy dose of free jazz abandon. And his band (Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara, Lawrence Morris, George Lewis, Anthony Davis, Wilber Morris, Steve McCall) can’t be topped.
Vijay Iyer, Historicity (ACT) – Along with bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, Iyer is making some of the baddest, heaviest, and most innovative piano trio music today. Along with originals, his trio covers everything from Julius Hemphill and Henry Threadgill, to standards, to Michael Jackson and MIA. Just check out what the group does here to Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere.” Their playing with multiple meters is completely captivating and almost unbelievable.
John Zorn, Naked City (Elektra/Nonesuch) – There is perhaps no better definition of post-modern pastiche than Zorn’s Naked City group. It’s all here: surf, metal, pop, bebop, younameit. With Zorn, Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, Fred Frith, and Joey Baron. Get ready to get freaked out.
Branford Marsalis Trio, Bloomington (Columbia) – As I’ve written on this site many times, the tenor/bass/drums format is probably my favorite instrumentation group. Bloomington, a live recording from 1991 at Indiana University, is right up there with any of Rollins’ classic trio albums. Robert Hurst and Robert “Tain” Watts have gotta be one of the best bass/drum tandems of recent decades. This is a burner from start to finish, and their performances of “Everything Happens to Me” and Monk’s “Friday the 13th” are perhaps my favorite recordings of those tunes. As good as post-bop gets.
Maria Schneider, Sky Blue (Artist Share) – When I pop in a new disc by a large ensemble, no matter who it is, it quite often bears an audible stamp of Schneider’s writing. It seemed that for a couple years just about every advance copy of a big band album I was getting sounded a lot like Schneider – that’s how important she is. Sky Blue is an impressive work. As a friend of mine once told me (I can’t remember exactly who it was), her group is basically a wind ensemble with a rhythm section. I couldn’t have said it better -the range of colors and textures she is able to coax out of a pretty standard big band lineup (and it doesn’t hurt that her band is made up of many of today’s top players) is pretty astounding. I’d post a video, but most of them out there are of college bands playing her music. I’m looking forward to her new album, which should be out in the spring of 2015.
Steve Coleman, Drop Kick (BMG) – No matter how dense and complex Coleman’s music gets, the funk is always there, and 1992’s Drop Kick is one of his funkiest. Reggie Washington and Me’shell Ndegeocello (who plays on the title track below) share the electric bass duties and keep the funk grounded and the booty shaking. Some, such as my S.O., can’t handle the slightly dated sounding synths, but I don’t care. This one is banging.
Anthony Braxton, (Victoriaville) 1992 (Victo) – I just about felt compelled to include a Braxton album in this list, but given that there’s hundreds, it’s pretty hard to pick one. So I’m going with one of this quartet album recorded live at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville. This features one of his longer standing groups, with Marilyn Crispell on piano, Mark Dresser on bass, and Gerry Hemingway on drums and percussion. The first four cuts are Braxton originals, and the final track, which is below, is a cover of “Impressions.” It’s my least favorite cut on the album, but it’s a pretty good example of Braxton et al’s more “straight-ahead” playing, well, as straight-ahead as Braxton gets.