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10 Starter Albums for the Jazz Novice

Sunday, December 14, 2008

This isn't a definitive list of jazz essentials by any stretch, just a starter kit from a former neophyte who once aspired to expand his awareness of jazz beyond the theme music from "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." All of these albums are available on Amazon or iTunes.

-- Chris Richards

Duke Ellington "The OKeh Ellington" (Sony/Columbia, 1927-1930)

The District has named a high school, a bridge, a plaza, restaurants and sandwiches after Duke Ellington. Why? Because the city's favorite son has been immeasurably influential on the trajectory of popular American music. But back in 1927, long before that mural went up on U Street NW, Ellington was a 28-year-old bandleader preparing to settle in at the mythic Cotton Club in New York's Harlem. There he would inflect his crowd-pleasing compositions with unprecedented sensitivity, verve and elegance. These recordings capture that pregnant moment in Ellington's young career; it's the sound of pop music waking up to its infinite artistic possibilities.

Essential track: "Mood Indigo"

Charlie Parker "Best of the Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings" (Savoy, 1944-1948)

With the birth of bebop in the early '40s, jazz began racing through America's cultural bloodstream at virtuosic speeds. Charlie "Bird" Parker was bebop's Usain Bolt, and these sessions find the saxophonist sprinting into the future, practically daring the world to try to keep up. Bird's bleating was as lyrical as it was nimble, and if you listen closely, you might even hear his solos curling into the double-helix DNA of improvisational jazz to come.

Essential track: "Yardbird Suite"

Thelonious Monk "Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1" (Blue Note, 1947-1948)

Sure, Thelonious Monk was a pianist, but his early works posit him as jazz's great structural architect, punching out new rhythms and new chords, and stacking them where he pleased. He could play piano with a percussive thwack or a gentle stutter, conjuring thunder and snowflakes in the same passage. Today, many of Monk's early compositions have become well-worn jazz standards, but on "Genius" they're recorded fresh off his fingertips. There's still magic in every keystroke.

Essential track: "Well You Needn't"

Miles Davis "Kind of Blue" (Sony, 1959)

Miles Davis often used his trumpet as a weapon of mass seduction, and his 1959 watershed is no exception. He's an improvisational soothsayer here, burning soft and cool, dropping every note in the right place. The perennial popularity of this album is equally intriguing and certainly worthy of closer examination by floundering record industry honchos. Last year, National Public Radio reported that "Kind of Blue" still sold a whopping 5,000 copies a week.

Essential track: "So What"

John Coltrane "A Love Supreme" (Impulse, 1964)

Jazz arguably reached its apogee with John Coltrane, and John Coltrane arguably reached his apogee with "A Love Supreme." It's one of the most sublime recordings ever made from any era in any genre -- and few would argue with that. By the mid-'60s, the saxophonist and composer had begun to approach his music as a spiritual pursuit, and he dedicated this consummate suite to none other than the man upstairs. His offering is both majestic and profound, and probably enough to make any human being with a pulse believe in something.

Essential track: "Part 1:

Acknowledgement"

Eric Dolphy "Out to Lunch!" (Blue Note, 1964)

If you're seeing pink elephants by the time you reach "Straight Up and Down," the closing tune on this landmark album by

Eric Dolphy, cheers to you. In the liner notes, Dolphy says he was trying to evoke that blurry moment when alcohol turns one's knees into Silly Putty. So when academics pontificate about this recording's status as a high-water mark in avant-garde jazz, one can only hope they aren't missing out on the fun. Proof that Dolphy's best compositions were as playful as they were innovative: "Hat and Beard," his fist bump to the great Thelonious Monk.

Essential track: "Hat and Beard"

Alice Coltrane "Journey in Satchidananda" (Impulse, 1970)

Three years after John Coltrane's death, Alice Coltrane didn't try to escape her husband's shadow as much as follow in his footsteps. This is spiritual jazz, emphasis on the spiritual, with Coltrane playing harp and piano over lush drones while saxophonist Pharoah Sanders wails to the cosmos. I once bought a pristine (and curiously underpriced) vinyl copy of "Journey" from a record store clerk who casually referred to Alice Coltrane as "just 'Trane's wife." That guy couldn't have been more wrong.

Essential track: "Journey in Satchidananda"

Miles Davis "On the Corner" (Sony/Columbia, 1972)

Davis earns a second spot on this list after fearlessly mutating into a hypno-funk alchemist, stretching the expressive powers of his horn while embracing the populism of funk. American music hadn't seen a transformation this drastic before and hasn't since. (Yes, that includes Jessica Simpson's recent foray into country.) And while many critics are quick to tout the album "Bitches Brew" as Davis's visionary masterstroke, "On the Corner" was the twitchy beat-spasm that best predicted the funky future in which we now reside. It's tough to imagine Prince, the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Timbaland doing their respective thangs had these gooey tunes not dribbled from Miles's trumpet back in '72.

Essential track: "Helen Butte"

Don Cherry "Brown Rice" (A&M, 1975)

Don Cherry's portrait is absent from most jazz pantheons for reasons almost as mysterious as the music he created. He was an acolyte of free-jazz maestro Ornette Coleman who became a globe-trotting nomad with an insatiable curiosity for the music of Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. (Mind you, this was decades before the notion of "world music" came into vogue.) Today, "Brown Rice" stands as the most exhilarating example of Cherry's prescience: four pieces of ethereal jazz that dissolve borders and evaporate into a fine sonic mist. (Bonus factoid for your next trivia night and/or karaoke party: Cherry's stepdaughter Neneh sang the 1989 hit "Buffalo Stance," and his stepson, Eagle-Eye, had a hit in 1997 with "Save Tonight.")

Essential track: "Brown Rice"

Nina Simone "Anthology" (RCA, 1957-1993)

Sadly, your local record store is on its way to becoming a cultural relic. Here's one teeny-tiny plus: no more squabbling over which section to stock the Nina Simone CDs in. Simone didn't sing jazz (along with the blues, soul and gospel) so much as absorb it, filtering the music through those supernatural vocal cords to create something entirely her own. But jazz still claims her, perhaps for her unique vocal phrasing, perhaps because she summoned the superpowers of so many jazz forebears, including Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. This disc collects the widest, strongest swath of Simone's discography -- and when that swath includes jaw-dropping renditions of Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and Hall & Oates's "Rich Girl," you know you're listening to one of the greatest singers who ever did it.

Essential track: "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair"

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