Art Works Blog

Jazz Appreciation Month: A Listening List

Being under stay-at-home directives in the Washington, DC region (and elsewhere) has led to many of us revisiting the art we have at home. Music, in particular, is a great balm in this time of great unease and anxiety, so I often turn to the thousands of recordings lying about my house. It being, coincidentally, Jazz Appreciation Month, I have put together a playlist of jazz albums (lucky seven) featuring a range of NEA Jazz Masters to listen to during a pandemic (or any other time you need a pick-me-up).

Carla Bley: Life Goes On

While Bley is rightly feted for her impressive composing and conducting skills, her piano playing is often downplayed (even by her). But her last few trio albums with Steve Swallow on bass and Andy Sheppard on sax show what a fluid and insightful pianist she is. Her latest release demonstrates her ability to use the silence between notes in a Thelonious Monk-like fashion that allows her cohorts to play off the rhythm she sets down. It’s a great album to play to bring down that anxiety level.

John Coltrane: Olé

This 1961 release by Coltrane is the last recording he made for Atlantic Records before moving on to his more renowned Impulse! years. The title track, with its Spanish feel and contemplative soprano sax by Coltrane and whirling flute from Eric Dolphy, then building with Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet solo over the ace rhythm section of the recently departed McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and both Art Davis and Reggie Workman on bass(es), is among the finest recordings that Coltrane had made.

Andrew Hill: Dusk

When this album came out at the turn of the century, his first new music in nine years, it was rightly hailed as a modern masterpiece. Hill used the Harlem Renaissance author Jean Toomer’s book Cane as inspiration (and I recommend the book as well for its amazing combination of poetry, drama, and short stories about African-American life in the early 20th century). Hill gets a Charles Mingus-like precision out of his sextet (saxophonists Greg Tardy and Marty Ehrlich, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Billy Drummond), playing his difficult rhythmic passages with beautiful unity. The music washes over you like the sun going down in an awesome display of colors.

Abdullah Ibrahim: The Balance

This 2019 release by the South African legend Ibrahim showcases his amazing compositional skills, creating a series of mood pieces that are executed with meticulous musicianship by his band Ekaya. Using South African rhythms at times, he deploys an unusual palette of instruments, such as cello and harmonica and piccolo. This is an album that both energizes and calms.

Charles Lloyd & the Marvels + Lucinda Williams: Vanished Gardens

Lloyd made a comeback in the 1990s and 2000s after laying low from his monumental popularity (for a jazz artist) in the 1960s. And what a comeback it has been—this recording from 2018 manages to transcend the whole concept of jazz as a genre. It moves back and forth from Lloyd instrumentals (featuring him on sax and flute, Bill Frisell on guitar, and Greg Leisz on steel guitar, with the rhythm section of drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers) to Williams’ songs featuring her on vocals, ending in a poignant cover of Jimi Hendrix’s song “Angel.” Is it rock? Is it blues? Is it jazz? The answer, of course, is yes, because the music is transcendental.

Maria Schneider Orchestra: The Thompson Fields

Schneider has eschewed record labels for years, putting out her recordings through ArtistShare, a crowdfunding platform for creative artists. Since she has complete control over the artistic product, not only is the music beautiful, so is the packaging (more than 50 pages of liner notes and beautiful photos and drawings in a hardback cover). This 2015 recording was inspired by her hometown in rural Minnesota and the prairie landscape. Her compositions evoke the beauty of natural surroundings tinged with the nostalgia of returning home, and her powerful 18-person orchestra captures both the grandeur and intimacy of the songs. A good record to spin while you are sitting on your porch or going for a walk (keeping a social distance of six feet from everyone else, of course).

Randy Weston/Melba Liston: Volcano Blues

Although Liston was responsible for the arrangements on many of Weston’s recordings, this 1993 release is the only one where she shares top billing. Since everyone seems to have the blues these days, this is a good one to listen to (because contrary to popular opinion, the blues actually make you feel better). The horn arrangements are magnificent, featuring a stellar front line of Benny Powell on trombone; Talib Kibwe, Teddy Edwards, and Hamiet Bluiett on saxes; and on trumpet, Wallace Roney, who recently succumbed to the coronavirus. Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland takes the vocals on a couple of numbers and the album gives a whole new impression of the blues form.

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