by Scott Yanow
Each year there are a countless number of rewarding jazz recordings. Jazz was first recorded in 1917 (“Livery Stable Blues” and “Original Dixieland One Step” by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band) and the pace of recording has accelerated ever since.
For the fun of it, I have picked out 20 albums of music since the 1920s that belong in every jazz collection. Listed and briefly reviewed are two albums apiece containing music from each decade of the past century. Two are two-CD sets and the remainder are single discs. Most are readily available although a few will take a bit of a search.
This is not a definitive “best of” list and I have not attempted to cover every major artist. In fact, all of the usual suspects (such as Kind Of Blue, Time Out, and A Love Supreme) are purposely absent. These are simply 20 mostly overlooked sets that deserve to be acquired, checked out, and enjoyed. Each is a classic in its own way yet most are rarely mentioned, which is why I am mentioning them here!
Cliff Edwards – Fascinating Rhythm 1922-35 (Retrieval) – Cliff Edwards, whose stage name was Ukulele Ike, was probably the first male jazz singer to ever record. A major name in the 1920s, he introduced such songs as “Singin’ In The Rain,” “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” and “It Is Only A Paper Moon,” and was scatting on record as early as 1922. Edwards had an erratic life after that as a B movie actor but had a comeback in 1940 when he was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in the Disney film Pinocchio, singing “When You Wish Upon A Star.” The two-CD Fascinating Rhythm 1922-35, which often has him joined by jazz greats of the era, contains many of the highpoints of his forgotten career.
Jabbo Smith – 1929-1938 (Retrieval) – In 1929, Jabbo Smith was the second best jazz trumpeter on record (only behind Louis Armstrong), a very exciting if sometimes reckless soloist who is a little reminiscent of Roy Eldridge from a decade later. Only 20 years old at the time, he was largely a has-been when he turned 21. His 1929 records with his Rhythm Aces did not sell that well, the Depression began, and Smith hardly recorded after that. He moved to Milwaukee, worked at a car lot for decades, and only had a weak and brief comeback in the 1970s when he was over the hill. Get this CD and be amazed both at his trumpet playing and his obscurity.
Bunny Berigan – The Pied Piper Of Jazz (Bluebird) – One of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time, Berigan had a beautiful sound in both the lower and upper registers of his horn along with a chance taking style that was always stirring, He is best remembered for his one hit, “I Can’t Get Started,” but his alcoholism cut short both his career and life. This single CD has many of his recorded highpoints, dating from 1935-40 and including his most famous solos with Benny Goodman (“King Porter Stomp”) and Tommy Dorsey (“Marie”), along with many of his best small group and big band performances.
Andy Kirk – Mary’s Idea (GRP/Decca) – There were so many high-quality big bands active during the swing era that some have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle. The Andy Kirk Orchestra, which was from Kansas City, featured the arrangements and piano solos of Mary Lou Williams, the fine tenor-saxophonist Dick Wilson, and the early electric guitarist Floyd Smith. Many of their best recordings from 1936-41 are on this enjoyable disc.
Esquire All American Jazz Concert (EPM) – Imagine going to a concert and seeing Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford, and Big Sid Catlett all playing together, with appearances by Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Billie Holiday, and Mildred Bailey! It happened on Jan. 13, 1944 when that year’s Esquire Magazine poll winners and runners-up got together at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, and fortunately it was recorded and broadcast.
Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron – The Complete Blue Note and Capitol Recordings (Blue Note) – Navarro was one of the great trumpeters of the bop era and an influence on Clifford Brown. This double-CD dating from 1947-49 has Fats playing in three groups led by pianist-composer Tadd Dameron, in trumpet battles with Howard McGhee, and as part of a remarkable quintet with Bud Powell and the young Sonny Rollins. In addition, Navarro is featured on his one recording with Benny Goodman (“Stealing Apples”) and there is a lesser-known Dameron session that includes Miles Davis.
Lester Young – With the Oscar Peterson Trio (Verve) – While legend has it that the great tenor Lester Young was so traumatized by his experience in the Army that after his discharge in 1945 he never sounded that good again, the truth is that when he was on in his later years, Young was quite capable of playing some of the greatest solos of his career. This 1952 album with pianist Peterson, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer J.C. Heard is a classic. Lester Young takes some of his favorite songs and, through his phrasing, use of space and honest feeling, makes them his own in memorable fashion. As a bonus, his only recorded vocal (“It Takes Two To Tango”) is also included.
Miles Davis – Vol. 1 (Blue Note) – While Davis is credited with helping to found cool jazz (his 1948-50 nonet’s recordings were dubbed The Birth Of The Cool), these overlooked recordings from 1952-54 could have been titled The Birth Of The Hard Bop for they foreshadow straight ahead jazz of the next 15 years. The May 9, 1952 session is a sextet date with trombonist J.J. Johnson and altoist Jackie McLean while the Mar. 6, 1954 project has Davis in a quartet with bassist Percy Heath and two of the future leaders of hard bop: pianist Horace Silver and drummer Art Blakey. Vol. 2 (a 1953 sextet with J.J. Johnson, tenor-saxophonist Jimmy Heath and Art Blakey) is also recommended. It was somehow typical that when cool jazz took off in the early 1950s, Miles Davis was pioneering hard bop, and that when hard bop became a dominant force, he had already moved on.
Ella Fitzgerald – Ella In Hollywood (Verve) – On this hard-swinging set from 1961, Ella Fitzgerald takes her longest-ever recorded vocal, a nine-minute exploration of “Take The ‘A’ Train” that is quite remarkable on all levels; her scatting was never more inventive and her comments about her treatment of the tune (while it is in progress) are humorous. Joined by a quartet with pianist Lou Levy, Ella is also in jubilant form on such numbers as “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” “I’ve Got The World On A String,” and “Air Mail Special.” Why isn’t this live album better known?
Duke Ellington – 70th Birthday Concert (Blue Note) – On this two-CD set from 1969, Ellington sums up his career to that point while his band sounds quite inspired. Cat Anderson’s incredible high-note trumpet chorus on “Satin Doll,” three Johnny Hodges features in a row, the battle by three tenors on “In Triplicate,” a definitive “Rockin’ In Rhythm,” and a very good nine-song hits medley are among the many highlights.
Stan Getz – Captain Marvel (Columbia) – From 1972, this set teams tenor-saxophonist Getz with keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Tony Williams, and percussionist Airto. The inspired lineup works very well together. In addition to the best-ever version of “La Fiesta” (which sounds like Corea wrote it for Getz although he hadn’t), the repertoire includes “500 Miles Away,” “Times Lie,” and “Lush Life.”
Count Basie/Zoot Sims – Basie & Zoot (Pablo) – Despite what some of the less informed writers and commentators have said, the 1970s was a golden age for jazz, one filled with many underrated gems. For proof of that, this quartet album serves as ample evidence. Producer Norman Granz teamed pianist Count Basie with tenor-saxophonist Zoot Sims (along with bassist John Heard and drummer Louie Bellson) and the results are magical. Basie and Sims were always famous for their ability to swing and they bring out the best in each other during romping versions of “I Never Knew,” “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and other swing standards and blues. This is one of the finest small group sessions that Count Basie ever recorded.
Bobby McFerrin – The Voice (Elektra/Musician) – When Bobby McFerrin burst upon the scene in the 1980s, nothing like him had been heard before. Imagine a singer performing by himself without overdubbing or electronics, sounding like a full band. By making a sound when he inhaled, McFerrin was able to create a nonstop array of ideas. Somehow he could sing melody, bass lines and harmonies at the same time without getting lost. The Voice from 1984 has McFerrin performing unaccompanied on such songs as “Blackbird,” James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” “I’m My Own Walkman,” “Music Box,” and a wondrous medley of “Donna Lee,” “Big Top” (during which he imitates a washing machine), and “We’re In The Money.”
Throughout their many decades, the Manhattan Transfer (the late Tim Hauser, Janis Siegel, Alan Paul, and Cheryl Bentyne) have felt justifiable pride in their versatility and consistency, but Vocalese from 1985 is something special. With Jon Hendricks contributing lyrics to the majority of the songs, the Manhattan Transfer created a program worthy of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. The bebop-oriented set includes hot versions of such numbers as “Rambo,” “Airegin,’ “Ray’s Rockhouse,” “Move,” and “Killer Joe.”
Mingus Big Band – Nostalgia In Times Square (Dreyfus) – Always much more than a ghost band, the Mingus Big Band is the type of all-star orchestra that Charles Mingus could never afford. Their first album from 1993 features a 20-piece band playing crowded ensembles, passionate solos, and inventive arrangements. “Moanin’” (with baritonist Ronnie Cuber), “Weird Nightmare,” and the nutty “Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too” are only three of the highlights of this exhilarating exploration of Mingus’ music.
Terence Blanchard – Jazz In Film (Sony) – Utilizing such classic musicians as Joe Henderson, Steve Turre, Donald Harrison, and Kenny Kirkland, trumpeter-arranger Terence Blanchard in 1999 performs his inventive interpretations of nine pieces taken from movie soundtracks including “Chinatown,” Duke Ellington’s “Anatomy Of A Murder,” “The Pawnbroker,” and “Man With The Golden Arm.” The music is quite colorful and memorable.
Hiromi – Place To Be (Telarc) – On one of the most spectacular solo piano albums ever, Hiromi in 2009 displays a technique on the level of Art Tatum, a witty style, and the willingness to constantly cut loose. Her three part “Viva Vegas” (particularly “The Gambler” during which she imitates a slot machine) is quite dazzling and wondrous while on “Place To Be,” she displays the ability to embrace a strong melody and play with admirable self-restraint and feeling.
Gregory Porter – Water (Motema) – Recorded in 2009 and released the following year, Water was the recording debut for singer Porter and is still his best album. Along with the warmth that one always associates with Porter, there is a danger to this music that has been absent on his more recent and safer recordings. During a wide-ranging set that includes the political statement of “1960 What,” “Skylark,” “Lonely One” and “Feeling Good,” Water introduced the music world to this major singer and songwriter.
Cecile McLorin Salvant – Woman/Child (Mack Avenue) – Ms. Salvant’s 2013 debut has plenty of stunning moments including a version of “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” that is so eerie that it hints at what a little moonlight can really do. The continually surprising program includes two Bessie Smith songs, Valaida Snow’s politically incorrect “You Bring Out The Savage In Me” (which the singer makes fun of), and “There’s A Lull In My Life.” Pianist Aaron Diehl and guitarist James Chirillo are strong assets during one of the most intriguing and innovative vocal albums of the past decade.
Anat Cohen Tentet – Happy Song (Anzic) – The clarinetist’s 2017 release features her tentet performing a suite of varied material arranged by Oded Lev-Ari. Ranging from Brazilian to klezmer, fusion to joyful swing (Benny Goodman’s version of “Oh Baby”), the very enjoyable program will keep one guessing, just like the very best jazz.