Charles Mingus “Blues & Roots” (Atlantic Records, 1960)

What might be seen as a regressive move from the current post-bop experiments of the time to doing extended takes on blues and church songs was actually a great percolation of styles in Charles Mingus’ hands. What we have here are six tracks that play off of blues sensibilities quite well, makes you want to dance more often than not and comes across as quite modern.

Nine players appear on this record (with one swapped for piano on the final track) and what’s presented are layers of the same parts played just about at once, making rather simple, swinging music with plenty of room for subtle shifts and surprises. Opener “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” is a case in point, with joyous horns and a galloping rhythm charge set by Mingus. Most of the tracks presented herein are fairly loose (though not disorganized) and give a snap shot of ground-breaking performers taking a break and having a good time recording an album more suitable for a party rather than something set up for your rapt attention.

Not that there are tracks you can’t be pulled into, however; killers like “Moanin’” and “Tensions” have so much going on that repeated listens will be inevitable to take in all the action presented to you. For tracks that are so rich, the swing is also pretty undeniable. Mingus seems to be at a crossroads here, between the blues of his past and the modern tug of his jazz progressions. The result is a record you can’t help but wear a smile to. -Wade

Wayne Shorter “Speak No Evil” (Blue Note, 1964)

Enough said? No, I’m afraid I can’t help but gush about my favorite jazz album.

I can’t figure why this album seems to sometimes be lumped in with the “avant-garde”, because all of it is eminently listenable. In fact, perhaps what makes this record so uniquely great is how consistently accessible and ear-pleasing it is, yet never shallow, commercial or boring. The tunes are uniformly fantastic, the charts always interesting, and the playing is wonderfully subtle and dynamic all around; perfect moments of musical interaction abound. Highlights include the irresistibly swinging “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum”, the intriguingly geometric and mysterious “Dance Cadaverous”, and the breathtakingly gorgeous ballad “Infant Eyes”.

Wayne Shorter mixed-and-matched a lot with his ensembles as a leader, never recording an album with the same band twice, leading bands anywhere from a quartet to a sextet (and the odd octet). But on Speak No Evil he seems to have hit on the perfect band for his music. All props and praise to McCoy Tyner, who also recorded a lot with Wayne, but Herbie Hancock, with his inimitable subtleties and tonal shadings, is the perfect pianist to accompany Wayne. Elvin Jones on drums is a welcome addition to any lineup, needless to say. He really accentuates and underlines the *swing* inherent in the tunes here. The bright tone and spry exuberance of Freddie Hubbard on trumpet is a perfect counterpoint to Shorter’s somewhat melancholy lyricism. Ron Carter anchors the bass quite admirably with a lot of nice touches of syncopation, but he’s not as noticeable as he would later be with the Miles Davis Quintet.

I just can’t say enough about this LP. It is gorgeous, it is stunning, it is perfect jazz. —Micah

Nina Simone “Nina Simone at Town Hall” (1960)

Nina Simone at Town Hall is a magnificent showcase for one of music’s most versatile talents. Simone’s voice is remarkably expressive, but it’s not enough to have a strong instrument. It’s her ability to utilize her instrument for maximum effectiveness that makes her one of my favorite singers. On this live performance, she mostly explores the somber range of emotions, with unfaithful lovers being a prominent cause of the sorrow. On “I Don’t Want Him Anymore”, Simone sings volumes of emotional back-story into a six-minute song. At first sounding resigned as she gently spurns her lover while confronting his mistress, she goes on to outline the many ways that she adored him. Instead of bitterness, she betrays her true feelings of devotion as she recounts each small act of love, only to again ironically claim that she doesn’t want him anymore. The heartbreak is palpable, as it is on the song “The Other Woman”, which cleverly inverts our expectations by spending the back half describing how devastating it is to be the home-wrecker, not just the betrayed wife. Although Nina is widely recognized as a gifted singer and interpreter of songs, she is equally adept as a piano player, an attribute which is largely overlooked. Here, with minimal accompaniment, she really shines in this regard. Her playing is some unlikely hybrid of jazz, blues and classical, in which every note is as carefully played as her words are sung. This is a tremendous album for lovers of vocal jazz or torch songs. It’s definitely a late night album, due to its intimacy and the way it rewards your complete attention. Highly recommended. –Lucas

John Coltrane “Olé Coltrane” (1962)

Wow! I’ve been looking for the perfect Coltrane album to match my taste and here it is. Some people might say that the title track is very similar to Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis, but I also detected a hint of music from Tijuana Moods by Charles Mingus. Of course, nobody would dare mention Mingus. ;) That aside, this is beautiful jazz. Coltrane’s plays extremely well on soprano and tenor sax. When I saw the rest of the lineup for Ole Coltrane I knew it would be one of my favorites. It was definitely a stroke of genius to mix these two bassists. The interplay between them is incredible throughout. What’s great is that Coltrane steps back and lets the others shine. While everyone plays admirably, in my opinion it’s Eric Dolphy that steals the show. He pretty much steals the show on every album that he appears. When he plays a solo on the alto sax, you can almost feel him reaching into your chest and squeezing your heart. Even the extra track, “To Her Ladyship”, is great. Don’t forget to pick this album up. It would be a serious loss. –Rob

Weather Report “Weather Report” (1971)

If you know Weather Report primarily from their latter-day funk-groove thang, this may come as a surprise — perhaps even a pleasant one. For one thing, Joe Zawinul is restricted mostly to organ and piano, with none of the synthesizer excess of later albums. The balance between Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, too, is much more even (and Shorter’s “Eurydice” is my favourite piece on the record). With bassist Miroslav Vitous on acoustic instruments, the album may remind you of Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way, on which, of course, Zawinul and Shorter played crucial parts. There’s a kind of calm and serenity hanging over the music, even when the playing gets furious (which, with these guys involved, it often does). “Orange Lady” was also recorded by Miles Davis as “Great Expectations” (for which he cheekily took the composition credit). –Brad

McCoy Tyner “Sahara” (1972)

Tyner recorded prolifically for Milestone throughout the 1970s, and produced a number of fine recordings. “Sahara” might be the best. It represents the state of the art for the time of its release, 1972.

The greatest strength of this recording lies in its varied aural landscape. If you want Tyner’s signature thunderous chords and lightning right-hand runs, cue up “Ebony Queen” and “Rebirth.” Need some spiritually rich solo piano? Move to “A Prayer for My Family.” Then try the 23-minute title track, which has his reedman, Sonny Fortune, playing flute, his bassist, Calvin Hill, playing reeds, and the group joining drummer Alphonse Mouzon with various percussion effects. As far from a blowing session as you can get, this extended performance is a well-planned trip across a variety of endlessly fascinating terrains. As if all this isn’t enough, on “Valley of Life,” Tyner picks up a kyoto, a Japanese stringed instrument and produces a delicate impressionistic sketch, aided by Fortune, again on flute.

“Sahara” represents the best that jazz had to offer in the early ’70s. The musicians aren’t afraid to display their chops (Fortune adds blazing soprano and alto sax to his delicate work on flute), but Tyner clearly is intent on finding new territory and expanding the definition of jazz, and he succeeds brilliantly. —Tyler

Thelonious Monk “Brilliant Corners” (1957)

With four of the five selections here being originals, Brilliant Corners displays the pianist’s obsession with knotty, jagged melodies that leap around in unpredictable ways, be it on the segmented, abrasive title track, the obviously bluesy “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are,” the ragged ballad “Pannonica,” which features Monk simultaneously playing a bell-like celeste and piano, and the bold bounce of “Bemsha Swing.” The sidemen, including Sonny Rollins, settle in to the compositions admirably, taking inspiration from Monk’s idiosyncratic approach, and there’s a sense of freedom in their solos despite the songs’ atypical nature. A great example of one of the most original voices in classic jazz. –Ben

Archie Shepp “Mama Too Tight” (1966)

“Mama Too Tight” is an album whose original vinyl sides served as a proper division– the first side is among the most difficult to digest, but like many of the more complex free jazz works, bears rewards with repeated listens, the second side is much more accessible, moving through moods on the three different tunes. What makes this record difficult is the odd instrumentation– Shepp blows his tenor, and adds to this clarinet (Perry Robinson), trumpet (Tommy Turrentine), two trombones (Grachan Moncur III and Roswell Rudd), tuba (the mighty Howard Johnson, and a pianoless rhythm section (bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Beaver Harris). This unusual instrumentation is partially responsible for the difficulty in digesting the material on “Mama Too Tight”.

In particular, on the first side, “A Portrait of Rober Thompson (as a young man)”. While it feels like free improv, there appears to be a highly concrete structure, as Shepp states, restates, and exposes various themes (mostly gospel, march and swing influenced) throughout the piece. But it is tough, because it feels at times like an incoherent mess. Patience is the key to this one– early on, the more conventionally structured second side will be soothing in comparison. Over time, the piece will come to make sense, but patience and repeated focused listening will be required.
The second side is definitely more conventional, “Mama Too Tight” is a funky blowout, Mingus-like in its voicing and gospel-tinged hard bop styling, with some stunning soloing on the part of all the musicians involved. Like Mingus’ gospel-oriented work, this is just a lot of fun, a great great song, and actually is one of the most straightforward pieces on any early Shepp record– only his solo shows any real signs of the “Fire Music” sound. The ballad, “Theme for Ernie”, played passionately by Shepp with brass support voiced in an orchestral fashion, shwocases the leader’s ability to invoke mood and emotion through his playing. Shepp’s tone is thin and airy and has a plea of pain in it– this is really among the most beautiful work he’s ever done. “Basheer”, continuing the thread of more conventional sounds, has a big band does the blues feel to it– the playing is somewhat more “out” than the previous two, and once again, Shepp just wails away. its a really interesting piece.

Overall, this is a really great album, and probably a good jumping in point for Shepp’s work– it can be a bit difficult at first, but there’s a lot of great material here and its well worth the listen. —Michael

Masekela “Home Is Where the Music Is” (1972)

Hugh Masekela is one of the more colorful characters in jazz and has done numerous things in the course of his career, some of which, especially his forays into pop music, have caused critics to sneer at him; however, when he entered a studio in London with fellow South Africans Dudu Phukwana and Makhaya Ntshoko and the Americans Larry Willis and Eddie Gomez in 1972, the result was an unqualified and an undisputed success.

Home Is Where the Music Is is a fusion album in the best sense of the word, because it fuses only the most successful elements to arrive at a whole that is much larger than its parts. Masekela and main composer/producer Caiphus Semenya draw from traditional South African music, American jazz, soul and funk with a dash of spiritual jazz, and thanks to an ensemble in which each musician is no less than outstanding, the result is a thouroughly engaging, deeply soulful album that captivates the listener from the very first moment.

Masekela is clearly at the top of his game here; the range of tonal colors that he produces on his flügelhorn is remarkable, his use of half-valve tones and slurs impressive; at times you almost expect the valves to pop out of the horn. Phukwana is no second; while probably not quite as quick-fingered, he is firmly in the groove, and when he digs in, you want to follow him down every inch.

The fusion movement may have produced numerous misguided albums, expressing confusion rather than fusion, but Home Is Where the Music Is is one of the best examples of the genre. —Brian

Jackie McLean “Destination Out!” (1964)

Based on the title, I was expecting some blistering, fast-paced jazz, probably dominated by squalling saxophone and so on. For those of you who have listened to Destination Out! already, you will know that I found this not to be the case. Perhaps I should have taken more heed of the exclaimation mark, because in many ways I can draw similarities between what Jackie does here and what Eric Dolphy was doing on Out To Lunch! Admittedly, this tends not to have the skronkier qualities of that album, but firstly, the replacement of piano with vibes is obvious, and then there’s the combination of weird, staggering music that’s somehow also really accessible and exuberantly fun to listen to. This is often cited as a pretty essential jazz album, especially in the context of post/hard bop, and honestly, I can really say it is. There are few albums which really nail experimentation and accessibility at the same time, but the sophisticated and restrained, often atmospheric playing on Destination Out! means that even with the odd rhythms and wonderfully wonky playing this is still a pleasure to listen to over and over again. A classic. —Timmay

Dave Holland “Conference of the Birds” (1972)

This is not an ordinary record in any respect. Free jazz and the 1960s avant-garde had ironically generated its own conventions. Conference of the Birds ignores them and sets up its own outstanding performance standards for both individual voices and ensemble. The compositions are all Holland’s, inspired by the dawn chorus outside his flat in London in the early summer mornings.

The first theme, “Four Winds” is a delightful opener, marked by Holland’s characteristic firm, precise fingering. The bass immediately sets the atmosphere of the record: a light, free dance of notes. Holland’s bouncing fingering sharply contrasts with Barry Altschul’s fizzing cymbals. Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton converse almost indistinguishably, politely exchanging commentary. On “Q & A” Altschul converses with himself, quietly alerting his companions, who gradually make their appearance with little interjections. These fragments progressively accumulate to form a kind of dance of free individuals, like birds pecking at grain, each jumping according to its own whim, chasing its morsel. Then, the title-tune, “Conference of the Birds”; It’s one of the great compositions of jazz, perhaps the most distinctive and memorable 1970s original (in retrospect, an accolade it should probably share with Weather Report’s “Birdland”, released four years later). It is a delicate, contemplative song to beauty and quietude, both melancholy and uplifting, evocative of both aching loneliness and the intimacy of companionship. Holland’s double bass figure must be one of his most celebrated. Altschul’s marimba is divine in its simplicity, accompanied by the plain, unadorned flutes of Braxton and Rivers. “Conference of the Birds” is almost like the calm before the storm – the track that follows it, “Interception”, is a wild, intense vehicle for each soloist to give free rein to his passions. This is followed by “Now Here (Nowhere)”, the most spacious of all six pieces. It offers a cautious reconciliation to dissenting voices after “Interception”, underscored with the ubiquitous bass. Holland cultivates a tone here honed into a ovoid, sculpted sound with a hint of vibrato. Finally, on “See-Saw”, we have Altschul again creating a effervescent ambience to a blistering Rivers solo. This is the final climax to an awesome, astonishing album, one of the great classics of the post-free era. —Ricard

Quincy Jones “Walking In Space” (1969)

After a few year period of releasing film scores in the mid sixties, Jones entered the studio and recorded Walking in Space (1969); an electric/acoustic/ jazz/funk/big band record produced by his friend, the great Creed Taylor of CTI records. With jazz luminaries Roland Kirk, Freddie Hubbard and Ray Brown (and a few other heavy hitters of the time), Jones conducts, arranges, and rearranges a handful of tunes from the stage along with some standards.

Side one is made up of two tracks from the Broadway hit “Hair” (Dead End, Walking In Space) funked up with swagger and velvet shag. The record begins with Ray Brown’s walking bass settin’ it along with some electric piano chiming it up and rim shots galore- some muted trumpet and flute phrases establish a simmering melody, then the brass section enters along with some electric guitar jabbing from Eric Gale. The title track begins similarly; Hubbard breaths more muted sounds from his horn while Roland Kirk’s tenor slithers around it only this time it lasts a bit longer as a female vocal section sneaks in giving the track a swanky lounge vibe. As the tempo increases, Hubert Laws cuts through with a whispery flute solo eventually giving way to some muscular statements from Eric Gale and Roland Kirk- a standout number.

Side two begins with a cool rendition of Benny Goldson’s “Killer Joe” (some feel this is thee rendition). Hubbard blows his muted trumpet over a medium sized brass section with some understated guitar fills throughout, more sexy vocals come in and sing the chorus – imagine if Ellington’s orchestra were to cover Miles’ “So What” with a plugged in rhythm section and the backup singers from Sergio Mendes’ Brazil ’66-you get the idea. Another highlight is from Toots Theilmans, who shows up with harmonica in hand for a fractured and somewhat abstract harmonica solo on one track (I Never Told You). The Album closes with an eighteenth century gospel standard (Oh Happy Day). A gospel choir sings the chorus while Hubert Laws answers the vocal phrases with his flute; you also get the rarity to hear Ray Brown really get down on electric bass on this cut.

Jones created some probing instrumental music on Walking In Space. Supported by a cast of stellar musicians-from the grooves to the smooth backbeats it was an absolute perfect fit for Taylor’s slick productions and definitely one of the strongest records in the CTI catalog. – ECM Tim