Here are 10 absolutely killer jazz albums

One reader recently complained to me that there was not enough jazz on the blog. It has indeed been heavy on the economics of late, but since I’m on vacation right now this seems like a good time to remedy that problem. Here’s some jazz listening recommendations, 10 of my favorites. It’s not a top 10 list (I could easily do a few more such lists of albums I like just as much), and the only criterion is that the whole recording has to be excellent, not just one or two great tracks. I also skipped over the obvious ones that everyone knows, like Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis; there’s also no Ellington or Sun Ra, since their output is too big and too great to be reduced to one recording. Most of these are not new favorites but just things that have been called to mind because they came up recently when the iPhone was on shuffle. In alphabetical order:

  • Sonny Criss, Sonny’s Dream (aka Birth Of The New Cool). A masterpiece of modernist big band composition that has been completely and unjustifiably slept on. It’s really a Horace Tapscott album—he did the arranging but does not play—and the complex backgrounds inspire fierce alto sax solos from Criss that he never matched on other recordings.
  • Exploding Star Orchestra, We Are All From Somewhere Else. This group led by Rob Mazurek is the true contemporary heir of Sun Ra—large ensembles, free improvisation, spacey sounds. But I’m actually not a big fan of the 1970s style of squalling collective improvisation, so rest assured that this is something very different. While chaotic the group is intensely beautiful and very listenable.
  • Stan Getz & Bob Brookmeyer, Recorded Fall 1961. Those who, like me until recently, only know Stan Getz for his appearance on the wonderful if ubiquitous Getz/Gilberto are missing out on a great improviser. In this live recording the interplay between Getz and trombonist Brookmeyer is some of the finest I’ve ever heard.
  • Roy Haynes, Out Of The Afternoon. An incredibly powerful quartet album. Roland Kirk’s solos on multiple horns are some of the best he ever recorded. The band is so good, with fantastic and subtle drumming from Haynes, that it’s a tragedy they only made this one album.
  • Masada Chamber Ensembles, Bar Kokhba. One of the first albums I ever heard from John Zorn’s various Jewish-themed composing projects, which he has now been pursuing for more than two decades. And it is still one of my favorites—the tunes are lovely and the eclectic instrumentation, which varies on every track, gives each piece a distinct character.
  • Paul Motian, Garden Of Eden. One of a series of fantastic groups that Motian led in the last decade before his death. His drumming is of course without compare, but the real innovation of his groups, often featuring multiple saxophonists and guitars, is their focus on a distinctive style of collective improvisation more rooted in bebop.
  • Greg Osby, The Invisible Hand. Surely one of the best jazz albums of the century so far, from a modern jazz super group including pianist Andrew Hill and guitarist Jim Hall. Like Hill’s masterpieces from the 1960s, the sound is dark, complex, mysterious, but with stunning flights of invention.
  • Sam Rivers, A New Conception. One of the trio of great Blue Note albums that Rivers recorded in the 1960s. His Fuchsia Swing Song is an acknowledged avant-garde classic, but this album of standards is just as good and much less well known.
  • Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi. A great jazz album from the godfather of New Orleans soul. Toussaint’s strong and rhythmic piano gives every piece a fantastic feel, in touch with the roots but very alive and not at all retro.
  • Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy, Sempre Amore. I have many recordings by this great jazz duo, but this is probably my favorite. The focus on Strayhorn compositions pushes Lacy’s astringent soprano sax and Waldron’s moody piano in a more lyrical direction than on some of their more abstract works.

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