By Thane Peterson One problem with being a jazz fan is that most of the musicians you listen to are dead. That dilemma was underscored by the recent 19-hour, 10-part PBS TV series on jazz by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. The documentary, as well as the book and CD collections that are part of the production, all focus heavily on classic players such as Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington -- all dead for at least a quarter of a century.
But jazz is an improvisational art, one that shouldn't be preserved in amber. If the PBS series, and all its attendant publicity, piqued your interest in the music, please don't go out and buy just the anthology and reissued CDs that Burns has put together as an introduction for jazz novices. Burns's disks are fine as far as they go -- but you miss all the latest work by the many wonderful musicians playing today. The best introduction to jazz would be to hear these players in a club
(See BW Online, 11/28/00, Drinks, Dives, and All That Jazz). But if you can't do that, you can always check them out on CDs.
Read on, and you'll see my recommendations for five truly awesome jazz CDs that came out last year. But if you want to make your own choices, a good place to look for ideas is online, in the jazz music sections of Amazon.com and CDnow.com. You'll find everything from "Top Jazz CDs of the Year 2000" lists to the all-time favorite jazz CDs of well-known critics and artists. There are also tons of reviews and links to other publications.
If you want to buy some older CDs, there's an alternative to letting Burns make your choices for you. Check out an indispensable source for jazz buffs: The Penguin Guide to Jazz by Richard Cook and Brian Morton, two British jazz lovers. This thick tome is an opinionated listing of just about every jazz recording in existence, with each one rated from zero to five stars. Stick to the four- and five-star recordings, and you'll make many exciting discoveries. Performances recorded at a single studio session or club date often have a chemistry that's missing from anthologies like Burns's offering.
For new issues here are my personal top choices:
Over the Years by Abbey Lincoln (Verve, $17.97). If Abbey Lincoln doesn't move you, call an ambulance because there's something wrong with your heart. Lincoln began her career in the '50s as a budding Hollywood starlet, singing in a 1956 Jayne Mansfield movie and later starring opposite Sidney Poitier in For the Love of Ivy. When acting didn't take, she became a jazz singer and quickly got caught up in the Civil Rights movement. In 1962, she played a prominent role in We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, a powerful jazz protest album. In the 1970s she visited Africa with the singer Miriam Makeba and, for a time, took an African name. Then she largely disappeared until 1991, when she was signed by Verve and started a comeback.
Now 70, Lincoln has a rough, savvy voice that reflects the tough-to-play hands that life has dealt her. Mark Ruffin, a Chicago jazz D.J. who reviewed the disk for Amazon.com, calls it "a voice like a contained volcano." Ruffin also rates Over the Years as Lincoln's best disk. I haven't heard all the others, but this is a beautiful piece of work.
This Is What I Do by Sonny Rollins (Milestone Records, $15.97). Rollins is a link to the giants of the post-World War II jazz era. He played as a sideman with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and many others. A driven perfectionist, Rollins was already a renowned tenor-sax player in the early 1960s when he withdrew from professional playing and spent two years refining his technique, often climbing up under the Williamsburg Bridge that links Manhattan and Brooklyn to blow his horn alone. These days, many jazz aficionados consider him the greatest living jazz sax player.
Ken Burns includes Rollins in his series of reissue CDs of work by the greatest jazz players. But Burns's CD focuses on Rollins' playing from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. This Is What I Do shows what Rollins is up to today. At 70, he's still a master at taking a melody and toying with it, twisting it around into endless variations in the classic bebop style. On this disk, you get to hear him work his magic on several of his own compositions, such as the Latin-influenced I Salvador and a tribute to Charles Mingus called Charles M. There's also a melancholy ballad called A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square that includes some marvelous piano playing by sideman Steve Scott. The great drummer Jack DeJohnette, also plays on several takes.
The Water Is Wide by Charles Lloyd (ECM Records, $17.97). Back in 1967, Lloyd released Forest Flower, a live album recorded at the Monterey Jazz Festival and one of the first million-seller albums in jazz history. For me, at least, Lloyd pretty much disappeared from sight for 30 years until friends gave me a copy of The Water Is Wide a few months ago.
It's now one of my favorite jazz albums. This is gentle, reassuring music played with astonishing virtuosity. The first cut is an instrumental version of the Hoagie Carmichael standard Georgia that starts off with a long, languid sax solo by Lloyd followed by a virtuoso turn on the piano by Brad Mehldau (see below), whose regular bassist Larry Grenadier also plays on the disk. The second cut is the traditional Scottish ballad, The Water Is Wide, that gives the CD its title. Lloyd's sax here is as plaintive as the piping of a funeral dirge. John Abercrombie does some wonderful, understated guitar accompaniment.
The other 10 tunes on the disk are an eclectic mix. There are songs by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, an eccentric rendition of the spiritual There Is a Balm in Gilead that starts off with a drum solo, and a handful of Lloyd's own compositions, including a humorous tribute to Thelonious Monk called The Monk and the Mermaid. The strand binding them all together is Lloyd's eerie almost luminous sax playing.
Beyond by Joshua Redman (Warner Bros., $17.97). Redman, who turns 32 on Feb. 1, is the son of jazzman Dewey Redman. In 1991, he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and was headed for Yale Law School when, luckily for music lovers, he changed plans and followed in his father's foot-steps. He's now one of the best of the young lions who are rejuvenating jazz.
Redman's latest album is one of my favorites. It also comes highly recommended by Harald Walkate, a "Moveable Feast" reader and University of Chicago MBA student who writes a jazz column for his business school's newspaper. Redman wrote all the compositions himself, several of which are in odd, asymmetric time signatures. My favorite is the more traditional ballad called Neverend. Redman's playing is technically brilliant, especially in a long duet he does with Mark Turner, another up-and-coming young tenor sax player, on a number called Leap of Faith. Piano player Aaron Goldberg is consistently excellent.
Places by Brad Mehldau (Warner Bros., $17.97) Reader Walkate also recommends this CD. Born in 1970 in Jacksonville, Fla., Mehldau originally trained as a classical pianist. By college, he had turned to jazz. In 1994, he toured Europe with Redman's band and then formed his own trio the next year. Mehldau composed all the tunes on this album and the classical influence is clear, especially in solo piano works such as Perugia and Paris. There's a lot of speeding up and slowing down of tempo and volume changes on this CD. In the numbers that include Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossi on drums, there's also a fair amount of dissonance.
This is cerebral music, and it isn't for everybody. On Jan. 19, I got to hear Mehldau and Redman in concert at Chicago's Symphony Hall. Mehldau's trio was scheduled to play first, and as I took my seat, the woman next to me started grilling me about the music: "What is it like? Is there a melody at least? I don't like music without a melody." When I came back after the intermission to hear Redman's set, the woman was gone. Not enough melody, apparently.
I'm not promising that you'll like all this music. Other jazz lovers would recommend other artists and other CDs. But if you listen to two or three of these disks, you'll know whether or not you like jazz. And if you listen really closely, I'm betting you'll experience a musical revelation. That's what great jazz is all about. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online