Ok class, repeat after me," Yanni is not Jazz! Kenny G is NOT jazz. Nor is David Sanborn or Enya". That completes our first and most important lesson of the day. Now that you have learnt what is not jazz, it begs the question , What is Jazz? Legendary trumpeter Louis Armstrong's response was " If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know."
My love affair with jazz began in my early teens with the introduction to the music of Weather Report, Crusaders, Return To Forever. Bob James etc. I owe a lot to my friends Shuvo, Babar, and Hasnain, who, though now living at different corners of the globe, still continue to explore various realms of music.
Fast forward to 1984. This was to be a defining year as I got the opportunity to spend that entire summer in London and caught many jazz acts including Mahavishnu Orchestra, Spyrogyra, Lionel Hampton, Woody Shaw, Ron Carter, and Dizzie Gillespie, mostly at the JVC Jazz festival; but the best was yet to come, a week before I was to depart London, I caught percussionist extraordinaire Art Blakey and his trio at the famous Ronnie Scott's jazz club. Hitherto, I had not experienced anything so intense as I did that evening. The show ended with a mesmerizing percussion composition titled "Percussion Discussion" - after so many years, my head still shakes in disbelief whenever my mind wanders off to that magical evening.
Jazz is an endless abyss. Take Miles Davis for example. A genius by any measure of the word, his musical career spanned 50 years, and one can spend a lifetime just on this one artist alone. Saying that " I like Miles Davis" is an incomplete idea, for he has evolved, invented, and reinvented himself in many forms in his career. His artistic endeavours have vacillated from passionate jazz renditions of Rodriguez' Concerto De Aranuez (From the album Sketches Of Spain) to almost disco like travesties of songs by Michael Jackson. But I suppose a true artist is an intrepid traveller- always challenging themselves, always stretching the boundaries.
Sexagenarian rockers like The Rolling Stones are widely touted as the grand daddies of rock n roll and there are clarion calls for them to retire. Had Mick Jagger been a jazz musician, he would have "just reached maturity". There are many jazz musicians way past 70 years of age and for them, retirement is not even an afterthought. Back in 2000, I saw 76 year old drummer Roy Hanes play with bassist John Patitucci, where the latter was less than half Mr. Hanes' age, while jazz pianist Dave Brubeck (b. 1920- ) continues to tour and enthrall audiences in live concerts. But death is inevitable and this year the jazz world mourns the loss of two of its greatest: drummer and band leader Max Roach (1924-2007), and the Austrian born Keyboardist & co-founder of Weather Report, Joe Zawinul ( 1932-2007).
I started this article with the near impossible task of choosing 10 albums which I hoped would give you, the prospective jazz enthusiast, an intro to jazz. Thus without any further adieu, here is something to pique your musical palette.
1. Artist/album : Kenny G/Kenny G Live. I know what I said in the beginning. But I never said he was a bad musician. Though the jazz police (see end of this article) will surely issue a "show cause" for even insinuating that Kenny G is a jazz musician, but this album is a fine example of what an excellent saxophone player he is. Kenny G - the typically mindlessly, predictable - really goes ballistic on stage with surprisingly good results. Not bad for a guy who made duets with 80's sappy pop singer Michael Bolton.
2. Miles Davis/In A Silent Way. Released in 1969, debates are still raging whether this is the first jazz-rock fusion album or not. What is unequivocal is that in a silent way it is the most influential of the genre. The all star cast features Herbie Hancock, Chic Corea, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin etc. all of whom would leave indelible marks in music in their own way. At the time of this albums' release, many jazz traditionalists (once again, the jazz police), lashed out sharp criticism and accused Miles Davis of "selling out" to commercialism and rock n roll; but this was 1969, a time when Vietnam, Woodstock, Civil Rights and chaos loomed large.... from this imbroglio "In a Silent way" made a bold, lucid statement: fusion was here to stay. A must have, whether you are a jazz-o-phile or not.
3. Herbie Hancock/Headhunters. Released in 1973, this album still sounds like it was released yesterday. Precursor to today's hip hop/rap, it is difficult to label this album. Call it funk, hip-hop, or disco, but the grooves on this album will rock any dance floor - guaranteed! Headhunters has been re-released many times, and with digitally remastered CD's - it has become one of the largest selling jazz-funk albums of all time.
4.Dave Brubeck/Time Out. Composed by altoist Paul Desmond, this album is best known for the track "take five", which has become a Jazz signature and made Dave Brubeck a household name. I am certain you have heard some version of this catchy tune somewhere.
5. George Benson/Bad Benson. Known more for his chart topping hits like "Gimme The Night" and cheesy ballads like "Love X Love", George Benson could have been one of the great jazz guitarists of his time. A direct prodigy of the legendary Wes Montgomery, he has released some excellent jazz albums before being seduced by the Top 40 charts. The amazing Phil Upchurch plays a nifty rhythm on his rendition of Paul Desmonds' "take five".
6. Julian "Cannonball" Adderley/Something' Else: You will be forgiven to think that this is a Miles Davis album. Albeit Mr. Davis appears as a "guest", he totally dominates. I suppose that is the risk you run if you have a larger than life figure like Miles Davis on board. My favourite tune is the traditional "Autumn Leaf"; the swinging title track "Something Else" really romps with both Davis and Adderley alternating in trumpet and saxophone. A delight from the beginning to the end.
7. Weather Report/Mysterious Traveler: although Weather Reports' most commercially successful album is "Heavy Weather", but I reckon there are few tunes that can invoke the kind of haunting feeling as succinctly as the title track Mysterious Traveler. This quintessential jazz-rock fusion band included primarily Wayne Shorter on saxophone, legendary bassist Jaco Pastorious, and keyboard extraordinaire Joe Zawinul, all in top form, and together they whip up a category 10 hurricane for this album. From their self-titled debut album in 1971 WR practically defined the state of jazz-rock for the remaining decade. This album might be a bit esoteric, but eventually will grow on you.
8. Grover Washington Jr/Winelight. Before Yanni, or Enya, even before they coined the bromide "new age" music, in a make belief world filled with quiet rain forests, white sandy beaches, palm trees, cool winds, bodacious bodies.... Grover Washington Jr ruled supreme. Winelight is an epitome of "cool jazz". The title track sets the tone that instantly calms your nerves. " Let it flow (for Dr. J)" - is his tribute to the basketball great Julius "Dr. J" Irving, and the rhythm of this track is like watching a basketball player dribble in slow motion. The mellow romantic hit "Just the two of us" featuring Bill Withers on vocals made it to the charts, and propelled this album to a platinum.
9. Stanley Clarke/School Days: Normally you would not expect a bassist to take a lead role, but in the egalitarian jazz universe, everyone gets a fair share. Case in point: Stanley Clarke. This man knows (and plays) everything about bass : Piccolo bass, 4 string, 8 string, acoustic, electric.....the works. Unsurprisingly, all his music are bass oriented. I am particularly fond of this album because it has a nice rock flavour laced with some great guitars (feat. John Mc. Laughlin), drums (Billy Cobham,. Steve Gadd), keyboards. You will never "see" the bass the same way after you have heard School Days. Awesome stuff. Sadly, Stanley Clarke migrated to more commercial techno pop music, and released some real turkeys later in his career - avoid them!
10. Miles Davis/Kind of Blue; " Do not underestimate the
power of the Dark side", grunts Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker. Poor analogy, but once you listen to Kind of Blue, you will realise the seductive power of jazz , in this case aptly represented by Miles Davis and co. Released in 1959, the first track "So what?" starts with a few innocuous piano and bass chords, as if the musicians are just tuning, then almost surreptitiously the cymbals, the horns creep in,......like a storm brewing over the horizon, the music converges....you feel something cataclysmic is about occur.....it teases you......but there are no thunderstorms....no great flood...no volcanic eruption....instead there is a soft drizzle that instantly cleanses you...... like fine Belgian chocolate, the music just melts...it is ethereal. This is the closest I can come to describe the indescribable. What is more incredible about this groundbreaking album is that the entire recording was done on a single take. If there has been a moment in the past century where a single work of music instantly altered the direction of music, Kind of Blue has to be it - this is the genesis of what would become the hallmark of modern jazz - spontaneity and improvisation. Listen to it. Kind of Blue, is, one of a kind.
(Note to the Jazz Police: you, the traditionalists or the purists, are probably scandalised by some of the names in the list above. Before you accuse me of blasphemy, please allow me the following justification: The reason giants like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Duke Ellington or Ornette Coleman are not in the list is simply because they can be overbearing and may intimidate the first time listener. Imagine you are trying to get someone into the habit of reading. Would you give him Hamlet ? Or Harry Potter?)
The writer is a self confessed Jazz addict and works for DBH (Delta Brac Housing Finance Co. Ltd.), Dhaka.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007