Jazz--A Lenten Discipline

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The title is sort of a joke--but not really. I've promised myself to try to get over my almost gut-level reaction to most Jazz. I don't like the seeming formlessness of a lot of Jazz. I need melody, something that when I hear it I recognize and can "follow" the line of and understand the development of.

By way of exercising this discipline, I decided to pick up the Dave Brubeck Quartet's mega-best-seller Time Out.

I have nothing coherent to say about the album, and nothing particularly helpful to the readers except (1) you will recognize the sound if not the tunes--it seems to have infiltrated every film of the early to mid sixties and has given rise to countless imitations; and (2) I like it. A lot. Far more than I would have thought possible.

So, knowing that Erik and other more knowledgeable about these matters stop by from time to time, this post is merely a request for references to other similar, accessible pieces. I'm not ready to leap off into the world of Keith Jarrett whose piano work gave me impossible headaches in my college years--nor am I interested at this point in acid jazz or be-bop as such. I need to get a solid grounding in things accessible before I reach beyond. And I'm afraid I do need a hook to engage me. But if you all have any suggestions for good stuff to listen to, please note them and I'll look them up.


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I'm no jazz afficianado, but I know a wee bit that might help. I'm in pretty much the same boat as you are - the atonal and formless stuff does nothing for me, and seldom does a Chris Botti tune (the opposite end of the spectrum...almost too much form and a lack of improvisation).

You might try a few select pieces by Miles Davis. Now, I know Davis can be an acquired taste for someone new to jazz, but hear me out.

He has a few interesting takes on other folks' songs that are right in line with what you're looking for. If you go back to Birth of the Cool, you might be going a bit too big-band-ish.

But if you look for things like his take on A Night In Tunisia, you might find more what you're looking for. It's got a solid melody that you can hum in the shower, but enough room for improv that each take is a wee bit different. (This is just one song. There are others out there, but the names escape my pre-coffee memory.) A Night in Tunisa was written by Dizzy Gillespi too, so you have another jazz great involved as well.

Chris Botti's 1984 really isn't bad if you like ultra-mellow stuff. He's got a really dark sweet sound, but he's a bit too mellow for sustained exposure.

Now, here's my own bias coming out. As a trumpet player (flugelhorn actually, but who knows those?), I really have a tough time getting into saxaphone jazz. I can handle piano, clarinet, etc. But I swear, you can't swing a stick without hitting three sax players. There's one jazz station here in Dallas that plays 10 sax pieces in every 11 songs (ok, it might not be that bad, but you get the idea). My point is this, if you find an instrument you like, try some others with that same instrument (even if it's a sax). You might find other songs or performers that are to your liking within the same frame of reference.

Then, when you're done, come back to classical. Beethoven & Bach will be waiting for you.

Dear Mark,

Thank you.

As it happens, I'm very fond of any instrument played well. My own heritage is clarinet and sax, but any instrument in the hands of a master is, well. . . masterful.

I'll look into some of the things you suggest. And, of course, you're right, there is a wide field of people to return to and I love Classical music and a whole bunch of other musical types. It's just that I've never really given jazz a fair shake because of plinkity-plink piano stuff and wailing saxophones the doodly-doodly-doodly-doodly-doo up and down the scale in some sort of dervish inspired frenzy that leaves me at the first doodly. But perhaps that can change.

Thank you.



I've heard some really good Jazz at festivals in Denmark; scanning through my iPod, I can recommend some groups: Papa Bue's Viking Jazzband, Monty Sunshine's Jazzband, George Lewis, and Chris Blout. They are probably considered "big band" jazz. I don't know if that's to your taste, but I was also disappointed by the pure randomness of some of sounds coming from some of the "Jazz Greats", like John Coltrane and even some Miles Davis. I used to love Chick Corea, but after learning that he is into Scientology, I've been completely turned off to his stuff. I'm afraid that I'm not familiar with Dave Brubeck, but maybe I should check him out.

There's an album called "A Jazz Celebration" by the Marsalis family; the whole family got together and played a concert when Ellis retired. I think it's some really good music.

Another band that I love (and they are probably not really Jazz, in the same way that my favorite opera, Les Miserables, isn't really an Opera) is Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. You can sample some of their live stuff on archive.org; they allow tapers to set up and distribute their live concerts. Try this night, for example.

Thanks for the Dave Brubeck link, which I found through Disputations.

Recommendations for accessible jazz: I've actually been thinking about this a bit lately, particularly jazz accessible for children, as my wife and I are expecting our first child due March 30th!

In my opinion, the most accessible jazz is any jazz with vocals. My father is no jazz buff, but he did frequently play a "Natalie Cole - Unforgettable" cassette in the house. Some purists may scoff at an album like this as not being a "classic," and might take issue with the overdubbed duet between daughter and her deceased father, but the album has a great selection of over twenty standard songs with strong arrangements, and these songs now have a permanent place in my mind through their repetition. Other people might be familiar with the 'standards' of the 'great American songbook' through singers like Frank Sinatra. When you know the songs, then recordings or performances of instrumental jazz improvisation on these same songs becomes much more accessible.

For vocal jazz, I highly recommend the compilation album "Our Love Is Here to Stay: Ella & Louis Sing Gershwin," and also "Johnny Hartman & John Coltrane." Another great vocal album is "Eva Cassidy: Live at Blues Alley." It's debatable whether to call that one jazz, but her voice is amazing, the song selection is very diverse, and there's lots of vocal improvisation that could open up people to improvisation in general. Another suggestion for getting opened up to improv through familiar songs is "Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas."

When I've recently looked at some jazz compilations marketed for kids, a name that's popped up is Louis Prima. I'd never heard of him before, but it turns out that he was a singer, trumpeter, and bandleader, who performed "Wanna Be Like You" from Disney's the Jungle Book, and also wrote "Sing, Sing, Sing" and "Jump, Jive, & Wail"! The swing revival of the 90s pointed out that this style could be an accessible point of entry into the world of jazz. Also check out the big bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Another major influence on jazz and point of entry into it is the blues. If you've digested some vocal jazz and swing and would like to get more adventurous, here are some individual tracks you could probably get on iTunes: Eddie Jefferson - Parker's Mood (he wrote these lyrics to a Charlie Parker solo), Art Blakey - Moanin, Oscar Peterson - C Jam Blues, Cannonball Adderly - Mercy Mercy Mercy, Nat Adderly - Work Song, and Charles Mingus - Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat. Once again, the more blues singing and B.B. King-type stuff you've listened to, the more accessible these jazz blues instrumentals will be.

An album I have to recommend, which is very bluesy but doesn't use blues cliches or blues structures: "Funeral for a Friend" by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. They are a contemporary group playing a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral. Some of the most absolutely joyous music I have ever heard!

The great American songbook, swing, and blues are all more generally accessible ways into jazz than jumping straight to some of the famous small group instrumental jazz of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Although, you had good luck with "Time Out" - perhaps aided by the fact that the music was somewhat familiar, probably especially "Take Five." Another album just as famous and somewhat styllistically similar is "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis.

"I'm not ready to leap off into the world of Keith Jarrett whose piano work gave me impossible headaches in my college years ..."

Do you remember what Keith Jarrett were you listening to? He's kind of hit or miss for me, but I love his Koln Concert and find it to be one of the most spiritual pieces of instrumental music I've ever heard.

"I was also disappointed by the pure randomness of some of sounds coming from some of the "Jazz Greats", like John Coltrane and even some Miles Davis. ... Another band that I love (and they are probably not really Jazz, in the same way that my favorite opera, Les Miserables, isn't really an Opera) is Bela Fleck and the Flecktones."

I am kinda surprised that you would love Bela and yet call Coltrane and some Miles Davis not only not good but 'pure randomness' - but I guess it depends on what specifically you are listening to from each, since each are very musically diverse.

I am a banjo player, primarily because of Bela, and I took lessons from Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck's mentor, in fall 2003. I can sort of play Sunset Road and Big Country. Brandon, what are some of your favorite Flecktones songs/albums?

My favorite Bela music is actually not his work with the Flecktones, but some of his "newgrass" stuff (bluegrass instruments playing improvisational music based to varying degrees on appalachian, classical, and other sources.) Try:

Chris Thile - Not All Who Wander Are Lost
Strength In Numbers - The Telluride Sessions
Bela Fleck & Edgar Meyer - Music for Two
Bela Fleck - Drive
and this eclectic concert from 1985.

Dear Ryan,

Thank you for so extensive a response. I sometimes forget that Jazz may have as many colors as Rock. I don't think of Sinatra or Natalie Cole as Jazz, but I suppose it is on the soft side of the genre.

I have a LOT of trouble with improvisational vocals. REALLY REALLY can't stand the stuff. On the other hand I found an Ella Fitzgerald album recently where she didn't do too much of this and it was fantastic.

I've shied away from Miles Davis and John Coltrane because they are the apotheosis of what I'd like to appreciate but lack the critical faculties, discernment, patience, or understanding to deal with. You were responding to Brandon there, but I'm trying which is why I want to start with accessible and move on up.

I guess I don't think of swing as Jazz either, and that's possbily because its chief modern practitioner is rockabilly and so that's where I place it. Louis Prima and Keely Smith I'm already familiar with from lounge and exotica and like them all right. And there are those who suggest that lounge, exotica, and tiki music are themselves Jazz.

I don't know.

But I do thank you for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully and giving me so much to look at.



"thank you for taking the time to respond"

No problem, I love giving people music recommendations. And, since most Catholics I've met seem to hate jazz, not just in a "I personally don't want to listen to it" sort of way" but in a "if you think that's good art, you have bad taste" sort of way, I get overly excited when a Catholic will give it a chance.

"I have a LOT of trouble with improvisational vocals. REALLY REALLY can't stand the stuff.."

When you say you can't stand "improvisational vocals," do you mean that you can't stand 1) scatting (nonsense syllables) or do you mean that you can't stand 2) singers who create rhythmic and melodic variations of a song in an improvisational way?

I assume you mean #1. (If you mean #2, then perhaps jazz just might not be for you.)

"I've shied away from Miles Davis and John Coltrane because they are the apotheosis of what I'd like to appreciate but lack the critical faculties, discernment, patience, or understanding to deal with."

Maybe you're selling yourself short ... maybe you've just been listening to the wrong Miles or Coltrane. They are very diverse musically, especially Miles Davis (far more so than the Beatles, who tend to get brought up as an ultimate example of artistic change.)

When I first heard some live Coltrane stuff, it was way too long for me, and not that appealing. When I first heard a later-period Coltrane duet with just his sax and drums, it sounded like literally noise.

Here's a sample Coltrane mix CD of some relatively accessible stuff. Probably the 'toughest' one here is "My Favorite Things," but that's subjective. I'm guessing that all these tracks are available on itunes or emusic or rhapsody:

from Blue Train - 1957:
Blue Train

from Kind of Blue (Miles Davis) - 1959:
So What
Freddie the Freeloader
All Blues

from Giant Steps - 1959:

from My Favorite Things - 1960:
My Favorite Things

from Someday My Prince Will Come (Miles Davis) - 1961:
Someday My Prince Will Come

from Duke Ellington and John Coltrane - 1962:
In a Sentimental Mood

from John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman - 1963:
Lush Life

I was actually going to point to two John Coltrane albums that are not the sort of late Coltrane that is difficult to really sink your teeth into without a lot of experience with listening to jazz (and I am pleased to note that Mr. Herr also includes these):

1. His album with vocalist Johnny Hartman
2. His album with Duke Ellington.

Also, if you like Brubeck, you might enjoy Chet Baker's Live in Milan.

And Stan Getz with the Oscar Peterson trio is stellar (just about anything by Stan Getz is going to be good - if you like tropical, try the album he did with Charlie Byrd or any of the other Bossa Nova records. And his record with Cal Tjader is magnificent).

If you like music with more of a sense of fun and humor, check out Dizzy Gillespie's live album Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac.

Dizzy Gillespie was also a major influence on a young Sicilian-American flugelhorn player, who is best known for a little pop ditty called "Feels So Good." However, if you can lay your hands on a record called Chase the Clouds Away, I think you will be happy.

Also, Tony Bennett's Perfectly Frank and his album of Louis Armstrong songs he did with k.d. lang, are both fantastic. But that goes down the vocal road, and that is another list completely (one I will be happy to elaborate on, if needed).

And, when it comes down to it, my all-time favorite is Thelonious Monk. I probably would go with Monk's Dream. It might strike you as abstract, but there is a profound sense of joy that undergirds it all.

Now, be warned: this jazz gets under your skin. You might find yourself wanting to move to the Bay Area just because we have the best jazz radio station in the world (not the number one reason we are here, but certainly in the top ten).

Dear Ryan,

Yes, it is the nonsense vocalise that threatens to drive me out of my mind. There may be individual improvisations that I think are poor choices for the material, but when it comes to that, I'm much more flexible.

Thanks for the suggestions. It's important to not take oneself too seriously and to realize that sometimes one's distaste is merely a matter of training the ear and orientation. I will probably never get to the point where I think the ideal evening is a platter of acid-jazz to accompany my cranberry juice--but I can try to learn to appreciate what must be there as so many people do like it. Popularity isn't necessarily an indication of quality, on the other hand, I've learned that it also isn't instantly indicative of a lack of quality either.

Thanks for the suggestions.


Thank you, I'll try to look into some of these suggestions.

And to all who have contributed thank you. It's good to be reminded that a great many of us already like some things that might reasonably be classified as Jazz.




My experience with John Coltrane was the CD "Meditations" when I was just starting getting into jazz, and I have to admit that I didn't like it so much that I've shied away from anything else. I should probably get some of his other stuff from the library (thereby avoiding the monetary investment in an experiment) to see if there isn't something else of his that I like better. I do own and like Miles Davis' Cool Blues, but I seem to remember getting other stuff of his from the library and not liking it as much. But maybe that was a bad day or something.

I was introduced to Bela Fleck on the "Three Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest" and was instantly hooked on the post-Howard, pre-Jeff sound. I like the addition of Jeff Coffin, and I love "Live Art", and most of "Live at the Quick" but some of the "Little Worlds" songs aren't quite to my taste. We've found that our two oldest kids endured their car seats better when we play the cut of "New South Africa" that is on Live Art... there was a short period of time that that was played on repeat in our car stereo. I saw them in concert a few years back, and they were as much fun live as I expected.

One of my high school friends' dad's has a band with someone who took harmonica lessons from Howard Levy. I know that's like three or four steps removed, but that's the closest claim to fame that I could come up with. Every once in a while, listening to Victor Wooten, I wish that I had more time to practice bass, but all I currently own is a fretless electric, and most of the really funk stuff that he does isn't really accessible without frets.

I just grabbed the 1985 show that you linked to... but I'm not sure how to get Shorten into my iPod yet. I finally gave up on Ogg Vorbis, but now I'll just have to go back and figure out Shorten. And I'll have to look into the other recommendations that you and Erik have made.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 28, 2007 8:56 AM.

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