July 12, 2008

Easing Your Way into Jazz (Part 1)

Over the last couple of years, I've started listening to a lot of jazz music. It's an incredibly rich and varied genre that offers a little bit of something for everybody. But it can also be difficult to get into, partly because of its breadth and diversity, and partly because much of the music is fairly "inaccessible" (i.e., hard to understand and, frankly, not very enjoyable to listen to for most people).

So, I've compiled a list of ten albums I highly recommend for newbies interested in exploring the world of jazz. These are not necessarily the greatest jazz albums of all time (whatever that means), although some of them would be right at the top of most jazz lovers' lists. But I believe they are all highly enjoyable and readily accessible to listeners approaching from more "popular" genres. I have, in the language of the day, thoroughly vetted them for mainstream musical tastes.

One thing to note about listening to jazz: be sure give every song at least a minute or two before you start to evaluate it too critically. Jazz songs frequently start with a "statement of the melody" where the band presents the basic theme or pattern of the song. This introduction is then followed by successive improvisational "solos" in which the musicians take turns interpreting and expanding on the theme. Improvisation is at the heart of jazz, and it's during these solos that the music really comes alive. So be sure to get to the good stuff before concluding that a song just isn't doing it for you.

With that, here are the first five of my recommended albums to ease your way into jazz. You'll have to check back later for the next five!
  • Night Train by the Oscar Peterson Trio. This toe-tappin' collection of blues and R&B standards from pianist extraordinaire Oscar Peterson and his trio is as about as accessible as music can be. (As a bonus recommendation, if you like Night Train, head right out and get Junior's Blues by the Junior Mance Trio. Don't even think about it. Just get it. Now.)
  • Saxophone Colossus by Sonny Rollins. This classic album makes its way onto many enthusiasts' desert island lists, and is also frequently cited as an ideal place to start a journey into the jazz world. You can't not enjoy this music! (Unfortunately, the 2006 reissue of this CD currently being sold is reported to have some technical problems with the mastering. So you might want to grab a used CD from an earlier release.)
  • Papa Gato by Poncho Sanchez. A spicy serving of Afro-Cuban (aka Latin) jazz. Put the kids to bed, bust out some tequila, limes and Cointreau (or, more authentically, some mojitos), and good times are guaranteed.
  • Soul Station by Hank Mobley. The masterful sax work on this album by the underappreciated Hank Mobley has a very laid-back feel, but will still get you snapping your fingers and feeling the groove.
If you're feeling trusting yet adventurous, click here to buy all five (+ the bonus recommendation).

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