I am not a jazz expert, but I wish I was one.
My jazz experience began in high school and continued through college, right up until the moment when I realized I had taken my saxophone abilities as far as I could. I saw the wall, I could touch it… and I knew that whatever I needed to break it down, was not in me.
For those that aren’t certain what I mean, I’m talking about feeling the music in your own performance and then claiming it. Oh, I could play a song that was put on the stand in front of me, I could even do a “successful” solo. (I put that in quotes, because why it might sound good to the audience that day, I knew I was just repeating what I did the last time I performed the tune.) In other words, I was merely doing what I needed to do.
See, I’ve never been the kind of person to be satisfied with just “doing what I needed to do,” and this is especially true around the arts. If, for example, I am to write a book, it needs to be different from every other book you may pick up. And if it is in a genre, it will break the mold. If this sounds arrogant or bombastic, you are right. For that is how I see myself. I claim it. I am loud. You pick up a Scott Southard work and you will get something unique and different, nothing cookie-cutter. And I could never be that for jazz with my saxophone so I dropped being a music major, walked away from the music muse and ran over to the one that oversaw writers.
As much as I know my own limitations, accepted them, and my saxophone continues to gather dust in my closet, I still love jazz. I read books on artists, have watched Ken Burns’ documentary on Jazz numerous times, and collect jazz on vinyl. My weekends begin with the scratchy sound of the needle dropping, and doesn’t stop until the kids are asleep.
Below are my five favorite recordings, with my reasons and links. These are the one that stir me, inspire me, and make me wish I was something more than I am. I can’t give you reasons why they are important like an expert could for Mr. Ken Burns, I can only say, “this for me is jazz.”
“In a Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane
Recently, I went to a dance concert where a choreographer decided to create a piece around this song. This may sound cruel and dismissive, but when the song started, I closed my eyes… and I kept them closed for the entire performance
Why? Because I didn’t want to share this song. And I definitely didn’t want to have another artist’s perception of what the song means and feels impact me.
This is my favorite jazz recording. Period.
This song is the meeting of two different jazz worlds- the big band leader and the god of hard bop. Who would have guessed that this would be the recording they would come up with together? This song is not a typical Coltrane, and it is definitely not a typical Ellington piece. These two giants sat down and created something very unique, and its difficult to find something similar in either of their catalogs.
The song is simple, it feels like it is held together on a string, like it could slip off and fall apart with only a little breath. Delicate and fragile.
They both seem to play around the melody, finding it and losing it, and yet never losing the emotion behind it. I have almost all of Coltrane’s recordings and this to me is his most emotional. He is not exercising his demons or finding religion, this is Coltrane just playing and probably sticking closer to the actual melody than he normally does.
It is heartbreaking, soaring, beautiful, powerful, tender, and simply perfect.
“Alice in Wonderland” by Dave Brubeck
When I hear Dave Brubeck, I always hear innocence and hope. This is true for every one of his albums and performances. There is a lightness there, a desire to try something new. Many of his record covers include him smiling and that smile is there in almost every note for me.
Most people when they think of Dave Brubeck immediately go to Time Out. I get it. I love Time Out as well; I listen to it all the time. It is a musical accomplishment and it is flipping cool. But when I put on his album Dave Digs Disney, and “Alice in Wonderland” comes on, I think of my kids as babies.
This is the album I played when they were newborns, it was my go-to for those years and I danced with both of them while listening to it. They were in my arms during this song.
What can I say? This is a personal list, I didn’t hide that fact, and this light song which opens up a light album touches me.
Dave, from what I understand, was inspired to make this album after taking his kids to Disneyland. He saw something that day, tapped into something we all get as parents; that flitting feeling of perfection in childhood with all its possibility and love.
“All Blues” by Miles Davis
Every jazz list has to have Miles Davis. There is an understood agreement around it. It’s like how every actor has to love Shakespeare. This is me checking that box, and this is one of his most famous pieces.
We all know “All Blues.” (And if you don’t believe me, click on the link below and say “Oh, yeah, that one…”) but here is the thing- I played it in college.
I remember being on stage, hearing the piano player (who was the professor overseeing the jazz program), start the piece. I remember forgetting how to breath and worrying that I was about to screw up a jazz classic in front of an audience. It felt like it was hours before I played, but it was only a few seconds, then I had my mouthpiece in place and I was playing the background melody for the trumpet to glide over. I remember playing the solo (as best as I could), and I remember being relieved when the entire song was done.
Performing “All Blues” was hell for me. Hell. It was aiming too high and I knew it, and each time I listen to the song I have that gut feeling of I can’t do this. But the thing is I still tried my best… and I kind of like that I did.
“I’m in a Low Down Groove” by James Carter
People have been writing obituaries for jazz for years.
They did it when rock took off, they did it when The Beatles arrived on these shores, they did it when Miles Davis went electric (and I do have opinions around that), and they will do it after this post.
This 2003 song by James Carter is my proof that jazz is quite fine, thank you very much.
This song is new and classic, it is powerful, and it screams for your attention. It is almost five minutes of wailing saxophone bliss for me. It seems to never make up its mind exactly what the song is going to be (and it is many things) and what the melody is, but in that search something very unique and wonderful is found.
The song begins with a bass and then a growl from Carter’s horn. The bass is still there at the end, but the horn is more calm and at peace then. Carter got out what he needed to get out, and he put it right in your ears.
“Just You, Just Me” by Nat “King” Cole
It’s really hard for me to pick just one Nat song, because in many ways Nat is the voice of my soul. That may sound outrageously corny and you might feel like laughing, but when I die, I want the last thing I hear to be his rendition of “The Christmas Song.” His voice taps into a part of what I want the world to be like, what I want to believe it means to be human.
Smooth, warm, and with a wink.
My favorite Nat “King” Cole album is After Midnight, the last album he made with his classic trio. It is a happy goodbye to his past as a band leader. For a time, Nat was the most important pianist in jazz; now many think of him merely as a ballad singer (and many of those ballads are ones that his fans would like the world to forget). But just listen to the piano solo in “Just You, Just Me” and you will see what I mean! His touch is fresh and he has nothing to prove. He soars over that keyboard.
This is jazz that comes with a slice of happiness.
There is a joy in the performance, right there, mixed in the ingredients of the song. And that is one of the few things I miss about playing my old horn, being on a stage and feeling a song as if it was a living thing between the musicians. It is a feeling I don’t get in writing (and probably can’t get since it is a solo venture)… Maybe someday, I don’t know. Until then I will continue to write, with these songs playing in the background.
I hope you dig them.