Introducing Jazz

[Updated with cool media content!] The Jazz blog at NPR, A Blog Supreme, is starting a little project based on the idea of introducing new listeners to jazz, i.e. what handful of records should someone who wants to take the step into jazz start with.

That’s not so hard, because the records of Ellington, Django, Mingus, Miles and Dexter Gordon (the first, random five out of my head) are great ways to get into jazz from multiple directions, following musical family trees through those opening and then backwards and forwards through history. What the blog is doing is a little different; inspired by a reader, it is asking for a list of five recent records (from the around the last 10 years) to recommend to people who are interested in getting into jazz. Patrick Jarenwattananon asked several young jazz bloggers this question, and will be posting their answers, and he’s also asked for both reader comments and for blog posts to which he will link. And so, here is my answer:

Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd: “in what language?” Pi recordings 2003 A record that is likely to stun, thrill and overpower listeners into craving more jazz. Lyrically, this is a political work that offers powerful challenges and questions about racial and cultural assimilation and the struggle to find one’s home in a place a country that is economically insecure and in fear of a loss of safety. Musically it’s an exciting, rich mix of the current urban music of cultural assimilation into the original music of that assimilation, jazz. It is ultra-contemporary and also seems timeless, and it’s refusal to come to a neat political or musical resolution draws the listener back again and again, and I expect would draw them elsewhere . . .

Chicago Underground Trio: “Possible Cube,” Delmark 2004 Hard-edged contemporary jazz, with avant-garde structures and a heavy dose of electronics. It’s not electro-acoustic experimentation, it’s music that alternates between extremely deep, funky and aggressive grooves and abstract electronic interludes, soundscape for the contemplation of what has just transpired. Cornetist Rob Mazurek’s long, lyrical lines give the ear something to latch onto while the listeners enjoys the surprising ride.

The Bad Plus: “These Are The Vistas,” Sony 2003 The classic jazz piano trio is composed of piano, bass and drums, and tends to chamber-music ideas: thoughtful, lyrical, introspective conversations between the instruments. The Bad Plus are a piano trio for people who enjoy their punk and even their metal. They play jazz with real skill and also with the powerful sound and stance of a rock band. The thrill of hearing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ pounded out on the piano FTW.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, “Infernal Machines,” New Amsterdam 2009 A premier contemporary jazz big band record from a premier young composer. This is jazz for people who are used to music that has been printed on the page and distributed to an ensemble. DJA doesn’t just arrange tune for big band, he composes original music a large ensemble and has a sense of the craft in line with classical musicians and audiences; polyphony, complex structures, a sense of abstract narrative and drama. This is not delicate music, though, it has tremendous rhythmic, lyrical and harmonic power and is terrifically exciting to the mind and heart simultaneously.

Jason Moran, “Artist in Residence,” Blue Note 2006 Moran is a pianist with the history of jazz in his hands, and also a history of America. Stride piano playing is one of the building blocks of jazz, and the style itself goes back to the mid-19th century. When Moran plays, one hears an extremely expressive, imaginative and intelligent young musician’s ongoing internal conversation with Brahms, Gottschalk, Joplin, James P. Johnson, Ellington, Monk, Herbie Nichols, Afrika Bambaataa, technology, spoken language and the place of the African-American artist in both the history of this country and in contemporary culture. Which of course means he’s deeply bluesy and funky, which he has, and he has a phenomenal core band with Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits. Any of his records would do, this is just the most recent, and they are just an introduction to his rollicking, joyful live performances.

Don’t fight the jazz, baby.

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