Listening to jazz – where do you begin?

The other day after our Cadogan Hall gig in the London Jazz Festival a friend – who doesn’t listen to jazz – asked me: ‘Where do I start if I want to listen to this type of music?’.  It’s a difficult question to answer. Where do you start, especially for the non-jazz person?

As an aside, I’m reminded that jazz is mildly amusing for some pals who’re heavily into their indie-bands. The ‘Fast Show’ sketches on jazz of many years ago captured their perception.

Where do you start? They knew of Louis Armstrong.  The response to bebop was it was ‘a bit zigzag’. So, I gave this random, subjective answer. The request was for a few specific tracks only. I slightly overdid it.  Experts will probably loathe what follows, but here we go:

‘Cottontail’ – Duke Ellington featuring Ben Webster (tenor sax). A swing classic. Joyous. Remember, recording techniques were rudimentary at this time, c 1940. Jazz was still dance music. Count Basie was the equivalent of ‘Chic’. So, we have to move on from the quality of the recording and listen as best we can to what’s happening. Ellington was a superb composer and arranger. Ben Webster solos across a big band. No microphone for him; purely uses tone, rhythm, sound and what soloing lines….

Recorded in Hollywood, 1940 Wallace Jones, Ray Nance, Cootie Williams – tp Rex Stewart – cnt “Tricky” Sam Nanton, Lawrence Brown – tb Juan Tizol – vtb Barney…

‘So What’ – Miles Davis. I urge that the entire album, ‘Kind of Blue’, be listened to. Jazz is no longer mainly dance music. It’s consciously elevating its artistic status, as was right to do.
Miles D, John Coltrane and  Cannonball Adderley(to a lesser degree. His glorious solos are drenched in the blues) are exploring what for jazz was a relatively new sonic world; the world of modal scales. They’ve moved on from the swing era. Pivotal album. Recording techniques already much better too. (Bill Evans was vital to this album; mainly his compositions and did Miles properly acknowledge this?)

‘Bags Groove’ – Miles D is forming his harmonic (and rhythmic language) as he leads up to ‘Kind of Blue’. Bags Groove is a blues. Simple? However, Miles D is creating a fresher atmosphere around a blues. If more curious listen to the tune ‘Oleo’ on same album as Bags Groove. Tangentially, the Sonny Rollins solo melts me. Oleo is a tune over the ‘I Got Rhythm’ chords.

All four Miles Davis albums: Workin’, Cookin, Smokin’, Relaxin’…These albums are gems. The context was Miles D needed to get out of his then contract with Prestige. So, he polished off four albums in a matter of days. A young Coltrane is brought in on tenor sax. He’s still getting his chops together. Fascinating albums while brilliant too. Mainly jazz standards. Miles D was later to acknowledge he had studied Sinatra’s phrasing. For example, ‘If I were a Bell’.

Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet Property of Prestige Records, Recorded 1956 Miles Davis – trumpet John Coltrane – tenor saxophone Red Garland – piano Paul …
 ‘Blue Trane’ – John Coltrane. 

John Coltrane – Blue Train: Mono and Stereo Versions Released 2014-06-06 on Not Now Music Download on Google Play . Recorded on September 15, 1957 at the Van Gelder …

Coltrane is worth exploring. He takes a lot of time to get into, I believe. Once achieved, he is rewarding. This is John Coltrane post-Miles Davis. This track is more accessible than his later material. (‘A Love Supreme’ was apparently John Coltrane playing his tenor while reading religious texts, the psalms. On that seminal album, he is vocalising on his tenor sax his actual reading of the words.) The tone reminds me of cold steel, devoid of vibrato. Compare his sound on the tenor to Ben Webster’s. Rather different. Coltrane is only starting out, on this album, on a new sound and harmonic journey. More to follow on this topic another time. Just enjoy this tune. For me there is a cry of pain in Coltrane, something compellingly troubling, dark. It’s analogous to reading Dostoyevsky.

… a different tack. Jumping to the more contemporary:

‘Weak’ – Gretchen Parlato;

Excellent jazz rendition of the classic SWV hit. Watch out for this girl, she’s bad. Saw her at the 2012 Newport Jazz Fest. She’s a beast. Very smooth…No copyright …

It’s in 6/4 time, I think. The sense of time, placement is immense. Robert Glasper is on keyboards. Just listen to his placement of chords, his rhythm as well as colours. Overall, a great groove.

‘From Gagarin’s Point of View’ – E.S.T. A Swedish trio who packed the halls out in the 90s. It all came to an abrupt end when the pianist died in a diving accident. Great sound.

‘Polo Towers’ – John Scofield. Try this version.

With Metropole Orkest Orchestra

Modern big band. Not normally my thing. However, the Scofield – Vince Mendoza combination is special. Mendoza is a ‘go to’ arranger in the US; brilliant. Volume, and good speakers, provide additional enjoyment to this track.

Another final tip. Check out ‘GoGo Penguin’. Wonderful, contemporary Manchester band. Hear the E.S.T influence?



475 thoughts on “Listening to jazz – where do you begin?”

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