Sunday, July 23, 2006




A DOZEN OF THE BEST

As an easy space-filler, I thought I'd list my dozen favourite jazz albums of all time. You know "jazz": all The Kids are talkin' about it. For better or for worse, my taste in jazz tends towards the "avant-garde": I like a squawl and a screech, but it also has to swing, too. Throughout the latter half of the '90s and a few years into the '00s, I was also a terrific enthusiast for "improvisation", though I must admit to've given it a wide berth the last couple of years. Huh? But isn't "free jazz" simply improvisation? Well, yes and no. I don't wish to debate definitions here, but for myself, a musical piece doesn't have to be fully improvised to be thrown under the banner of "free jazz"; it must simply possess a certain energy to it. Listen to any mid '60s Coltrane or Ayler disc and you'll see what I'm talking about. Most such songs follow a familiar pattern: set song structures - break down into an extended improvised solo - then back to the composition. Just because you could potentially anotate the musical score, doesn't mean it ain't "free". But anyway...

When I mean "contemporary improvisation" I speak of the drier, more Euro-derived music a la Derek Bailey, AMM, Evan Parker, Alexander Von Schlippenbach, etc. I could live the rest of my life w/out ever encountering another Bailey disc, though there's still a handful of albums by the latter three which I rate very highly... but at this point in my life, they never hit the turntable. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. Next! Gimme another 10 years and I'll probably want to hear them again.

I can't handle fusion at all, bar a couple of things which might slip under that heading by default. The two main examples here would be, obviously, Miles Davis' electric period from 1969-'75 - a body of work which still remains perhaps my favourite by any artist ever (indeed, Get Up With It, from 1974, rates as likely my fave album of all time, though I haven't listed it here as I consider it a "rock" album more than a jazz one); and Tony Williams' Lifetime, whose first two recorded efforts (Emergency! and Turn It Over) are a dynamite combination of what rock/jazz fusion should've been before it was taken over and ruined by session-muso idiots with cheesecloth shirts and five hours of endless noodling up their sleeves. That is: guitar-dominated rock with the freedom/improv principle of jazz. Of course, there's also a Herbie Hancock record or two from the early '70s, namely Sextant, which can be a whole lot of fun, too. But other than that, I ain't interested.

I am, however, becoming increasingly juiced-up in my elderly years by the tunes of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Art Blakey and even truly old-geezer wattage by the likes of Kid Ory, Harlem Hamfats and other varieties of 78-RPM jazz favoured by stinky men w/ exposed bumcracks at record conventions. To put it simply, I'm always learning...

But my heart and mind will always tend towards to whackier and the way-out. The dozen releases below, perhaps barring Sketches Of Spain and, to a lesser extent, Black Saint And The Sinner Lady, certainly fall into that category. My ears were first tweeked to the potential greatness of such as a teen when the Minutemen would namedrop the likes of Ornette Coleman and James "Blood" Ulmer in interviews, though I won't rewrite history and try to convince anyone that I was happily spinning a bit of Eric Dolphy wax back in high school. I was but a dumb punker. I didn't actually buy any "jazz" album (except for Naked City, which ain't "jazz") until I was 21 when a friend played me some Art Ensemble Of Chicago and compared them to the Boredoms (yes, that's a long bow, though Reese And The Smooth Ones is not a thousand miles off w/ its long passages of clunking percussion). From then on, I had a mission. First it was Eric Dolphy, then it was Ornette, then it was Ayler, then the ESP reissues came out via ZYX and then all those Impulse reissues started flooding the world and before you knew it even those long-gone and stupidly rare BYG/Actuel reissues once again made a library of glorious music available to the plebs. It never ends. And gladly so.

Add to that a series of excellent contemporary avant-jazz albums which were being released in the late '90s on American labels like AUM Fidelity and Eremite, and by 2002, after a near 10-year jazzathon, I decided to let it rest for a year or two. In the last 12 months I've come back for a second helping, even starting a pathetic mission to fill out my ESP and BYG gaps along the way, so it looks like the jazz kick is here to stay. Well hooray for that.

In the spirit of self-indulgence which is the world of blogs, below I list for you my favourite dozen jazz albums. Kind of a strange mix, I realise only now that a whopping five of them were released on the near unbeatable Impulse imprint and that some I have owned for well over ten years, one I've only owned for just over 12 months (Don Cherry's Orient) and indeed one I seriously only purchased approximately 3 or 4 months ago (A Monastic Trio). Still, I will say this in brief: 12 months is long enough to digest an album and figure its worth; Alice Coltrane, especially given the awesome power of her 1968-'77 catalogue, has very quickly become a favourite musician of mine; and the vast bulk of these albums are from the '60s/'70s simply because it was the golden era of avant-jazz. William Parker's Peach Orchard 2-CD monstrous epic makes the grade easy, and remains for me the finest American jazz album of the past decade or longer. It is a classic and will age as such.

By god, that is without a doubt the most longwinded introduction for a simple list of albums I have ever read. Ahem... in no partricular order.

1) MILES DAVIS - Sketches Of Spain LP (1959/Columbia)
2) ORNETTE COLEMAN - Crisis LP (1969/Impulse)
3) PHAROAH SANDERS - Karma LP (1969/Impulse)
4) DON CHERRY - Orient 2-LP (1971/Affinity)
5) SUN RA - Space Is The Place soundtrack CD (1972/released 1993 on Evidence)
6) CHARLES MINGUS - Black Saint And The Sinner Lady LP (1963/Impulse)
7) WILLIAM PARKER/IN ORDER TO SURVIVE - The Peach Orchard 2-CD (1998/AUM Fidelity)
8) ALICE COLTRANE - A Monastic Trio LP (1968/Impulse)
9) FRANK LOWE - Black Beings LP (1973/ESP)
10) ALBERT AYLER - Lorrach Paris 1966 2-LP (1982/Hat Hut)
11) JOHN COLTRANE - Live In Seattle 2-LP (1965/Impulse)
12) ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO - Fanfare For The Warriors LP (1973/Atlantic)

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