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Jazz. But Where Do I Start?

For someone who wants to start listening to jazz, but doesn't know where to start, I can help with that. I'm going to list 5 jazz albums for you to download, buy, YouTube, or whatever you do to consume music. I recommend BUYING the albums because it will help you invest yourself in the music that much more because you've spent your hard earned money on it. When you stream it for free (or practically free), oftentimes you don't allow yourself to listen to it over and over again the way you would if you had spent the $10 on it. You would delete it and move on if it didn't speak to you right away. Nothing is lost, except maybe the time you spent listening, which probably wasn't even the whole album! But no, you're gonna need to hang in there with some of these records, even if they don't grab you right away.

Oftentimes, listening to new music can be challenging. In order to appreciate it fully, you may have to listen to it 10, 15, 25 times!

Quick side note...When I was in high school, a friend of mine tried to turn me onto the band Rush by lending me his copy of "Chronicles" which was a double album of greatest hits up to that point. I took it home and listened to it once, and decided I didn't like it and the next day I handed it back to my friend. When he asked me if I liked it, I said not really. He handed me back the CD and said, no, take it back and listen to it many times until it starts to grow on you. And you know what? He was right! After a few weeks, I learned to appreciate the songs, the singing, the DRUMMING, and I became a huge fan of the band from then on. But if my friend hadn't persuaded me to keep listening, I would've just blown it off and definitely would have missed out on all that prog rock glory! But I digress...

At the end of this list I will suggest an idea that will help you take more of an interest in these albums, and all of the subsequent others you will listen to! Now, consider these 5 albums to be an excellent choice for the average non-jazz listener to wet their appetite with. These are in no particular order and I could have easily picked 10 other albums to go with for this list. However, these were on the top of my mind and so here they are.

  1. Miles Davis "Kind of Blue" (1959) - There's a reason this album is the #1 best selling jazz album of all time. The compositions are modal and therefore easier for the jazz-layman to digest. The tempos are relaxed and easy to take in, and the accompaniment to the solos is pretty simple and not cluttered with flurries of notes. The melodies (or "heads" as we call them in jazz) are catchy and singable. Dig this one!

  2. Ahmad Jamal "Live at The Pershing" (1958) - The perfect swingin' piano trio record. A piano trio is piano, bass, and drums. This is a live record so you can hear that energy from the band performing in front of an audience. Trust me, it changes things! This album is so beautiful in it's simplicity and it's just so "tasty". There isn't any over-indulgence here. Just great tunes, played really tastefully (there's that word again) and recorded really well.

  3. Weather Report "Heavy Weather" (1977) - Okay I know this is a real departure from the first two entries on this list, but hear me out. This album is widely known as a "jazz-fusion" record but it's an important one because it really changed the landscape of jazz and improvised music and what was possible and becoming popular at the time. In 1977, this was MAINSTREAM jazz. Truth. Although not directly related, what we now know as "smooth jazz" hadn't been invented yet, but this was the beginning's of that whole other genre. With all of that said, this is an incredible album. The songs are wonderfully composed and performed, with a wide array of influences mixed in including rock, funk, big band, and latin music.

  4. Art Blakey "Moanin'" (1959) - One of the most prominent hard bop groups of the late 50's and early 60's, Blakey's Jazz Messengers was incredibly prolific and so darn swingin'! The "Moanin'" record included the title tune, which featured a heavy call and response melody deeply rooted in the blues and one of the baddest press rolls in the jazz idiom. The album also featured the song "Blues March" which incorporated a swingin' style military march on the snare drum. The band was known for it's hip arrangements (many of which written by Wayne Shorter) and use of dynamics with 3 horns fronting the band. Lastly, check out "Along Came Betty" written by saxophonist Benny Golson.

  5. Chick Corea "Three Quartets" (1981) - This is definitely one of my favorite albums of all time, spanning all genres of music. The compositions are broken up into "quartets" similar to what baroque string ensembles would play. Each quartet has a theme and dedication. The band is a quartet with piano, bass, drums, and sax, and features some of the most talented musicians ever to walk the Earth! This record falls under the jazz fusion label but there's elements of straight-ahead swing, classical, and rock all within the improvisations. Bonus! Check out Chick Corea playing Steve Gadd's drums on a duet with Michael Brecker featuring the tune "Confirmation". It's one of my favorite tracks on the album.

Okay as promised, here's a little hint on digging deeper and really understanding what you're listening to. It's a little thing us old guys grew up doing while listening to music before the internet came along and blew up the music industry. READ THE LINER NOTES! Yep. Learn who the musicians are. Learn what instrument they play. Read about when the album was recorded and what studio they recorded it in. Who was the recording engineer? Many of these older records had someone prominent in the industry write about the music being presented on the album. It might've been another musician or a writer or jazz critic of some kind. Oftentimes, these can be helpful in learning where the music is coming from, what it's inspired by, or what message the artist is trying to convey. It can give the music some CONTEXT. Pay close attention to the tone of the instruments. What makes Steve Gadd sound like Gadd? What makes Michael Brecker sound like Brecker? Or Marcus Miller, or Miles, or Coltrane?? And on and on. I feel that today's music is really missing out on this. Please understand that to read the liner notes, you probably will have to BUY the album. Yes, with actual money!! Blasphemy!!!! Here's the thing...When I stream a record or listen on YouTube, there's hardly ever any context for what I'm listening to, so it's harder to understand what the artist is trying to say, and it's easier to be dismissive of the music. You blow it off and you move on. We've ALL done it. And playlists (the algorithm!!) make this even harder. Don't get me started.

One exception, I downloaded an album by Benny Greb called "Moving Parts" and along with the songs on the album came a short video of Benny talking about each song on the album describing how it was written or what it was inspired by. Again, giving it CONTEXT. I thought that including these short videos was a very clever idea, and I wish to see more of that, for music in all genres. It's such an easy thing to do and include in the packaging of a record or album. Definitely a modern way of thinking.

So that's my list for non-jazz listeners who are open to the idea of getting into jazz music and discovering it's beauty. You don't have to start here, these are merely some suggestions for finding a pathway to full on jazz snobbery. HA! (just kidding). The main thing to remember is to listen to jazz music that you can relate to. All of these recommendations are instrumental, so maybe you would prefer to hear something with vocals instead. That could be a good entry way into the world of jazz and improvisation. Or maybe you would prefer the sound of a big band, like Count Basie or the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band, both of which recorded albums with vocals and instrumentals.

I wish you good listening and I'd love to hear from you if you found one of my suggestions to be helpful. If not, I'd still love to hear from you! Join me on Patreon (link below!) where I do breakdowns of specific albums, focusing in on the musical elements and styles of drummers who play on the records.

As always, please like and follow me on all my social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

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