A Brief Introduction to Jazz

 

In response to “What Would You Like To See Here?” I’ve decided to re-post something from my old blog. It’s a bit of a jazz primer for those of you who said you’d like more music recommendations. I’ve added some bonus content—the above video is some advanced content from the the great Kenny Garrett for those of you who want more than the introductory music in the post. More of this to come if you like it—Bark

Jazz currently makes up less than three percent of all record sales, and that’s probably a generous number—I imagine that is probably much less than that when all forms of music sales are taken in account. As a Gen Xer who’s been a fan of Jazz for over twenty five years, I wish I understood a bit more about why Jazz is so unloved by people of my generation and younger.

There are countless articles on the internet that have been written by Jazz lovers, trying to explain to the uninitated why they should start listening to Jazz. I have never found any of these to be particularly helpful. They set out to introduce people to Jazz by giving a list of classic recordings that people should go out and listen to.

Well, there are a few problems with that. First of all, the classic recordings are just that—classics. Nobody who loves Jazz doubts that Kind of Blue or Giant Steps are great records, but they’re pretty inaccessible to the untrained ear. Kind of Blue, for example, is based on modal harmonies with the purpose of allowing the musicians to stretch out without being constrained by traditional vertical chord structures. Fascinating and revolutionary, yes, but interesting to the novice? No.

Secondly, they’re written by people who don’t listen to popular music. Like, not never. So how would they know what would be interesting to a person who enjoys Imagine Dragons or Katy Perry?

Therefore, I find it to be my moral obligation to try to create a sampling of music that the popular music fan might find interesting enough that he or she would actually listen to the whole thing—sort of a gateway drug to Jazz, if you will. I encourage you to listen to just a little bit of the selections I’ve picked out, and tell me in the comments below what your reaction is.

Courtney Pine-Underground

Courtney Pine is, in my opinion, the most technically capable saxophonist of his generation. He also manages to play music that is absolutely, positively Jazz, while still adding elements of hip-hop and electronic music. Underground is probably his best and most accessible recording, featuring great musical statements from Nicholas Payton and Cyrus Chestnut. This entire record sounds incredibly modern and forward-thinking—and then you realize it was released in 1997 and your mind is officially blown.

Joshua Redman-Jazz Crimes

Redman isn’t my favorite saxophonist, not by a long shot. However, he does make tremendously accessible music. Brian Blade throws down some ridiculous beats here—it’s almost impossible to listen to this recording and not move something. Redman has made some very fine music with his Elastic Band, and this is the original version (Flea appears in a later version).

Esperanza Spalding-I Can’t Help It

Is TOO Jazz! Miles Davis used to cover the popular tunes of his day—this is no different. Features a marvelous cameo from the spectacularly versatile Joe Lovano on saxophone. In addition to having an intoxicating voice, Spalding is also a superb bassist (electric and upright) with impeccable time and groove.

 

That’s enough for now. Listen. When you’ve absorbed this, I’ll give you more. Just like your local crack dealer, the first hit is free.

 

29 Replies to “A Brief Introduction to Jazz”

  1. smallblock

    This.
    For me, a curated musical playlist beats a podcast, hands down. Perhaps that could be a regular feature from you, Jack, and others? What’s Tom Klockau listening to? Please tell me it’s brougham-tastic 70’s funk.

    Reply
  2. Martin

    Hm. Maybe part of the reason jazz is so niche, is that it covers such a wide range of musical styles. Maybe the word itself is so broad as to have no meaning. Ask a normie what Courtney Pine is doing, and they are going to say, “hip hop”. What would Sax Pax for a Sax by Moondog be considered? Funk or jazz or classical? Kenny G… Dave Brubeck… Miles Davis… George Gershwin… it’s all “jazz”, right? Or not? Why or why not?

    Reply
    • Bark M Post author

      I think Jazz is anything that focuses on improvisation, swings a bit, and is intended to be “Jazz.” Stevie Wonder’s music is always debated by people as to whether or not it’s “Jazz,” and I always say it isn’t, because HE says it isn’t.

      Reply
  3. Gridlynk

    Jazz is something that’s taken me a long time to get into, and only recently in my early 30’s have I started to really like it. My go to lately has been a young group called BadBadNotGood. They do a great job of mixing Jazz with modern electronic, hip-hop, and rock to create something very appealing to people accustomed to more mainstream music. Their album III is my personal favorite of their catalog, and their first of wholly original music.

    Reply
  4. bbkkrr

    Inaccessible is a good word to describe the general state of jazz. It is just not part of semi-popular culture the way it may have been in the past. Did people really care more about jazz in the ’50s and ’60s when the greats were making their classic recordings? I don’t know, I wasn’t around. I get the impression that more people used to frequent jazz clubs in the old days, but is that true, or was it always at the fringe, known only to the Illuminati?

    Maybe part of the reason it was more popular is that it was more closely related to popular music of the time, or popular music hadn’t drifted so far away. Louis Armstrong was very popular and innovating in the Jazz Age and far beyond. And big bands were the social events of their day. But then new popular music pushed it way back on the cultural priority list, and here we are today.

    I’m not sure why a jazz fan would want to care more about Courtney Pine than Ike Quebec, other than the ability to see Courtney Pine play live. What I mean is that just because it is newer doesn’t mean it’s better or more important. But there is no reason to pick one over the other, and if Courtney or Joshua is a better gateway jazz musician that Ike, it works for me.

    Esperanza is an interesting artist, and I really enjoy her stuff. I recall Jack wrote something about her mysticism some time ago. She’s far more interesting to me than Cassandra Wilson, just to compare two other musicians who don’t need to be compared.

    I think any jazz journey should start with The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out, but that’s an immensely easy recommendation.

    I’ve been really digging vibraphonists recently, from Bobby Hutcherson (on Idle Moments) to Milt Jackson (with the Modern Jazz Quartet) … who knows why. Jazz is a gigantic, fun world to explore from any angle, timeframe, instrument, etc. Get a foothold somewhere and see where it leads.

    Reply
  5. Disinterested-Observer

    I think Autumn Leaves is pretty accessible, and anything by Lionel Hampton, but of course that stuff is very old and you can’t go to a concert to hear them.

    Reply
    • Bark M Post author

      Autumn Leaves is the first non-blues song that most jazz students learn to play. You can play A minor over the whole time without really being wrong.

      Reply
      • Disinterested-Observer

        In the mid-90s I used blare that shit, like hearing damage loud, on my walkman while riding public transportation. Partly because I liked it very much and partly to signal to all the other experimental people on the bus that I was a crazy person listening to 60 year old music on blast.

        Reply
  6. ScottS

    The Kenny Garrett track is intense, demanding one’s full attention like a complex wine is sometimes better enjoyed without the meal.

    Back in the 90s artist like Boney James, Kirk Whalum, Rick Braun, and Larry Carlton were bringing Jazz to a wider audience and I still enjoy listening to these artists while working on a car or loading ammunition.

    Reply
    • Bark M Post author

      Just once in my life, I’d like to play with a rhythm section that swings like that. Of course, I’m no Kenny Garrett.

      Reply
      • ScottS

        I’d love to see these guys get together again. Amazing to contrast he Garrett, James (Oppenheim), and Whalum. Garrett is the standout.

        How about a short treatise on the different types of saxophone?

        Reply
  7. PaulyG

    Hope is not completely lost for jazz. Kamasi Washington seems to have caught the fancy of the jam band crowd. His group played at lots of festivals this year and the audience when I saw him in Phila was mostly of millenials, including my daughters.

    Reply
  8. ComfortablyNumb

    The Courtney Pine track is great, especially around the midway point when he melts your face. Serious chops. I think it would be just as good without the scrizzatch, but I can see how it might add some appeal.

    Good groove on the Josh Redman song. I might see what else YouTube has to offer.

    I like the bass acrobatics on the Esperanza Spalding track. I don’t like the song overall, but I don’t have the words to explain why. Something about the combination of dreamy vocals, funk vibe, and jazz progressions maybe.

    I like what your doing with this series, Bark. Just one request: if this train passes through Bitches Brew, give me a heads up so I can get off on the stop before. Thanks.

    Reply
  9. bjarnetv

    Yeah, i think the main problem, as others have stated, is that jazz has taken so many twists and turns over the years, and amassed such a broad spectrum of different styles that most people can’t find what they want/like.

    I can remember when i was a young (Norwegian) lad, and it seemed like most modern jazz was either horrible masturbatory free jazz or really boring purity of tone stuff (ECM).
    I liked some old hard bop jazz, but where to find more similar stuff?
    The only records being promoted in most stores were Kind of blue and Bitches brew by Miles Davies, and that only made me more confused.

    Jazz was the pop music of its era, so its no surprise that most people moved on when the next big thing came along – a lot of people are claiming the same thing is happening with rock right now.
    I can see why, as i grew up in the 80s and 90s with rock being omnipresent and the only music people listened to.
    i’m glad we are moving on to different genres.

    Anyway, nowadays it’s a lot easier to find jazz, as you can go hunting on streaming services or youtube.

    As for modern jazz, i really enjoy Cecile Mclorin Salvant, Hadouk Trio and Gogo penguin.

    Also, if you thought jazz was inaccessible – i started getting really into classical this year, and it was REALLY hard figuring out what to look for in the beginning.
    In the end, the best way (for me) to find new classical music was to visit the philharmonic and check out the rest of the works of the composers i liked.
    Then came the REAL hard part, trying to find an what rendition i liked the best…

    Reply
    • Bark M Post author

      Getting into Classical is tough, for sure. I always recommend that people start with Mozart. His work is so melodic and friendly that it’s easy to digest.

      Reply
      • bjarnetv

        to me it was the piano works of Prokofiev and Ravel that really sparked my interest.
        the “Krystian Zimerman/Pierre Boulez – Ravel Piano Concertos” album has been playing on repeat since i bought it this summer, and “The piano concerto for the left hand” still gives me goosebumps every time.

        Reply
      • bjarnetv

        I’m talking about the younger me, so hold that hammer for a bit longer!

        I actually bought two ECM releases this week (“komitas: seven songs” by Lusine Grigoryan and “what she said” by Tord Gustavsen) so i have long since gone down the deep dark hole of audiophilism.

        Reply
  10. E. Bryant

    Thanks for the post. It’s unlikely to turn me into a serious fan, but I look forward to exploring the recordings you’ve provided.

    In another 30-40 years, I look forward to doing a similar entry on rock music (assuming it takes that long to drop down to 3% market share, which might be entirely too optimistic).

    Reply
  11. David B

    Awesome Idea for a series! I love learning about new music, especially something I otherwise would have no clue on. I agree with a previous comment about Jazz seeming to be “inaccessible” and not having any clue what to look for.

    Definitely going to order a couple albums off Prime on CD to listen to on my system at home. I’m not quite old enough to be into vinyl (born in ’82), but I am frequently laughed at by friends for insisting on still buying CDs. I’m a bit of an audiophile, my living room is heavily conditioned with my home built acoustic panels for a nice tight sound.

    Spending my afternoon at the office listening to these 3 artists and figuring out which albums to buy!

    Reply
    • Bark M Post author

      Excellent! For these artists in particular, I recommend the following stuff that’s pretty accessible:

      Courtney Pine: Modern Day Jazz Stories
      Joshua Redman: Wish, Moodswing

      Reply

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