A Pathway to Jazz

“People sometimes say it takes a long time to become a jazz fan, but for me it took about five seconds.”

~ Pat Metheny

Music conveys a primal quality, possibly uniting us through Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious; and, at times, music seems to enable spiritual travel to ethereal realms. It traverses the gamut from pop to intellectual artform. Its resonant characteristics are visceral and transcendent. To belabour a point, I think music is awesome.

My musical tastes, like many personal sentiments, have changed dramatically through the decades I have managed to pass through (full disclosure: I was born in 1957). I like a bit of music from most categories, still appreciate some of the rock from my formative years (some Stones, Beatles, Santana, Led Zep, Neil Young, etcetera), and enjoy much of the classical oeuvre (Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schubert, etcetera), but my favourite genre at this point in life is jazz.

My initial curiosity stems from jazz elements in rock: Pink Floyd, Little Feat, Van Morrison, and King Crimson, to name a few. But it was Steely Dan that started me on the pathway to jazz.

While driving to work one day, I heard Song For My Father (the Horace Silver Quintet, 1965) on CBC FM: I realized immediately that Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (from Pretzel Logic, 1974) has the exact same opening baseline. Rikki is a tribute to Horace Silver’s song! I dug a little deeper and discovered that the Dan’s song Your Gold Teeth (the first version, from Countdown to Ecstasy) is in homage to hard bop jazz. Steely Dan is on the soft-jazz/rock spectrum, and I wanted something with a bit more bite, so I started to experiment with some jazz classics, and I fell in love: my eyes — rather, ears — had been opened!

 If I were pinned-down to a specific jazz category of preference, I would choose hard bop of the mid 50s to mid 60s, but I have discovered musical gems in several sub-genres (fusion, bop, post-bop, West-Coast, cool, Latin-jazz, acid-jazz, Nu jazz, and even what used to be noise to me: Avant-Garde!).

Before listing albums the jazz neophyte might enjoy, I will attempt a description of hard bop, as I understand it (there is a ton of information on the web for those interested in deeper discussions. One good place to start — for any musical genre — is allmusic). Hard bop is a little difficult to explain without first mentioning bebop (bop).

The development of bop (the early to mid 1940s) marks the beginning of modern jazz. Before the advent of bop, jazz was based on easy listening harmonic and melodic structures perfect for dancing. Bop overlaid a variety of complex chord arrangements onto the harmonic structure of the traditional jazz style. Additionally, bop disrupted the regimented drum rhythm of conventional jazz. The term bebop depicted the new rhythmic style, and the term is derived from the improvised idiom of scat singing (with roots decades earlier than bebop). Bebop created a rift in jazz between old and new.

Hard bop (the mid 1950s) added influences from rhythm and blues, gospel, and blues to bop. Bop is generally played at a faster pace and the melody instrumentation (sax, trumpet, etcetera) tend to play more in unison, though solos are certainly included. Hard bop has a bluesy sensibility, is often slower, in a minor key, and time and space are devoted to funky-rhythmic solos by sax, piano, and trumpet (and other melodic instruments). Hard bop is less lyrically and harmonically complex than bop, and the melodies are more memorable and accessible. A close cousin to hard bop is soul jazz, which usually involves an organ in the group and incorporates more gospel sensibilities (the lines between bop and hard bop and soul often seem blurred to me).

I love the blues, and I have a predilection for music in minor keys, which can lead to the roots of melancholy, but I also perceive the wings of awe and believe the two are related. Music in a minor key can bring an empathy and depth that transports the soul.

Hard bop was also developing at about the same time as I was, a possible synchronic resonance.

Jazz has many different sub-genres to explore: New Orleans/Dixieland, big band, post-bop, West-Coast, cool, fusion, Latin-jazz, modal, jazz-funk, acid-jazz, punk-jazz, Nu jazz, Avant Garde (and more), but hard bop was at the entrance to the pathway for me.

An extra comment that may, or may not, be useful/necessary: often, it is 1½ – 2 minutes into a jazz number before the group truly dives into the heart of the piece.

… there is something about the tangibility of vinyl that adds to the listening experience

Below, I have listed a few of my favourite albums along with brief notes (the selections are mostly hard bop, and are listed alphabetically, by the group leader’s last name):

Somethin’ Else (Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley, 1958). A hard-bop classic. It is Cannonball’s session, but Miles Davis (trumpet) surely had a heavy hand leading the ensemble. Standout cuts: One for Daddy-O (honouring a legendary Chicago DJ: a very cool number) & Autumn Leaves (for me, a definitive rendition)

Moanin’ (Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, 1959). A hard-bop classic. The title cut is one of my favourite jazz cuts of all time and the solo by Lee Morgan (trumpet) is mind-blowing! Blakey is a legendary leader and drummer extraordinaire.

Time Out (Dave Brubeck, 1959). Another absolute classic (cool/West Coast jazz). Standout cuts: Take Five and Blue Rondo a la Turk. I am sure many people have heard Take Five before and may not know who plays it.

Cool Struttin’ (Sonny Clark, 1958). Hard bop classic. The title cut is superb. A very accessible and enjoyable album.

Blue Trane (John Coltrane, 1958). Another hard bop classic: possibly my favourite Coltrane album, and one of his more accessible releases (I must also mention his spiritual masterpiece, A Love Supreme). Coltrane is renowned for his ‘sheets of sound’ on sax.

Kind of Blue (Miles Davis, 1959). Necessary for any collection. Modal/hard bop. I could list several more Miles Davis albums but decided to include only one album per artist in this list. Kind of Blue is the definitive Miles album for any music collection (and the line up of musicians is exceptional). It is difficult to choose a representative cut: perhaps Freddie Freeloader is the most accessible on a first listen.

Blues Walk (Lou Donaldson, 1958). A classic hard bop album. Easily accessible stuff. The title cut alone is worth a listen (to my delight, the song was playing on the jukebox in a scene of the animated movie The Iron Giant (1999)). Adding congas to the rhythm section was a beautiful touch.

Letter From Home (Pat Metheny Group, 1989). Latin-rock-jazz fusion.  It is such easy listening, highly enjoyable, happy music that it sounds effortless (Have You Heard is a good example). There are Metheny albums I enjoy more, but this was the first I ever heard: a sentimental favourite.

Soul Station (Hank Mobley, 1960). A classic hard bop album. Mobley is not overly ornate and makes it sound easy. Very accessible music. 

Monk’s Dream (Thelonious Monk, 1963). Another brilliant, hard bop classic. There are many Monk albums I could include (e.g.: Brilliant Corners): Monk’s Dream is the one that first caught my attention. I love Monk, but he is a bit different and possibly not to everybody’s taste (a shame). Blue Bolivar Blues is one of my favourite songs.

The Sidewinder (Lee Morgan, 1964). Hard bop classic. Standout cuts: The Sidewinder (one of the few commercially successful modern jazz songs)and Totem Pole (not the most PC title). Morgan (trumpet) + Joe Henderson (sax) = awesomeness.

Saxophone Colossus (Sonny Rollins, 1956). A classic hard bop album. Possibly his best session and very accessible music. Saint Thomas is a good example.

Tourist (St. Germain, 2000). Nu Jazz/electronic jazz with solos. Simple, but captivating rhythms roil out of the speakers, and a handful of musicians (with chops) play over the ethereal beat. The music makes your pants want to get up and dance: excellent for doing housework! It is highly infectious, funky-fun music, but I do find that the beat begins to get repetitive if I listen to too much at the same time. Typical pieces: Rose Rouge and Sure Thing.

Song For My Father (Horace Silver, 1965). Another hard bop classic. How apropos: my iPod (yes, I still have one) is on random play and Song For My Father just started playing on my stereo…synchronicity! If you are a Steely Dan fan, you would think Rikki Don’t Lose That Number is cued-up.

Back at the Chicken Shack (Jimmy Smith, 1963). Soul jazz/hard bop classic. An accessible album with Smith (organ), Stanley Turrentine ( a wonderful sax player, who also cut some exceptional albums with his organ-playing wife, Shirley Scott), Kenny Burrell (an excellent guitarist) and Donald Bailey (drums). The whole album is awesome, but Minor Chant resonates wonderfully.

I could go on (and on), but that is a good start…

…and now for a slight digression to mention vinyl. A few years ago, my daughters gave me a turntable for Christmas; since then, I have been rebuilding a record collection from scratch (definitely no pun intended!). I have managed to collect all the albums above (and many more) in vinyl: there is something about the tangibility of vinyl that adds to the listening experience. I purchase some of my vinyl new but have discovered a wonderful store — Redrum Records — that sells quality used vinyl (and some new, and CDs as well): they have stores in South Surrey, Cloverdale, Aldergrove and New Westminster. I have been to the Cloverdale location a couple of times, but usually shop in the South Surrey store. The staff are knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful and you can order products from any of the locations to pick up at whichever store is handy for you (they will also ship to you, if you are from out of town)…

I have attempted to recall exactly which albums/songs pulled me into jazz, but the memories are fuzzy. If one new listener develops from this, I will be a happier sentient being.

May you enjoy music

May you be peaceful and at ease

May you be well.

*Photos by Bruce Johnston

4 Comments on “A Pathway to Jazz

  1. I Loved this article and the beautiful descriptions! It is clear that music has been a huge part of your life, and I learned so much from reading this post! I am new to Jazz myself and I will definitely be adding these songs to my playlist 🙂