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Genius Guide to Jazz

Holiday Gift Guide 2001

By Published: August 29, 2004
Another avenue to introduce newcomers to jazz is the magic of motion pictures. Movies like Anatomy of a Murder or In Cold Blood have specially-composed jazz soundtracks from the likes of Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones, respectively. The Last Time I Committed Suicide or Lenny feature jazz-laden soundtracks. Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues portrays the fictional life of a jazz musician, while 'Round Midnight portrays the lives of jazz musicians using actual musicians like Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock. Documentaries Straight, No Chaser about Thelonious Monk, and Let's Get Lost about Chet Baker are also compelling insights, but maybe better left to the more serious jazz fan. And movies like Billy Bathgate and Eyes Wide Shut , which feature nude scenes by actress Nicole Kidman, have absolutely nothing to do with jazz but I'm still a man, for goodness sakes.

Gifts for the Jazz Lover

For those of you fortunate enough to know someone who truly loves jazz, or are a jazz lover yourself wanting to give hints to your loved ones as to what to get you for Christmas, I have several suggestions for the more seasoned jazz lover. And it is no small coincidence that I managed to work the word "love" into that last sentence in one form or another four times, because this is the season (particularly this year) to love everyone we can, as much as we can. At least until the FBI gets involved.

That said.

One of my favorite things as a jazz aficionado is the ubiquitous box set. While some feel the box set is simply an overpriced collection of rehashed standards, near-miss oddities, aborted takes, and just plain recorded moments of aimless noodling, I find it to be a glimpse inside the creative process. And nowhere is this more fulfilling than in jazz, where the immediacy of the music can be seen more fully as you get inside the recording process. Hearing alternate takes of familiar standards gives a new appreciation of the representative version, and insight into the forces that shaped it.

Being a fan of John Coltrane, I can personally recommend three box sets worth having. The Complete Impulse Recordings is probably the choicest of the lot, capturing Coltrane's legendary quartet at the peak of their creative force. The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard is also a testimonial to that great quartet, with some help from the inexplicably underrated Eric Dolphy, and the relentless power of their live performances. The ponderous collection of Coltrane's Atlantic recordings Heavyweight Champion , which features every tune Coltrane so much as hummed softly to himself during that period, is probably only for the diehard 'Trane fan.

For fans of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, I can recommend The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961. Virtually everything Davis and Coltrane ever recorded together (including their hilarious "Who's on Bass?" routine. Or am I thinking of Burns and Schreiber?), all in one attractive and unique package. A perfect testimony to two of the greatest musicians of all time, as well as the music that has been most responsible for 95% of the leg I've gotten since 1987.

As for non-box sets, there are several artists I feel have been underappreciated in the past few years. One is Danny Gatton, the late and lamented D.C.-area guitarist. While not officially considered a jazz guitarist (the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Jazz Musicians mistakenly labeled him a "distilled spirit"), he was nonetheless a jaw-droppingly gifted player and endlessly inventive improvisationalist. He is also one of the few guitarists I've ever heard with the cojones to attempt to play Harlem Stride piano licks on a guitar and actually pull it off. Look for Hot Rod Guitar, A Danny Gatton Anthology for some enjoyable off-the-beaten path music.

Some of my favorite jazz of the past few years has come from the Squirrel Nut Zippers and various combinations of musicians therein. A nifty amalgam of hot jazz, klesmer, cocktail jazz and Calypso, they produce a novel take on old sounds. Not content merely to dredge up worn standards, they actually write new music that sounds old. Issuing forth from the Zippers (and let's just pause for a moment to enjoy that turn of phrase) is the solo work of frontman James Malthus, whose Knockdown Society recalls Delta blues in the mix; violinist Andrew Bird, whose first two albums with his Bowl of Fire, Thrills and Oh, the Grandeur are among my all-time favorites; the aforementioned Katherine Whalen, whose sultry Billy Holliday-esque vocals can be found both on her solo album Katherine Whalen's Jazz Squad and as the soundtrack to virtually every current fantasy I have involving fishnet stockings.

Speaking of which.

Gifts from the Genius Collection

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