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This collection of tunes spans a range of moods and colors, but the common thread running through it is that it's music to share. Perhaps a candlelight dinner, or conversation on the couch, or dancing, or whatever-happens-after-that: these records cover the spectrum.
You won't find Jazz for Lovers or any such mass market trash here. Just as this is jazz for lovers, it's also music for jazz lovers: the pure, undistilled vision of creative artists. While many of these discs cross boundaries, the common theme of accessibility and palpable emotion runs throughout. And while a couple of the recordings featured here are suitable for armchair listening, others suggest you break out your dancing shoes. Because, after all, there's more than one angle to togetherness.
A good number of these discs are less than a decade old. Rather than digging into the vaults for old ballads and standards, I've chosen to feature mostly modern improvisation where possible. It's broader and more stylistically inclusive than say, modal jazz from the '60s. And you won't find too many of these discs on other lists: they've been selected to be unique and ideal for whatever form of companionship you desire.
In order to help you select the right record for you, these recordings have been color-coded to indicate their emotional zone. While an abstract system like this may seem difficult to decipher at first, it's really the best way to organize the list. Choose your color, and then paint the walls with your speakers. In order: blue to red.
Third Rail: South Delta Space Age (Verve, 1995) (indigo/bumping)
A collaboration between free funk guitarist Blood Ulmer and producer Bill Laswell, Third Rail is deep Southern soul funk all the way. Ulmer's gritty vocals and decidedly angular guitar playing make this disc work. The rhythms are rooted more in rock than jazz, but the rest of what happens here is brilliantly unpredictable. As for the romantic connection here, Ulmer puts it right in the title of the third tune: "Funk All Night."
Peter Erskine: Time Being (ECM, 1994) (sky blue/meditative)
Drummer Erskine hangs low on this one, allowing pianist John Taylor and bassist Palle Danielsson a lot of space to build and explore lush harmonies and consonant exploration. But instead of circling ground already covered, the group assumes a constant sense of evolution and discovery. This music works fine in the backgroundbut if you tune in to what's happening, you'll find a wealth of delicate shared ideas.
Kenny Wheeler: Angel Song (ECM, 1997) (slate/mellow)
Subtlety and nuance abound on this quartet record: the absence of a drummer means its pulse runs through the players' strings and horns. The themes, understated and gentle, guide tenderly interactive, paced improvisation. Turn down the lights for this one, because it glows magically in the dark.
John Zorn: Bar Kokhba (Tzadik, 1996) (mahogany/angular)
For John Zorn, a recording of such delicacy and clarity is a rarity. His chamber ensembles on this 2-disc set play compositions with klezmer fused to a jazz pulse. Occasional trips onto the high tension wire may startle some listeners, but the overwhelming feel here is open and fresh. For those who seek an updated postmodern alternative to the standard classical chamber ensemble sound, this is one for you... as long as you (and your partner) don't mind a regular pinch of dissonance.
Warner crammed three records onto this two-disc reissue, but the one you want to listen to is Fat Albert Rotunda (disc one). Herbie's in his element hereworking all the angles of the groove, complete with funky drummer and horn section. It's hard to listen to this music without getting that James Brown feeling: "I got ants in my pants, and I need to dance!" The retro groove comes across naturally here, and it's uplifting to the max. Share it with an eager friend and you might just find your booty yanked off the chair.
Jimmy Smith: Back At The Chicken Shack (Blue Note, 1960) (apple green/sauntering)
Organist Jimmy Smith laid down some of his deepest tracks early in jazz history. This masterpiece from four decades ago features his perfect marriage of blues, jazz, and funk. The groove is inescapable, and even standards get colored here. What stands out are the many facets of this hybrid sound, and Smith's quartet works every angle to keep it fresh. Before you dig into today's rehash funk-jazz wannabes, get down and dirty with the original.
Ginger Baker Trio: Going Back Home (Atlantic, 1994) (jade green/pulsating)
Drummer Ginger Baker's return to prominence on this disc brings with it a walking pulse and a sense of groundedness. But with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Charlie Haden rounding out the trio, the record fairly glows with lyrical country/blues-inflected melodies. Musically this is off the beaten track, but it's great to share because it spreads it arms wide open to embrace the listener.
Miles Davis: Someday My Prince Will Come (Columbia, 1961) (sunset orange/classic)
The followup to Miles's 1959 bestseller Kind of Blue features many of the same players, with a wider range: from gentle lyricism to the irresistible pulse. Classic jazz to share with your lover, beautifully elborated and perfectly spontaneous. Without being predictable, these tunes have a genuinely coherent logic. Listen to the vinyl, if you can.
Joe Henderson: So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles) (Verve, 1993) (sienna/perky)
This record offers a delicious fusion of tight ensemble playing with spontaneous interaction and explorative melodies. Henderson's tenor (often played in the upper register) melds seamlessly with John Scofield's guitar up top. This is involving musicmostly up-tempo, and occasionally quite provocative. At all times it carries with it the spirit of Miles: never one to be pinned down or underestimated. Check out the tasty update of "Pfrancing."
Don Pullen: Ode To Life (Blue Note, 1993) (blood red/celebratory)
Pianist Don Pullen's African Brazillian Connection pulls together soaring birdlike melodies with rhythms from the African diaspora, yielding a combination that is utterly and completely true to its title. The group fairly pulses with a contagious energy that never falters, even through downtempo pieces which emit in their own way. If you want to add a decidedly positive note to your shared experience, this is the disc you want. [Note after publication: this release has gone out of print, but copies can still be found on the internet.]
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.