As a teenager of 18 in 1970, I was heavily into rock music, The Beatles
, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix
and the Grateful Dead
. I subscribed to Rolling Stone Magazine and really enjoyed the record reviews. One fateful day in May 1970, I read their review (by Langdon Winner) of Miles Davis
's Bitches Brew
. I may have heard about him once or twice but had never heard any of his music, and this review really got my attention. So, I picked up the album and listened, and my life was never the same.
This was the most thrilling music I had ever heard. It became an obsession to me, and I quickly bought all the albums by the BB sidemen: John McLaughlin
, Joe Zawinul
, Chick Corea
, Weather Report
and more. Many were great, but very few gave me the thrill of Bitches Brew
; it has remained my favorite album for more than 50 years.
Over the years, I have collected and listened to a LOT of jazz. I just hit the 7,000 album mark last month. And over the years, I have always searched for jazz albums that were thrilling. Nothing else has quite matched Bitches Brew
, but I certainly discovered some brilliant, thrilling albums.
What are the elements of a thrilling jazz album? First of all, it's the groove, a rhythm so compelling you want to move or dance to it. Second, are the melodies that are immediately hummable and memorable. Finally, all these thrilling albums are brilliantly played by master musicians.
I'd like to give you a brief sketch of 72 of these Jazz Thrillers recorded between 1969 and 2023, six a week for 12 weeks. I'll present them chronologically and do my best to give you a sense of why I find them so thrilling.
72 Thrilling Jazz Albums, Part 1: 1969-1983
1 Down Another Road
1969 Graham Collier
was one of the few jazz musicians who incorporated rock rhythms into his music before Miles Davis. This all-star British sextet knew how to tap into a compelling groove and then solo with catchy melodies that intertwined around each other. Bassist Collier went on to form large ensembles that featured more free-form music, but this album, Songs for My Father
, and a few others featured tight grooves, strong writing and masterful playing. A recent live album with the same title on My Only Desire Records features most of the same songs and is worth a revisit of this exceptional music.
2 Way Back When
2005 (recorded 1969)
Unearthed 36 years after an informal one-day recording session, this album fires on all cylinders. John Surman
went on to record several excellent albums for ECM, John Taylor
became one of the most famous British pianists, recording several times with Kenny Wheeler
, and John Marshall
played with Soft Machine
for decades. This stellar cast of inspired musicians had likely been listening to In A Silent Way
(Columbia Records, 1969) by Miles Davis prior to this recording, and the influence shows. It has a spacey feel with a rockish rhythm that grooves like mad. Surman's sax soars above the groove with solos that are highly melodic and free at the same time. Like all these thrilling jazz albums, I never tire of this one.
3 Bitches Brew
At the time of its release, Bitches Brew
became the most controversial jazz album of all time. Was it even jazz? Well, Miles didn't even like to call it jazz, and on Bitches Brew
, In a Silent Way
, and Filles de Kilimanjaro
(Columbia Records, UK: 1968, US: 1969), "Directions in Music" was printed on the cover. Bitches Brew
redefined jazz and was his biggest seller up to that point. A lot has been made of the studio tinkering by producer Teo Macero
on several of the cuts that spliced different parts together. But that was a mere distraction. The music itself is astounding in its coherence. The solos by Miles are monumental, like nothing recorded before or after. Just listen closely to his playing on "Spanish Key" and tell me it's not the most thrilling trumpet soloing of all time!
4 Electric Kofi
1970, 1995 (recorded 1969, 1970)
This album is a mashup of Byrd's two albums, Electric Byrd
and I did the mashing up, so you'll have to obtain these albums separately. They were recorded about the same time but released 25 years apart. The music was clearly influenced by In a Silent Way
and Bitches Brew
, but Byrd lays down a softer, dreamier groove than Miles. The music relies heavily on Duke Pearson
's funky electric keyboards and Lew Tabackin
's soaring flute. Frank Foster
's saxophone solos rival those of Wayne Shorter
. The melodies are trancelike yet still compelling. This is the perfect music to chill out to after a stressful day at work, but it certainly isn't smooth jazz by any means.
5 My Song
This is a whole different kind of thrilling. By all appearances, straight-ahead jazz, with a dancing, joyful loveliness that exudes from the grooves. The opening, "Questar," features a bouncing, dynamic melody, with extraordinary soloing by Jan Garbarek
, followed by the heart-tugging "My Song," one of the most beautiful songs in the jazz canon. Keith Jarrett
, as I'm sure you know, was perhaps the most accomplished pianist in the history of jazz. His Standards Trio music and solo recitals are legendary. But I don't think he really got any better than this. At only 32, this was his 28th album, already achieving what most hope to achieve in a lifetime. Plus, a few years stint with both Charles Lloyd and the Miles Davis band in the early '70s! I own all of Jarrett's albums, but this, for me (and one more for next week), are his true thrillers, music you can enjoy for a lifetime.
1983 (five additional songs released in 1995)
What happens when you assemble a group of the most talented Norwegian jazz musicians, inspired by the second great quintet of Miles Davis and featuring one of Shorter's signature tunes, "Masqualero"? A simply magnificent album of kinetic energy and interaction. Recorded in two days at the famed Talent Studios in Oslo, where hundreds of ECM recordings were made. ECM then picked them up as a group and recorded three additional albums, more in the laid-back ECM style. The group, Arild Andersen
, Nils Petter Molvaer
, Tore Brunborg
and Jon Christensen
, all recorded in various groups with ECM for years. But listen closely, and you may think you're hearing that fabled second Miles quintet featuring Wayne Shorter
, Herbie Hancock
, Ron Carter
and Tony Williams
. But unlike a tribute band doing covers, they channel the frenetic spirit of Miles at his most free and poignant. With 12 tunes over 74 minutes, this is a full meal of thrilling jazz.
Next week Six more thrilling
, must-own jazz albums recorded from 1986 to 1994.
To see all the albums in this series, scroll down the page and click on the blue MORE button.