What to listen for when you listen to jazz

This article originally appeared on Medium.

This series on listening to jazz opened with an introduction to some of the greatest jazz musicians and works of the last 60 years. Many people listen to jazz and feel torn — there’s something they like about it, but they’re also a bit confused. Some parts seem to repeat, some don’t repeat at all. In the same song, you might have parts that are very structured followed by parts that seem chaotic and random. It’s hard to enjoy the music if you feel confused by it.

So let’s clear up some of the confusion.

First, what is jazz? There’s no one answer to that, but the overwhelming majority of jazz played in modern times starts with an organized song. That is, a tune with a fixed number of measures, a repeating rhythm, a melody, and a harmony. At some point, one or more of the musicians will begin to improvise, to spontaneously play new notes and even chords. After awhile, the band will likely go back to playing the recognizable tune that the song started on.

Often, the tune is organized into sections, which is true of many popular music forms. In fact, most jazz fits one of these two models:

A blues. Like jazz, there’s no one definition of the blues, but there are some things that most blues share when it comes to the musical aspect. Most have only one section, made of three lines, each four measures of four beats long. The lyrics fit this pattern, too. Here, for example, are the lyrics to Robert Johnson’s famous Crossroads:

I went down to the crossroads, tried to beg a ride
I went down to the crossroads, tried to beg a ride
Nobody seemed to know me, everyone just passed me by

This is a classic blues because the first line makes a statement. The second line is very similar except that its sung higher, so it sounds like a response. The third line starts higher still, but takes us down and back to the first line. You could say the third line is a response to the first two. So this pattern of call and response in both the lyrics, melody and harmony permeates the blues.

Many jazz songs are blues. Charlie Parker is a great example of a jazz musician who elaborated on the blues. Famous Parker tunes like Au Privave, Blues for Alice, and Billie’s Bounce are blues tunes that Parker has “jazzed up.” Parker’s playing career overlapped, for example, with blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. What’s the difference between their versions of the blues? Largely, that Parker has taken the basic chords (the harmony) of the kind of blues Waters and Wolf played and added many more chords that provide a more fluid and dynamic background to the tune. Parker was one of the great geniuses of expanding the blues that ever played.

Standard tunes. The word standard in this context has two means. Mostly, it means the assemblage of popular tunes taken from shows and movies that were standard fare for singers and bands in the 1930s and ’40s. It has an additional sense of being written in a standard way.

That standard way is often referred to AABA. What that means is that the first verse of the song (the A section) repeats twice. This A section is generally going to be between 8 measures and 24, with 12 or 16 the most common. Then there will be a new section — called the bridge — which has a different melody, harmony and often mood. Then the A section will repeat, and we’ve finished one cycle of the song, one full chorus.

If you listened to The Bridge by Sonny Rollins on our list of great jazz by great artists, you heard God Bless the Child, written by Billie Holliday. You might have heard Blood, Sweat and Tears do this as well back in the 1960s. In any vocal version, you will find these lyrics:

Them that’s got shall have
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible says and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own

Yes the strong get smart
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own

Money, you’ve got lots of friends
They’re crowding around your door
But when you’re gone and spending ends
They don’t come no more

Rich relations give crusts of bread and such
You can help yourself, but don’t take too much
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own

The first two stanzas are A sections. The B section begins with Money. Musically, it’s different than the prior two stanzas — the A sections start with major chords, the B with minor chords, and are otherwise different.

The part of the song that begins Them that’s got shall have, them that’s not shall lose is the A section.

In modern popular music, the Beatles are a great example of a band that often had bridges in their songs. For example, in the song Michelle, when Paul sings “I need you, I need you, I need you,” that’s the bridge.

Like most things musical, there are many variants to the AABA form, but most of them are just variations between the A sections.

The most notable exception to the above is free jazz, in which to one degree or another there is no fixed melody, harmony, rhythm or number of measures. Players just react to each other. In practice, much free jazz has a structure, it’s just minimal. Perhaps the bass player lays down a groove, and everyone goes from there. Then at some point, one of the players plays something noticeably out of that groove, and the band follows. But free jazz actually makes up a small portion of jazz. Many people mistake structured jazz that has very long solo, improvisational sections for free jazz. Both Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady are examples of this. In truth, the soloist is playing over structured rhythms and chords played by the rest of the band. The sections may not repeat as much, and the whole composition is more like a classical one where themes appear and reappear. The difference is that the thematic development in jazz happens through both composed sections and improvised sections.

That brings us to the next thing to listen for — how does the band work?

Let’s start with smaller jazz bands that have six of fewer members. The band is typically divided into a front line and a back line. The back line is referred to as the rhythm section — minimally bass and drums, but possibly a chordal instrument like piano, guitar, vibes or organ. The rhythm section provides a steady beat and between the bass and any chordal instruments (instruments that can play more than one note at a time), lays down the basic harmony.

The front line — typically saxophones or trumpet — will usually play the melody over the rhythm section.

As the tune begins, the band will play the tune with the arrangement described above. In jazz the tune is often described as “the head.” These are the notes written on sheet music, if that exists. The band will often play the tune twice through.

After that, the rhythm section will continue playing something similar to what they played behind the head. In turn, one or more of the front line players, and potentially some of the rhythm players, will solo while the rhythm section plays.

In jazz, solos are improvised — the player makes them up as he or she goes along. That’s very different than in classical music, where the composer has written the solo as part of the composition.

So how can a player make something up while they are playing that still sounds like it belongs to the song? They use the harmony that the rhythm section is playing as a starting point. As each chord transitions to the next, some notes may stay the same and some may change. The soloist can use either the steady note or the changing one as a stepping stone to create a new melody. The soloist can also add notes to the chords, or play notes that suggest a different, but equally valid, chord.

Try it yourself. Put any kind of song on you like and try and hum or sing an alternate melody to it. Just do that “doobee doobee do” thing. You may be surprised to find that you can occasionally improvise something that you think sounds cool. If you practiced and observed what works and doesn’t work, you’d get better at it.

And that’s how jazz musicians get better. Some tunes are very easy to improvise on, some are quite difficult. Some are easy to play something that doesn’t sound terrible, but hard to play something that sounds like music and has a real feel to it. You probably know people who can speak very well but don’t seem to say much. The same is true in jazz! But it’s also true that over years many players hone their skills and can just find amazing new melodies, harmonies and rhythms hiding in familiar tunes.

I’d be remiss not to note that with some jazz tunes, the improvisation takes place over a different set of chords than the melody. This is usually because the chords to the melody don’t lend themselves that well to improvising. A good example of this is the tune Stolen Moments by Oliver Nelson, featured on the album The Blues and the Abstract Truth (great title!). It has a cool head but the solos are just over a blues in the same key as the head.

Improvisation is the single most important creative act that makes jazz what it is. As you listen to a tune, notice how each succeeding soloist is different. Some may add a lot of flavor to the tune by adding key notes into the harmony that make it sound edgier or more diffuse or sadder or happier. Others may change the rhythmic feel entirely — a ballad can become a march, a swinging dance tune can become a Latin dance tune. The soloist is free to try a lot of things, but also needs the rhythm section to not get in the way, at the minimum, or to bring out the soloists interpretation in the best case.

This is where jazz solos tend to differ from rock or blues solo. For example, Eric Clapton probably became broadly famous first for playing a long fiery solo on the same Crossroads we discussed earlier on the Cream album Wheels of Fire. It’s a really great blues/rock solo, but he does nothing to develop the melody, harmony or rhythm. Great jazz solos tend to be more exploratory, although it can be hard as listener to described how the tune is changing. You just feel that the soloist has gone somewhere new.

Let’s go back to Kind of Blue as an example. The first song, So What, starts with some interplay between bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Bill Evans for the first 34 seconds. They probably made that up on the spot. At 35 seconds, the two begin the theme that is the melody of the song. At 50 seconds, the horns join in as a kind of chorus, adding to the chordal notes that Evans is playing.

This goes on as they play through the tune once. At 1:28, Miles begins his solo. The bass is no longer playing the melody, but playing what’s called a walking bass — four notes per measure that outline the chords. Evans continues to play the chords in the background. They’re very simple chords, so he focuses more on rhythmic stabs that contrast with Chambers’ steady bass. Miles’ solo is very controlled — he plays a limited set of notes that, for me, give a soulful tinge to the driving bass line. If Miles’ solo was a painting, it might be a Cezanne — angular and spare, yet striving for a fuller dimensionality by stripping away the extraneous.

At 3:22, Coltrane starts his solo. It starts out not that different than Miles does, but within 15 seconds has developed a very different feel. Evans changes the way he plays chords behind it. Coltrane continues to develop his solo, pausing occasionally for contrast. He plays many more notes than Davis, but his solo also has a very different feel — tenser, more searching. Evans’ chords complement that. Whereas Miles is playing Japanese brush strokes that hint at a more complex framework, Coltrane is playing Jackson Pollack — he’s laying down string after string of notes that comprise dissident chords not being played by the rhythm section. At the same time, the rhythm section maintains their steady presence. The contrast between the two drives this section.

At 5:13, Adderley comes in with his solo. His is quite different than either of the two. It has more of a bluesy, swinging feeling. It’s also very masterfully constructed of a set of phrases that lead to each other. For me, this section has an almost R&B or gospel feel to it. It sounds almost written out, yet that’s highly unlikely. He doesn’t evoke a painter for me because he feels direct — like he’s just talking to me. Adderley (and Coltrane) had most likely never played this tune before, or if he had, as kind of a fragment.

At 7:02, it’s Evans’ turn. Because there’s no longer a chordal instrument, the three horns play some notes in unison behind him, forming chords. It’s just like singers in a chorus singing the do-me-so of a chord. Evans is the first chordal solo, and he makes the most of Miles’ tune to give an impressionistic rendering. For me, he’s Mark Rothko.

Evans only takes one chorus and hands it over to Paul Chambers at 8:15. Chambers plays the head again. In jazz, this is known as the head out, as in taking the song out to the end.

All four soloists play very different notes to the same rhythm and harmony. Each brought different temperaments and discovered something different when they soloed, and for the horn players who took multiple choruses, each chorus built on the last. That’s the whole point. For you as the listener, it’s like being able to look at a great painting from the front, back, and side, in bright light, in dim light, and so on.

Miles’ bands played this tune live for at least five more years. As time went by, his bands played it faster and faster, until it was actually too fast for the bass to play the entire melody line. The whole feel of the tune changed and evolved over time. For many great jazz musicians, playing the same tune the same way for years goes against the grain. They want to push the envelope, find new sounds. If you hear a jazz record and then go see the artists live, don’t be surprised if they play your favorite tunes completely differently.

Both on record and live, you may find some jazz bands caught in a sort of round robin formality to the solos. The band plays the same behind each, as if they were in a different room. Some soloists are just showing off — they have a technique that will work with this tune and they want to show how fast, smooth, edgey, loud or whatever they can be. As a listener, you want to hang loose and give your brain a chance to absorb the music, but you don’t have to like it. You may, over time, want to get a better sense of why and what you do or don’t like. That may take some knowledge, though, and you may not want to or be able to technically analyze what you hear. So it’s OK to think “I liked that, even if I don’t know why” or the reverse. But in time, you’ll likely realize that you do or don’t like certain approaches: jumpy rhythms, jangly chords, long fluid melodies, or whatever. No worries — taste is valid.

For now, if this is all new to you, just let it happen. Feel the groove, feel how the tensions in the chords and the melody, how they resolve and evolve. Feel the energy of the music and how it makes you feel. That is, after all, the point.

Seven great records by seven great jazz artists

This article was originally posted on Medium.

Jazz is a vast musical realm, stretching over many countries and a full century. It encompasses everything from New Orleans street bands of the 1920s to Robert Glaspar’s electronic mashups, from Harlem to Havana and every continent. So getting started with jazz can be overwhelming.

The following list has several thoughts behind it. For one, all of these albums were made using modern, stereo recording technology, which became mainstream in jazz around 1959. By and large, they were made before multitrack recording became the thing (late ’60s, early ‘70s), so the recordings are basically live, one take recordings in which each instrument has a distinct place left to right, front to back. To modern ears, the recording itself will not be the distraction that earlier ones might be.

That leaves out much of bebop, big band, and trad jazz that came before it, but we will address them later. We are also stopping short of electrified jazz (except for electric guitar) and the whole rock/jazz intersection, which will also be the subject of a future article. Ditto for jazz from Brazil, Cuba, Africa and Europe.

Instead, we’ll start in the middle, in the period between 1956 and 1966, for me a kind of Golden Age. Most of the musicians represented here cut their teeth on bebop, some actually playing with Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, and the other lions of bebop. They took that music, its spirit, and found ways to give it more colors, flavors and freedom by further exploring African and Latin scales and rhythms, European modal music, and by remixing the blues and even R&B music. These musicians were highly influential, most of them known also as composers, others as band leaders who nurtured multiple generations of great players.

I’ve also left out vocalists. This era featured some great ones: Billie Holiday for a bit, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Nina Simone, Carmen McRae and many others. But vocal jazz is its own thing, and we’ll try and get their eventually.

So for now, if you want to start to develop a taste for jazz, try these seven albums. Rollins and Hancock are still alive, so go see them if you can (I’m not sure if Rollins is still performing, but Hancock definitely is).

Miles Davis — Kind of Blue

People often say that if you have only one jazz album, this should be it. And yet, it is a somewhat singular album. The very first tune, So What, announces itself with a singular little byplay between bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Bill Evans. And then it launches into a bass riff that sounds like the very first funk tune ever and at the same time announces a new, more relaxed (compared to bebop) approach to jazz. Technically, it’s called modal jazz, but for the novice listener, that’s not that important.

Most of the tunes on this album were being played for the very first time by anyone when this was recorded. The horn playing by alto sax Cannonball Adderley and tenor John Coltrane is as good as it gets, each launching great solo after great solo on this new music. Miles stakes out his claim as well, his minimalist brush strokes simultaneously illustrating the key musical stepping stones for the band and the painting an emotional picture with great skill.

Pianist Bill Evans probably embraced Miles’ modal vision more than anyone else in the band at that point in time, and both his playing behind the solos (comping, as musicians call it) and his solos are masterful. Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb provide perfect time and feel. All in all, this sexted is probably the greatest jazz sextet ever recorded.

It’s become a bit fashionable to knock this album as overrated, but if you take this out twice a year, pour a glass of wine, and listen undistracted, you will always find new pleasures.

Further listening. If you find that Freddy the Freeloader is your favorite tune, you may want to look backward in Miles’ catalog to the Walkin’/Cookin/Relaxin’/Workin’ quintet that immediately preceded it. If you find yourself more entranced by Blue in Green, check out Miles’ last great acoustic quintet from the early to mid ’60s, where he works out with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. ESP, Miles Smiles and Nefertiti all work for me. If Flamenco Sketches touches your heartstrings, try Sketches of Spain.

John Coltrane — A Love Supreme

This 1964 record is the Hallelujah Chorus of jazz. Trane was arguably the greatest musician of his time (in any genre), harnessing his immense technique to a deep and abiding search for meaning and expression in life and through music. This record has only three songs, really three movements of a single work, that expresses his deeply held spiritual beliefs. It doesn’t have repeating choruses, like most songs, but themes and motifs that come up periodically. It’s more like a classical composition that way.

The piece is played by arguably the greatest jazz quartet ever, with McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums) joining Trane’s soprano sax.

It’s a work that’s rarely performed live (Trane himself only played it live once) and the recorded version is the canonical one, a treasure to be experienced with some concentration. Not much point in describing it — it speaks for itself. If you don’t get it right away, come back to it later.

Further listening. If you’re intrigued by the sound of Trane but are looking for more conventional compositions, not to worry, there are many directions to go in. If you want to hear these guys play tunes, check out Giant Steps, which has much of what made Coltrane a giant in his own time. My Favorite Things is pretty great, too. If you want a real treat, listen to any version of 1961’s Live at the Village Vanguard. The force, the optimism, the willingness to go beyond that was so much of the first part of 1960s culture bursts from every seam. If you’re looking for sheer beauty and romance, try Coltrane’s collaborations with singer Johnny Hartmann (John Coltrane & Jonny Hartman) or the man himself, Duke Ellington (John Coltrane & Duke Ellington. I personally love the Hartman version of Lush Life and the duet the Trane and Ellington do on In a Sentimental Mood. If you want to hear the farthest reaches of Coltrane’s music, try Ascension.

Charles Mingus — The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Mingus was a rarity — a bass player who was a band leader. And what a band leader he was! His imagination drew together every form of African-American music, from store-front church gospel to free jazz, and he drove his bands with feeling and groove. He began as classical cellist in the 1930s, not an easy road for a Black musician at the time. He switched to bass, spent some time in the Ellington band, and soon was at the forefront of NY’s jazz scene. Always pushing the envelope, he was part of the Beat scene where jazz mixed with drama and poetry, as well.

This album is from 1963. Like Trane, he was interested in the long form. The album should really be considered a symphony, a la some of Ellington’s long works. Like Ellington, Mingus generally had a lot of instruments in his work, and they are very artfully arranged. You will hear 1920s New Orleans, the Harlem Rennaissance, bebop and the early ’60s all coexisting in a compelling and moving work of great genius. If you’ve ever thought that Gershwin and Bernstein did some nice things with jazz, but wondered what would a more central jazz composer do in that vein, your search is ended. This is a record that will bear new revelations at every listening.

Further listening. Mingus has a vast catalog, and frankly, I haven’t heard all of it. I recommend 1959’s Mingus Ah Um if you want to hear a more straight ahead set built around typical tunes. If you’re particularly drawn to the greasier side of Mingus, Blues & Roots is a joy. Git it in Your Soul features Fables of Faubus, Mingus’ broadside against the Arkansas governor and rabid segregationist. For more adventure, any of his work with avant garde phenom Eric Dolphy in the 1960s is worth listening to.

Sonny Rollins — The Bridge

Rollins is The Other Great Tenor player of this era. He never had the cultural influence that Trane had, but he remains to this day a force of nature with a horn in his mouth. His early work with Max Roach and Clifford Brown is pretty great. But this album is most satisfying to me because of the duet work with Jim Hall and the freshness of some of it.

It’s a legendary record. Rollins was feeling somewhat at a loss in his playing and had basically taken time off performing and recording to “shed” — short for “woodshedding” as in “going back to the woodshed to practice.” His favored location for shedding was the walkway on the Williamsburg Bridge, near his Manhattan apartment. Hence the title of the album.

The title cut is a fresh take on classic post-bop ideas — continued rhythmic syncopation and a propulsive melody that evokes urban life.

The surprise element was Jim Hall, at that time a little known guitar player who was working out on guitar some of the same kinds of harmonic ideas that Bill Evans was using on piano. Hall is able to both back up Rollins and challenge him (gently) at the same time. Their work together on “God Bless the Child” is among the finest dual improvising you’ll hear.

Not that evident on this album, Rollins is one of the great blowers of all time. Probably the greatest single performance I’ve ever seen was him playing with a bass player and drummer at Boston’s Paradise, a rock club, in the early ’80s. Specifically, he played “Here You Come Again,” made famous by Dolly Parton, for what seemed like 20 minutes (it was probably 10). He took this somewhat corny tune and played it sideways, upside down, set it on fire, just did everything that could be done to this melody as if it were totally natural. And with fire!

I witnessed his love of melody more recently, about 10 years ago, at a more conventional concert in Boston. He mentioned that earlier in the day he had remembered a tune that his mother loved to listen to on the radio in the late 1940s. He hadn’t heard it since, but remembered it and had written out charts for the band that afternoon. He then proceeded to turn this 1940s calypsoish pop tune into a masterpiece.

Further listening. The early period featured a number of great sessions. I’m partial to Saxophone Colossus (where Sonny first indulged his love of Caribbean music with St. Thomas) and Plus Four (Valse Hot is a classic on that album). There are many mid-60s fiery, avant-gardish Rollins albums — check out East Broadway Rundown for that flavor. And then Sonny kind of settled into being Sonny. Like many great musicians, by that time he had a list of tunes that he liked to explore — A Nightingale Sings in Berkely Square, Without a Song, and a number of others — and he did. You can hear what might be considered his valedictory address in 2001’s Without a Song, the 9/11 Concert, recorded in the days after. I often wish that Sonny had challenged himself later in life by playing with the kind of top flight musicians he played with up until the mid ’60s, but by and large his post-1990 work is with a competent, comfortable but unexciting (except for Sonny) group.

An exception to that are the cuts on his series of Road Show releases. These are bootlegs that a devoted fan has made and Sonny has authorized for release. Many of the cuts feature him with topflight musicians in one-off collaborations, and for that alone, these albums delight.

Herbie Hancock — Maiden Voyage

If Kind of Blue signaled a new approach to jazz, 1965’s Maiden Voyage is one of its most famous and brightest children. Both the title tune and Dolphin Dance have become jazz standards, and the other tunes are great, too.

Hancock’s compositions are almost all modal, his rhythms include not only swing but New York Latin (think Watermelon Man, which he wrote earlier while with Mongo Santamaria) and I hear R&B poking through here and there, too. So this is post-bop with the emphasis on post.

I hope you’ll enjoy the moody, impressionistic quality of Hancock’s chords. George Coleman on tenor and the great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard add their own lyricism to the mix. Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums are an advancement of the kind of rhythm section that Scot LeFaro and Paul Motian first pioneered with Bill Evans. They’re not content to just play the beat and simply outline the chords — the wring much more tension out of both with their sophisticated playing. All in all, this is one of the most beautiful jazz albums I know, and never veers into precious.

If you replaced Coleman and Hubbard with Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis, you’d have the second great Davis quintet that reigned from 1964 to 1968.

Further listening. Where to start! All of Hancock’s work with Davis is worth listening to, must listening if you like that era. Later, Hancock became a pioneer of fusion with The Headhunters and other lineups and even had a Top 40 hit with Canteloupe Island. He also worked up a funk version of Watermelon Man. Even if you’ve never heard this music, you’ll find you probably have, as Hancock’s fusion work is among the most heavily sampled by hip-hop artists of the last 25 years.

In recent years, he’s focused a lot on bridging jazz and popular music, notably rock. He’s done a series of albums with guest performers, including vocalists, that are household names to younger audiences (John Legend, Joss Stone, Derek Trucks, etc.). My favorite of these is The Joni Letters, where he and Wayne Shorter team up with vocalists on Joni Mitchell tunes. Their instrumental duet version of Both Sides Now is pretty special, too.

Bill Evans — The Complete Village Vanguard Records, 1961

This recording showcases several things. First, there’s Evans, who as much as anyone explored where jazz could go on the piano after bebop. His innovations are difficult to explain without getting into a very technical discussion of harmony and the piano, but you’ll hear the feel of it right away. Chords flow one in to the other as if a constant river of harmony, rather than abrupt changes. I don’t think of Evans as a highly rhythmic player, but he was a great champion of the jazz waltz, which is its own little world.

By the way, this recording was originally released as two separate albums: Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. They’re both good in their own right.

Beyond Evans, this trio really was a template for trios to come with its emphasis on equal importance for all three members and constant interplay between them. Many jazz bands play through the melody and then begin solos; during the solos, the rest of the band plays in the background and doesn’t react much to the solo. In the Evans trio, there’s more of partnership between all three, constantly adjusting to each other. In a way, the trio played tunes but almost as free jazz. This requires a very high level of musical ability, but these guys have got it covered.

Scot LeFaro was a true pioneer on the standup bass, breaking free of some of the conventional ways that bass players functioned as basically the left hand of the piano. Later, players like Jaco Pastorious would build on this freedom on the electric, but LeFaro rewrote the rules. Motian also eschewed a strict timekeeping role, and players like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette took that further a well.

Further listening. Sadly, LeFaro died 10 days after Sunday at the Village Vanguard in a car accident. The band’s catalog on Riverside leading up to it is all worth listening to. Evans repeats certain tunes –Waltz for Debby, Israel, My Romance, My Foolish Heart tend to show up now and again. But I also like another Evans lineup, with Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morrell on drums. There are two Live at Montreux albums with them that I quite like.

Thelonius Monk — Brilliant Corners

Monk was the quirky, brilliant manic depressive often caricatured by ignorant critics. By now, most of the “he played that way because that’s all he could do” comments have been discredited, but during his life they plagued him.

To me, Monk is sort of the pure beating heart of jazz. He came of age in New York when boogie woogie piano players dazzled nightly. A player who copped another guy’s licks on a gig would likely find that guy was not only sitting in the club, but would thank him for the imitation with a beat down. All of that is to say that he developed in a time when originality was at a premium. He was an unsung (for many years) founder of bebop, but outlived and outlasted it. Even today, learning how to play Monk tunes is a right of passage and a bit scary.

For me, his contribution to jazz was to combine constant syncopation with constant harmonic tension. After many years, I’ve come to hear him as a Duke Ellington whose melodies and harmonies were built around the very tension notes that bebop had highlighted. Unlike the Parker/Gillespie flavor of bebop, he was less concerned with playing up tempo than with a highly syncopated, herky jerky rhythm and that highlighted those tensions. Whereas Parker would circle the tensions, Monk would creep right up to them, half step by half step. He wrote many famous tunes — Ruby My Dear, Epistrophy, ‘Round Midnight, Crepuscule with Nellie and many more — that embody that.

That fundamental approach to harmony and melody is not that different than Davis, in my opinion. If Monk is Ellington with more tensions and syncopation, Miles is Monk with just the tensions. Both evoke Ellington, both were minimalists in their own way.

It’s hard to pick Monk’s best album, but many people do pick this one. The title tune and Bemsha Swing are among my favorite Monk tunes.

Further listening. One of the great lost but discovered albums in jazz is Thelonius Monk With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, a 1957 radio concert not released until 2000. It’s the only real record of Trane’s brief tenure with Monk and a wonderful collaboration. Monk’s Time is also fine, as are a good deal of his 1960s Columbia catalog. He’s a little like Evans — it’s tough to pick a standout album, as most have moments of brilliance among moments of just goodness.

In a future article we’ll delve into more great albums by other great and very good artists — Cannonball Adderly, Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter and who knows who else. But these seven albums will give you a foundation in the working vocabulary of the post-bop jazz that dominated the jazz scene, and a point of departure for what came later.

Sit back, turn up the volume a tad, and enjoy! After these seven albums, you will have heard the greatest tenors (Coltrane and Rollins), trumpet player (Davis and Freddie Hubbard), drummer (Elvin Jones with Coltrane, runner up to Tony Williams), piano players (Monk, Evans, Hancock and McCoy Tyner with Coltrane), and bass players (Mingus and LeFaro) of their era and frankly, of most eras. You will have heard some of the most classic modern jazz tunes. And you will have heard how the music invented by the grandchildren of slaves reacted to the civil rights and Black Liberation movements of the late ’50s and ‘60s.