Exploring Jazz

Last year I had a sudden craving for new jazz. I started reading my ninth edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings (by Richard Cook and Brian Morton) from the back (for no reason) and looking for the albums that sounded interesting on Apple Music.
  What follows, aren’t reviews, just notes on what I discover. I’ll keep updating as I move along. Hopefully I inspire you to try some of the music and please fans of the artists mentioned. I want to start a discussion of jazz here, so e-mail me your comments and suggestions for further listening.


The Archive

Andrew Hill (piano)

Point of Departure album coverJudgment! (1964), Point of Departure (1964)
In what I’ve read so far of the Penguin Guide (z to h), a few names pop up regularly as major influences or the inspiration for later musicians. Andrew Hill is one of them. He is a highly praised player and composer and a fair number of contemporary pianists seem to take their cue from them.
  As it turns out, the Penguin Guide authors have reservations about even some of his best work. Judgment!, for instance, is singled out because of what Bobby Hutcherson – one of my favourite players on one of my favourite jazz instruments, the vibraphone – adds to the mix. He is called “the other neglected giant of modern jazz” (along with Hill). For my amateur ears it sounds as if Hutcherson makes an heroic effort to bind the elements of his leader’s playing into a seamless whole. Hill is constantly running through arpeggios or repeating chords as if he expects this will help him break through to the other side of tradition. There’s a lot of going, but not a lot of getting somewhere.
  PG calls Point of Departure one of the “very great albums of the ‘60s”, gives it their highest rating of four stars as well as the crown, their stamp for a personal favourite, and marks it as a key title for any collection. Then they mention Hill’s “determination to build on the example of Monk”, to which my first reaction is “not another one…” The album dips into free jazz, especially when Eric Dolphy lets rip on sax, then retreats again. What caught my fancy was the bumble bee flights of trumpeter Kenny Dorham and the tireless, crisp drumming of Tony Williams.
  The point of this blog is to write about artist and albums I discovered and liked right away, maybe inspiring you to explore them. So why include Hill? He seems too important to skip and perhaps you should hear him, if only to understand his impact on modern jazz piano. Who knows, you might find your way into these albums.

Bobby Jaspar (sax, flute)

Clarinescapade album coverJazz in Paris: Modern Jazz au Club Saint Germain (1955), Clarinescapade (1956), Jeux de Quartes (1958)
He died terribly young and only a handful of albums are still available. His sax sound was like a Belgian version of Lester Young (PG) says). So why bother? Because his lines still sound fresh and breezy, also on clarinet, and he doesn’t just play pretty on flute as so many others do on this instrument. On most discs he’s joined by big American names. It’s cool bebop in the best sense – Jaspar is a go-to guy when you want something to lift your spirits. Clarinescapade, made during an American stint, gets the highest mark in GP. For a focus on flute, try Jeux de Quartes. On Apple Music you have to search for these by album title.

Hans Koch (sax, clarinets)

Heavy Cairo Traffic album coverHeavy Cairo Traffic (1995)
It was way past my bedtime when I first listened to Heavy Cairo Traffic. The opener is an unholy racket of whooping voices, Arab music and general noise. Some might say this isn’t jazz, I thought, a few might even say it’s not really music – more like background sounds for a film. You could imagine this playing during a car chase through Cairo streets in a spy film. Even so, I kept listening until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.
  Hard to explain what the Swiss reed player is doing. Are the tunes composed? What is being played and what did Koch sample? There’s almost no information about the man online, so the mystery remains. The equally elusive El Nil Troop are up front most of the time, singing and playing presumably traditional tunes. Thanks to them, world music fans might get into this before jazz purists do.
  PG files Koch under improvisation and gives most of his discs four stars. Fidel, not on Apple Music, might be like Cairo, but the rest test your endurance with mostly squeaks, quacks and wails on a bunch of reeds.
  The amazing thing is that Heavy Cairo doesn’t get boring even though the tempo and tone doesn’t change a lot. Not ideal late-night music, but I’ve gone back to it a few times in the safety of daylight.

Steve Lacy (sax)

Five Facings album coverScratching the Seventies/Dreams (1969-77), Five Facings (1996)
It seems wrong to shoot past a figure as huge as Steve Lacy. From what I’ve tried so far, it seems a lot of contemporary sax players took cues from him. PG’s description of his style will shed some light: “typically consisted of tiny episodes, repeated many times with minimal variation and punctuated with onomatopoeic effects, bird-calls and toneless shouts”.
  You can’t help feeling foolish when admitting that this kind of music is just too loose and (seemingly?) unstructured to hold your attention, that a player making sounds on his mouthpiece or re-examining a phrase until your ears get repetitive stress fatigue, isn't all that appealing.
  I tried two of Lacy’s top-rated albums. Facings, duets with different pianists, has a certain charm until the squeaks and tail-chasing arpeggios set in. Scratching the Seventies/Dreams is a compilation of sorts and includes the album The Owl, which PG considers masterly. Well... Try its opener (track 21). If this grabs you and the startlingly blunt singer isn’t off-putting, keep going.

Shelley Manne (drums)

The Gambit album coverSwinging Sounds (1956), The Gambit (1957), At the Black Hawk Vol 1-5 (1959), Live at the Manne Hole Vol 1 & 2 (1961)
Shelley Manne was a key player in what was named West Coast Jazz and his light, subtle touch soon becomes recognizable. I’ve had some of his music on CD, but none of the albums top-rated by PG. There’s a trick to finding them on Apple Music: not under his name, but under Shelley Manne and His Men. Mann Hole (the name of his club) is misspelt as Mane-Hole and on the two live batches some tracks are not available in my part of the world. Even so, both have a wonderful live atmosphere and great sound.
  Though these albums are typical of their era and style, they have more than enough sharp playing and interesting arrangements to set them apart from dozens of standard studio dates. This is stuff you can give your full attention or have on in the background. If you like show tunes, also try the popular (and rated) My Fair Lady and West Side Story discs.

Lee Morgan (trumpet)

Lee MorganVolume 3 (1957), Minor Strain (1960), The Sidewinder (1963), Search for the New Land (1964), The Gigolo (1965), Cornbread (1965), The Procrastinator (1967)
Some call him the defining figure of hard bop, a man who made his mark in a tragically brief life, leaving behind a host of deeply satisfying music and solos in a forceful, unique style. He had the mixed blessing of a great hit with the title track of The Sidewinder, but there is a lot more to explore than this crow-pleasing top-seller.
  Volume 3 doesn’t feature in Penguin Guide, but is a solid early record on which a teenaged Morgan is kept on his toes by a hard-swinging Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers.
  Still swinging along easily, Morgan shared the limelight on Minor Strain, also not in PG, with trumpeter Thad Jones. At his stage they have a lot in common, so the music flows smoothly from one outfit to the other.
  The big one is The Sidewinder with the song that came to define Morgan for years. It’s a toe-tapping track, but the rest of the album is up to the same standard.
  Pressed by his record bosses to write another hit, Morgan made a string of albums that stuck to a formula, but are still pleasant listening. Then came Search for a New Land, the title and the solemn intro hinting at Morgan’s attempts to move on and explore new ideas. With Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter on board, it offers quite a few surprises.
  Some say it’s a pity Morgan didn’t stay on this path, but there are a lot of fun to be had with what followed, even if none of the remaining albums break new ground.
  If you listen to jazz for relaxation, Lee Morgan should have a place in your collection.

Fats Navarro (trumpet)

Fats NavarroComplete Blue Note and Capitol Sessions (1947 to 1949)
For a tourist like me, Key West seemed a magical place. But growing up in a small town isn’t the same as passing through and by the time Fats Navarro finished high school, he just wanted to get out. After touring with a dance band, he settled in New York in 1946 and became a leading light of bebop, playing with the likes of Charlie Parker. Five years later he was dead, leaving behind a small, but legendary batch of tracks.
  Even on the dodgiest recording or when he was crowded by a big band, Navarro’s radiant sound shines through. It is so clear, fluent and confident that you can’t help being in awe of his talent. Dizzy Gillespie said of him: “He was the best all-around trumpeter of them all. He had everything a trumpeter should have: tone, ideas, execution, and reading ability."
  Penguin Guide considers Compete Blue Note… one of the “essential modern jazz records”. It’s two CDs of Navarro playing with the group of piano man Tadd Dameron, who was the perfect foil for him. On this album the alternative takes aren’t just for geeks and scholars: Navarro had lots of ideas and the second version is always as fully formed as the preferred one.
  Unfortunately Apple Music doesn’t have any of the other rated compilations. You could pick your way through the bewildering spread of best-ofs, but the Blue Note and Capitol sessions contain all the truly great, free-flowing solos. These really are essential listening.

Herbie Nichols (piano)

Herbie Nichols Trio Complete Studio Master Takes album coverHerbie Nichols Trio Complete Studio Master Takes (1952 to 1957)
If you’re ever trying to hold your own in the company of jazz snobs, you could do worse than dropping the name of Herbie Nichols. He’s one of those musicians who got little recognition during his life (he couldn’t even make a living from his music) and became an instant legend after dying much too young.
  So he wasn’t in the same league as Thelonius Monk, but they had more in common than being contemporaries. Nichols also liked punching out dischords and working with intricate rhythms. To that he added classical harmonies.
  He struggled to break through as a composer until Mary Lou Williams recorded three of his tunes. Later Billy Holiday wrote lyrics for and sang what became his most famous piece, "Lady Sings the Blues".
  Nichols spent a lot of time making a few bucks by playing on R&B records and in Dixieland bands or accompanying live shows. Eventually he was signed by the Blue Note label and recorded the tracks brought together on this wonderful two-disc set.
  Critics and a new generation of avant garde players loved it, but the music didn’t sell. Hard to understand that now, because it’s not demanding at all. It’s like listening to a quiet, witty conversation full of sharp quips and unusual ideas. Well worth exploring – and a pity there isn’t much more.

Charlie Parker (saxophone)

Charlie ParkerThe Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes (1944-48), Charlie Parker (1947-53), Charlie Parker With Strings – The Master Takes (1947-53), South of the Border (1948-52), Bird’s Best Bop (1949-53), The Cole Porter Songbook (1950-54), The Quintet – Jazz at Massey Hall (1953)
A famous quote from Charlie Parker pretty much sums up bebop, the style he invented along with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell and (historians argue about that a lot) a few others: “Well, that night I was working over ‘Cherokee’ and, as I did, I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.”
  Bebop, influential to this day, broke away from the dance styles that came before, creating a more complex music for listening, with faster tempos and with improvisation taking over from strict arrangements. That, in any case, is how I understand it.
  Which brings us to how I feel about Charlie Parker. This may sound like sacrilege, but I admire rather than enjoy his playing. It might have to do with the tone, which doesn’t vary much, or the tense, nervous feel even on slower numbers. He never lets up and there is no chance to catch your breath.
  Even so, you have to hear Charlie Parker if you want to try all the geniuses of the music and want to explore the roots of modern jazz.
  The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes isn’t the complete version that gets Penguin Guide’s ultimate stamp of approval, but that one isn’t on Apple Music. This one doesn’t have the alternate takes, false starts and fluffs of the full set, but at 65 tracks it’s already almost overwhelming. PG thinks the 39 tracks of the Dial section belong in a core collection. Apple Music doesn’t have them separately, though.
  Charlie Parker is a pick from the quartet sessions which have an iconic standing in jazz. It does include alternate takes and false starts, but that is something you have to live with in Parker’s discography. No doubt they are interesting to big fans and scholars, but they can become tiresome during a casual listen.
  For an easy introduction to some of Bird’s finest, Penguin Guide recommends Bird’s Best Bop, which has the best Verve tracks and was clearly compiled with great care by knowledgeable people who picked the top takes of these famous tracks. It’s an easy, accessible disc.
  Purists can be very disdainful about jazz-with-strings albums. They can become a bit slick and won’t be for everyone, but there are lovely, romantic tracks on Charlie Parker With Strings (only the Master Takes version on AM) which is made up of several sessions. There are also strings on The Cole Porter Songbook, a compilation that will please both fans of Parker and the great songwriter.
  Bird buffs also disapprove of their man’s dabbling in Latin styles, captured on South of the Border. He plays with a Cuban orchestra and top drummers like Max Roach and Buddy Rich and certainly doesn’t sound like he wasn’t happy to do it. The sound is unbalanced at times, though, with the orchestra disappearing a bit when Parker comes in.
  Next up were a number of live albums, including Bird and Fats – Live at Birdland with trumpeter Fats Navarro apparently on fire during one of his last recordings. Unfortunately this hasn’t turned up on Apple Music.
  But the greatest of the bunch, a legendary album, is there. The Quintet – Jazz at Massey Hall is only six tracks with not the best sound (it was taped by bass player Charles Mingus), but it’s on every critic’s list of greatest jazz concerts. one reason might be that the five musicians are perfectly tuned to one another and all in top form: Parker with daring solos, Dizzy Gillespie fierce on trumpet, Bud Powell busy and productive on piano, Max Roach driving all along with effortless drumming.
  How much Charlie Parker you want to hear, is a matter of taste – so is how often you go back to him. But for just a taste, you have to hear the Massey Hall show – at least once.

Duke Pearson (piano)

Charlie ParkerProfile (1959), Tender Feelin’s (1959), Sweet Honey Bee (1966), Prairie Dog (1966), The Right Touch (1967), Introducing Duke Pearson’s Big Band / Now Hear This (1967, ’68)
Going back back and forth in the Penguin Guide is a good thing – I sometimes find someone I overlooked. Like Duke Pearson, another of the many jazz musicians who died tragically young and might have been a major figure if he had more time.
  Pearson’s slinky version of “Black Coffee” on Profile might well be enough to get you interested. On this early album and Tender Feelin’s the ballads are played with a gentle, but unsentimental touch, while the upbeat tunes always have little surprises in the timing and chords. There are also hints of the funky grooves that would pop up later.
  The next three small-group albums feature big names and have a swing and a swagger that’s pure ‘60s. Pearson makes a sextet sound big on Sweet Honey Bee. Odd that some tracks fade out like pop singles, but the energy level is lifted by Freddy Hubbard’s trumpet and Joe Henderson’s tenor sax.
  PG considers Prairie Dog a “neglected masterpiece” and it has some deliciously funky parts after a magical start with “The Fakir”, which puts a graceful spin on the chords of “My Favourite Things”. My favourite in this bunch is The Right Touch, a fast-paced set by a star-studded octet. Not the easiest album to get into, but the more you listen, the more clever touches you pick up.
  Pearson was excellent at arranging for larger groups and the two combined albums on Apple Music will please big band fans. The music is bright and clear, with striking originals and fresh takes on even the most overfamiliar standards.
  No matter how many piano players you have in your collection, consider adding Duke Pearson. His small group work, especially, is comforting, joyful and quietly challenging.

Michel Petrucciani (piano)

The Complete Concert in Germany album coverLive at the Village Vanguard (1984), Power of Three (1986), Concerts Inédits (1993-’94), The Complete Dreyfus Recordings (1994-’97), Piano Solo – The Complete Concert in Germany (1997)
French-born Michel Petrucciani was a tiny man handicapped by the rare, painful glass-bone disease. It meant he easily got fractures – sometimes in his fingers while playing. He died tragically young, but in 16 years of recording he managed to produce a stack of memorable albums. Sample any of the live concerts to hear how he could enthral a crowd with his passionate, joyful playing.
  He’s probably best heard live or solo, but there are fine studio group recordings as well. Just about the only albums to avoid are flirtations with fusion on Live (1991) and Trio in Tokyo (1997), where synth backing and overblown beats just cramp his style.
  The earliest albums were for a small label and have been compiled on titles like Days of Wine and Roses (1981-’85) and 100 Hearts (solo, 1983), but they’re not on Apple Music.
  The ideal place to start is with the Village Vanguard show from two years after he moved to America. The audience doesn’t clap for solos – it’s as if they’re pinned back to their seats by a wave of ideas and crashing rhythms and can only applaud rapturously at the end of each number.
  Wayen Shorter’s trademark warblings on sax can be distracting on Power of Three. But with Jim Hall’s gentle guitar in the trio, it becomes a delicate and gentle live album. Interesting to hear the pianist playing with a lighter touch than usual.
  Concerts Inédits is supposed to be three discs with solo, duo and trio. Apple Music, though, has the solo and the trio separately or together. The duo is mssiing, which is odd. The bone-hard piano sound on the solos might put you off even though the playing is great, while the trio is gentler yet full of energy.
  Penguin Guide’s pick of Petrucciani is The Complete Concert in Germany, a double set of incredibly inventive and compelling playing in Frankfurt. Solo Live is an edited version of the concert, but it’s more satisfying to hear the full playlist as he put it together.
  Apple also has the slightly intimidating The Complete Dreyfus Jazz Recordings, a set of ten albums for the label he joined in 1994. This includes the Frankfurt show, another at the Champs-Élysées and interesting novelties like a duet album with his guitarist dad, Tony. Not all of these are great and you might want to keep only your favourites. There is also The Complete Blue Note Recordings, but the frustration here is that you don’t always know which album you’re listening to.
  I’m exploring everything Apple Music has. Fact is, this remarkable musician didn’t make many ordinary albums – who knows which ones might just strike the right chord with you. Petrucciani was a remarkable man – fighting and enduring the challenges he had to face, making the most of his talent, producing jazz as inspirational as his life was.

Bud Powell (piano)

Bud PowellThe Amazing Bud Powell: Volume 1 (1949 & ’51),
The Amazing Bud Powell: Volume 2 (1951 & ’53),
The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall (1953),
The Amazing Bud Powell: Volume 3: Bud! (1958),
The Amazing Bud Powell: Volume 5: The Scene Changes (1958), Powell Plays Parker (1957 & ’58)

Back in the ‘80s with my first jazz feeding frenzy I only knew the biggest names and had no idea which of their albums to buy. Bud Powell I got to know through a French double vinyl set – no idea where it fits into the discography.
  It started with “I Remember April” and Bud’s version of this song remains one of my favourite jazz tracks. It has everything that gets me so excited about his playing. He keeps your brain busy with inventive chords and ideas. The music is always passionate and never sentimental. The right hand runs are melodious – never generic arpeggios or embellishments. The left hand nailing down powerful and often startling chords is another attraction. All of these make even such a familiar tune sound fresh.
  Bud was a troubled soul battling with mental problems. What that did to his music is hotly debated. Here is an interesting summary from the official Bud Powell site: "In and out of mental hospitals, Bud's performing and recording career was erratic but remained at white heat until sometime in 1953, when the ravages of alcoholism, an earlier beating administered by police and electric shock treatments began to take a toll on his brilliant piano technique.
  "Many critics feel that Bud's playing from 1954 until the end of his recording career in 1964 was unworthy of the high standard he had set in the earlier years. But others find great depth and beauty in both Bud's playing and in his compositions from the post-1953 period, even if the fiery technique was diminished." I'm with the group rating the later work as well.
  The best sampler of the early work is Tempus Fugue-It (1944 to '50), according to the Penguin Guide. Unfortunately Apple Music doesn't have it, but a good alternative is the Complete Jazz Series discs. Try 1949-1950 with it's intense trio tracks and see how much deeper you want to dig.
  The sound of the piano on many of Bud’s top albums has always puzzled me – it’s a little closed in, muffled at times and with distortion even on the remasters of the legendary sound engineer Rudy van Gelderen. He could be playing in a small club with draped walls and it's tempting to have an image of a tortured genius in a dark corner, slightly removed from his fellow musicians – not unresponsive to them, just preoccupied with what he wants to achieve.
 

"He was the foundation out of which stemmed the whole edifice of modern jazz piano. Every jazz pianist since Bud either came through him or is deliberately attempting to get away from playing like him." – Herbie Hancock
I’m not a fan of alternate takes, the inevitable “bonus” on many remastered or re-released albums. To me the artist knows best and picked a specific version for a reason. I want to hear what they considered their best effort. In Bud’s case, though, I can live with the large number of alternates on the Amazing Bud Powell series (and even the tuneless humming) because every version offers something different.
  There are many highlights, but spend some time with his own composition, “Glass Enclosure”, on Volume 2. It’s one of the most unusual (some say bizarre) jazz tracks you’ll ever hear. He was a significant composer, but Bud plays Parker is a good one for studying how he reworked standards, since even casual fans will know most of the tunes.
  Piano is my favourite jazz instrument. Two thirds through the Penguin Guide, after discovering many players who were new to me, I’ve come to realise that Bud Powell is not only my favourite pianist (so far), but could be my favourite jazz musician overall. If his music is the last I ever hear, I won’t complain.

Zoe Rahman (piano)

Kindred Spirits album coverThe Cynic (2001), Melting Pot (2006), Zoe Rahman Trio: Live (2009), Kindred Spirits (2012)
Hair down to her waist, a flowing dress, bare feet and an attractive face: That’s as romantic an image of a jazz musician as you’ll ever see, but Zoe Rahman’s music isn’t soft light and incense. She creates strong rhythms with a forceful left hand and a right hand probing and searching with long, melodic lines up and down the keys.
  The British-born player is classically trained and also took lessons with JoAnne Brackeen. Another influence is the traditional music she got to know belatedly through her Bengali father. All of these ingredients are distilled into a style that is like a joyful exploration of ideas and emotions.
  The Cynic is a strong debut with much of her trademarks in place. Things really pick up with Melting Pot, which has an air of excitement about it despite the clarinet of her brother, Idris, whose sound is a little too sweet at times (for my liking, anyway). Especially on Where Rivers Meet (2008), he drags the energy down a bit. On the live album, where he’s listed as a “special guest”, he can’t stop the music. It kicks of with a storming track that sets the tone for a set that got rave reviews all round.
  Kindred Spirits links back to Melting Pot, with Idris fitting in better and despite a lengthy drum solo that breaks the momentum. Courtney Pine also features and Zoe returned the favour in 2015, accompanying him on his album Song (the Ballad Book). Here he trades his more usual tenor sax for bass clarinet on a set of ten stately tunes. It’s not an instrument everyone will like and Courtney’s flurries of free playing don’t really work for me either.
  Hopefully Zoe continues on the path laid out with Kindred Spirits and doesn’t go all mellow or world fusion on us – the thrill with her jazz is the intellectual and emotional energy. Sounding a bit pretentious here, but you’ll understand when you have a listen.

Jimmy Raney (guitar)

Wisteria album coverA (1954/55), Wisteria (1985)
Funny how Apple Music files the first album under easy listening. It’s easy on the ear, but it’s strong, swinging jazz. An overlooked classic (says PG), the album A introduces a player with a sweet, clear sound that never becomes the noodling muzak you find on so many guitar albums. Decades later on the second album, his playing is gentler, but stylish as ever. It's a drums-free trio, but Tommy Flanagan on piano and George Mraz on bass make sure that it keeps swinging. If you're lukewarm about jazz guitar, you might be swayed by Raney.

Shorty Rogers (trumpet, flugelhorn)

The Swinging Mr Rogers album coverClassic Rogers, Vol. 1: The Big Shorty Rogers Express (1946-53), Classic Rogers, Vol. 2: Shorty Rogers and His Giants (1953), Shorty Rogers Courts the Count (1954), The Swinging Mr Rogers (1955), Complete Quintet Sessions 1954-1956, Wherever the Five Winds Blow (1956)
All the negative things purists and connoisseurs have said about the West Coast jazz of the ‘50s have also been said about Shorty Rogers. The usual gripes were (and still are) that this music is slick studio work with no heart.
  Taking it from the top with the trumpeter’s early bands, you might find this hard to understand. He doesn’t rank among the great trumpeters, but is probably up there with the best band arrangers, creating charts that were precise and tight, but loose and swinging at the same time. The sound is quite timeless as well; you never feel that you’re on a nostalgia trip listening to quaint old tunes. Rogers also didn’t have any trouble getting top players to join in: On the two Classic Rogers albums and Shorty Rogers Courts the Count (with its fresh takes on Count Basie standards) the personnel list is like a who’s who.
  Another side of him that I like even more is his small group work. The quintets on Wherever The Five Winds Blow and The Swinging Mr Rogers are so polished that it takes your breath away.
  My favourite is Complete Quintet Sessions, three discs’ worth of great entertainment. You can just kick back and enjoy the good vibes or pay attention to the subtle interplay going on. And those are two fine options for enjoying any kind of jazz.

Sonny Rollins (saxophone)

Saxophone Colossus album coverSonny Rollins Plus 4 (1956), Tenor Madness (1956), Saxophone Colossus (1957), Sonny Rollins Volume 2 (1957), Newk’s Time (1957), A Night at the Village Vanguard (1957), The Freedom Suite (1958), The Bridge (1962), On Impulse! (1965)
In 1959, Sonny Rollins wasn’t happy with his playing any more, so he dropped out of performing for two years. Classic story: at night he would go to a bridge in Manhattan and practise there. The real reason was he didn’t want to bother a pregnant neighbour, but the image of the lone sax man playing in the dark is a powerful one.
  It’s ironic that he too a time-out after an incredible run of top-rated albums – look at the dates on the list above. Listening to them back to back, you might feel each is more of the same. But “the same” here is some of the finest sax playing ever. The cool, almost aloof style is set already and he doesn’t sound like anyone else.
  My one reservation with Rollins in general is that he was seldom in conversation with his sidemen: he talked and they listened. Sometimes they sit back so far that you could almost be listening to unaccompanied sax solos. On all of these early albums, though, you’ll find tracks that are instantly compelling.
  Sonny Rollins plus 4 has the graceful opener "Valse Hot" and Rollins generously gives trumpeter Clifford Brown and his preferred drummer, Max Roach, time in the spotlight. The title track on Tenor Madness features John Coltrane, which is a recommendation in itself, and two chirpy winners, "Paul’s Pal" and "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World".
  Then comes the almighty Saxophone Colossus, a personal favourite of PG and part of their recommended core collection. It starts with a Rollins classic, "St Thomas". The track "Blue Seven" is the one that has experts swooning.
  Sonny Rollins Vol. 2 has a slightly different texture thanks to the trombone of JJ Johnson and on Newk’s Time, which takes off at pace, you’ll be amazed by what Rollins does to "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" – either in a good or bad way. As always, I enjoy Wynton Kelly’s piano.
  A Night at the Village Vanguard is Rollins with his own innovation, the piano-less trio (sax, drum bass) and in top form. He just loses me a bit with a hard version of the gentle "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" (on of my favourite jazz tunes). Apple Music also has an extended version with the front man’s announcements added, but to me that breaks the music’s momentum.
  The title track of The Freedom Suite is almost 20 minutes of themes that don’t really gel as a single work, but it has lovely moments. For once, I’m not frustrated by alternate takes: Rollins plays "Till There Was You" (three times) with a tenderness you don’t often hear in his ballads. "Shadow Waltz" is another fine track.
  And then came the famous first break. The Bridge was the comeback album and all that’s different is a gloominess lightened only by the guitar of Jim Hall. The records came thick and fast again now, but the next big one is On Impulse!, with great versions of standards like "On Green Dolphin Street".
  A few albums and a year later, Rollins dropped out again to study yoga and meditation and was gone from the studio for six years. He came back sounding more cheerful and reigning in his darker side, as PG puts it. The top-rated among the latest albums are not on Apple Music – except This Is What I Do (2000), but only two of the tracks on it are available in my territory.
  Finding your favourites by the man Miles Davis once called the greatest tenor sax player ever is hard work. It’s a huge catalogue and record companies went a bit crazy with the re-releases, even renaming some albums. In the end the question is how you feel about the Rollins sound. It is quite hard and forceful, more intent on ideas than displaying emotion. Sometimes I find myself impressed, rather than moved. But there’s no denying the greatness of the saxophone colossus.

George Russell (composer, bandleader, piano)

Jazz in The Space Age album coverJazz Workshop (1956), Jazz in The Space Age (1960), Stratusphunk (1960), Ezz-thetics (1961), The Essence of George Russell (1967)
In 1953, George Russell self-published a pamphlet he called Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, which was pretty much the first study of jazz theory. The whole point (it seems after a lot of reading up) was to show how jazz is constructed and how it stands apart from Western classical concepts.
  Russell continued to revise and expand the tome and now it’s considered a key reference on musical theory. Some say it inspired the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane and was a handbook for players in the modal jazz movement.
  modal jazz, as described rather well in a New York Times article, “sought to give musicians more freedom… by, in essence, replacing chords with scales as the primary basis for improvisation… [Russell] believed that a new generation of jazz improvisers deserved new harmonic techniques, and that traditional Western tonality was running its course.” Hard to say how many modern jazz musicians have a well-thumbed copy of the book in their satchels. And Penguin Guide notes: “however important Russell’s theories are, they are even now not securely understood.” They do consider him one of the greatest arrangers and composers in jazz.
  After all that, I was a bit apprehensive about trying the music. Luckily I started with the earliest rated album, The Jazz Workshop. The first track has the intimidating title “Ye Hypocrite, Ye Beelzebub”, but isn’t an aural onslaught of Biblical proportions. Art Farmer on trumpet and Bill Evans on piano start it off amiably, setting a welcoming mood. Nothing the medium-sized group does on the album is to academic or even unfamiliar.
  The next four albums followed in quick succession. PG thinks Ezz-thetics is the best introduction to Russell’s sound with Eric Dolphy shining on alto sax and bass clarinet. Stratosphunk gets as funky as the name suggests and the piano work of Evans and Paul Bley anchor a warm big group sound on Jazz in the Space Age, which starts with one of many intriguing arrangements – this time a percussion intro. The best of this era is At the Five Spot, according to PG, but it’s been unavailable for ages.
 What comes later is not so easy to digest. Russell started writing abstract concept pieces with uninviting titles like Electronic Suite for Souls Loved by Nature (it’s for tapes and ensemble). Apple Music has an hour-long orchestral version on The Essence of George Russell, as well as the 1980 reworking on its own. It’s funk, grooves, free jazz, sound events and more woven into a sprawling web of ideas that can become quite overwhelming.
  Or not, of you’d rather believe the likes of Ron Wynn at AllMusic: “The composition ranks alongside Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz as one of jazz's finest, most adventurous pieces,” he writes. PG isn’t convinced: “Russell’s discography… seems to suggest a brilliant early phase that has almost completely disintegrated into unsuitable and unproductive music.”
  Bottom line: take it from the top. It’s truly fine jazz. What you make of the later albums might be a matter of taste and stamina.

Horace Silver (piano)

Live at the Village Vanguard album cover6 Pieces of Silver (1958) and Whims of Chambers as Senor Blues Vol. 4, Blowin’ the Blues Away (1959) and Horace-scope (1960) as Senor Blues Vol. 10, The Tokyo Blues (1962), Song for My Father (1964), The Jody Grind (1966)
Hard bop was born in the mid-‘50s and became one of the most popular and enduring jazz styles. Horace Silver was a key player and he created a style both his own and the blueprint for hard bop piano. The trademarks are a punchy left hand and bringing back elements of traditional blues and gospel. Silver also wrote some of the catchiest, funkiest tunes in jazz, which would much later make him a favourite of the acid jazz crowd.
  What you might call the golden decade of Silver, from the mid-’50s on, starts with 6 Pieces of Silver, one of the rated Blue Note release you’ll find in the Senor Blues series on Apple Music. It’s paired with a not-so-great Whims of Chambers, which Penguin Guide rather files under bassist Paul Chambers.
  The Blue Note catalogue is huge, so leave it to the Penguin Guide writers to pick the best. Their favourite from his 25 (or more?) albums for the label is Blowin’ the Blues Away, which starts with a lively title track and includes some originals that would become classics. The Senor Blues set pairs it with Horace-scope, a perfectly fine, but rather workmanlike album.
  Tokyo Blues was inspired by a visit to Japan. You won’t hear any real Asian influences, but the band plays hard and the disc has heaps of energy. Another keeper is The Jody Grind, which takes off at high speed and generates the same level of excitement.
  The title track on Song for my Father is one of Silver’s best known and the rest is a little more introspective than usual, with the ballad "Lonely Woman" a highlight.
  It sounds harsh to say this about a great musician, but the later albums can become a bit interchangeable. I’ll keep an eye out, though, for more Blue Note rereleases from that big decade. “Silver’s consistency is inarguable,” as PG writes. With steady, placid sidemen and a fairly set formula the thrills on a Horace Silver disc are mild with few real surprises. But the music is tuneful, upbeat and right for just about any mood or setting.

Zoot Sims (saxophones)

The Modern Art of Jazz album coverThe Modern Art of Jazz (1956), Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims (1957),
Plays Alto, Tenor and Baritone (1956)

If you are looking for adventure, Zoot might not be your man. He has a gentle sound and won’t startle you often, but his music is warm and instantly likeable. I enjoy him most in small groups like The Modern Art... where you can appreciate the interplay with the other musicians (though this one doesn't have the best sound). Overall, PG seems to find the group work unremarkable, but rates the Jutta Hipp album highly. You might not want to read up on the German-born pianist, since her story is so desperately sad that you can’t get it out of your head while listening to her sensitive playing. Maybe the MP3 format or computer speakers are too blame, but the piano seems too far in the background and you sometimes wish you could hear her more clearly. Plays Alto gets really interesting when Sims overdubs all three saxes, creating a full, authentic effect.
  Apple Music has a big Zoot suite, but only these three of the top-rated albums. Don't let that stop you from exploring.

Dr Lonnie Smith (organ)

Evolution album coverJungle Soul (2005), Evolution (2016)
The jazz organ is probably an acquired taste. It often moves into funk or soul and you might not want to go there. It can also be a bit formulaic, thanks to a few influential players who put the instrument on the map.
  Dr Lonnie Smith, always wearing a turban and not the Lonnie Liston Smith who does fusion, weighs in with the familiar smeared chords and pumping riffs. He usually works with the time-honoured trio of organ, guitar and drums.
  For your amusement, browse through Boogaloo to Beck (2003), with covers of songs by Beck. It works when it works, but it often doesn’t. Then it’s on to meatier stuff with Jungle Soul where the doctor goes back to standards like “Willow Weep for Me”.
  What made me page back to him in the Penguin Guide, was the new album released in mid-January 2016. Instead of the trio, Smith works with larger groups including interesting guests like sax and clarinet veteran Joe Lovano. Produced by Don Was, the album was so different from what came before that it held my attention. The tracks are slow-burners with lots of variety and none of the clichés that can make jazz organ albums pass in a blur.
  Jazz organ will never have a high play count in my iTunes folder, but Evolution, especially, is a nice energy booster when you need it.

Martial Solal (piano)

Live at the Village Vanguard album coverAt Newport 63 (1963), Nothing But Piano (1975), Bluesine (1983), Improvise Pour France Musique (1994), Just Friends (1997), Balade Du 10 Mars (1998), Contrastes – The Jazzpar Prize (1999), NY1 – Live at the Village Vanguard (2001), Rue de Seine (2005)
Rather busy, is how Martial Solal once described his style. And that’s also the reason he likes playing standards – he says it gives the listener a point of reference.
  What he does with these classics from the jazz song book is another story. Here’s a good explanation from the impressive website jazz.com: “It's utterly impossible to predict how Martial Solal will play the most familiar standards. He's likely to start at the end, the middle, the second half of the beginning, put it upside down or play different sections with each hand. The man is totally unpredictable. He knows it, likes it, and so do we.”
  That’s tough on anyone playing with him and his trio or small group recordings often brought out the best in his musical partners. But it’s a good idea to start with a solo album so you can hear how he builds ideas out of snippets of original tunes or his own ideas, turning them into a listening experience you don’t really get from any pianist. Experts hear elements of Art Tatum and Bud Powell, which Solal kind of confirmed in a 1963 interview: “I used to love Bud Powell and I think I still have many things from him. Maybe more than from anyone else except Tatum.”
  Don’t let that fool you. This is unique jazz piano music. As solo works go, the Penguin Guide recommends Bluesine. Recently (15/01/2016) three of his ‘70s albums were re-released, including Nothing But Piano, which has highlights like a dreamy Stars Fell on Alabama and a joyful Satin Doll. Also impressive is Improvise..., a double album with selections from solo concerts for French radio.
  PG starts their entry with At Newport 63 where Solal made his US debut as the opening act. Oddly enough, some tracks were recreated in the studio with applause mixed in for effect. I’m not crazy about this one: at times it sounds like a sampler, or a showcase. Makes sense in front of an audience that didn’t know him, but it doesn’t satisfy like the other rated titles.
  He played with his Newport partners, Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, on Just Friends again – 25 years later. Solal goes (almost) straight, celebrating his 70th birthday with some serious swinging.
  Balade Du 10 Mars tips a hat to freestyle and has only classics – no originals by a man rated as one of the great jazz composers. NY1 – Live at the Village Vanguard and Rue de Seine are works of an artist who refuses to grow old or mellow, with playing as exciting and adventurous as ever.
  That busyness of Solal might not be for everyone. I liked him straight away, only struggling a bit with the big group sets like Contrastes, his trio playing with the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra, which shows his arranging skills but is a lot to take in. Though Penguin Guide calls him “something of a specialized taste”, he might win you over quickly as well. I’m not even halfway through the Guide, but this is some of the most intelligent and thrilling piano playing I’ve discovered so far.

Sun Ra (piano, clavioline, celeste, organ, synthesizer)

Jazz in Silhouette album coverSupersonic Jazz (1956), We Travel the Spaceways (1967-58), Jazz in Silhouette (1958), Fate in a Pleasant Mood (1960), Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow (1962-63), Other Planes of There (1964), The Solar Myth Approach Vol. 1 & 2 (1975), Mayan Temples (1990)
You may not know he was born Herman “Sonny” Blount, but you may well know he said he was from Saturn. Sun Ra, considered “one of the most significant bandleaders of the spot-war period” and a “pioneer of collective improvisation” by the Penguin Guide, made more than 100 albums with a large band he called the Arkestra (with variations).
  After reading in PG about freestyle mayhem, “irritating” chants and instruments such as a Neptunian libflecto (never recorded elsewhere, a bassoon with a different mouthpiece) and a flying saucer, I was ready for weirdness. Biggest surprise on the first Sun Ra I’ve ever heard, the early Supersonic Jazz, is that it’s pretty much swinging jazz. When it gets mildly experimental, it reminds you of a completely different genre: exotica and the music of, say Martin Denny. The tenor sax solos of John Gilmore are easily the highlights. The chant “interplanetary music” opens We Travel the Spaceways and the arrangement is, again, closer to something else than jazz: the space age pop of the era.
  Jazz in Silhouette, a personal favourite of the PG authors, covers a lot of bases and covers them brilliantly. It has effortless swing, curious chants, exotic touches and excellent solos. This might be the album where you begin to understand the pulling power of Sun Ra. It’s an instantly enjoyable album that should appeal to almost any jazz fan.
  The Arkestra really starts to get spaced out in the ‘60s, beginning with Fate in a Pleasant Mood. It’s the end of the band’s Chicago stay before the move to New York and a big change in personnel. The combo doesn’t get top marks in PG, but features lovely stuff like a husky flute solo by sax man Marshall Allen, another of the band’s stars, and interesting playing by the leader. The oddities are nothing strange – percussion solos and so on.
  Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow (PG says “for tomorrow”) has some nice, angular swing and a few free-style tracks that might test your patience. Described as a “concerto for Arkestra”, Other Planes of There (great title) is like a throwback to the early stuff. The Solar Myth Approach is recommended as a showcase of Ra’s ground-breaking work on electronic keyboards.
  Finding the best of Sun Ra is hard, in main because he released a lot of albums on his own label and they travelled murky paths to CD status. Apple Music has a few of the best and more, though little from the 70s. It’s easier to search for the ones listed above by title. Sorely missed are an intriguing compilation, The Singles, of songs put out for radio over almost three decades, the top-rated Magic City and possibly the best-known work, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra: Volumes 1 & 2. I’ll check back regularly to see if they surface.
  Exploring Sun Ra is great fun. Whether you end up downloading a stack of his records or making your own hits selection, he has something for fans of swing, exotica, space-age pop and free jazz – for specialists and casual listeners alike.

Aki Takase (piano)

New Blues album coverSt. Louis Blues (2001), Aki Takase Plays Fats Waller (2003), The Dessert (2003), Evergreen (2009), New Blues (2014)
There are some important differences between Takasi and many other free-style players. Her music is cheerful, witty, clever and has an internal logic: you never feel she’s just improvising for the sake of being different.
  St Louis Blues is a playful, fond tribute to old New Orleans music that includes the most demented version of the title track you’re likely to hear. At times the album sounds like a Tom Waits instrumental (if you can imagine that), then it jumps back to old-school jazz and straight to free frolics again. It stays interesting and entertaining, though. No self-indulgent flights of fancy.
  The Fats Waller tribute, cheeky and almost burlesque, works like a charm as well. It’s joyful and has tender moments as well, which captures the Waller sound and era perfectly. The “comical” singing is a it much, however.
  The recent album New Blues came after PG was published, but I’m sure the authors will like it. Here, though, as happens once in a while, the humour gets a bit daft – with some vaudeville vocals that turn out quite silly.
  The Dessert is fun all round with 13 tracks about food. Takase plays with a long-time partner, Rudi Mahall, who does odd and quirky things on deep-voiced clarinets. The pair revisit tradition again on Evergreen, playing some surprisingly straight versions of standards.
  Takase is married to German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, whose trio are respected veterans of European free jazz (try Pakistani Pomade, a favourite of the PG writers, if you’re hard enough). Apple Music has some of the albums where the couple play together, but his hammering style pushes her music beyond my limit of endurance.

Art Tatum (piano)

The Tatum Group Masterpieces album coverThe Standard Transcriptions (1935-45), 20th Century Piano Genius (1950, 1955), The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces (1953-55), The Tatum Group Masterpieces Vol. 1 (1954), Vol. 7 (1956), Vol. 8 (1956)
The big deal with Art Tatum is that he came onto the scene in the ‘30s with a full bag of tricks – all he needed in his brief career. He could play in any traditional piano style and rattle off right-hand runs that can make your head spin.
  In terms of style there isn’t a huge gap between the early Standard Transcriptions and the Pablo Solo Masterpieces. What happened during the years between is that Tatum became even more inventive with his on standards. His doing what comes naturally – to such an extent that he sometimes sounds casual. The album 20th Century Piano Genius was recorded in two sessions at a fan’s house. Ironically the sound is better than on many of the studio albums and the ambient noise (tinkling cups, coughs and grunts of approval) give them a quaint atmosphere.
  The Tatum Group Masterpieces cover eight discs and the Penguin Guide recommends 1, 5, 7 and especially 8, where sax legend Ben Webster stands firm with those waves of arpeggios splashing over him. I like Vol. 7 the best, thanks to what Buddy DiFranco adds with his sweet clarinet.

Cecil Taylor (piano)

Looking Ahead! album coverJazz Advance (1956), Looking Ahead! (1958), The World of Cecil Taylor (1960), Conquistador! (1966), For Olim (1986)
He studied classical composition and had to be talked into trying jazz. Though he liked it, he was chomping at the bit from the start. On “Bemsha Swing”, the opener of Taylor’s first album as a leader, he already turns traditional jazz time on its head.
  There is still some swing and familiar elements on Looking Ahead!, but after that Taylor becomes, as Penguin Guide generously describes him, “the most daring of artists, with his music leaving tonality and jazz rhythm and structure behind”.
  It took him a while to build up a following with his piles of blocked chords and long meanders outside the perimeter of whatever melody he was playing. By the time of For Olim, he was generally considered a pioneering genius of modern jazz – and almost unlistenable if you can’t get your head around free playing. Mind you, that’s not it. There are free players, some on piano, I enjoy. Taylor just seems to academic, constantly in some sort of polemic with the nature of jazz and perhaps even music itself.
  Even so, you have to try him for future reference, since his influence was huge and many would take the same paths later.

Tolvan Big Band

Code Red album coverPlays the Music of Helge Albin (1997), Code Red (2007)
The problem with many modern big bands is arrangers who go full blast all the time. After the initial thrill of the huge, busy sound, ear fatigue sets in. You might argue many Western classical composers also pulled out all stops in symphonies, but they also took it down a notch with slower or quieter movements – much like rock bands do with the ballads between the hard tracks.
  An example of relentless big band sound is the work of British arranger Colin Towns, highly rated by Penguin Guide and also known for scoring TV series like Doc Martin and movies. Listen to what he does with the Beatles song “I Am a Walrus” on the album Another Think Coming. It’s astonishing. But he doesn’t let up and a few tracks later you might have had enough.
  The music of Sweden’s Tolvan Big Band is just as involved and dramatic, but the Scandinavians vary the intensity. That makes it easier to take in albums like Plays the Music of Helge Albin (their sax-playing leader) and Code Red in one sitting.
  An added bonus with them is that they play just their own compositions. It’s a nice change after the standards most big bands eventually turn to. Apple Music has more than these two albums.

McCoy Tyner (piano)

The Real McCoy album coverInception/Reaching Fourth (1962/63), The Real McCoy (1967), Time for Tyner (1968), Enlightenment (1973), Supertrios (1977), Manhattan Moods (1993)
Perhaps it’s a hint that I like a bit of full-blooded drama in my music, but I liked Tyner from my first encounter. As it turns out, I haven’t even heard his finest albums yet. Inception was his debut as a leader (before that he spent six famous years in John Coltrane’s line-up) and Reaching Fourth, since deleted, is pared with it on Apple Music. Bonus. Tyner’s playing is not as big and meaty as it would become, but he leaves you in awe with fast, always melodious runs and unexpected chords.
  The Real McCoy and Time for Tyner make the “Core Collection” list in PG, by which they mean no jazz fan should be without it. No arguments here. The first has Joe Henderson flying on sax, the second features the imaginative Bobby Hutcherson on vibraphone.
  Here’s a health warning you don’t see often in the Penguin Guide: Enlightenment is named as one of two “huge, sprawling concert recordings which will drain most listeners”. It starts of with the three-part “Enlightenment Suite” and you’ll know within minutes if you’re up for it. Don’t play this to sensitive listeners.
  On the Supertrios double, PG says, Tyner is at the top of his powers. The two pairs he works with both know exactly how to deal with him. The chords are huge and dense, the right hand works furiously and reaches an almost euphoric peak at times. Listening to these discs back to back is a bit much, but they offer a thrilling display of virtuosity.
  The pianist has to keep it lighter on Manhattan Moods, a duo with Hutcherson, so the delicate vibraphone isn’t drowned out. He doesn’t compromise, though, and his hands are as busy as ever.
  I ‘ve realised now that when Tyner leads (as opposed to playing behind John Coltrane), he’s not my absolute favourite piano man. What might be missing, is some shade among the bursts of bright light. Pick your moment, though, and he’ll blow you away with his unbounded energy and powerful improvising.

Massimo Urbani (sax)

Out of Nowhere album coverEasy to Love (1987), Out of Nowhere (1990), The Blessing (1993)
It might seem strange that I would spend time on a man who drops in reed-splitting high notes and sounds like he’s running through his scales with an almost unbearable nervous energy. What’s more, PG feels he’s not represented all that well by the handful of albums left after a tragically brief life.
  Best place to start is Easy to Love. It’s a set of standards, so you can concentrate on coming to grips with Urbani’s approach. Out of Nowhere has squeaks and distortions that don’t seem to be just for effect (as they often are elsewhere), but add to the sense of tortured intensity. There is an interesting contrast of styles between Massimo and his brother Maurizio, also playing tenor sax, on The Blessing, which has some surprisingly light-hearted moments. Chastening last statements, PG calls these two albums, and there’s no better description.

Mal Waldron (piano)

Impressions album coverMal - 4 (1958), Impressions (1959), Crowd Scene (1989)
In the piece on Mal Waldron I got a new insight into free jazz. Mal said he wanted to play “rhythmically instead of soloing on chord changes”. He also called free jazz “complete anarchy or disorganised sound”, so you're left considering the difference between his earlier and later work and deciding where the change took him.
  There was a watershed in Mal’s career – a nervous breakdown in 1963. Before that you get rhythmic, emphatic playing that will appeal to Monk fans right away. What comes after, sounds like free jazz.
  The title track of Crowd Scene is 26 minutes and 50 seconds long. For two minutes Mal repeats a four-note bass line while the drummer sounds like he’s warming up with a brush here, a tap there. Then the two sax players take off, apparently trying to blow their instruments apart.
  This is a watershed for jazz fans, too. If you like it, explore further on Apple Music with The Git Go, The Seagulls of Kristiansund and Where Are You?, all highly recommended by Penguin Guide’s resident free fanatic. The search is tricky, though. You have to find one by title and look at “Top Albums By” in the right-hand column to get the others.
  I enjoy the early albums. Mal - 4 is rated higher than Mal 1-3, even though number two features John Coltrane and Jackie McLean. But the best has to be Impressions, a fascinating, moody classic.

Cedar Walton (piano)

Manhattan Afternoon album coverFirst, Second, Third Set (1977), The Trio: Volumes 1-3 (1985), Manhattan Afternoon (1992), Off Minor (1993), Roots (1997)
He’s equally regarded for his hard-bop playing – melodious, with funky beats – as for his compositions, which are often highlights of his best albums. Apple Music has a big collection and most of the picks in the Penguin Guide are there.
  Though he’s filed under hard, Cedar’s playing is often soft and subtle. For that reason I enjoy him most in a duo with a bass player (Off Minor with David Williams and Heart & Soul with Ron Carter) where he stands out more clearly.
  PG considers the series First Set, Second Set and (surprise) Third Set vintage Walton. I don’t like them much because of tenor sax man Bob Berg. A sneak peak at his entry in the book revealed that his strengths were considered to be “power and conviction”. For my taste his solos are a little overbearing. You might well not have any reservations about him, though.
  Another good place to start is The Trios: Volume 1-3, recorded live in Barcelona and a little muffled, but adventurous and with Williams and drummer Billy Higgins getting their leader completely. They’re together again on the equally fine Manhattan Afternoon, while Roots is an entertaining set with a large group.
  Piano fans will enjoy working through the titles on Apple Music and finding their favourites. Judging by PG’s reviews, Walton has been consistently excellent throughout his long career with no dead spots in his discography.

Eric Watson (piano)

Silent Hearts album coverSilent Hearts (1998)
Describing a man’s playing as turgid seems a bit rude and it’s hard to understand why PG does that to Eric Watson. Most of his compositions move under a melancholy cloud, but when he bursts into the light on Silent Hearts, drummer Ed Thigpen lets rip like a kid who’s finally been allowed to play outside. Mark Dresser applies some light torture with a bow to his bass, which adds interest. It’s all very satisfying – “a terrific piano trio record”, as PG concedes.
  Apple Music has several of his records, but I haven’t found another I like as much. Some are too introverted and on others an added screechy, free-styling sax becomes a distraction.

Kenny Wheeler (trumpet, flugelhorn)

Silent Hearts album coverGnu High (1975), Six for Six (2013)
The first great thing about the Canadian, who settled in England early on, is his sound. It’s smooth and flowing, without becoming so mellow that everything turns into late-night music. The second is his composing. He writes elegant, often lengthy tunes that never lose momentum. Oddly enough, AM lists a bunch of lounge albums under his name (he’s not on them). Pity that the essential album Music for Large and Small Ensembles isn’t there. Some of PG’s other recommendations also aren’t available.
  PG reckons Keith Jarrett doesn't sound happy on Gnu High, but he doesn't put a damper on a graceful, lovely set. Six for Six isn’t in Penguin Guide, but I’m sure it would’ve scored well. It’s intelligent music that rewards close attention. And as you can see by the dates, Wheeler has been consistently good. There are more albums, but these are my keepers.

Joe Wilder (trumpet)

The Pretty Sound album coverWilder ‘n’ Wilder (1956), The Pretty Sound (1958/59), Alone With Just My Dreams (1991)
It might seem a bit feeble to describe a player’s sound as “beautiful”, but there is no better word when it comes to Joe Wilder. He was classically trained and wanted to be in a symphonic orchestra, but turned to jazz because “the opportunities for black musicians in the concert field were nil,” as he said in an interview.
 He was happy to be sideman in a number of bands and recorded only a handful of albums under his own name – in the ‘50s and again in the ‘90s. The older albums are quiet and stately, the later ones have a melancholy air. His graceful version of "Cherokee", which opens Wild ‘n’ Wilder, tells you all you need to know.

Barney Wilen (sax)

Jazz Sur Seine album coverJazz Sur Seine (1958), Movie Themes From France (1990)
The unusual thing on the Frenchman’s top album is that Milt Jackson gets out from behind his vibraphone to play piano. The main attraction, though, is the sweet sound Barney gets out of (mostly) tenor, alto and baritone saxes.
  Curiously, he switched to free playing and jazz rock later and then reverted to the mainstream again. The movie themes album is a quiet treat thanks to the familiar tunes, but also because of the thoughtful backing he gets from the Mal Waldron trio. There's lots of breathing space and time for licks to sink in. Probably not a classic and possibly too placid for some, but it goes down particularly well after a long day.

Mary Lou Williams (piano)

Free Spirits album coverComplete Jazz Series 1953-54, London (1953), Mary Lou’s Mass (1969-72), Free Spirits (1975), Live at the Cookery (1976)
PG quotes Duke Ellington who called her “perpetually contemporary”. No matter which way jazz changed, she was never going to be left behind as a player or a composer. You have to hear her play her favourite "Surrey With a Fringe on Top", which she also does on this sophisticated set from her later years. The religious works like Mary Lou’s Mass and Black Christ of the Andes are a bit of their time (dated by the vocals), but contain forceful playing and classy arrangements. They don’t ram the message home, either.
  Finding the best of her earlier work is tricky because of all the re-releases and compilations. Complete Jazz Series is recommended by PG – it comes from what she told the authors was a “very dark” time in her life, but the music is strong and lively. AM also has London, which offers slightly better sound. I enjoy her the most when she swings hard and really punches the keys. For more of that, I’ll keep browsing.

Phil Woods (alto, soprano saxophone, clarinet)

Altology album coverAltology: Complete Quintet & Sextet Sessions 1956-1957
People who aren’t wild about Woods say he gets all his ideas from bebop and Charlie Parker, or complain that he picks speed over substance. Hardly seems fair when you listen to this compilation of three albums he made with Gene Quill, also on alto sax. They combine very well and make smooth, swinging jazz best heard while stretching out on your favourite couch.
  Apple Music has quite a selection, but not so much the top-rated albums and nothing quite as attractive as the sound of the two darting altos on this set.

Bojan Z (piano)

Quartet album coverQuartet (1993), Solobsession (2000)
His full surname is Zulfikarpasic with at two punctuations on top. He was born in Belgrade and you might hear, as some do, Balkan folk dance in his music. The solo album was “boiled down from hours of playing,” says Penguin Guide (whatever that means). Overdosing on Keith Jarrett solo almost killed this sort of thing for me, but Bojan offers spirited jazz with strong rhythms and not a moment’s self-indulgence, even when he plucks at the strings and taps the piano’s woodwork.
  Kicking off with a quirky waltz, the older quartet album shows Bojan can play nicely with other kids, creating generous space for solos by the other three. It is a genuinely exciting album, full of surprises. On later outings, Bojan often plays synths and adds rock elements like a thunderous lead guitar. This is normally not my thing, but he's the kind of artist you follow everywhere to see where his inventiveness takes him.

Joe Zawinul (piano, keyboards)

Zawinul album coverZawinul (1970)
This is an interesting one for Weather Report fans since it was made the year Joe and Wayne Shorter formed the band. It’s also as close as I can get to enjoying their pioneering fusion – I’ve tried and tried again, but even Mysterious Traveller, rated by Penguin Guide as their greatest achievement, loses me after a few tracks. I like rock as much as jazz – I just can’t drink them from the same mug.
  Behind the spooky cover pic is an album of moody themes and spacious arrangements, with a Miles Davis-style trumpet and lonesome saxes floating over bubbling keyboards and scampering percussion. Though I probably won’t return to his often, I can appreciate why Zawinul is counted among the finest jazz composers of recent times.


Outside the book

Here are albums I found along the way on Apple Music that were either damned with faint praise or not mentioned in the Penguin Guide because they were not available or came later.
 

Laurindo Almeida & Bud Shank Quartet

Brazilliance album coverBrazilliance Volume 1 & 2 (1955)
Much-loved as he is, the guitarist doesn't even get an entry in PG and Bud Shank's adventures in Latin jazz do not crack an approving nod. It seems understandable that Almeida isn't considered a proper jazz man, but he provides a nice bed of sound for Shank, who never gets boring. Though this might not be great jazz, in moderate doses it's sunny music for relaxation. A search for either artist will get you there on AM.

Various Artists

Swedish Jazz History album coverSwedish Jazz History Vol. 10: Watch out! 1965-69
This is the final release in an incredible state-funded project covering Swedish jazz from 1899 to the end of the ’60s. I found it while looking for music by pianists Bengt Hallberg and Jan Johansson.
  No mention of it in PG, but here’s a quote from the site of Musikverket, the Swedish Performing Arts Agency: “Volume 10 covers a musically dizzying period, even though the mass media of the time mostly spoke of crisis years. According to trumpeter and then jazz radio head Bosse Broberg… the 1960s, and especially the latter part, was the real golden age of Swedish jazz! The diversity of colour and the great variety were enormous – from modern avant-garde free forms to old-time traditional styles. Swing and big band music had their special revival movements at the end of the decade.”
  I was hooked after the two openers. Hallberg’s big band kicks off with an exciting piece that changes tone and tempo several times in six dizzying minutes. PG often says that Scandinavian jazz is infused with the region’s folk traditions and Johansson’s quintet is next with a brilliant example of this. It starts with an unaccompanied folk singer, swings into jazz and ends again with this lone voice. Unforgettable.
  Most of the tracks are Scandinavian originals or standards, so over 55 tracks on four discs you’re discovering music that’s all new to most. The free jazz is as hit-or-miss as you’ll get in other parts of the world. The rest, especially the big bands, are very 60s – cool, sharp and exciting.
  Apple Music has the entire series. Try Volume 9 for more of the same. Maybe you’ll also feel like exploring the entire series.