Tadd Dameron (composer, bandleader, piano)
Fontainebleau (1956), The Complete Blue Note and Capitol Recordings of Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron (1956), Mating Call (1956), The Magic Touch (1962)
He gets different labels from various critics, but all seem to agree that Tadd Dameron was the most influential and finest arranger in bebop, the new jazz that came when swing ran out of steam. So that means the '40s and '50s. He'll always be remember for tunes still played these days and his completely written-out scores for the likes of Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie were a flawless blend of old school and modern. He never pushed himself as a piano player and somethimes sound almost self-conscious when he does get the spotlight, but he did show his hand more in small groups such as one co-led with Miles Davis and a later one including Clifford Brown.
The opening title track on Fontainbleau is such a classy, timeless piece that you couldn't just move on without trying more. That's a bit of a challenge. You have to shop around in Apple Music or anywhere else to find his best work. The bulky Complete Blue Note is under the trumpeter's name and has an exasperatingly large number of alternate takes (virtually every track is back to back with a second version), but you could prune it down to a fine compilation. Dameron's last album before he landed in a jail hospital on drug charges was Mating Call. It certainly sounds like he's leading, but it's usually filed under John Coltrane even though he isn't doing anything outstanding.
Once out of prison, Dameron wrote some good stuff for others and made a joyful big band album, The Magic Touch (though Penguin Guide comments that it sounds perfunctory). Soon after that he suffered several heart attacks before losing his battle with cancer. But he left us a lot to remember him by.
Carlo Actis Dato (reeds)
Blue Cairo (1995), The Moonwalker (2001), Paella & Norimaki (2000), On Tour Live 2004 (2005), Krakatau: 2 Worlds (2014)
Post bop. Not for everyone – and this Italian maverick with his wild blowing on anything that has a reed will amaze or annoy you with his personal blend of modern jazz with folk music. A solo album like The Moonwalker is definitely not the jazz version of a chill-out lounge compilation. But though I have little patience with the kind of free player who thinks the world needs a recording of them blowing into a mouth piece, I can go a few rounds with Dato on a good day. What makes him palatable is that he throws in decent melodies, that his humour isn't daft and that no track overstays its welcome. Your dad will sniff it's not jazz and it could ruin a date night, but alt-indie friends will be impressed by your progressive taste.
Next to the solo stuff, the quartet music is positively easy listening. Blue Cairo, for instance, is like a crazy run through marketplaces from Kathmandu to Egypt, with funky tunes and sudden floods of emotion that will leave you breathless. The duest with guitarist Enzo Rocco on Paella & Norimaki goes from Africa to Middle East and who knows where else in minutes. It's wacky without ever becoming gimmicky.
There's a lot to try – some hidden under the name of his first quartet, Art Studio, under Actis Dato Quartet or Actis Band. Which albums to pick, depends on what setting you prefer. On Tour Live 2004 was a bit more than I could handle, for instance. Find out if Dato can play nicely with other kids on Krakatau: 2 Worlds, a collaboration with various artists by a Finnish jazz-rock quartet.
Post bop, or avant-garde jazz as Apply Music decided, or whatever. "He refuses to be boring," writes Penguin Guide. He plays quite well, too.
Paul Desmond (saxophone)
Two of a Mind (1962), Glad to be Unhappy (1963/64), Take Ten (1963), Easy Living (1965), Take Ten (1963), Bossa Antigua (1964)
There's always been a rather tedious debate about how much credit Paul Desmond should get for the sound and success of Dave Brubeck's quartet. The facts are: he wrote the group's best-known hit, "Take Five", and had a verbal agreement with Brubeck that he'd never have a piano on any album under his own name. Sounds like he was a pretty important part of the unit. You don't have to claim he made Brubeck famous, but can you imagine "Take Five" without his silky alto sax?
Either way, I'm not a Brubeck fan and enjoy Desmond doing his own thing – much the same thing, but his own all the same. As the Penguin Guide writes about his purple patch in the early '60s, his "tone and quiet, lyrical delivery almost never vary from date to date". But: "These extraordinary sides point up how imenssely thoughtful Desmond was, and how brimming with harmonic intelligence".
They're refering to the albums that start with Glad to be Unhappy. It opens gently with the title track which, oddly, has a phrase in it that makes you want to sing "didn't we almost have it all". Have to read up about it. Jim Hall is on guitar, strumming softly as always, and Desmond plays a gentle, tender lead. the entire album has this rainy-day atmosphere which becomes a bit too melancholy for my liking, so my playlist rather starts with Two of a Mind where another gentle giant, Gerry Mulligan, brings some cheer to proceedings. They even pick up the pace and crack a smile with something called "Blight of the Fumblebee". Funny thing about Take Ten: the title track has the same rhythm as "Take Five". Demond sampling himself... The album has some Latin touches and there's more of that on Bossa Antigua – not highly rated, but it works for me.
All in all, calm and thoughful music that take the stress levels down a notch.
Buddy DeFranco (clarinet)
Complete Jazz Series: Buddy DeFranco 1949-1952, Buddy DeFranco Quartet (1954), I Hear Benny Goodman & Artie Shaw (1957), Wholly Cats (1958), Pacific Standard (Swingin') Time! (1960), Blues Bag (1964), Rain Dance (1964)
In the 1930s, the golden age of swing, the clarinet was doing alright with stars such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and Buddy DeFranco keeping it in the limelight. Then bebop came, driven by saxophones which blew the clarinet straight out of the mix. DeFranco, though, was too good to disappear and also able to adapt. His competition was Tony Scott and Jimmy Giuffre. Some say they made him sound cold and clinicial, but his solos were an incredibly smooth flow of endless ideas.
The early albums are fairly straightforward but Buddy's own quartet, with either Kenny Drew or Sonny Clark on piano and sometimes Art Blakey on drums, packed more punch that you'd expect. Then came something completely different, a foursome featuring Tommy Gumina on accordion. It's well worth hearing if you like the accordion in jazz.
Sounds like a solid career so far, but during the '60s and most of the '70s Buddy had to lead a heritage orchestra, as they call it, playing only Glenn Miller music. In the next decade, in his '60s, he came back and did a lot of work with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, one of the die-hards of jazz (still around in 2018!). On a few albums, such as Blues Bag, Buddy makes it sound easy to swing the bass clarinet, apparently very tough to play.
I'll keep looking for the comeback albums You Must Believe in Swing and Do Nothing 'Till You Hear Froms Us! which Penguin Guide rate as the best of his later years. They're missing in action for now.
How much you want to hear of Buddy depends on how you feel about the clarinet. Be sure, though, that any of the albums are full of smart, skillful jazz that doesn't sound like a relic from a bygone era.
Don Ellis (composer, bandleader, trumpet)
Out of Nowhere (1961), Polish Radio Jazz Archives, Vol. 2 (1961), 'Live' at Monterey (1966), Live in 3 and 2/3/4 Time (1966), Electric Bath (1967), Live in India (1978)
He started out with three albums that toyed with the ideas of the dreaded Third Stream, a short-lived movement that tried to blend Western classical principles with jazz. It had been tried before, but in the late '50s things got serious and critics still argue about the results. Some say it was neither good jazz nor classical while more tolerant experts called in an interesting experiment. Either way, free jazz soon killed it off. It's worth trying the early albums – there's an intense "My Funny Valentine"on Out of Nowhere which is as beautiful as any version of the song you'll ever hear.
The true magic started happening, though, when Ellis formed his own big band. The first one that gets the Penguin Guide stamp of approval is 'Live' at Monterey , a legendary recording on which Ellis explains some of his complicated ideas with a geeky sense of humour. The full title of the other Live is a clue that you'll hear some crazy time signatures. It must have been hell to play, but doesn't stop the band from swinging like mad. The masterpiece, Penguin Guide reckons, is Electric Bath (how's that for a true '60s title!) which starts with a dramatic fanfare and surges forward with a truly catchy tune. The band and the sound is massive and Ellis soars over the top of all the funkiness with his wonderfully clear tone, getting fascinating sounds out of the four-valve trumpet he invented. This stuff is so good, I don't even mind the electric piano or the sitar...
There's a quote from Henry Mancini on the back of the LP cover: "My rock-oriented, teen-age son, Chris, and I have both flipped out over Don Ellis' new band. Anyone that can reach these two opposite poles at once must be reckoned with and listened to". Itching to edit the grammar, but point made.
The Polish Radio Jazz set was recorded live with a local trio and carries on a bit, but is special because you can listen to Ellis more closely. It ends with an orchestral jazz suite written by Polish composer Andrzej Trzaskowski as a Third Stream tribute (be warned).
In his last years Ellis went more commercial to compete with rock – you don't want to hear a jazz version of "I Feel the Earth Move"– but Apple Music has a few rarities such as Live in India, which features lengthy, hypnotic tracks and some excellent playing. It's distressing to know, though, that Ellis was having heart trouble and would die only months later.
In the end, those '60s albums are the keepers – thrilling, intelligent big band music that hasn't dated at all.