Hans Koch (sax, clarinets)
Heavy 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 much. Not ideal late-night music, but I’ve gone back to it a few times in the safety of daylight.
Steve Lacy (sax)
Scratching 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)
Swinging 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)
Volume 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)
Complete 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 (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.