Zoe Rahman (piano)
The 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)
A (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)
Classic 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)
Sonny 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 took time off 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 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.