Horace Silver (piano)
6 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 his golden decade, from the mid-’50s on, starts with 6 Pieces of Silver, one of the rated Blue Note releases 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,” counters the Penguin Guide experts. 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 (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)
Jungle 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 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)
At 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. This is some of the most intelligent and thrilling piano playing I’ve discovered so far.
Sun Ra (piano, clavioline, celeste, organ, synthesizer)
Supersonic 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.