Massimo Urbani (sax)
Easy 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)
Mal - 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 then track 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)
First, 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 (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)
Gnu 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)
Wilder ‘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 (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)
Complete Jazz Series 1953-54, London (1953), Mary Lou’s Mass (1969-72), Free Spirits (1975), Live at the Cookery (1976)
Duke Ellington called her “perpetually contemporary”. No matter which way jazz changed, Williams 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: 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 (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.