Thursday, November 27, 2008

Christmas List 2: The Ten Best Jazz CDs You Never Heard

Buying CDs for a jazz fan is a perilous business. It reminds me of the baseball saying: "hitting them where they ain't." To give a jazz fan a good gift, you have to hit a good one by choosing some recording that is going to knock the socks off of the recipient. But you also have to pick one that he or she doesn't already have. There is no sure way to do this without measuring the tastes of your recipient, and carefully examining his collection.

With that in mind, I have complied a list of jazz CDs that don't usually appear in any top ten or top one hundred jazz recordings, and that you probably won't find in anything short of a fully stocked and dedicated jazz record store. I am looking for hidden treasures in my collection. It 's not hard to compile such a list. The hard part is weeding it out. I won't argue that the following really amounts to the top ten anything. They are just ten CDs that are as good or almost as good as their more famous counterparts, but that usually fly under the radar screen.
The first five are relatively unknown CDs by relatively under appreciated jazzmen. The second half are lesser known CDs by the jazz elite. Here goes:

1. Sonny Criss:
Sonny's Dream. Criss was a brilliant alto sax man who has no presence at all in the Barnes and Noble stacks. But this album, with a robust orchestra behind him, is a solid cornerstone of jazz. All the compositions are by Horace Tapscott, who conducts the orchestra. It thus stands apart from Criss's other fine recordings. If your friend has this one, it's going to be hard to surprise him. If he doesn't, he will be grateful for a long time. This is Criss, and Portrait of Sonny Criss are wee bit more conventional.

2. Booker Ervin:
That's It!. Like Criss, Booker Ervin is one of those jazz geniuses who doesn't have a file card at B&N or Borders. I have blogged about Ervin, with a special focus on his Book recordings: Space Book, Freedom Book, Blues Book, and Song Book. Any one of these would make a great gift to the hardbop fan who doesn't have them.

3. Pharoah Sanders, Crescent with Love. You aren't likely to find this one in the stacks, unless you are in one of the last remaining jazz stores. It's Sander's immortal tribute to the immortal Coltrane. But it is toe-curling good. Sanders is usually very frenetic and expansive, but in this recording he tones down to get the deep vein of Coltrane's composing. You will thank me for this one, or your Christmas friend will.

4. Arthur Blythe,
Focus. Blythe straddles hardbop jazz and avant garde jazz. This recording, with a mix of unusual instruments, is a pure joy. It's pretty adventurous. If you want something a little more conservative, wrap up Blythe's Byte.

5. Bobby Watson, Love Remains. Watson is another alto sax man. He played on a bunch of Jazz Messenger recordings in the 70's and 80's. He also has a very sharp web page: You can hear a bundle of his music there. Love Remains will warm the cockles of any hard bop or post bop heart.

6. Wayne Shorter, Juju. Shorter's Speak No Evil comes near the top of any best jazz list, and especially of Tenor Sax recordings. But Juju and Night Dreamer fall short of the former in the way that ninehundred and ninety grand is short of a million. Wayne's peak as a composer. Juju narrowly wins second, in my estimation.

7. Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams,
Third Plane. This 1977 recording feels a lot like what Hancock was doing in the early sixties. But file it under Carter's bass, which comes through live and buzzing on the recording. This is happy, ice cubes in crystal music, with the kind of sympathy between musicians that makes for a classic.

8. Joe Henderson,
Relaxin' at Camarillo. Post-revival Joe. 'Y Todavia La Quiero' is so lyrical and deeply romantic, I feel like I have to listen to it in costume. It's delicious right down to the very end when you can hear Henderson breathing through his horn. Chick Corea is here and I wouldn't have expected that to work out. But Corea's keyboard is all concentration and no goofyness.

9. Bill Evans Trio with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh,
Crosscurrents. Maybe I only like this one because it was one of the first jazz albums I purchased, probably not long after it was released. It certainly doesn't get much notice in the Penguin Guide, nor any mention elsewhere. But it still makes my heart sing. Evans' laconic Trio seems saturated by the sound of Konitz's alto and Marsh's tenor. Marsh is another jazzman who always seemed to be hitting above his ranking. Pensativa may be my favorite cut from the album.

10. The Red Garland Quintet,
All Mornin' Long. Okay, so the solos are a bit long. The title cut goes on for more than twenty minutes. The Penguin Guide likes Soul Junction better, but I find the pace that album rather lethargic. All Mornin' Long has Red Garland leading another excellent rhythm section (George Joyner on bass, Art Taylor on drums), with John Coltrane playing tenor and Donald Byrd on trumpet. Here's Trane and Garland both of 'em still shootin up, but showing us why it took so long for Miles to fire them. Byrd is said to be 'coming into form' here, but it sounds like in form to me. Besides, the album cover is pure jazz feeling.

You can listen to a couple of cuts by following the hotlinked song titles in numbers 8 and 9.

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