Patrick Jarenwattananon over at NPR’s A Blog Supreme posits a most interesting challenge – name five albums I’d recommend to someone looking to get into jazz. The twist is that the list needs to made up of recording from the last decade or so, in order to showcase what jazz is about today rather than in its heyday. In other words, no Kind of Blue or Time Out (even 50th anniversary reissues). Hmmmmm….
So here’s my list in no particular order, in case anyone reading this is looking for one collection of high-quality, contemporary jazz.
1. Robert Glasper, In My Element (Blue Note, 2007) – As much as I do like Glasper’s latest offering I think it would be too jarring for someone just getting into jazz. In My Element showcases Glasper’s ability to meld his muscular yet cerebral style of jazz with blues, hip hop, rock, and R&B to create a winning brand of music. This is highlighted to great effect on “Maiden Voyage / Everything in Its Right Place”, a deft hybrid of the ’60s Herbie Hancock classic with the latter day Radiohead gem.
2. The Bad Plus, Suspicious Activity? (Columbia, 2005) – I’ve written about this trio before, and every non-jazz music lover I’ve exposed to them has come away impressed. TBP’s output takes a decidedly rock approach to jazz. That’s not to say it’s all bombast and volume, as tracks like “Prehensile Dream” and “Lost of Love” prove. Just as progressive rock groups like Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a gateway to appreciating classical music for me, so I think TBP can be the same for non-jazz fans.
3. Koop, Waltz for Koop (Quango/Palm, 2002) – Stockholm-based duo Oscar Simonsson and Magnus Zingmark didn’t invent the rather nebulous Nu Jazz genre, but they’re about the best ones doing it. At least when they get around to it, as they’ve released just three proper studio albums since 1997. That’s mainly because of the rather labor-intensive way they create their sonic treasures, which is by assembling songs from thousands of separate sound clips. If this sounds like a recipe for cold, soulless music it’s not. It’s got the the feel of jazz at its breeziest and bounciest, but is thoroughly modern in every other way.
4. Tord Gustavsen Trio, The Ground (ECM, 2005) – This is pretty much the complete opposite of Koop, just for some variety in the list. This album is beautiful and glacial, with just a hint of swing to it. There are few better albums equipped to help you relax without putting you to sleep. It’s smooth, but not smooth jazz. It’s studied without being academic. In a word, it’s art. Leave it to the Norwegians.
5. Russell Malone, Sweet Georgia Peach (MAXJAZZ, 1998) – This falls just outside the decade mark, but I had to get some guitar jazz love in here. This is easily the most straightforward jazz outing on this short list; something a non-jazz fan might expect to hear. But that’s OK, sometimes just hearing mainstream jazz performed at a high level is all you need.