In my formative years growing up, my dad didn’t listen to popular music. A former musician himself (sax and clarinet), he had a fondness for classical and jazz. I was that kid who recognized the Dave Brubeck tune in the Tom & Jerry cartoon when I was ten just by benefit of osmosis. When I finally moved out and started buying music for my own collection, one of the first CD’s I bought was Jazz. And I still go back to it on a regular basis.
But I know Jazz confounds some people. They don’t know where to start, or what’s good, or what they might like. And that’s fair. There’s a lot of it out there across a wide range of styles. For instance, I’m a sucker for the West Coast Cool Jazz school, but I range outside of that as suits my whims. I find it stimulates the brain and doesn’t distract when I’m getting writing done.
So, because I feel like it, here’s Six Desert Island Jazz Essential Songs that I keep coming back to again and again.
Dave Brubeck Quartet – Strange Meadow Lark
From the album Time Out (which was the Frampton Comes Alive or Thriller of its generation), if you had one Jazz album in your house growing up, chances are it was this one. Strange Meadow Lark, which has a lovely, long piano intro before Desmond kicks in with the alto sax is just the epitome of Cool Jazz for me.
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – Isn’t This a Lovely Day
On their own, they are legends of Jazz. Together, they were magical–honey and vinegar. The formula is simple in concept but brilliant in execution: Ella sings an intro, Louis sings the song, then Ella repeats with Louis playing flourishes around her. Break for a trumpet solo, and then they reprise together, their voices blending into the sound of perfection.
Miles Davis – Summertime
From his 1958 album Porgy & Bess which was arranged by pianist and Jazz legend Bill Evans, this is my personal favorite Davis track ever. It makes me think of sitting on a NYC fire escape to try and catch a breeze in a hot summer, neon flickering in the darkness. This song made me want to live in a city and have adventures more than any rock song I’d ever heard in my life.
Bill Evans Trio – My Foolish Heart
Speaking of Bill Evans, I’m so bewitched by this guy. His trio, this incarnation in particular, was absolute perfection with Larry Bunker on drums and Chuck Israel on bass. Give me rain, a cozy seat at the window, and turn on the Bill Evans and I’ll be there all day and night. The way he coaxes a tune out of a piano never ceases to astound me. And the other guys in the trio back him up like they have psychic powers. If you come away with an appriciation for any jazz musician you didn’t know before this, I’d hope it would be Bill.
Johnny Hartman & John Coltrane – Lush Life
Johnny Hartman is the best Jazz baritone you’ve never heard of. He’s like liquid velvet. Simply the best male Jazz vocalist I can imagine. This song comes from an album which paired him with legendary sax player John Coltrane for one of the best jazz albums of all time.
Gerry Mulligan Sextet – Morning of the Carnival from Black Orpheus
Ok, I’m putting it out on the line here. If you can find this album anywhere, buy it. You will not be disappointed. Unless you don’t like Jazz at which point I commend you sir or madam for making it this far. Opening with the song Night Lights which almost made this list, it also features this amazing Bossa Nova riff on a track from the soundtrack of Black Orpheus (which you should find and watch). Mulligan is from the West Coast Cool Jazz school, and one of the premiere barritone sax players around. This track sizzles and always makes me smile.