It’s ok to admit it, you don’t get jazz. You have that one pretentious snobby prick friend who really loves jazz, and will tell you that its music for the smartest and most sophisticated of people. He will tell you about his favorite Coltrane album and scoff at you when you look at him in his annoying fedora wearing face and tell him you have never heard it, but really did enjoy the latest release by Radiohead.
This painful back and forth will go on for the rest of your life unless you do something quick. You will decide to go to your local library and check out a handful of jazz CDs, eager to bone up on your jazz knowledge (or I guess you will use Spotify. Is that what people do these days?). You will plop down in your big comfy chrair, put your headphones on and be instantly confused and annoyed at the lack of formal song structure, the clashing dissonance of two instruments soloing at once, and the 20 minute run times. “This is bullshit” you will declare as you throw your headphones across the room in anger, frustrated that you don’t get jazz, and that jazz is stupid anyway, and no one actually really likes it.
Never fear, frustrated reader because I am here to help, for you see I too once did not get jazz. I too once thought jazz was just a collection of nonsense that people only pretended to like. This is because jazz is not for those who grew up on songs with more traditional pop-formats. Even for those of us who had a big injections of classical music it is hard to really grasp what all the bee-boppin’ and scattin’ is all about. That is why I am giving you 5 jazz albums for those who don’t jazz good. 5 albums that are friendly to the lover of music you hear on any radio station that is not NPR. I will also be skipping some of the current flag-bearers of the genre who have done some amazing things like Jaga Jazzist and Kamasi Washington. We are going to stick with albums from some of the classics and great. This is 5 Great Jazz Albums For People Who Don’t Jazz Good.
#5 Miles Davis – Dark Magus
Ok, ok, before you get angry at me for immediately suggesting a 2-hour marathon (for the reissue) with songs that barely miss the twenty minute mark you need to hear me out. Dark Magus is groovy as fuck, its super straight forward, completely gnarly, and its nearly impossible to not follow along. Yea its long, but if you are going to be listening to a lot of jazz you need to be ready to listen to Charles Mingus rock a bass solo for way longer than you ever wanted to. This is your training camp, but for your ears.
Dark Magus came from an era where Davis had no interest in coolness, slickness, or smoky clubs in New York City. Instead, Davis was more into making grimy funk grooves for him to solo like a coked out subway station performer to. With a wah pedal attached to his trumpet his wailing distorted and morphed, creating solos that guitar legends would be jealous of. The bass and drum parts are quite rigid as well with strict patterns that don’t get tangled into themselves making it easy for you to bob your head to. There is little in terms of two performers duking it out for attention, and the tempo is aggressive like any heavy rock song. Album opener Moja is the safest jazz song you can ever play for someone who still will not shut up about how Led Zeppelin was the greatest live band ever, even though he is only 16. This is straight up terrify your friends who are currently stoned music.
Most of all it is a fantastic avoidance of the all the jazz stereotypes that had pissed you off in the first place. All of the pretentiousness and false intelligencia is thrown out the window within seconds, introducing a new era of jazz that sadly did not quite catch on aside from the ever unpopular jazz fusion world. I’ll even make it easy on you, you don’t have to listen to both discs at once. Pick one and save the other for the day when your ears stop bleeding and you are eager for more punishment.
#4 Roland Kirk – Volunteered Slavery
A few things to note about Roland Kirk, first he LOVED cocaine, second, he was blind, and third he could play more than saxophone at once. I guess another thing to note is that the man can groove like no other. Volunteered Slavery is some big New Orleans style jazz on a heavy dose of stimulants. Roland has zero fucks to give as he goes completely ballistic against some rock solid southern jazz backings. The added gift of gospel styling keeps this album diverse, lively, and uplifting which in this genre is nearly unheard of.
What makes Volunteered Slavery a prime choice for the jazz hater is that the songs are all bite-sized, only getting to about 8 minutes at most. Importantly, this means that if any song isn’t striking your fancy you are only a few brief minutes away from the next one. That said I cannot imagine anyone skipping a single track here. Their is a sense of liveliness and energy within each song, a roaring ferocity that succumbs the listener with positive energy and a motivation to dance.
Additionally, the inclusion of vocals makes it even easier to follow along for those who struggle with pure instrumentals. Sure, they are never the focal point of a song, usually being nothing more than an additional source of harmony, but those brief moments do indeed help tie these songs together, be it the choral chanting of Spirits Up Above or Roland’s semi-inebriated howling in My Cherie Amour. Those little moments are critical though, as it helps the novice listener feel just a bit safer.
Roland Kirk’s Volunteered Slavery is a party in disc format, the kind of music that energizes people and stirs them into a frenzy. Dancing music doesn’t need to come from the monotonous pulse of a 4/4 drum beat, but rather from the excitement music makes you feel, and I do not understand how this music couldn’t excite. Also, listening to him go completely mad on the flute during One Ton and Three For The Festival will put Jethro Tull to shame. It’s like a guitar solo for manics and band geeks.
#3 Herbie Hancock – Sound-System
The Herbie Hancock lovers are probably wondering why I am picking Sound-System over the legendary and daring Head-Hunters. I was half tempted to go the Head-Hunters route, but if we are being genuine Head-Hunters may be groovy and funky as hell, but once you get past the opening masterpiece Chameleon things get incredibly daunting and experimental. I would recommend Head-Hunters to someone who has graduated past novice jazz listener. Sound-System, as I mentioned during The Round-up, is the 80’s incarnate and a proud salute to hip-hop, house, and other forms of dance music. The opener Hardrock is a bastion of samples that have been used, reused, and rereused whether you knew it or not.
Sound-System’s jazz meets breakfast club vibe is a masterclass in understanding the value of jazz. Many great musicians have sampled jazz albums in order to create some truly outstanding beats and loops (because Madlib has to get paid somehow) and this is the easiest way to learn and appreciate how that is done. You will hear early 80’s hip-hop albums and Daft Punk from the very first minute of this album, and going beyond you will find other little bits of audio that were sampled in the future. At the very least, the novelty of the whole experience is enough to draw in the casual listener.
Critically, as the rest of this list has been showing, this album proves that jazz is not tight little quartets and trios plowing away with endless talent and a complete lack of formal direction. The futuristic synthesizers used in Sound-System would have been sacrilege in the 50’s, unclean and impure stains of the holy jazz covenant. That alone is what made the genre so alienating for casual listeners. Sound-System may be a loose definition of jazz, but it does everything in its power to rewrite the script as to what constitutes jazz and what the genre is made of.
Best of all the album is huge fun, it is not pretentious and wears its heart on its sleeve. There is nothing inherently complicated about the music, with simple and catchy beats and patterns to follow. Sure, the lover of Queens Of The Stone Age may not enjoy it as much as Dark Magus, but your friend who loves her pop-music may be able to respect what is going on here, and best of all Herbie Hancock had similar albums to follow, helping the new jazz inductee submerge themselves into the genre.
#2 Dave Brubeck – Take Five (1982 Montreux Jazz Festival)
On paper Dave Brubeck and his various backing groups are the worst fit for someone unfamiliar with jazz. His songs are often aggressively complicated with twisted and unforgiving time signatures. You have songs like Tritonis, Benjamin, and of course Take Five that have all sorts of awkward patterns that never end when you would expect them to. There are wildly intricate solos with two instruments often playing on top of each other. Even worse, sometimes an album is just Brubeck playing piano by himself just hammering away without consideration for the feelings of others. In theory this is a terrible album to recommend a beginning jazzer.
Take a closer look and you will see that, on the other hand, this performance rips like a impassioned Coachella performance. Brubeck’s band is gifted with a some sort of heavenly rhythm section, producing complex, but airtight patterns for Brubeck and the accompanying horn player to bounce off of. Complex? You bet, but it is solid and lively, making it both easy to follow and also lively and inspired.
The setting of Montreux really helps elevate experience; you can hear the audience getting hyped for solos and cheering in jubilation as their favorite songs, like Take Five, start up. The band plays to the large live setting too, elevating their songs, speeding them up, and making them even more intense. It creates a blurred line between the smartness of jazz and the passion for a live performance which is one of the main reasons I placed it on this list. It is a good indicator that jazz, when played live, can be more than the preconceived notions of smoke-filled basement venues. It can be big and boisterous too.
#1 Miles Davis – Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet
At some point you are going to need to re-enter the world of heady jazz, the deep thought inducing anthem for people who read books on Saturday night, or shoot heroin and listen to Coltrane. For all the fun the previous four albums provide they are sort of workarounds for what the genre often represents, and it is time for us to take on the challenge of the stereotypical jazz album. Fortunately, I think we have one of the best examples of it with Workin’.
The album is much slower and calmer than the previous albums, perhaps a breath of fresh air for those that found them claustrophobic or head-ache inducing. Everything is slow, calm, soothing, and hauntingly romantic. Album opener It Never Entered My Mind, is my anthem for winter, a perfect number to watch snow falling from inside your warm home. It’s methodical nature helps paint whole worlds for you to inhabit, to live and breathe the soundtrack that is enveloping you.
Workin’ is a blueprint; a textbook definition of cool jazz. It is the stereotype to its core of a cool hip vibe with the quintessential instruments of stand up bass, piano, and some horns. The thing is though is that its success is in how it plays to the stereotype with absolute perfection. The music here is the shining example of why jazz can be fun and not just an exercise in self-congratulation of your sophistication. Nothing here is overdone, it is straight forward, bare-bones, but in the most perfect sense. Everything glistens with a certain polish, a sense that even though jazz often congratulates the free thinking and improvisation this album feels deliberate and meticulously crafted.
This is the doorway to your future in the genre. It is your opportunity to feel comfortable as you explore the more challenging works of the likes of Coltrane, Mingus, Monk, and Jamal. Remember, that if you decide to continue forward that jazz is not just albums like Workin’, as we have explored, but if you ever need a reminder as to how good it can get it will be worth your time to put this album back on.