Desert Island Recordings: A Jazzer Can't Stop At One

People are always asking me to name my favorite song. One might as well ask which is my favorite ear.

The richness of the jazz idiom is a curse and a blessing in such discussions. I usually decline to choose a single tune, but I'm always happy to give a range, say a Top 5 or 10 or 20. And these days, with the turn of the century looming, 2,000 seems a nice, round figure, easily supported by the field of choice that jazz affords us. The range that I give, if I'm pressed, may change from time to time. That is because jazz is always changing and because my understanding of it shifts as well.

All true jazzers intuitively grasp excess and restraint. The spark between those poles may be generated by a variety of factors: a fondness for a particular artist; an interest in a particular instrument; and affection for vocalists; an appreciation for big bands as opposed to trios, quartets and quintets. But I'll bet four of the tuning pegs on my guitar that anyone who loves jazz is scandalized when confronted with the old desert island question. You know the one: "If you were stranded on a desert island and could have with you only one song, which song would it be?"

Right off, the potentially stranded jazz fan will shift into "excess" gear and demand more than one. Then he will take it a step further and opt for more than one album, thus expanding his range of choices in direct proportion to his sense of excess. But when it comes down to the choosing, his sense of restraint will reign. After all, he only has a few choices

So now we arrive at my current list of 10 indispensable recordings. They are in no particular order. Each carries some discrete quality that is of artistic value to me and, I hope, to you.

Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959) -- The sine qua non of jazz albums, this session, led by Miles Davis on trumpet, features Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, alto sax; John Coltrane, tenor sax; Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; and Jimmy Cobb, drums. These improvisational explorations of the blues idiom have converted legions of music lovers into jazzers, including me.

At The 1946 JATP Concert (Verve, 1946) -- The Jazz At The Philharmonic shows were important showcases for the talents of the bop and pre-bop eras. This outing puts Charlie Parker's inimitable talent on the same stage with Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Buddy Rich, Buck Clayton and Coleman Hawkins, to name a few. It is a musical Battle of Agincourt.

A Love Supreme (Impulse, 1964) -- This is probably the first-among-equals in the highly acclaimed John Coltrane catalog. The genius tenor man is backed here by his classic unit of McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; and Elvin Jones, drums.

The Complete Last Concert (Atlantic, 1974) -- The Modern Jazz Quartet took the stage in New York's Avery Fisher Hall in November 1974 for its final concert before what the members thought would be a permanent vacation from one another. Not so, and lucky for us it is that pianist John Lewis, drummer Connie Kay, bassist Percy Heath and vibraharpist Milt Jackson regrouped in 1981 for an extension of the group's fine career. This set represents the classics of the MJQ repertoire, including "Bags' Groove," "Round Midnight," "Night In Tunisia," and "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise." Highlights are "The Cylinder" and "The Golden Striker."

The Essence Of Thelonious Monk (Columbia, 1991) -- Here we have a crop of classic Monk, beginning with the haunting "Round Midnight" and angling through "Bemsha Swing," "Ruby, My Dear," "Criss Cross," "Well You Needn't," "Bye-Ya" and "Thelonious." There is a problem with this collection, though. I wish it had included "Bright Mississippi," "Straight, No Chaser," "Panonnica," "Crepuscule With Nellie" and "Brilliant Corners." But, I suppose, even jazzers can't have everything.

At Newport 1956 (Columbia, 1957) -- Duke Ellington is the towering figure in this first century of jazz history. This recording of his set at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island is anchored by the sparkling, never-to-be-reduplicated, "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue." Hearing tenor man Paul Gonsalves whip the audience into a frenzy with more than 20 choruses between the "Diminuendo" and the "Crescendo" is like a night at Woodstock 13 years early. I know of no other live document that approaches the excitement of this performance, which incorporates performers and audience in a presentation that allows non-musicians to experience the excitement a performer feels before an engaged audience. Symbiosis at its best. Don't miss it.

Lush Life: The Music Of Billy Strayhorn (Verve, 1992) -- Tenor man Joe Henderson earned well-deserved and long-delayed acclaim with this tribute to Duke Ellington's long-time collaborator. This is the perfect marriage of a deft, wise musician and a brilliant, elegant composer. Henderson gathered many of the younger jazz lions -- Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Stephen Scott, piano; Christian McBride, bass; and Gregory Hutchinson, drums -- for this lovingly respectful set. Highlights are "Isfahan," a duet by Henderson and McBride; "Blood Count," a quartet setting with all but Marsalis; "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing," the quintet; and the title track, a solo tour de force that showcases the Henderson chops in all their glory. This has stayed in my Top 10 for seven years.

In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) -- Miles Davis reappears with the album that pointed the way to fusion and Miles' own later experiments with electronics that led directly to 1970's Bitches' Brew. In A Silent Way is supported by many stars of the later fusion movement as well: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, keyboards; Wayne Shorter, soprano sax; Tony Williams, drums; Dave Holland, bass; and John McLaughlin, guitar. A haunting, ethereal recording, good for what ails you.

The Birdland All-Stars Live At Carnegie Hall (Roulette, 1974) -- Well, well. What have we here? Charlie Parker, Sara Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Lester Young and Stan Getz, to name a few, all on the same stage in September 1954. A curiosity of this recording is that Bird was obviously impaired and delivered a sloppy performance. However, the brilliance of the man remains palpable. The array of artists makes this a special recording.

Smokin' At The Half Note (Verve, 1965) -- The Wynton Kelly Trio -- Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums -- team up with legendary guitarist Wes Montgomery for some slow to mid-tempo instensity. These workouts demonstrate how Montgomery could shine in a small group, a setting in which we have too few opportunities to hear him.

So there you have my current desert-island Top 10. What are yours? Let SkyJazz hear from you.