- Author Andrew Everard
- Published August 28, 2014
Why you should listen to… jazz
In the eyes (and ears) of most listeners, there’s only one thing less fashionable than classical music – and that’s jazz. The common image of jazz is a result of its enthusiasts: the more traditional forms of the music have seen their fans grow old as the grand old men (and a few women) of jazz have grown old… and eventually dropped off the twig.
That’s left an image of white-haired elderly chaps nodding their heads and tapping their toes to ancient LPs, while their half-pints of real ale grow steadily warmer. But there’s more to jazz than that: it’s improvisational and if you listen to performances of the same tune by two artists they’re likely to be all but unrecognisable – beyond a common theme. What’s more, if you go to a performance by the same group or artist two nights running, you’re going to hear some very different things.
Like good stand-up comedy, jazz plays off its audience and the ambience of the venue: one night the performers may go in one direction, the next somewhere different. Which is a good thing: the announcement “Here’s something from our new album” needn’t fill you with dread, while a return to something from the back-catalogue isn’t going to be a carbon-copy of the recording you have at home.
As pianist Keith Jarrett puts it: “Jazz is there and gone. It happens. You have to be present for it. That simple.”
What’s more, jazz isn’t just jazz, but has many forms: it can be Miles Davis or Charlie Parker letting rip into almost abstract variations, the kind of New Orleans ‘trad’ stuff you may recall from the funeral scene at the beginning of Live and Let Die, the ragtime piano used in the movie The Sting, the big-band harmonies of Duke Ellington or Count Basie, or the voice and piano dinner-jazz of the likes of Diana Krall.
So where do you start? Well, kinda where it all began is a good enough place, with the likes of Scott Joplin’s piano rags, which were ‘rediscovered’ when they were used for the movie The Sting, and so there are now plenty of recordings. But it’s worth trying to track down a fascinating recording made from the player piano rolls cut by Joplin himself, which will enable you to hear the music being played by Joplin in 1899! Have a look at the Rag’s Rag website – www.ragsrag.com – for Joplin and many more from their piano rolls.
Moving on into the 1920s and 1930s, the kind of music played in New Orleans is preserved, appropriately by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which has been playing this stuff since the early 1960s to keep the sound alive. Many line-up changes and a stack of albums later, its 2012 50th Anniversary Collection is a pretty good way to start – a track such as the classic ‘St James Infirmary’, which has been played by just about every jazz musician up to and including Hugh Laurie(!), is a good place to start.
A continent away, and with a distinctly Gallic air, Le Quintette du Hot Club de France was formed in Paris in the late 1930, featuring Django Reinhardt on guitar and Stephane Grapelli on fiddle. Listen to their take on ‘Tiger Rag’ or ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’, and you’ll be transported back to a smoky Montmartre nightclub just before Second World War.
The war itself brought to prominence big band swing outfits such as Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band but London and other British cities had had a thriving dance-band scene between the wars, and there were famous (and jazzier) big bands in the States such as Ellington’s and Count Basie’s, both of which went on playing into the post-war years – USAAF Captain Glenn Miller himself was lost in still-mysterious circumstances, apparently over the English Channel while flying to play in Paris, in 1944, and is still officially listed Missing In Action.
If you’re still trying to place Count Basie, he’s the one who appears with his orchestra in the middle of the desert playing April in Paris in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. And it’s in the desert that one of the classic Basie recordings was made, at the Sands in Las Vegas in 1966 when appearing with Frank Sinatra. Live at the Sands (Before Frank) is a collection of instrumentals recorded during the taping of the show, and is the Basie Orchestra at full throttle in all its lush, driving splendour – check out Corner Pocket to see what I mean.
Going it alone
But for many, jazz remains all about the star soloists, and jazzistas revere none more than the tortured soul that was Miles Davis, which probably explains why his Kind of Blue is perhaps the most re-released album in the business. Any new recording format gets its Kind of Blue, usually several times over when the alternative takes and the like are covered off.
Which is why I’m going to be contrary and suggest you start with Sketches of Spain, the Miles Davis take on Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez. Mixing classical, jazz and what would come to be called ‘world music’, the album is not only a fine example of Davis’s talents but also one of his easiest albums to ‘get into’.
I’m sure I’ve left out just about every jazz fan’s favourite musician but my idea was to give a taste of what there is out there to explore – and I managed to get through the whole thing without once mentioning Michael Bublé. Damn.
Andrew Everard writes about audio equipment for Jazzwise magazine – www.jazzwisemagazine.com