Listen to this track by acid jazz six-string slinger Ronny Jordan. It’s “So What”, a single as taken from his 1992 record The Antidote. The album was a part of a movement to link post-bop jazz with early ’90s hip hop and R&B of which Ronny Jordan was a major player, based in Britain but making impact in North America too.
This piece is well established in jazz history, originally the centerpiece and lead track to 1959’s Kind of Blue album by Miles Davis, a game-changing release that led jazz into a new era in the 1960s. Jordan wasn’t the first guitarist to cover the song. Grant Green and George Benson would both release versions of the song, two guitarists that Jordan would count among his musical forebears. But, Jordan’s innovation was in bringing it into a new milieu outside of jazz that included hip hop beats and a distinctive R&B feel.
Jazz has always been treated as a sacred trust, by critics and by musicians too. The attempts to marry other music to how jazz is defined has had a mixed history, celebrated by many, and condemned by others. The conflict around it has mostly been about preserving a tradition. But, the attempts to push it in new directions had to do with bringing it new life, in turn by making it culturally available to new audiences.
How is that played out here? Read more
Listen to this track by towering spiritual saxophonist and jazz immortal John Coltrane. It’s “Psalm”, the last movement in his 1965 magnum opus A Love Supreme.
The track, along with the rest of the record was recorded with what is now known as his classic quartet; Jimmy Garrison on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano, and Elvin Jones on drums. With the almost psychic connection between these musicians, the whole record gels gloriously, coming to be what it was intended to be; a statement of ultimate gratitude by its author.
But, before the music was laid down on an album that is now considered to be Coltrane’s artistic pinnacle, it required one thing before it could be born: solitude. Read more
Listen to this track by jazz-funk pioneer, future electro innovator, and all-around influential musical barrier-breaker-downer Herbie Hancock. It’s “Chameleon”, a key track on his seminal 1973 album Head Hunters.
That record would spin the heads of many who’d first heard it, perhaps not being able to immediately figure out whether or not it was a jazz record. Many of these people would be the critics. Well, it certainly is a jazz record. But, it also carries with it influences that stood apart from the traditions of the jazz world at the time too; Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and the funk genre in general, which is in turn very much influenced by jazz. Talk about spinning heads!
The barriers between the musical forms expressed here had always been fairly permeable. But, as jazz expanded its borders by the end of the ’60s, the definition of jazz as a musical form became harder to ascertain. It had shifted, and morphed, having taken on new influences, as it had done since it was first recorded.
In the middle of all of that, this record was a big seller, standing as a sign of the musical times where the evolution of jazz was concerned. And it would provide an avenue that would open things up for Hancock, and for other musicians down the road. Read more
Listen to this track by Hammond B3 organ kingpin and soul jazz practitioner Jimmy Smith. It’s “Root Down (And Get It)” as taken from his 1972 live album Root Down Jimmy Smith Live. The record was recorded live in Los Angeles in February of that year. You can hear the clinking of the glasses which serve as a kind of unofficial percussion section as the patrons listen to the groove as it unfolds. And boy, does it ever.
Like Wes Montgomery with whom Smith partnered on many occasions, Smith was interested in the pop music side of the soul jazz spectrum. But also like Montgomery, Smith was a formidable improvisationalist even if some of his sides are viewed as a bit lightweight.
Yet, here on this cut, it’s the funk that really shines through. And it serves somewhat as a beacon of light for the music that would emerge in ensuing decades, too. Read more
Listen to this track by super-stylin’ three-sided jazz force of nature The Oscar Peterson Trio, led by the aforementioned ivory-tinkling Montrealer Oscar Peterson. It’s “Night Train” the title track from the classic 1962 release of the same name – Night Train. Peterson is joined on this by one-time Mr. Ella Fitzgerald and acoustic bass colossus Ray Brown, and supernaturally slick drummer Ed Thigpen.
When the song was recorded for Peterson’s record, it was aimed at the charts specifically by producer, and former Verve owner Norman Grantz. That’s why it doesn’t stretch out as much as some jazz tunes of the era. It’s the length of pop song that would get play on early ’60s radio, perhaps like a song like “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck had done. And it certainly was a big success for Oscar Peterson, being one of the most recognized records he’d put out during a long and celebrated career.
But, this tune and the record it comes off of holds a special place in my heart during my teenage discovery of jazz. And I know I’m not the only one. Read more
During the history of modern pop music and jazz, there have been those with the ability to take music that is potentially great and make it great by sheer force of talent. A lot of these people are names that we recognize today, because along with sterling musicianship and songwriting, fame often follows. But, they don’t get there on their own. The stars of the show have the advantage of side musicians, who are in the role of support, adding texture and personality to any material put in front of them.
Yet, often the people in these supporting roles don’t often have a proportionate share in the fame that often comes out of the fruits of their labours. Sure, liner notes-reading music obsessives might know them. And maybe in certain professional circles their names are known. But, for the most part it’s their playing, their signature sound, or their use of specialized instruments that make the material more well-known than they themselves are. And maybe that’s just indicative of how well they’ve done their job.
But, who are these people? Well, there are a lot of them over fifty years in the modern pop era to account for; the unsung heroes that have raised songwriters and performers with whom they’ve worked up from the level of mere mortals, and into the upper echelons of cultural avatars. Here’s 10 (well, technically 12!) such names, with some of the songs for which they are (not always) known, submitted here for your pleasure.
Listen to this track by lyrical folk-jazz singer-songwriter Terry Callier. It’s “Dancing Girl” the jewel in the crown of his 1973 album What Is The Color of Love?, Callier’s third album after his 1968 debut.
Callier represented a fairly untraveled section of the pop music spectrum, standing somewhere between folk-rock, jazz, and soul music. Gil Scott-Heron, Curtis Mayfield, Roy Ayers, and John Martyn may seem to be comparable artists who take up a similar space along that spectrum. Yet, Callier is a singular voice.
Beyond a cult following, Callier didn’t achieve the visibility of other singer-songwriters of the era. Perhaps this was because his music is not easy to pin down, and therefore not aimed at any one specific audience. What his music does do is to evoke spiritual images, yet remaining rooted firmly in the physical world at the same time, often making direct comment on the poverty and hopelessness to be found in inner city America. And “Dancing Girl” is one of the best examples of this, a portrait of an idealized woman, and yet reaching beyond into something that resembles a spiritual journey.
What is behind this song, and what does it say about its creator? Read more
Listen to this track by hard bop trumpeter and pop-chart flirting jazzer Lee Morgan. It’s “The Sidewinder” his runaway 1963 hit from the album cleverly entitled The Sidewinder, a now-essential jazz record that on the time of release wasn’t expected to be a smash crossover success. What do record labels know, anyway?
This track stands as the vanguard of jazz opening up its doors a bit starting in the 1960s, and letting the R&B and soul breezes in. For instance, on this track, there are some creative solos. But, the horns also are arranged in harmony, playing themes and riffs as a unit just as they do in soul music. This demonstrates a clear link to the blues, and to the call and response dynamic that would characterize R&B, and later be an important ingredient to funk.
In this,”The Sidewinder” revels in simplicity, and almost childlike verve, rather than in complexity and academic artistry. This approach was something of a risky move, seeing as jazz was increasingly being looked at as ‘serious music’, very much in contrast to pop records, or to what was perceived as the crudeness of R&B.
Although still very much in the classic ’60s hard bop style, this tune adds real accessibility and stylistic variation, which is what helped to place it into the pop charts. This was certainly not a bad situation for Morgan, who was 25 at the time, and who then found himself with a hit record on his hands. But, does this have any bearing on where jazz as a form would go? Read more
Listen to this track by saxophone immortal John Coltrane and his classic quartet (Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and McCoy Tyner on piano). It’s the perennial holiday favourite “What Child Is This”, or as it is credited: “Greensleeves”, with those two pieces having the same melody, with lyrics added by hymn writer William Chatterton Dix in 1865.
This song was recorded during a specific and very celebrated phase in Coltrane’s career, when things were really gelling with his band, many of whom believe was the greatest collection of musicians in jazz over a long-term recording period between 1961 and 1965. This period corresponded with Coltrane’s work on the Impulse! label, with whom he’d stay until his untimely death from liver cancer in 1967.
The song itself has an even older pedigree than Coltrane’s classic period of course. It has been connected with King Henry VIII, he who provided a number of creative ways to get out of being married during a time when that wasn’t an easy thing to do. In the meantime, evidently, he was a songwriter. I’m not so sure about the facts on that one. It seems kind of unlikely to me.
It’s a melancholic, beautiful little tune no matter who wrote it. “Greensleeves” is about being rejected by a true love, which is a pretty solid theme no matter what era it comes out of. And in a Christmas context as “What Child Is This?”, it’s used to tell the story of the birth of Jesus; not just about the joy of that event, but also through its minor key suggests the shadow of human brokeness, too. So what makes Coltrane’s take on that so compelling? Read more
Listen to this track by jazz pianist, organist, harpist, and musical matriarch Alice Coltrane. It’s “Translinear Light”, the title track to her 2004 album of the same name, Translinear Light. This record was a family affair, with her son Ravi Coltrane producing, and playing saxophones on a level that would make his Dad, John Coltrane, more than proud.
The record was the sound of an artist who was coming out of a recording hiatus, her last record having been released back in 1978. At the time, Coltrane had established herself as something of a Eastern philosophy figurehead, founding the Vedantic Center, as well as having become a seasoned jazz musician with an impressive catalog behind her.
Her feelings about where the music industry was going, which in her opinion at the time was more about moving units than it was making great art (sound familiar?), was what made going on hiatus something of an easy decision.
And what had changed since her long departure? Read more