Desert Island Disc Syndrome

A couple of months ago, Wayne Shorter submitted a Desert Island Disc piece to Beside the fact that it was a rare opportunity to read the jazz maestro’s thoughts, it lit a fire. Knowing I’m not in the minority and that there are actually millions of closet list makers among us, it seemed a fine time to lay bare this obsession. I’ve engaged in this exercise many times over the years. My lists don’t vary much. John Coltrane, Muddy Waters, Frank Zappa, Doc Watson, Stevie Wonder and Mississippi John Hurt are permanent residents in my all-time list of major impact players.

Sitting down to seriously consider specifically which jazz albums have had the greatest impact on me over the years was more difficult than I anticipated. This isn’t something to throw off the top of one’s head. Being thoughtful about it is challenging. I’ve been listening to this music since I was a teen in the 1960s. Narrowing it to 10 is excruciatingly difficult. Like most of us, I suspect, if you ask me tomorrow for a desert island list, the odds are I’ll give you a slightly different variation. It all depends on the day of the week, the time of day, whether I had my Wheaties the usual qualifiers. In no particular order, these are ten I couldn’t imagine doing without.

Miles Davis: A Kind of Blue; Columbia 1959 There are those who would call this the greatest jazz record ever made, and I’m usually in complete agreement. One of the most amazing bands ever assembled on record Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb and Wynton Kelly performing a collection of extraordinary compositions. It’s the jazz record that every record after it has been measured against.

John Coltrane: John Coltrane; Prestige 1971 I’ve had this Prestige 2-fer since the day it was released and it continues to knock me over with each spin. The two records that comprise the set, "Traneing In" and "Soul Trane" can be easily found in the compact disc format, but I still prefer the sonic quality of the vinyl. Originally released in 1957 and 1958 respectively with the Red Garland Trio, they represent my favorite Coltrane era. This is the master playing straight-ahead jazz and heart aching ballads. The version of "I Want To Talk About You" included here is one of the most gorgeous tunes ever recorded.

Ella Fitzgerald: Dream Dancing; Pablo 1978 Ella has always been "it" for me. I saw her perform with Basie and with Joe Pass. She was exquisite in both settings. There are undeniably plenty of great Ella albums (particularly the songbooks), but none that capture that extraordinarily flexible voice, or the superb timing and phrasing as well as this. Ella Fitzgerald hit her stride in the 1970s and the Nelson Riddle conducted orchestra assembled for this just flew. The title cut, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "Just One of Those Things," "Anything Goes" This is the essence of jazz vocalese.

Dave Brubeck Quartet Featuring Jimmy Rushing; Columbia 1960 I’ve had this record for 30 years. The jacket is held together with 25 year old masking tape, but the disc is still clean and crisp. I keep meaning to buy the CD. Vinyl junkies will understand. The story is that Brubeck and Rushing talked about doing a recording for years and when they finally did, they went into the studio with next to no rehearsal and cut this bluesy classic. One of the standout tunes, "There’ll Be Some Changes Made," was used on a TV commercial a few years ago. Add amazing takes on "Evenin’," "River Stay Away From My Door," "My Melancholy Baby," "All By Myself" and a half-dozen more and the result is superb.

Oscar Peterson Big 6 at the Montreux Jazz Festival; Pablo 1975 This has been a favorite from the first turn on the record player. One of the greatest ensembles imaginable recorded live at one of the most prestigious of jazz festivals. Peterson is joined by the rhythm section of Louis Bellson and Niels Pedersen, along with Joe Pass, Milt Jackson and Toots Thielemans. The workout on "Au Privave" is worth the price of admission alone, with jaw-dropping solos by all, particularly Toots. Bags’ solo on "Poor Butterfly" is breathtaking, as well.

Charlie Parker: The Essential Charlie Parker; Verve 1961 Another record I’ve had for more than 30 years. Here are beautiful renditions of "Just Friends" and "I Didn’t Know What Time It Was," with strings. There are also wonderful versions of "Au Privave," with Miles, Max Roach, Teddy Kotich and Walter Bishop; "Bloomdido" with Dizzy, Monk, Buddy Rich and Curley Russell; "Funky Blues," with Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster and Flip Phillips sharing the front line and Oscar Peterson, Barney Kessell, Ray Brown and J.C. Heard adding muscle; and a cool "Chi Chi" with Max Roach, Al Haig and Percy Heath. I’ve never met a better hits collection.

Nat ‘King’ Cole and his Trio: After Midnight; Capitol 1957 Backed by the trio (guitarist John Collins, Charlie Harris on bass and Lester Young’s brother Lee on drums), Cole is featured on vocals and rarified piano. The set also features cameos by four of the superb soloists of the time. Altoist Willie Smith is heard to great effect on "You’re Lookin’ At Me," Harry "Sweets" Edison guests on the signature "Route 66," violin great Stuff Smith fires up "Sometimes I’m Happy" and trombonist Juan Tizol is on hand for his classic "Caravan."

Billie Holiday: The Billie Holiday Story, Volume 1; Columbia 1959 My wife and I found this used in a Toronto record store in 1978 or so. Sure, there are a bunch of Billie Holiday collections that equal or even surpass this one, but this 2 record set covering 1933-1939 is just fantastic for these ears. How can you go wrong with a collection that features Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Bunny Berigan, Cozy Cole, Jo Jones, Buck Clayton, Hot Lips Page and the like on classic tunes like "Them There Eyes," "Swing!, Brother Swing!," "They Can’t Take That Away From Me," "I Can’t Get Started" and a slew of others?

Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um; Columbia 59 This is the apex. There really didn’t need to be a greatest hits package, because so much of his most engaging and stimulating music is captured on this truly amazing album. "Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul," the classic tribute to Lester Young, "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," and the darkly defiant "Fables of Faubus." Mingus was one of the most profound musicians to ever walk the earth, and this disc is remains intensely powerful with each listen.

Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage; Blue Note 65 This was the first Hancock album that I paid attention to. It took a few years before I found it, but it hasn’t let go since. Hancock’s compositions, particularly the title cut and "Dolphin Dance," are beautifully conceived and the performances equally well rendered. That he is joined by Ron Carter and Tony Williams, then band mates with Hancock in the Miles Davis Sextet, adds a degree of radar brilliance. George Coleman’s saxophone rounds out the superb unit with a subdued fire.

My list runs to the predictable mainstream, I suppose. It doesn’t so much represent the whole of my tastes in jazz so much as a list of venerable favorites. Like most aficionados of this wonderful music, I listen to Ellington, Basie, Sarah, Braxton, Mahavishnu, Monk, Weather Report, Blakey, Rollins, Ornette, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Benny Goodman, Freddy Hubbard, Metheny, Getz, Silver and a few dozen etceteras. I also listen to other musical forms, as I assume all music fans do. When I need some emotional rescue, these 10 do it for me every time.

If nothing else, lists Desert Island Discs, Year-end Top 10s, favorite left-handed baritone sax players serve to remind us what’s important about this music we love. It reminds us why we listen and continue to derive such blissful joy. It is said that music is the healing force of the universe. Making lists is frivolous and fun, but maybe on some level it’s also an anchor to that musical universe that we choose to wrap ourselves in.

So, there was this three day cruise and there is a professor on board who can hook up a stereo system made completely out of coconuts. Which records do you have in that water-tight trunk?

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