April 26, 2016

Monk's Top Ten


I was recently listening to “Desert Island Dreamers” by Bucky, John and Martin Pizzarelli, where they musically answer the question concerning must-have songs when stranded on a desert island. This is not the kind of list you would find in a jazz history book, where the author cites historically significant recordings that impacted the development of jazz. This collection was not conceived in the context of jazz history or evolution. In fact, only Louis Armstrong can be found on all jazz critics MVP lists. My opinions are personal, certainly based on musical content but also on the impact these recordings had on me at specific moments in my life.
When I look for a common thread, I find that all these recordings satisfy my own definition of essential listening: they move me physically; they stay in my head long after the record ends; and they touch something indefinable in the area of my heart.
Click on the song title to hear the particular song.
Cannonball Adderley Quintet recordings could easily fill my Top 10.  “Sack O’ Woe”  gets the nod here, a perfect example of “soul jazz.” Blues-based, with a back and forth between swing and straight grooves, and Cannonball’s inimitable presence on the alto sax. The live recording adds a nice bit of audience interaction.
More R&B instrumental than jazz, it seems this song will never die. The sound of the Hammond B3 organ is key to the success, as well as guitar and organ solos that seem like the only possible thing that could have been played at that moment. If you don’t respond physically in some fashion, check your pulse. I previously wrote an entire blog on this song, here.
Late-night jazz radio exposed me to his tune during my high school years. Pianist Junior Mance translated an evocative mood into music, a feeling that I still cannot put into words. The closest I get is a combination of soul and nostalgia except that I never experienced whatever it was that made me nostalgic. Junior has an uncanny ability to infuse a blues tinge into every phrase. I also wrote a blog on this tune, here.
As a junior high sax player, this tune provided a swinging challenge and an early lesson in big band arranging. The back and forth between the saxes and brass is classic big band writing. My parents took me to see the Glenn Miller “ghost band” and I must admit that I have watched “The Glenn Miller Story” enough times to memorize all the dialogue.
Lightning struck for the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Dave encouraged Paul Desmond to write a melody that could match up with drummer Joe Morello’s 5/4 explorations. The collaborative effort resulted in a bona fide hit. According to jazz lore, Desmond thought the title, suggested by Brubeck, was ridiculous. Can you imagine it being called anything else?
Absolute exuberance from the one man most credited with setting a formative musical style on the right path. Louis Armstrong’s playing and singing  became the model for generations of musicians and he spread music around the world, earning the sobriquet, “Ambassador of Jazz”.
Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and Quincy Jones. This trio of musical giants does not disappoint as each contributes to a musical gem that could not possibly be improved. The Chairman of the Board knew his music and never sounded better than when he was standing among the Basie crew. This one also warranted a separate blog entry, here.
This recording is the latest to make my list but its place in a stylistic jazz timeline is only preceded by the Louis Armstrong tune. Pianist Dick Hyman arranged this medley for a small group of superlative players and captured early swing in a modern recording environment. The fact that I was able to play this music with Mr. Hyman in a live concert helped boost it into my favorites.
The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra provided us with a modern, adventurous big band. Thad’s writing was unique and I love the sections where the rhythm section drops out, leaving the brass and saxes alone. Jerome Richardson on soprano sax provides a lesson in economy and expression. The saxophone section gets a workout that becomes more challenging as the choruses progress.
How can one song have so many hooks? Keyboardist Joe Zawinul, who spent ten years with Cannonball Adderley, cites a night at Birdland with the Basie Orchestra as inspiration for this iconic fusion hit. The combination of ear-catching riffs with its  infectious groove made it adaptable for both professional and scholastic ensembles.