Thursday, 25 September 2014

33 Perfect Jazz Tracks

Andrew Hill

Richard Brody compiled 66 'perfect jazz recordings' for The New Yorker this week, which made me wonder what I would choose. I started aiming for 66 but realised it would take too long and unlike Richard I won't be paid so I halved his number. I don't mind doing this for free, of course. It is, after all, an essential service. Hold on, no it's not. You don't care. Why did I do it? Just for the challenge.

Talking of challenges, keen-eyed observers amongst you will notice no repeated names. That was the other element of the challenge I set myself, to make things harder because, as you know, I could have listed 33 Ellington, Sun Ra or Charlie Parker tunes, but not Wes Montgomery.

As Richard notes: "my perfect recordings seem to possess an inner necessity, an idea that translates into an altogether different necessity: they’re necessary to me, personally". Naturally, for how can it be otherwise? Perhaps there are such things as objective, definitive lists, but I've yet to see one. Perfection is in the ear of the beholder.

Since Richard writes a brief biographical background to his discovery of Jazz I will too. It goes like this: my school days were rubbish but I had music and Herbie Hancock's fusion track, Hang Up Your Hang-Ups (1975) was the first tune I heard with Jazz chops. Probably. Many earlier Funk bands had Jazz in their blood but if I'd stumbled across instances as a kid I wouldn't have been appreciative. Coincidentally, and to add symmetry to this tale, Herbie Hancock ends my (roughly) chronological list. It more or less ends where I began. Except I didn't begin to listen to Jazz properly until the early-80s. I did listen to a lot of Jazz-Funk in the late-70s, but I'm not opening the can of worms marked 'Definition of Proper Jazz'. No, sir.

After Punk music began to lose it's buzz for me. Combined with having entered the world of Work, you can imagine the state I was in. I probably survived on a diet of all that I'd grown to love in the 70s, along with a few contemporary tasty morsels such as Defunkt and Rip Rig & Panic. I often think it was a guide to Jazz in the NME that must have triggered my interest, although I can't find a date for that feature. Home-grown star Courtney Pine was on their cover in 1986, but I was lost in Jazz Land by then.

Something clicked. It was the sound of a light going on; one that illuminated the vast mansion of Jazz (eh?). It's a strange building, as if imagined by William Hope Hodgson or Mark Z. Danielewski, by which I mean its walls melt, rooms shift, perspectives are altered and weird tunnels are found. If you hate Free Jazz, as many do, there is also much to terrify listeners lurking in this place.

As my own personal chronology would have it I was lucky enough to see a few of the remaining legends 'live' in the 80s. Art Blakey at Camden's Electric Ballroom being one highlight. Also the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, George Russell, Cedar Walton's trio featuring Billy Higgins and Slim Gaillard (a legend in our eyes, anyway).

The list is roughly chronological and stops in the early-70s. No vocal tracks, unless you count Archie Shepp's Blasé. They aren't what I consider to be the best of each artist, simply choices made after a little thought and rifling through my collection, of course. It may only be a list, yes another list, but just looking at it makes me feel good, never mind listening. It's a roll call of those who have served me so well over the last three decades. Thinking about time, perhaps it's 33 years since it all began for me...what a coincidence.

If you want to read more of what I think about Jazz (post-WW2) there's the book, Points Of Departure. Like this list, it's my experience of the music and in no way attempts to be an objective history. That would be too sensible and music, in various ways, should knock us all senseless. Right?

1. Bix Beiderbecke - Humpty Dumpty
2. Louis Armstrong - West End Blues
3. Duke Ellington - Cotton Tail
4. Sidney Bechet - Love for Sale
5. Charlie Parker - Ornithology
6. Dizzy Gillespie - Manteca
7. Thelonious Monk - Misterioso
8. Bud Powell - Bouncing With Bud
9. Bill Evans - Waltz for Debby
10. Dave Brubeck - Blue Rondo A La Turk

11. Charles Mingus - II B.S.
12. John Coltrane - Mr. Day
13. Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers - Noise In The Attic
14. Cecil Taylor - Luyah! The Glorious Step
15. Ornette Coleman - Blues Connotation
16. Horace Silver - The Natives Are Restless Tonight
17. Art Farmer & Benny Golson Jazztet - Killer Joe
18. The Train and the River - Jimmy Giuffre
19. Wes Montgomery - Full House
20. Wayne Shorter - Footprints

21. Oliver Nelson - Stolen Moments
22. Eric Dolphy - Hat and Beard
23. Andrew Hill - Black Fire
24. Alice Coltrane - Journey In Satchidananda
25. The Modern Jazz Quartet - Django
26. Roland Kirk - Rip, Rig & Panic
27. Miles Davis - E.S.P
28. Art Ensemble Of Chicago - Urban Magic
29. Chico Hamilton - Conquistadores
30. Archie Shepp - Blasé
31. Eddie Harris - Listen Here
32. Sun Ra - Where Pathways Meet
33. Herbie Hancock - Ostinato (Suite For Angela)


  1. A really interesting list. I know a fair bit of this stuff, but what I don't I'll certainly be checking out on your recommendation. My journey to Jazz (Defunkt, Rip Rig & Panic, James Chance & the Contortions, The Box, etc) sounds curiously similar to yours, except that my 'real Jazz' intro was via 'Kind of Blue', purchased for a friend who'd asked for it as a Christmas present. I listened to it out of curiosity before wrapping it. He didn't end up getting a Christmas present that year.

  2. Ha-ha! Great story. RR&P's presence encouraged a lot of people, I'm sure, musically and in interviews, dropping names like Roland Kirk and Don Cherry. Those bands sent many of us on a long journey.

  3. Thanks for this, both for your thoughts and for the tip to the Brody list. Your post spurred me on to lots of thoughts, and I'm working on a list of my own as a result. I was lucky enough to get exposed to jazz first through "Mingus Dynasty" when I was 10 or so (my dad got it through the Columbia Record Club when it first came out), but I didn't follow up until I got into Coltrane and Miles via Santana.

    1. Hi Sam - us fans could produce 33 lists of 33 'perfect' Jazz tracks, of course, as long as the Don't Repeat An Artist rule is abandoned. It was that which made the list a challenge, though, rather than the easy task of picking the best Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman etc. It took me to other places in my listening history, where firm personal favourites came into play as opposed to obvious 'classics' according to critics. Therefore it became more unique to me. I look forward to your list, regardless of Art Blakey being absent.

    2. Hi, Robin, just wanted to let you know that I finally came up with my list:
      Thanks so much for the inspiration! To me it was challenging enough to simply remember everything I wanted to include, so I didn't give myself the extra burden of restrictions like you did. Then again, I find myself listening to the same narrow range of folks over and over, so I don't feel so bad about repeating artists. I also discovered that for me, a fair amount of obvious "classics" and personal favorites overlap. I do note there are 3 overlaps with your list. All in all, good stuff!


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