By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 1, 2021)
Officially, yesterday (April 30th) was International Jazz Day for 2021. But as far as I’m concerned, every day should be Jazz Day...and not just for the music. Here’s why:
International Jazz Day brings together communities, schools, artists, historians, academics, and jazz enthusiasts all over the world to celebrate and learn about jazz and its roots, future and impact; raise awareness of the need for intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding; and reinforce international cooperation and communication. Each year on April 30, this international art form is recognized for promoting peace, dialogue among cultures, diversity, and respect for human rights and human dignity; eradicating discrimination; promoting freedom of expression; fostering gender equality; and reinforcing the role of youth in enacting social change.
Sounds like a damn fine plan to me. In honor of Jazz Day, here are 10 of my favorite cuts:
Miles Davis – “Pharaoh’s Dance” – Miles Davis is considered a “jazz” artist, but first and foremost he was an artist; one who defied categorization throughout his career. The influence of his 1970 2-LP set Bitches Brew on what came to be called “fusion” cannot be overstated. But be warned: this is not an album you put on as background; it is challenging music that demands your full attention (depending on your mood that day, it will sound either bold and exhilarating, or discordant and unnerving). Miles always had heavyweight players on board, but the Bitches Brew roster is legend: including future members of Weather Report (Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul), Return to Forever (Chick Corea, Lenny White) and The Mahavishnu Orchestra (John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham) – who are all now acknowledged as key fusion pioneers.
Pat Metheny & Anna Maria Jopek- “So It May Secretly Begin” – This has always been my favorite Metheny instrumental; but it got even better when I recently stumbled onto this breathtaking live version with added vocals, courtesy of the angel-voiced Jopek.
Gil Scott-Heron- “Pieces of a Man” – Gil’s heartbreaking vocal, Brian Jackson’s transcendent piano, the great Ron Carter’s sublime stand-up bass work, and the pure poetry of the lyrics…it’s all so “right”.
Digable Planets- “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”– I caught these guys at a Seattle club in 1993 and became a fan; a unique mashup of hip-hop with traditional jazz instrumentation.
The Style Council- “The Whole Point of No Return” – Spare, beautiful, jazzy, and topped off with his most trenchant lyrics, I think this is Paul Weller’s greatest song.
Barry Miles- “Hijack” – Memorable track from the keyboardist’s self-titled 1970 LP.
Milton Nascimento- “Nothing Will Be As It Was”– Hailing from Brazil, eclectic signer-songwriter Milton Nascimento is a world beat superstar who seamlessly blends jazz, samba, pop and rock into his own distinctive sound. This cut is taken from his 1976 album Milton, which features Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock sitting in.
Brian Auger & the Oblivion Express– “Whenever You’re Ready” – It’s hard to believe that the ace keyboardist and “godfather of acid jazz” is still gigging after 50+ years. In 1991, I had the honor of opening for Auger and Eric Burdon at a concert in Fairbanks, Alaska (I was doing stand-up). This cut is taken from the excellent 1973 Oblivion Express album Closer To It.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra- “Open Country Joy”— What I like the most about jazz is that it’s the most amenable of musical genres. Put it next to anything else: rock, soul, hip-hop, whatever…and then just watch how quickly it absorbs, adopts, and then shapeshifts it into something else altogether. John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, Rick Laird and Jerry Goodman understood this. Here’s a perfect example. As the title implies, it begins as a nice country stroll, then…it blows your fucking mind. From the whisper to the thunder.
George Duke & Feel – “Love”— The late keyboardist extraordinaire George Duke was a versatile player; in addition to the 40+ albums in his catalog, he was equally at home doing sessions with the likes of Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, Third World, and (most famously) he played with Frank Zappa for many years. This cut is from Duke’s 1974 album, Feel. Zappa (credited under the pseudonym “Obdwel’l X”) contributes the lead guitar.
Ryuichi Sakamoto & Kaori Muraji – “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” – While electronica/experimental musician Ryuichi Sakamoto is not considered a jazz artist per se, I hear jazz leanings in some of his compositions. This instrumental, which he composed as the main theme for Nagisa Oshima’s eponymous 1983 WW2 drama, is one example. It’s an achingly beautiful song to begin with, but this live rendition with Sakamoto accompanying Kaori Muraji on guitar is sublime.