My 10 favorite jazz
by Michael Arnowitt
1. Mingus Ah Um
This album has for me the perfect balance of free-blowing improvisation and artistic written-out music, forward-driving swing anchored by Mingus' bass and Dannie Richmond's dynamic drumming and calm repose. Mingus takes the raw wail of the blues and moves it far beyond the usual cliche, back to its expressive roots as the cry of a people.
2. Any recording by the pianist Art Tatum (your choice)
He was the most imaginative pianist ever, by a good margin, and was particularly sensitive to piano textures, creating innovative new sounds using particular regions of the piano. Sadly, most pianists then and now keep their left and right hands locked in the same general place from beginning to end. Tatum's hands were liberated, not self-imposed prisoners.
3. Empyrean Isles
Most jazz players are into simple self-expression. It is the superior musicians who really listen to each other and once in a while a combo comes together with a perfect balance of voices and styles so the whole truly becomes greater than the sum of its parts. This album, with Herbie Hancock (one of my favorite pianists of all time), Freddie Hubbard (one of my favorite trumpeters of all time), and Tony Williams (my absolute favorite drummer of all time) is one such miracle album: I only wish they had recorded it in the days of CDs so they would have had more space to record more tunes.
4. Aura (Miles Davis)
I could say this is my all-time favorite Miles album, but I rather suspect he didn't play a large role in its evolution. It's an amazing suite of pieces, each a depiction of a particular color.
5. Ella Fitzgerald - Here Comes Charlie
An absolutely amazing small combo album. Ella is my favorite jazz singer. To me she has the perfect vibrato, not too much, not too little, and her ability to jump from any note in her range instantly to any other note with absolute solidity of tone made her the finest vocal improviser we have yet had. Her version of "You're My Thrill" on this recording is outstanding.
6. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers - The Jazz Messengers (1956)
I've always been a big Art Blakey fan. This great recording near the beginning of his career with the Jazz Messengers features the quicksilver bop trumpet lines of Donald Byrd. The group is incredibly together: Blakey's drumming provides the group both its energy fuel and its cohesive center.
7. The best of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross
This is just a plain fun compilation of this one-of-a-kind vocal trio who put humorous words to famous instrumental solos. Jon Hendricks' exciting, super-agile performances on "Cottontail" and "" are out of this world.
8. The best of Clifford Brown
I know, I know, everybody's favorite trumpeter these days is Miles. Not me. I'll take Clifford Brown any day of the week. His amazing cross-country rides on the trumpet are pure life-giving. OK, there's a trend here ... Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Clifford Brown - to me, the great virtuosos are not at all "less deep" than the others, but rather the incredible excitement and imagination their superlative skills could tap into give me a musical thrill
9. Portrait in Jazz
I have to agree with the common widsom that Bill Evans' greatest recordings were his early ones. Hif first trio with Scotty LaFaro and Paul Motian has so many incredible cuts on it, featuring the trio's amazing listening skills and some of the best upright bass playing ever recorded, diverse playing in all regions of the instrument and an unparalleled balance of rhythmic activity and calmer longer notes. No wonder Evans was depressed when LaFaro died tragically at such an early age.
10. Bobby McFerrin - The Voice
This live solo album has to be heard to be believed. McFerrin is a one-man band, singing bass line, melody, and comping fragments all by himself with a wonderful spontaneity.