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Rough Guide to Jazz

Emily Wolfin

Jazz was forced on me as a child and I really, really hated it. I remember my uncontainable delight as my brother sneakily replaced our usual drive-to-school Bill Evans album ‘Eloquence’ with Newport’s finest, Goldie Lookin Chain’s ‘Your Missus Is A Nutter’ (a timeless banger… check ’em out). However, nowadays I would respond to the 2007 cult classic Bee Movie’s protagonist Barry Benson’s flirty conversation starter “ya like jaaaazz?” with much more enthusiasm than my nine-year-old self. 

I’m not a musician, and by no means do I understand music on a technical level, but I have put together a few personal favourites that have stuck with me. They range from the more delicate and emotive to some downright groovy tunes – ‘cos you don’t have to “understand jazz” (whatever that means… and kudos if you do) to enjoy it. The selection follows no logical order, and I’ve included mostly contemporary, but also some older tracks. I recommend whacking these on whilst you read for the full experience. 

Keith Jarret - Le Mistral (1974)

Starting his career with Art Blakey’s famous band ‘The Jazz Messengers’ in 1966, Jarret has become one of the jazz greats. Known for his audible grunting and yelping throughout his live performances, contorting his face into expressions no one knew existed, he certainly puts his entire being into his music. This tune is both down-to-earth and bursting with energy, and definitely doesn’t feel nine minutes long. 

Jason Rebello - Summertime (1994) 

This has to be my favourite version of the jazz standard ‘Summertime’, with clear, rich vocals, and the lead singer of Faithless, Maxwell Fraser, rapping over the instrumental. This song is the epitome of smooooth, transporting us to a hot summer’s day in the city, the lyrics reflecting the pleasure in the simplicity of daily life: “Hit the street, feel the warmth of the concrete under my feet. The town’s cooking, mid-summer heat.” Rebello’s piano solo is as effortless as the lyrics - funky, light and spacious.
 

Yusuf Lateef - Love Theme From ‘Spartacus’ (1962)

Taken from the 1960’s film ‘Spartacus’, this song has been covered by a myriad of jazz musicians, including Bill Evans. Lateef’s is the original cover, from his album ‘Eastern Sounds’ and, in my humble opinion, the best. It’s simultaneously melancholic and uplifting, the sound of the oboe haunting and beautiful. Get ready to transcend! (lol). 

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Joey Alexander - Downtime (2020) 

At just seventeen years old, Indonesian piano player Joey Alexander sounds like he’s been playing for a few decades. Initially achieving recognition as a child prodigy, he has made his way into the jazz scene in his own right with his most recent album Warna, meaning colourful in his native language of Bahasa. The vibrant precision of his playing reflects the album title - energising and refreshing, you will not be disappointed.

Brad Mehldau - Paranoid Android (2002)

Known for his adaptations of songs outside the jazz genre, from Nick Drake to The Beatles, Brad transforms this Radiohead classic into something equally beautiful and chaotic as the original. He maintains that he doesn’t cover songs, he interprets them. The word ‘cover’, he explains, “works pragmatically to describe an interpretation of a tune that hasn’t been around long enough to be deemed a (jazz) ‘standard’”. Brad opens his solos with the rhythmic repeated riff that makes the original so powerful, and gradually builds into a hectic soundscape, sending the listener from relative stability to chaos… (of the good kind).

Michel Camilo - Caribe (1988) 

This is from the Latin Jazz pianist, Michel Camilo. Every time I listen to this I get excited; with traditional Latin rhythms, Camilo’s fast-paced, animated playing is exhilarating. The connection between the drummer and pianist is palpable as they repeat phrases to each other towards the latter half of the song in a rhythmic dance. 

Aaron Goldberg - Poinciana (2018) 

Similarly enlivening is this piece from Aaron Goldberg; rhythmically intense piano playing is accompanied by percussionist Leon Parker’s own scat language, loosely drawing from South Indian traditions of Konnakol (the “universal rhythm language”).

Miles Davis Quintet - It Never Entered My Mind (1959) 

Lastly, a delicate one with John Coltrane on tenor sax, I started listening to this on repeat at the start of the first lockdown (sorry… I was trying my best to not mention the dreaded word). Life had come to a halt, and this tune was pretty fitting as I wandered the empty streets of Bristol - a peaceful and uplifting antidote to pandemic-induced solitude.

Illustration thanks to Aurelien Accolas.

If you're a music fan and would like to put together your own rough guide to a genre, city, country or artist, please get in touch to contribute to this series: helicon.magazine@gmail.com. The collection will be published in a print zine by the end of the academic year.