The State of Jazz Under Social Distancing + 15 Album Recommendations for WICN Listeners

Written by on March 28, 2020

All of us have had to adjust to the “new normal” during this coronavirus pandemic. As with previous world-impacting events, music certainly has (and can) play a vital role in relaxing, rejuvenating and providing us an escape from the stress and challenges facing us now, if even for a moment or two.

Fortunately, with free music outlets such as Spotify for streaming your favorite tunes, Jazz listeners have a wealth of choices for music access and can create their own playlists and virtual stations – while, of course, continuing to listen to and support WICN!

The economic impact of the sudden loss of jobs along with the temporary restrictions on daily life is affecting every family and business, large or small. Additionally, in the field of music, most Jazz performers significantly depend on live performances for their income. Therefore, even though Spotify and other music-streaming outlets provide listeners with easy access to music, it remains critically important, particularly now, for us to band together as a community and support musicians’ livelihood.

Now, live-streaming events are occurring in place of actual concert attendance, with yet more outlets to be launched. Allaboutjazz.com, an internationally recognized dynamo website, delivering all aspects of Jazz online, has started to offer musicians free uploads of information regarding upcoming live-stream events. Also, music-based web sites are developing platforms to deliver live-stream concert broadcasts (some ticketed), which will help generate revenue for Jazz artists.

In the meantime, support your local or regional or national Jazz musician in any way you can!

Here’s a list of 15 Jazz albums, from swing to jazz-rock fusion to orchestral pieces to just pure vocals, that hopefully will unwind, energize or inspire you to reflect back on the songs and lyrics and artists that you personally enjoy. Maybe now is a time to create some playlists of your own and find your Zen using the power of music to soothe your soul during our social distancing era:

  1. The Complete Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong on Verve (Verve, 1997)

Released from studio recordings in ‘56 – ‘57, this was undoubtedly a very special time for a pair of Jazz titans making the songbooks of Gershwin, Berlin, Carmichael, Goodman, and others sound magical and enchanting. More than duets, Fitzgerald and Armstrong reveal unique and beautiful chemistry together.

2. Piano in the Background – Duke Ellington and His Orchestra (Columbia, 1960)

This is a chance for the Duke to show off his keyboard prowess, as each orchestral composition gives the maestro a moment to solo on the Steinway. Stepping away from the arranger role, listeners can greater appreciate the elegance and sophistication of his style, as Ellington takes the lead.

3. Birth of The Cool – Miles Davis (Capitol, 1957)

Three sessions from 1949, and one from 1950 would define the term “Cool Jazz” with stellar accompaniment by arrangers Gil Evans, Bud Powell & Gerry Mulligan, and a musical “A” list including Lee Konitz on sax, Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax, Kal Winding on trombone, Gunther Schuller on French horn and Max Roach on drums, to name a few. Davis takes Bop and marries it to orchestral arrangements and delivers on the horn, and ensemble, a relaxing, stylish mood that became a genre in the 1960s.

4. Time Out – The Dave Brubeck Quartet (Columbia, 1959)

Brubeck and altoist Paul Desmond make a masterpiece highlighted by Take Five and Blue Rondo a la Turk, bringing listeners to a modern beat that’s not strictly Jazz. Desmond’s beautiful tone and phrasing on alto sax soar as Brubeck’s arrangements never stop swinging.

5. Giant Steps – John Coltrane (Atlantic, 1960)

From the title cut, Coltrane with his trios would unleash “sheets of sound,” upending a standard of “easy listening” that Jazz was leaning toward at that time. Recording with Miles Davis on the seminal release Kind of Blue, Coltrane was simultaneously flanked by two trios in ‘59 featuring Tommy Flanagan (piano), Art Taylor(drums), Paul Chambers (bassist) and the 2nd lineup including Wynton Kelly (piano) and Jimmy Cobb (drums). Delivering saxophone solos that were pioneering in their rapid phrasing and improvisation, Coltrane and these two trios blow the roof off the house with their musical intensity.

6. Maiden Voyage – Herbie Hancock (Blue Note, 1965)

Hancock, always reinventing himself and his musical direction, reminds the listener in this post-bop release of his influence under Miles Davis’ modal period on The Birth of Cool. This concept album plays with spaciousness, soft melodies and airy, suspended harmonies. Hancock is an artist who can capture imagery in musical tones, giving form to the sea in these compositions.

7. Red Clay – Freddie Hubbard (Sony Legacy, 1970)

Meshing bebop, soul, and funk, frontman Hubbard and his trumpet leads a top-drawer lineup that takes the title composition and other cuts firmly into the ‘70s Jazz fusion era. Edgy and layered melodies start with bursts of trumpet notes on Red Clay, and the funky side and driving rhythm of this quintet never give up.

8. Heavy Weather – Weather Report (Columbia, 1977)

For Jazz-rock enthusiasts, it all happens here with the genre’s trendsetters: Zawinul, Pastorious, and Shorter delivering powerhouse performance with amazing musicianship and artistic, as well as commercially successful, compositions. De facto band leader Zawinul emerges, on multiple keyboards, as formidable and in command, with brilliant improvisation combined with fretless bass line articulation by Pastorius, along with Shorter’s eloquent tones on tenor sax. Zawinul’s chart-topping Birdland brought crossover commercial success for the band, and the addition of Pastorious would break the mold for the bass as a lead instrument. A landmark release for the Jazz-rock movement.

9. Letter From Home – Pat Metheny Group (Geffen/Columbia, 1989)

Guitar virtuoso Metheny and co-arranger, multi-keyboardist Lyle Myles take another softer Jazz musical journey – but never simplified. This immersive set incorporates a rich Brazilian sound, accompanied by the soaring vocals of percussionist and singer Pedro Anzar. With a sophisticated use of synthesized melody with lots of layers, emotion and feeling are evoked on each cut. Unevenly reviewed by critics, the intricacies and reach of guitar and piano solos do not belong to the derisive “Muzak” tag. The pleasure is in the listening, and the satisfaction is in the places these compositions take you– particularly now.

10. Elegiac Cycle – Brad Mehldau (Warner Brothers, 1999)

Recognized by other musicians as one of the most gifted, searching and inventive pianists since Keith Jarrett, Mehldau’s quiet interlude of solo pieces on this release are complicated, but also plainly beautiful. With comparisons to Chopin, Brahms and Schumann in influence and structure, there is still plenty here for Jazz ears to enjoy. Mehldau’s light deft touch is an easy musical vehicle to escape with.

11. Feels Like Home – Norah Jones (Blue Note, 2004)

Jones’ country soft-toned soothing voice didn’t stop her from mixing Jazz and blues styling into the compositional soup. With special guest performances by Dolly Parton, Levon Helm of The Band and Jazz drummer extraordinaire Brian Blade, Jones adds her personal voicings to each cut, even covering Ellington’s Melancholia, retitled as “Don’t Miss You At All.” The undertones and slow pace of these songs make for a wonderful unwind experience to any stressful day.

12. Esperanza – Esperanza Spaulding (Heads Up, 2008)

At the age of 20, bassist, vocalist and composer Esperanza Spaulding became the youngest instructor in the history of Berklee College of Music. With a lightness and carefree timbre to her voice, Esperanza carries these songs–mostly originals–with a twist of Jazz fusion, Brazilian samba beats and even hip-hop. It’s hard not to sway with the commanding rhythm of these compositions, alternating between calmness and intensity.

13. Liquid Spirit – Gregory Porter (Blue Note, 2013)

Enter into the gospel church of the soulful, passionate and poignant sound of Porter’s voice. Each song rings with meaning and power made richer by the artist’s expression, particularly on No Love Dying and Hey Laura. The lyrics and melodies also combine to match the strength of Porter’s voice. This release is a deliverance of emotion.

14. The Thompson Fields – Maria Schneider Orchestra (ArtistShare, 2015)

Orchestral jazz composer, arranger, conductor and musician Maria Schneider takes you on a pastoral walk through the Midwest farmland of her youth with textures of notes that create a mood for each piece. Beautiful melodies floating on rich chords are found in this ensemble of songs with autobiographical titles linking her memories, such as  Walking by Flashlight and The Monarch and the Milkweed.

15. Dreams and Daggers- Cécile McLorin Salvant (Mack Avenue, 2017)

Winning the Thelonious Monk competition in 2001 for Jazz vocalist and since then receiving accolades from reviewers including the Downbeat Magazine Critic’s Poll, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2016, Salvant’s vocal talent is both technical and lyrical. A 2-disc set that first delivers studio recordings of curated classic standards and several originals, Salvant takes you into the vibe of the Village Vanguard with trademark nuanced phrasing and seductive range. Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald can all be heard in her voicing, but Salvant remains a singular artist through her own unique interpretations.

To quote the master and legend himself, Louis Armstrong, “what we play is life.”

No better advice can be offered about the general nature of Jazz. So, during these challenging times of stay at home orders and social distancing, don’t forget to add the music!


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