Sinatra at 80: Frank Swings

Add to the ever growing number of 12-step programs Accompa­nists Anonymous. AA, a semi­-fictional organization founded by some of New York’s finest jazz musicians, is dedi­cated to helping instrumentalists avoid the frustrations of accompanying singers. Many jazz musicians don’t like singers, and some will go to great lengths to avoid play­ing for them. Not without rea­son. Most singers haven’t taken the time to develop the skills required to communicate musical ideas, especially within the frame­ work of jazz. Frank Sinatra is a rare excep­tion. If you asked him, he probably wouldn’t refer to himself as a jazz musician, yet many jazz musicians credit him with having made tremendous contributions to this art form. His artistry encompasses much of what jazz musicians strive for.

Sinatra’s mastery lies in his ability to communicate the true meaning of a song in its complete form, the music and lyrics simultaneously, without sacrificing the im­portance of one for the other. His vocal quality, intonation, diction, phrasing, and sense of swing are integrated and balanced in a way that has brought us unequaled per­formances of American popular songs.

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Some of Sinatra’s most memorable recorded performances were made in the late 1950s and 1960s, a period during which he released recordings first for Capi­tol Records and later his own label, Reprise Records. By this time in his career he had cultivated and refined the skills that created the sound and style that defined him from the beginning.

Frank’s earliest recordings for Victor and Columbia are certainly pleasant. He always sang in tune and with a beautiful sound. But in those early years, Sinatra was in many ways underde­veloped. He definite­ly lacked the swing feel that would later become one of his trademarks. And in the early 1940s recordings with Tommy Dorsey, discerning listeners will notice how long he sus­tained notes and how much vibrato he used. Frequently, singers become overly fo­cused on the sound of their own voices. They seem to be listening to themselves singing instead of focusing on delivery of the music (cf., just about any Broadway cast album or cabaret record). As a result, they tend to make themselves more important than the song. Frank wasn’t en­tirely guilty of this. But occasionally, on his early records, one detects an unmistakable self-consciousness in the way he projects his voice. He was much more of a “crooner” in those days, at times even corny. But the feeling generated by the Dorsey rhythm section and the style of those orchestrations required him to ap­proach the vocal line as he did. And so even in these early record­ings we hear evidence of one of Sinatra’s most important attribut­es: He always maintains a strong musical relationship with his ac­companiment.

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The time spent with the Tommy Dorsey band allowed Sinatra to obtain and refine much of the technical and musical material that would later be part of his style and repertoire. (His later vocal per­formances are saturated with big band swing rhythms and jazz articulation and phrasing.) That kind of information can on­ly be acquired by observing instrumental­ists. Saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, who played with Sinatra in 1959 and 1960 dur­ing his tour with Red Norvo, recalls: ”Frank used to always tell us that he learned a lot while he was on the Dorsey band. Es­pecially about breathing. In those days the singers always sat up on the stage with the band during the instrumental numbers. Frank said he used to sit there and watch the way Dorsey’s back would fill up with air between phrases.”

In 1957 Sinatra released A Swingin’ Affair for Capitol, and from that point on listeners become aware of a change. The voice was deeper, richer, more resonant. He had become direct, us­ing less vibrato, not “singing” as much. By the mid 1960s, a new Frank Sinatra had completely emerged, his groove deeper than ever!

That groove is a big part of what distinguishes Sinatra from every­one else. At some point between the late ’50s and early ’60s, he realized that for vocalists the key to swinging lies more in where you stop the note than in where you start it. This bit of informa­tion is something many other singers simply haven’t learned. One way Sinatra discontin­ues the sound is through his use of dic­tion, especially conso­nant sounds. When a word ends with a con­sonant, the note that accompanies it can eas­ily be stopped. A sound that has a clear­ly defined ending has rhythmic value and therefore can be in­corporated into the groove of a song. In Sinatra’s case, this is usually a swing feel.

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Critics can object all they want to Frank replacing a the with a that in the lyric of a song. But those mannerisms can’t always be dismissed as tough guy stuff. Frank knows that a word with a defined stop, like that, swings more than a word that hangs in the air, like the. It func­tions as part of the rhythm, part of the swing groove. Many singers don’t swing because they sustain notes so long that they sabotage the rhythmic relationship between the vocal line and the music’s pulse. They don’t partake in the primary ingredient in music: rhythm.

Listen to “A Foggy Day,” from the 1961 Reprise album Ring-A-­Ding-Ding. The accompaniment in the first chorus is played in a broken­-two feeling by the rhythm section. Sinatra sings fluidly with a legato approach, and his voice is cush­ioned by the strings and saxo­phones, playing sustained notes. In the second chorus, the groove changes to a four feeling, as the strings are replaced with brass and long notes are sub­stituted with shorter ones. Accordingly, Frank shortens his notes and adjusts his rhythmic placement, fully participating in the newly established swinging groove. The rhythms he chooses are generally tra­ditional big band swing figures, and they are always calculatedly and confidently po­sitioned within the structure of the accompaniment.

The swing of Frank Sinatra is beauti­fully captured on the Reprise recordings where he’s featured with Count Basie’s band. Frank sings rhythmic figures in very much the same way that the band plays them. They have the same time-feel and produce a powerful sensation of swing. For that reason the Sinatra-Basie sessions, es­pecially It Might as Well Be Swing and Sinatra at the Sands, are among the fa­vorite recordings of jazz musicians. Saxo­phonist Bob Berg, known for his work with Chick Corea and Miles Davis as well as his own bands, is an avid fan: “To me, Frank Sinatra is the perfect singer, the Rolls­-Royce of singers. And you know, it’s really amazing how many jazz musicians love Sinatra. Miles really liked Frank. I remem­ber him telling me to check out the way Frank phrases.”

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Without question, phrasing is one of the most challenging aspects of vocal per­formance. We all phrase when we speak — ­spoken language has starting and stopping points, long and short sounds, antecedents and consequences, inflection, cadences, and natural places to breathe. These compo­nents also exist in music. Songs are con­structed by combining musical language (a series of organized sounds) with spoken language (a series of organized words). The key to Sinatra’s masterful phrasing is that he has a command of both languages and can speak them simultaneously. (No easy task, and one that can get especially com­plicated when the words and music were not written at the same time or suggest contrary intentions.) The truth is very few people can really do it. But Sinatra does it effortlessly, and with tremendous regard for the intentions of the composer and lyricist.

Sinatra’s bilingual abilities are exquis­itely demonstrated on the 1963 Reprise re­lease, The Concert Sinatra, a collection of eight beautifully performed compositions flawlessly orchestrated by Nelson Riddle. These recordings exemplify Sinatra’s mas­tery of the delicate balance between words and music, and demonstrate how, perhaps more than any other singer, he understands the ways they connect. The bulk of his recorded work is a catalogue of unsur­passed renditions of songs. His innate tal­ent and his cultivated skills are worthy of the highest admiration. His performances have educated generations of musicians, es­pecially jazz musicians. At a Carnegie Hall concert in the early 1980s, Micky Weisman, who was part of Sinatra’s management team, ran into Miles Davis in the cafe, and they had a conversation that confirmed Bob Berg’s recollection. “He was there with Cicely Tyson. We spoke for a while and I remember he told me, in that raspy voice of his, that he got a lot of his phrasing from listening to Frank’s records. He said he learned a lot from Sinatra.”

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For most musicians, nothing more need be said. In music, as in any art form, the exchange of ideas is fundamental. And though it hasn’t always been acknowledged or understood, Sinatra has made a sub­stantial contribution to the education of countless musicians. If Miles could learn from him, we all can. ❖


Do We Need Another Miles Davis Box Set?

Miles Davis’s autobiography, published two years before his death in 1991, was many things: uncomfortably honest, acerbic, profane, and, yes, funny. For example, in reference to his “second great quintet” from the 1960s, Davis wrote: “I made six studio dates with this group in four years.… And there were some live recordings that I guess Columbia will release when they think they can make the most money — probably after I’m dead.”

He was right, of course. In 2011, Columbia Legacy inaugurated Miles Davis: The Bootleg Series with Live in Europe 1967, a three-CD, one-DVD set of unreleased concerts by that very quintet consisting of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. Two years later, Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 2, arrived with more concert dates, this time featuring the mythic “lost quintet,” made up of Shorter, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, and Dave Holland, a group that never recorded a studio album together. The following year, we got Miles at the Fillmore — Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3, a 1970 recording from the famed East Village hall. In 2015 came a twenty-year survey titled Miles Davis at Newport: 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4. Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5, also from the 1960s, arrived in 2016, the year Don Cheadle’s biopic Miles Ahead hit the screen.

That gets us to Miles Davis & John Coltrane — The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6, which was released on March 23. The Miles Davis vault has proven, yet again, to be the gift that keeps on giving. You can almost hear Miles rasping, “I told you mothafuckers.”

But do we need another box set? And do these collections take attention away from other working musicians? (This is probably a topic for another column, but the short answer is: yes.)

Just when you think it’s another money grab — as Miles implied might happen — you actually find something revelatory in each release. “Miles just keeps growing and growing,” the drummer Jack DeJohnette told writer Josef Woodard, who used the quote in the liner notes to volume two.

Like its predecessors, volume six is pristinely packaged and produced by Steve Berkowitz, Richard Seidel, and Michael Cuscuna, a self-professed “vault rat” who is actually a high-integrity preservationist and historian who also runs the invaluable reissue label Mosaic. Mark Wilder mixed and mastered the set. As with other volumes, Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, wrote the notes. Davis’s children, Erin and Cheryl, and his nephew Vincent Wilburn Jr.  (a drummer in some of Davis’s Eighties bands) are executive producers.

Jazz musician Miles Davis on a JATP concert (Jazz at the Philharmonic). 1960.

The new volume — also available digitally and on vinyl — is a four-CD set of five concerts that were part of the Jazz at the Philharmonic European Tour, which was organized by Norman Granz in the spring of 1960 and also included Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz. It was the last time Coltrane and Miles performed live together before the tenor saxophone star left to start his own quartet. On the tour, Coltrane and Davis play alongside Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums — the same group, sans Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley, who recorded Kind of Blue the previous year.

A drawback is that the set contains no new work. Previous volumes included never-before released material. Two of them even came with DVDs of live shows. The last one, Freedom Jazz Dance, had unreleased studio takes and banter among bandmates, mainly from the Miles Smiles recording session in 1966.

True to the “bootleg” theme, volume six contains work that was poorly produced and has awful cover art, but that has been more or less available either on vinyl or CD for many years. For instance, the April 8, 1960, Zurich concert from this tour — not included in this set — was put out in 2012 by a label called In Crowd Records. The cover had a photo of a blurry New York building in the snow. (Snow being synonymous with Switzerland, apparently.) Many fans already have some of these records, despite how badly they look and sound. As recently as 2014, the U.K. label Acrobat released eight concerts from the tour.

Even something that looks like a new find on The Final Tour — a rare six-minute interview with John Coltrane on Swedish radio — has been available on vinyl since 1985 from the Swedish label Dragon. Recently, the much longer, and more revealing, hour-long 1966 interview with Frank Kofsky became available from the Pacifica Radio Archives.

Of course, the 1960 performances — two from a March 21 Paris appearance, two from Stockholm the following night, and one from Copenhagen on March 24 — are phenomenal. (And it’s only fair that the Davis and Coltrane estates get to reclaim them from some of those other dodgy outlets.)

At first, Coltrane — who released his own landmark album, Giant Steps, earlier in the year — didn’t want to go on the tour. But Davis persuaded him.

Maybe he didn’t really want to be there, or maybe, as he told the Swedish interviewer, “I’m trying so many things at one time. I haven’t sorted them out.” But his solos, bashful and achingly beautiful at the beginning with lush half-notes, become excessively verbose with an onslaught of sixteenth notes and then turn obstreperous, with the cries and honks that would anticipate his work to come.

Some in the Parisian crowd didn’t appreciate his approach and whistled — the European equivalent of booing — several times, most notably on “Bye Bye Blackbird.” This may have been less about Coltrane and more about the French, who can be an ornery bunch. The Scandinavian audiences instead applauded politely, even during one of Coltrane’s typically digressive solos on “So What” in Stockholm (on disc four in the set).

The rhythm section does not merely act like the other three players on the court with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. They cook, just as a trio — with Davis and ’Trane stepping back — for about four minutes during the version of “So What” on the opening disc from Paris. Their performance alone would’ve been worth the price of admission. Kelly had an elegant touch that Davis loved from his pianists, Cobb kept an irrepressible groove, and Chambers was piquant and articulate, whether playing pizzicato or arco, which he does often throughout the set — and he’s even more spirited on the set from the next night in Stockholm.

It’s interesting to wonder where the Bootleg Series might venture next. In 1996, Columbia — with whom Miles had a thirty-year relationship, from 1955 to ’85, which didn’t end entirely amicably — issued a collection of his exceptional work with his close collaborator and friend Gil Evans, which included plenty of alternate takes. This came a year after the release of the massive Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 set.

What else is left? Two possible periods to dig through are just before his self-imposed exile in 1975 and post-comeback in 1981. Critics and fans split their opinions about these periods. Some didn’t consider it jazz, or worse, saw it as the work of a sellout, which is ridiculous. I love both of those chapters in his career, especially the former, when Miles, who dabbled with the organ then, used a troupe of talented if not conventional post-bop musicians like Pete Cosey, James Mtume, Sonny Fortune, Michael Henderson, Dave Liebman, and Azar Lawrence. The 1975 concerts from Osaka, Japan — Agharta and Pangaea — are mesmerizing; and there were other recorded sessions from that era that could provide bootleg material, regardless of whether a nugget from Avery Fisher Hall already appears on volume four. The terrific drummer Al Foster played in those pre-’75 groups and was the only one to return after the comeback, along with now-legendary guitarist John Scofield, electric bassist Marcus Miller (the nephew of Wynton Kelly), and the late tenorman Bob Berg. There could, and perhaps should, be some gold there, too.

Whatever it is, whenever it is, I can’t wait to hear what’s next.


Ron Carter Big Band

A great bassist is like a great catcher, essential and often overlooked. Whether they know it or not, everyone has heard Ron Carter. It might be with the second great Miles Davis Quintet, or on A Tribe Called Quest’s groundbreaking crossover opus, The Low End Theory. Everyone else has heard him on Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” He’s been on about 2,500 others. In 2011, he released Ron Carter’s Great Big Band, the group’s debut album. Updated arrangements of standards by the Dorsey Brothers, Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie meet more modern fare from old Carter collaborators Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard.

Aug. 26-31, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2014


Wes Craven: I Always Encouraged Robert Englund to Make Freddy Krueger His Own

Despite some reluctance, Wes Craven is a name-brand filmmaker. The phrase “Wes Craven Presents” comes with certain expectations thanks to the financial success of the Scream franchise and The Hills Have Eyes series before that. But what cemented Craven’s reputation is A Nightmare on Elm Street, a deathless cycle of films that he only directed and scripted two installments of. In time for the release of commemorative documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, the Voice talked to Craven about how star Robert Englund’s performance is like Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, which porno films Craven worked on, and why Her is actually a horror film.

In Never Sleep Again, one of Nightmare on Elm Street‘s cast members says that on set, she would ask you questions about what’s going on in the film, and you told her, “I can’t explain it; it’s just a dream.” You’ve also said that the process of making a horror film brings you, your cast, and crew together because it’s a controlled environment where you express otherwise terrifying experiences. Is not knowing how to neatly process what’s happening in the moment part of that bonding experience, or, in your words, that “catharsis”?

That’s strange. Sometimes I hear a free-floater say something that I said on the set, but that wasn’t a real saying! [laughs] I usually have very pithy explanations for everything on the set. But [Nightmare on Elm Street] was the first film in which I dealt with the dream state. Some of it was based on knowledge — the dreams I’ve had — and some of it was based on intuition. So most of that is too lengthy to explain to an actor or actress on the set. I tried to tell the actors everything they need to know about what’s going in their teenage lives at that moment. It was its own reality.

Can you think of an example of when your cast brought something of their own experiences to their roles that you hadn’t anticipated?

As a director you’re always trying to do that. For instance, with Robert Englund, I always encouraged him to make [Freddy] his own. In fact, from casting on, I realized the power of that man. He was ready, and enthusiastic about exploring that persona in a way that came from his own imagination, as well as mine. The physicality of the character, for instance, was not necessarily on the page; much of it was was Robert experimenting and improvising based on a theme. It’s a little bit like Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. The melody lines for that album’s songs were very simple, and they had these great players go into the recording studio — John Coltrane and Gil Evans and so forth — and they came out with something that’s based on the melody lines, but everybody brought their own genius to it through improvisation. That was the secret of that film in Robert’s case; he was able to take the ball and run with it.

When they’re criticized, horror films and porn are often conflated. You’ve directed both kinds of film: Do you think people watch both types of films in the same way?

In the overall history of porn, it’s about satisfying the physical urge. With horror, people call certain subgenres of horror films “torture porn” because they seem to indulge in grotesqueness, or exploitation of characters, or scenes of torture. I think people want to be taken into a different world that is unique and exciting because it’s different. But on some level — and this is something I’ve always felt — it has to be related to something very real to the audience, both consciously and subconsciously: for instance, the world of dreams. The power of the nightmare is that it addresses something that is universally recognized. In that sense, it’s very real, but not something that’s normally treated as reality. That’s a profoundly important world, it’s just not easily explained or mapped out by the rational mind of human beings.

There’s one scene in New Nightmare where Dylan, Heather Langenkamp’s character’s son, tries to process his father’s death by reaching out to God on the playground, but he becomes disillusioned. What was a major moment for you when your faith was shaken? Are you at all religious or spiritual?

[Laughs] I’m not religious now, but I was raised in the fundamentalist world of a strict Baptist church. Where we lived, it was everything, so when we were shooting that scene, tears came to my eyes. That was me — that was a part of me, a child reaching out to God and wondering, “Well, where is God?” There was certainly a point in my life where I thought, “The God people talk about is a God I can’t touch, I can’t find.” Not to say that I now feel that there’s nothing transcendent in the world. Anything having to do with the living film is astonishing. I don’t have the religious thing of looking to the Pope, or looking to a religious figure for a concept of what God is. But religious teachings of what’s most important in life, or one’s conducts — those teachings have never left me. I was raised on the teachings of Jesus, whether or not he was an actual living man, let alone the son of God. That way of looking at the world has never really left me.

Many of your recent films — even as far back as A Vampire in Brooklyn — seem to exist in an ahistorical setting. In light of how New Nightmare suggests that movies continue a mythic tradition, are all of your films a direct reflection of the time when they were made?

All of them are direct responses to the contemporary world. [Last House on the Left] was reflecting on the Vietnam War: all the lies the government told us, the cravenness of fighting Communism, and breaking all the rules while pretending we’re doing everything according to the rules. That’s why we have a whole generation of Vietnam veterans trying to deal with the psychological consequences of what they had to endure in that war. Now it’s the Gulf War, and the war in Afghanistan, and that will be reflected in our contemporary Homeland–type dramas, and Lone Survivor, and in horror films, too. All horror films are contemporary in that, while they may be set in Dracula’s time, they are about the subtext in culture at the time. Vampires are huge now while we have a whole generation of brokers on Wall Street that shaped our economy. And zombies … I think people have a sense that we’re sleepwalking through life.

Max Brooks has a new comic called The Extinction Parade that pits vampires against zombies as a kind of class warfare: The upper class preying on the middle class now have to face the consequences of their action — zombies. Can you think of a recent example of a film that really impressed you with how it reshapes the contemporary subtext you spoke of?

I’ll give you an off-the-wall example: Her wasn’t a horror film, but in a sense it was. You see this troubled zombie-ism happening electronically, with an operating system taking over not only a character’s life, but everyone around him is talking to their OSes. [laughs] That’s a very subtle horror film, when you start to realize that the very essence of human interconnectivity can be subverted by a parasitical operating system that feeds off human beings, and then just drops them. I think there’s much less of a dividing line between horror and any kind of psychological drama because psychological dramas taps into something like the dream-world.

Are we ever going to find out what you contributed to Deep Throat?

I’d like to know myself! [laughs] I think I gave a quote to a documentary.

Inside Deep Throat.

Yeah. But I didn’t work on that film. We might have been in a nearby studio, but that’s about it.

What about working with [Friday the 13th director] Sean Cunningham on porn like The Fireworks Woman?

[Laughs] I might have directed that one. But apart from that one, I didn’t make any others. But I might have directed that one.


Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die

Because there are multiple decades of jazz, it’s almost impossible to pick the top ten albums of all time; the hip cats with their canes and cool shades will throw their used saxophone reeds in my direction and call me a young whippersnapper.

But so many people out there, young or even a bit older, are curious about jazz, and they’re not exactly sure where to start. Think of this as a jazz bucket list, filled with masterpieces of a true American music. Let’s go!

10. Ornette Coleman
The Shape of Jazz to Come

The title of this album, when it came out in 1959, was the equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing to the fences or Muhammad Ali proclaiming he was the greatest.  It was an album that said, you hear this sound, you hear what I’m laying down, everything is about to change. Ornette Coleman went from playing the sax to the trumpet, and he received scorn from Miles Davis who publicly questioned Coleman’s sanity and technical ability.  And because the album is often credited as being the anchor to avant-garde jazz albums, it might just sound a bit strange to the newbie’s ear.  But Coleman was trying to move away from tradition, shattering conventional ideas of harmony and axing the piano, to create a new dimension of sound.  Give it a shot — free of expectations.

9. Sonny Rollins
The Bridge

When you put on The Bridge, take a tumbler of whiskey and imagine you’re staring out at New York City.  After a sabbatical from music, Sonny Rollins returned triumphantly in 1962 with this work, whose title track was named after the Williamsburg Bridge, which connects Manhattan to Brooklyn. It’s where Rollins used to head to practice.  He’s a sax player who wanted to be his own man, an individual.  This album is accessible to the novice.

8. Herbie Hancock
Head Hunters

Herbie Hancock helped bring the synthesizer and the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano to mass appeal. This 1973 album was influenced by Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone.  Even if you don’t like jazz but you love funk and soul, you’ll likely enjoy this one. At one point, Head Hunters was the best selling jazz album of all time.  Be warned though, there is experimentation happening here. Still, the funky drums should keep you driving forward.

7. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Ella and Louis

Imagine it’s a Friday morning, and you have the day off.  It’s you and your significant other. You have nowhere to go, and it’s raining.  Well, this is the album you need to be playing to create that perfect atmosphere — an album with so much space, soaring trumpet solos, and a duet so unique and soulful even a jazz newbie can’t ignore its grip on their heartstrings. It’s a 1956 album dripping with nostalgia.  Plus, the band features Oscar Peterson (piano) and Buddy “Freaking” Rich (drums). Best to listen to an album with such a dreamy atmosphere to ensure, at least once, that you feel romantic and drenched in “Moonlight in Vermont.”

6. Miles Davis
Bitches Brew

I’m not saying that you have to like this album.  But it’s one you just have to listen to before you die; it’s kind of like looking at Abstract Expressionism or listening to Morton Feldman — it just might not jive with you.  Bitches Brew was released in 1970.  The first time I heard this album, I thought it was a joke.  In fact, I was kind of pissed.  Where was the melody?  Where was the catchy rhythm?  Well, it’s so shocking the first time you hear it that it forces you to question what jazz and music can be.  It makes you think about structure and limitations of our current music.  The prison of the human ear.  Ah, enough of that.  Just listen to the album.  Chaos and cacophony defined.

5. The Thelonious Monk Quartet
Monk’s Dream

Probably one of the hippest figures in jazz, Thelonious Monk was a genius who was able to see notes on the piano that didn’t even exist in Western music. When he would sit down on the piano, he would strike two half notes (notes next to each other that sound awful when played together) to simulate the imaginary notes between the two piano keys.  He was so out there and amazing, and Monk’s Dream (1963) is just one example, an imprint of strange and beautiful blaps and boops that were being electrified in his mind. The work is about color; it’s a visual experience as much as an auditory one.

4. The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Time Out

This 1959 album was the soundtrack for parties in New York City and the staple in any bachelor pad.  Without it juicing the sophisticated and artsy minds of New Yorkers and beatniks alike, many of us probably wouldn’t have been born.  At the time, it was considered an artsy piece, but today, the deviation from standard time and the hip swing might just feel traditional. Songs like “Take Five” have been ubiquitous in our culture — movies, television, and (sadly) malls.  It’s an album that screams Don Draper and nightcaps.  Check it out and find yourself whisked away to another time and place.

3. Charles Mingus
Ah Um

Charles Mingus is the godfather of the upright bass, and in 1959, he put out Ah Um, which many consider to be a masterpiece and cemented his status as a legendary composer.  He combined elements of gospel and blues.  The opening track, “Better Get It Into Your Soul,” is not just a ruckus jubilation; it’s a command — the driving brass, the dixie-land rapture and the voice calling out in joy — to stop doing whatever you’re doing and take into your heart and body this music. It’s a roller coaster ride through fast and slow tempos, cacophony and perfect harmony, and a touch of madness.

2. John Coltrane
Blue Train

John Coltrane is clearly one of the leaders of the jazz identity.  If you think about the course of hip-hop, then can you really imagine groups like Tribe Called Quest or even someone like Tupac without a cultural and musical prophet like Coltrane?  Of course, A Love Supreme is an incredible album, but Blue Train just has so much life and color that it’s impossible to ignore.  Recorded in 1957 on Blue Note, Blue Train was Coltrane’s favorite album. It will likely become one of yours soon, too.

1. Miles Davis
Kind of Blue

I can still remember the first time I heard this album.  I was 17, and I was driving my Subaru Legacy Wagon in the rain.  I drove the car to my grandparent’s house, and put it on.  It was only about a five-minute drive, but I ended parked outside of their house, the windshield wipers swatting away rain — the album blaring.  I sat in the driveway until the album ended, and, well, music was never the same for me.  It’s a composition, released in 1959, that is often considered the definitive jazz album.  Honestly, there are some jazz purists who probably would die if they found out our generation was unfamiliar with it.  Just listen to who was featured: Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb. If you’re about to go sky diving, and you’re not sure if you’re going to survive, play this album on the car ride over. Why is it so great? Let’s not try to put it into words. It might be something unsayable.

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Buster Williams

In a multi-generational career bridging the swing-era stylings of Sarah Vaughan, the hard bop of Dexter Gordon, the electric incarnation of the Miles Davis Quintet, the free jazz of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and years of avant-garde fusion with Herbie Hancock, Buster Williams is an axis mundi of the jazz world. Or maybe just the jazz version of Rufus from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Confounding the ambiguous definition of jazz at the time that he’s embodying it, Williams walks the meanest basslines and sits harder than anyone on bass pedals into oblivion. But no matter how far out he takes it, he always returns to the source.

Fri., Feb. 10, 8 & 10 p.m., 2012


Club d’Elf

Led by Mike Rivard on bass and three-stringed sintir, this Boston quartet’s most recent album, Electric Moroccoland/So Below, combines rolling Moroccan trance rhythms with sci-fi keyboards courtesy of John Medeski, who also guests tonight. Expect a psychedelic/futurist take on electric Miles Davis and feel free to request their streetwise chaabi versions of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Morphine’s “Rope on Fire.”

Sun., Dec. 11, 10 p.m., 2011


Wayne Shorter Quartet

Vanguard tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who wrote classic compositions for Miles Davis before he got funky and Buddhist, takes influence from Hollywood musicals and Gershwin tunes but turns them on their head. Many listeners have compared him to the auditory equivalent of a Pollock painting. And yet, at 80 years old, he’s still whipping old melodies into something new through his plaintive horn. Tonight, hear “Mr. Weather Report” and enter the eye of the storm.

Wed., Feb. 9, 8 p.m., 2011


Elevator to the Gallows

Dir. Louis Malle (1957).
Louis Malle’s schematic thriller, starring the young Jean Moreau as a wanton wife looking to dispose of her spouse, is lifted toward greatness by one of the most electrifying jazz scores ever—supposedly improvised by Miles Davis in a single, all-night recording session.

Tue., Jan. 11, 12:30 & 7:30 p.m., 2011


Hex Breaker Quintet+Mark Morgan

One of the more stunning configurations to come from the ever-burbling Brooklyn noise scene is the Hex Breaker Quintet, a quartet comprised of the trumpet duo Grasshopper and mystic synth-forgers Telecult Powers. An easy comparison is to the chopped-up jams of late ’60s Miles Davis, but the four push further into abstraction, a distant sweetness, like the vintage sci-fi animation that Telecult’s Mr. Matthews sometimes projects during their sets. Opening with a solo set is Mark Morgan, one-third of Sightings and one of the city’s unsung guitar deconstructivists. With Tiger Hatchery & Weasel Walter.

Wed., Feb. 10, 9 p.m., 2010