After taking a few days off from Facebook, I returned to find that many of my friends (both musicians and not) are posting lists of their top 15 albums that will “always stick with you.” Obviously I enjoy lists and enjoy talking about music that’s important to me. So to have my cake and eat it too, I’m turning that into a top 10 list (with the usual commentary) but will add the next 5 (with less commentary) to appease those friends wanting me to follow the rules.
As for MY rules, these are not necessarily the best albums or even favorites, but the ones that left the most lasting impressions (that I can think of now, anyway – generating the list quickly was part of the original exercise). The top 10 can all be considered equal, and will be listed roughly in chronological order of my getting into them. Likewise, taking the “impact” approach, I’ll discuss my experiences with the albums more than the music itself, hope that’s okay!
1. Stevie Wonder Talking Book
I could’ve chosen a few different Stevie albums (especially Hotter Than July which was in heavy rotation for me when it came out when I was 7), but it started here. Many of you know the story – I saw Stevie performing ”Superstition” on Sesame Street and I had perhaps my biggest epiphany to date, staring slack-jawed at the TV and declaring (to nobody) “that’s what I want to do.” By “that,” I think I meant play awesome music on a keyboard instrument with a strong ear-based attunedness to everything else going on in the ensemble – I know this because I spent years bewildered that traditional musical studies did not seem to be steered towards achieving this goal and seemed in some ways a world apart from little Noah listening to his cassette over and over and identifying every part layered in “Superstition,” though without any vocabulary to define the cool way the low instrument went from something static to that totally awesome thingy along with the horns. The rest of the album is pretty great too, of course.
2. Bob Marley Kaya
This is hardly Marley’s best album, but that’s not much of an insult. This was the other album in heavy rotation at the same time as Hotter Than July, and I particularly loved the songs “Running Away,” “Kaya,” “Crisis” and “Misty Morning,” though the more popular “Is This Love” and “Satisfy My Soul” are of course fabulous as well. This was just before I a) discovered rock radio and b) became an MTV addict (in its early days) and for a while thereafter got most of my music on the airwaves and not through recordings. The songs and singing here are soulful and really catchy. I can’t put my finger on exactly how this impacted me (or my own music) but I think anytime a 7-year-old locks himself in a room and listens to an album over and over, that can’t be discounted, can it?
3. Grateful Dead American Beauty
I was not your typical Deadhead. I went to my first show in 7th grade and went to about 15 total, not counting shows by solo members (interesting side note: the first two times I saw the Jerry Garcia band there were tenor saxophonists in the group – the first time, Clarence Clemons, the second time, David Murray. Anyone familiar with both of those names will recognize the surrealism, but in that context they actually didn’t play that differently from one another). Anyway, considering how much I enjoyed them (and the image – I wore lots of tie-dye and had long hair and so on, though I wasn’t a pot-smoker), and considering I went on to become a jazz musician, one might expect that I was into their extended improvisations. Totally not – I would go to a show hoping to God that they didn’t waste an hour noodling on “Dark Star.” Rather I loved their songs and their approach to playing and (on a good night) singing them – great arrangements, great vocal harmonies, great songwriting. This album (which I remember picking up in 6th grade at “Record World”) is arguably the pinnacle of that.
4. Miles Davis Kind of Blue
When I got to the Educational Center for the Arts (the arts high school in New Haven), our jazz ensemble director, George Raccio, had us get Kind of Blue and learn the first 4 tracks. At various points that term I had to transcribe a couple of the intros, plus Miles’ solo on “Freddie Freeloader.” I listened to the record so much for homework that it didn’t really occur to me for a while how much the music pervaded my consciousness. Enough has been written about this record that I don’t really need to add to it. If somehow you are reading this and don’t own it, you need to stop right now and get it. I’m serious. Why are you still reading this?
5. James Williams Magical Trio 2
I have written about this soulful-yet-modern album a bunch on various other Top 10 posts, but here we go again. Through my friend/classmate Noah Bloom (now an accomplished trumpet player, composer and educator in NY) I discovered James, and went to Cutler’s records and got a couple cassettes, including this one with Elvin Jones and Ray Brown. On first listen, it was clear that I was hearing something new (to me). Up until this point I had a semi-distant admiration for jazz, even as I was studying it. This album was the tipping point where I realized that jazz could actually be a means of expressing the things I had to say. At that point I began to feel driven to learn this vocabulary and didn’t even care how long it took, which as any musicians reading this will know is an essential landmark.
6. Wayne Shorter Juju
My senior year of high school I began playing regularly with saxophonist Jimmy Greene. His own playing was the most inspiring part of this, but a great fringe benefit was grazing off his very hip music collection. I was already somewhat into Wayne Shorter, as the Kind of Blue assignment above led to being assigned most of the tunes on Wayne’s Speak No Evil record (including the mind-bending task of transcribing Wayne’s “Infant Eyes” solo. This one, on cassette, opened up my ears further. I still love all of Wayne’s albums from this era (Adams Apple eventually achieved more or less equal billing in my playlist), but for some reason this one really blew my mind. I was already into McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, and their energy is surely a big part of it. Most of all, I think this record showed me that, unlike something like Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” (which I loved and still love for different reasons) this kind of harmonically advanced language could actually lend itself to a deeper level of emotional expression and lyricism. I didn’t understand how Wayne’s solos and melodies here sounded so advanced and yet so melodic, but I knew I needed to figure it out eventually (and I keep getting closer).
7. Phineas Newborn, Jr. A World of Piano
North Haven High School was not particularly hip (sorry!) but one point in their favor was their library’s decision to subscribe to Downbeat. After I fell in love with James Williams’ music, I saw a Blindfold Test of his, and in it he made reference to some of his heroes, as he so often did. The biggest praise was reserved for Phineas (as was usually the case). Long story short, I special-ordered this LP (the first time I’d ever done that), took it home, and had my mind totally blown. I had already done some studying of the soulful funkiness of Bobby Timmons, the bop fluency and creativity of Bud Powell and the ridiculous chops of Art Tatum, but hearing this album was the moment when I realized that all of these could be brought together in a single performance.
8. Sweet Honey in the Rock We All, Every One of Us
I honestly don’t remember from whom I first heard about Sweet Honey in the Rock, the all-female African American a cappella group (plus a sign language interpreter). What I do remember is that I was on the lookout for their music for a while, as was the case with many dozens of other artists for whom the word of mouth led me to expect I would instantly fall in love with their music. Usually I did not, but here is one of the best examples of an exception, the likes of which explains why I still take word of mouth seriously even though it’s statistically likely I’ll dislike the music. Anyway, I found this album on one of my periodic bus-pilgrimages to the Princeton Record Exchange. It turned out to be one of those albums whose layers emerged with repeated listening, but the first listen was enough for this music to get permanently under my skin. Some of their music takes the politics to a level that (in my opinion) compromises the aesthetics a bit, but it seems like virtually every song on this album is achingly beautiful and makes you think really hard about injustice and what we can do about it. “More Than A Paycheck” and “Battle For My Life” are standouts in this regard, though the real piece de resistance is longtime leader Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “Ella’s Song,” a setting of various choice quotes by civil rights activist Ella Baker. If listening to this song does not inspire you to do something, then you should consider spending some more time away from the television and re-acquainting yourself with human beings.
9. John Coltrane A Love Supreme
This is placed here with a sort of asterisk, as it would actually be maybe #5 on the list based on when I first heard it. Upon listening to it that time, I thought “what the $#%*! IS this?” and did not listen again until I was well into college. The most obvious explanation for this initial response was that I did not yet have the vocabulary to accept this level of dissonance, but I don’t think that’s it, as there was comparably dissonant music that did not provoke the same response. I think I was simply not ready for that level of emotional intensity. When I tried again in college, I was instantly taken with the emotional vulnerability and catharsis, not to mention the astounding musicianship, and this album became my template for how to really “go for it” and empty the tank for one’s audience.
10. Joni Mitchell Court and Spark
For some reason, I snoozed on Joni Mitchell until I was in graduate school. I heard one of her ‘80s albums and thought “ho hum” and I heard a track from Blue and thought it was fine, but it was not presented in a way that inspired me to seek out more. In my defense, I grew up listening to classic rock radio, and this was before it became as hip for jazz musicians to dig Joni, so I literally had never heard any of these songs, even the hits (“Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris”), when I took this out of the library on a whim. It only took me one listen to wonder how I had managed to go so long without hearing this music, which combined so many of my favorite elements (soulful singing [albeit not in the Aretha Franklin sense], emotional intimacy and poignancy, great musicianship,
The 5 that just missed the cut:
11. Weird Al Yankovic (eponymous 1st album)
Man, I loved this album so much when I was young.
12. The Who Quadrophenia
Great songs, great playing and singing, arguably one of the greatest extended suites in modern music.
13. Bill Evans Portrait in Jazz
My first exposure to thoroughly legit modern jazz piano.
14. Art Blakey 3 Blind Mice
This was on the flip-side of the dubbed cassette with Juju on it, and the drumming and the overall playing blew my mind (particularly on the feature tunes: “Blue Moon” with Freddie Hubbard, “That Old Feeling” with Cedar Walton and “When Lights Are Low” with Curtis Fuller).
15. Aretha Franklin Aretha Now
I found this at the Rutgers music library and would frequently sit there and listen to the LP with headphones – the controlled yet soulful drama of her vocal approach was mind-blowing and had a direct influence on my own concept of intensity-building as an improviser.
Aw heck, some of my friends put extras on their lists, so make it a “bonus top 10” with the next tier:
16. Steely Dan Aja
Heard this one a lot very young, and rediscovered it in college – high-impact on both occasions.
17. Muddy Waters Rollin’ Stone
This was a cheapo bootleg of some of his Chess recordings that I got for 2 bucks at Caldor’s on cassette) and it was my first mind-blowing exposure to that material.
18. Kenny Barron Quickstep
It would be hard to argue against the assertion that Kenny has been my biggest influence, and this was the first of his recordings to really make a deep impression before I began studying with him.
19. Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson
When I began to get serious about really learning standards, this album was in constant rotation.
20. Mickey Tucker Blues In Five Dimensions
Mickey’s piano playing here is a breath of fresh air, and this was the album that provided my “a-ha” moment with putting into practice the challenging materials I was getting through my studies with Ted Dunbar, who is prominently featured.