Top 10 Favorite Pharoah Sanders Tracks

This weekend we lost the tenor saxophone giant Pharoah Sanders. Much is said about music as a healing force, and I can think of few people who’ve remained as steadfast in their commitment to that as Pharoah was. Thankfully, he left an enormous body of documented work so we can continue to heal from life’s…

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Top 10 Favorite Holland-Dozier-Holland Tracks

With the passing of Lamont Dozier, I felt compelled to hurriedly complete this list-in-progress, documenting my own love affair with the music written and produced by Mr. Dozier along with his partners Eddie and Brian Holland. Each of the three has other noteworthy accomplishments, but their work together is truly stunning, particularly their groundbreaking contributions to the development of the Motown record label. Without any further ado and in chronological order, here are some of my personal favorites.

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Top 10 Favorite Jack DeJohnette Tracks

Happy 80th birthday to Jack DeJohnette! While he is objectively one of the great drummers in modern jazz history, I’ll admit I don’t look at him first and foremost through that lens. To me he is a creator of sonic universes – that sounds weird but there are just so many examples of records he’s on (some of them iconic, some of them in the should-be-iconic realm, some just under-the-radar) where as great as the drumming is, what you really notice is the vibe he creates. So acknowledging the ridiculous number of things I had to omit, here are some personal faves from his vast discography.

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Top 10 Favorite Tony Bennett Tracks

Happy 96th birthday to Anthony Dominick Benedetto. It’s a gift that he’s still here, even if (after his triumphant farewell performance at Radio City Music Hall last year) he’s no longer performing due to his struggles with Alzheimer’s. Tony’s long, winding career was as unique as his artistry was commanding. I came to his music primarily through the jazz lens (and had the privilege of hearing him with his trio in an intimate setting in the early ‘90s, shortly before he “blew up”) and even if one looks only at that (and obviously it’s just one facet), there’s so much in there. Some debate whether Tony should be classified as a jazz singer (a can of worms I sometimes allow to be opened when I’m teaching) but if we address the question through the lens of his mastery of the craft, the two part answer is clearly 1) yes, and 2) he’s a giant, so who the heck cares? Here is a small sampling of some of my own favorites over a 60+ year span.

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Top 10 Favorite Jaki Byard tracks

I missed pianist Jaki Byard’s centennial by a few days (oh, life) but have been thinking a lot about his legacy and the influence it has had on me and beyond. While comfortable in both experimental and conventional jazz settings, his organic capacity to meld the two (and the worlds between) was particularly groundbreaking. Sometimes this would manifest from one tune to another, sometimes from one moment to another within the same tune, and sometimes all coming together at once. This made him difficult to categorize, and as tends to be the case, one could say it hindered his public profile and led to him generally being underrepresented in the literal and figurative history books.

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Top 10 Favorite Makanda Ken McIntyre Tracks

Makanda Ken McIntyre was a demonstrated virtuoso on alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute, and oboe at minimum (though his multi-wind capacities didn’t end there), a distinctive, meticulous composer, and an educator with a deep impact. I have heard stories from folks across multiple generations describing Makanda’s seriousness and integrity, and I am delighted that work is being done (particularly by the Makanda Project) to preserve and amplify his legacy.

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Top 10 Favorite Charnett Moffett Tracks

Charnett Moffett was a great bassist, full stop. “Was” is tough to swallow, in the wake of the news of his death of a heart attack at age 54, and it shines a light on how taken for granted he was, which in turn is why I feel the need to begin with this seemingly-obvious assertion. Maybe it was because of his ubiquity in the 80s and early 90s, maybe because his technical mastery was so ludicrous that one could only laugh at times. In any event, he was an extraordinarily mature, versatile, empathic musician and a vital contributor to the sounds on which my generation of musicians was raised.

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Top 10 Favorite Billy Drummond Tracks

I’m thrilled that I’ll get to play this weekend with the phenomenal drummer Billy Drummond at St. Peter’s in NYC, as I’ve been a fan of his playing for thirty years now. The first time I heard him was just weeks after I began college – my friend Jeff invited me to go with him to Tavern on the Green to hear the James Williams Trio with Billy and bassist Bob Cranshaw. I soaked in every note for two long sets (this I remember vividly because it resulted in literally sprinting through Port Authority bus terminal to catch the last bus back to NJ). As wonderful as James was, as always, it was a night of Billy giving me what I sometimes refer to with students as “involuntary stank-face.” That is, his playing was so tasty and grooving that it made me grimace in disbelief over and over. Not surprisingly, this is the experience I’ve had ever since when listening to him in different musical contexts.

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Top 10 Favorite Jackie McLean Tracks

If I had never met the great saxophonist, composer, bandleader, educator, and activist Jackie McLean, I suspect he would still be one of the more important musicians in my consciousness. I do not, however, have that abstraction. Although I didn’t spend a lot of time with Mr. McLean, every interaction left a mark, as did my time as a student at the Artists’ Collective (the Hartford, CT community organization he co-founded over 50 years ago) and more generally within his musical/spiritual/intellectual orbit (including with my many friends and colleagues involved with the jazz program, now the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz, at the Hartt School). Even being young and foolish, I appreciated the uniqueness of proximity to such a master and in the ensuing 30 years have only increased my appreciation for that and for the distinctiveness of his musical voice and legacy. Few instrumentalists have had sounds as distinct as his on the alto saxophone, and the seamless way he bounced between blues, bebop, and the most modern jazz (and at times melded it all together) was truly visionary.

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15 Albums That Moved Me in 2021

Is music getting better every year or am I just getting more sentimental about the artistry and courage and persistence that being a musician requires? I don’t know, but it was literally painful to assemble this list, knowing how much truly excellent music I had to omit, even with the loophole of these honorable mentions. Take this not as a ranking (much less a referendum on quality through some claiming-to-be-objective lens) but as a series of shout-outs and an invitation to dig some (or if you’re ambitious all) of the wonderful music cited below.

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