Top 10 Favorite Bob Dylan tracks (and more)

On the occasion of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday I’ve been spurred to look at my relationship with his music, one that began with exposure to songs of his that were mainstays on mainstream “classic rock” radio and then radiated in any number of directions since then. I am inspired by his tenacity of artistic vision (even when it changes, sometimes inconveniently). And I’m awed by his truly incredible catalogue of great songs, from earth-shaking protest music to evocative poetry to continuation of folk blues and gospel traditions to flat out catchy pop songs. And while some would say his voice is an acquired taste, I guess I’ve acquired it because I love that too.

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Top 10 Favorite Curtis Fuller Tracks

Curtis Fuller, who we lost this past weekend, is my favorite trombonist in the history of music. His playing is at once soulful, grooving, lyrical, harmonically adept, and technically agile and he was an underappreciated composer and bandleader to boot. I often find myself steering students towards his work to demonstrate how obstacles limiting one’s ability to “shred” needn’t prevent one from sounding great on fast tempos and/or in the company of those who can play with greater technical ease. In his case, in most of the recordings to which I steer people (including 1-9 on this list) the obstacles in question are due to the inherently cumbersome nature of his instrument, but it’s worth noting how much great music he made after he had surgery to remove a lung. For years I assumed that was a weird rumor because I kept going to hear him perform and marveling at how a sixty-something (and then seventy-something) year old trombonist could sound so good even with two working lungs. As a physically impaired jazz musician myself, this elevated Curtis even further in my own pantheon of inspiring figures.

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Top 10 Favorite Albert “Tootie” Heath tracks

In honor of and appreciation for drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath’s acknowledgment and accolades at last week’s NEA Jazz Master induction ceremony, I’ve been listening to a ton of Tootie. He has a distinctive voice on the drums and has been so active for the last 60+ years that it’s quite difficult to narrow down just ten tracks. And as a live performer, what a dynamic charming force he is. I was fortunate to see him at the helm of two remarkable performances by The Whole Drum Truth ensemble for which he was the leader and visionary, bringing together drum giants like Ed Thigpen, Ben Riley, Louis Hayes, and others to show audiences just how much music can be made without pitched instruments.

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Top 10 Favorite Thelonious Monk Tracks

There is so much Monk that has inspired me that I could have easily had a Top 10 for his Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside, and Columbia studio recordings, one for his live performances, one for his sideman work – you get the idea. Ultimately, as with the Mingus list, I chose ten tracks that I love and that covered enough ground that most of what I love about Monk is in there somewhere. So here they are, in chronological order.

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Top 10 Favorite Charles Mingus Tracks

I am, for the third time, teaching a course on the music of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus for Wesleyan University’s Graduate Liberal Studies program, and as in the previous iterations, it gives me the impetus to listen to a LOT of their music, often falling back in love with things I already dug but…

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Top 10 Favorite Ralph Peterson Jr. Tracks

The jazz world was devastated earlier this week by the passing of Ralph Peterson Jr., a drummer, composer, bandleader, educator, entrepreneur, and all-around volcano of a musician and human, at the age of 58. It feels (and indeed is) soon to be digging in to his vast discography, but I wanted to be able to share some memories with those who might find that nourishing and to point some folks on the margins of the jazz world in the direction of some starting points from which to go down the Sir Ralph rabbit hole that I and many others have been in this week.

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Top 10 Classic Soul Covers of Pop/Rock Songs (Originally by White Artists)

As much as my life revolves around original music (whether my own or that which the artists I love have composed) I also have an interest in cover performances that transform a song. While that’s so common in the jazz world that the term “cover” isn’t even really used there, I have a particular soft spot for Black artists finding the innate soul in a song not initially presented in that way. A lot of attention has been paid to great Black blues and R&B songs that only achieved mainstream success once covered by White artists, but for this Black History Month I wanted to go in the other direction.

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Top 10 Favorite Chick Corea Tracks

The news of Chick Corea’s passing is difficult to process, since he was not only a true giant of music but so alive, so vibrant. The reverence for his artistry, mastery, and versatility is near-universal. He simultaneously modeled unbridled joy and presence, intimidating chops, and unassuming humility and would be a beloved figure for that even if he didn’t have a truly incredible discography and 23 Grammys (not a typo – putting him in the top 10 all-time, regardless of genre/context). His distinctive style as a pianist, his compositional body of work, and his vision as a multifaceted bandleader (SO many remarkable and intricately-conceived ensembles) are all things that alone would make him superlative, a giant among mortals, but of course he accomplished all these things. I would call him inimitable except that few musicians in modern jazz are as literally imitated as Chick.

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Top 10 Favorite Howard Johnson Tracks

When news spread yesterday of Howard Johnson’s passing, I reflected on how he was in many ways the consummate musician. If all he had ever done was evolve jazz tuba to an unprecedented level, his place in the history books would be secure. But there was so much more – brilliance on the baritone saxophone, skillful work on multiple other brass and wind instruments, visionary bandleading, capacity to thrive as a soloist or as a supportive ensemble member across a vast range of styles. And the couple times I had the pleasure to hang out with him a little confirmed why I’ve literally never heard a single person suggest he was anything but a joy to be around, which is a major part of the gig too.

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20 Tracks that Moved Me in 2020

There need be no more words uttered on the challenges of 2020, but MAN was there a lot of great music that came out. I agonized over all that I left out (I kept a running list this year and there were literally over a hundred things on the list of records I really dug) and here’s what I came up with.

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