When you hear the word ‘jazz’ what do you envision? A bunch of dandy three-piece suited men drinking gin alongside elegant, beautiful jazz-singing queens in a smoky, relatively unknown bar? Do you hear a bunch of jarring chords, impenetrable melodies, or even slight undertones of middle-aged snobbery?
To the naive, ‘Jazz’ may appear to be the ‘fine art’ of the music world; elevated to such a high status that it seems almost inaccessible to those (like me) who grew up chowing down to The Smiths, Pearl Jam, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, even Michael Jackson! An eclectic mix of artists, yet Jazz and artists and culture behind the music seemed either plain, pretentious, or just too abstract for my ears to handle.
That's until I started grooving to the warmth and grit of east coast hip-hop, and from there appreciate what jazz has to offer: it’s uplifting; it’s rich and it’s always ceaselessly reinventing itself. It is a music form that keeps on replenishing throughout decades, a music form that can fuse with many other genres. So without further ado, here are the best introductory jazz artists for you to discover (and maybe even like!)
Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
No jazz playlist would be complete without the legend, the unbridled fury of Miles Davis. Released in 1958, Kind of Blue towered above its peers thanks to Davis’ stepping away from the thick of hard bop and instead focusing on ‘modes’ (playing within a certain scale, as opposed to according to a fixed chord sequence). The album’s laid back elegance and shy improvisation is why it is not just one of the greatest jazz albums in history, but THE greatest jazz album, and despite the notoriety of Davis’ behaviour and heroin addiction, this album was forward-thinking and unquestionably influential for many contemporary musicians, and is still lauded over today.
Recommended Tracks: So What, Blue In Green.
Weather Report - Heavy Weather (1977)
An American jazz fusion band of the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Weather Report’s busy and talkative style received wide spread critical acclaim, whilst their tours reached almost rock-star proportions - unheard of for typical jazz artists. With the introduction of Jaco Pastorious on bass - alongside Wayne Shorter on saxophone and Joe Zawinul on piano - their music almost became wondrous living colour. Released just as the jazz-rock movement began to fall through, this album still showed that you could fuse two supposedly ‘opposite’ genres together.
Recommended Tracks: Birdland, Teen Town
Esperanza Spalding - Emily’s D+Evolution (2016)
Entering into her fifth solo-album, award winning Grammy artist Esperanza Spalding’s newest release is a concept album built around exploring her alter-ego Emily (which is conveniently her middle name). Exploring the territories of art-rock, jazz, and prog, curiosity and freedom appear to ring throughout this astonishingly beautiful album, with staccato bass riffs and soaring vocals. It sounds like a clash of jarring sounds; an over-sensory delight that your ears will definitely thank you for picking up upon.
Recommended Tracks: Judas, Unconditional Love, Rest In Pleasure
The Breathing Effect - Mars Is A Very Bad Place For Love (2015)
Also straddling somewhere between jazz, prog, and art-rock, The Breathing Effect’s debut album mixes up jazz in a sweet delight. If Jazz is meant for grown-up ears, then The Breathing Effect have done a good job turning that stereotype around. Upbeat, visceral, and quite spacey, this band have huge potential to be the forefront of bringing jazz back to contemporary waters with the likes of Thundercat and Flying Lotus.
Recommended Listen: Weightless Reality, Forestial Things, One for the Mountains by the Sea
Kamasi Washington - The Epic (2015)
A triple-album monolith of veering saxophone solos and intricate textures, Kamasi Washington’s Grammy nominated debut album picks influence from the likes of John Coltrane and various jazz-fusion mixes. You may have heard his name before, for he was part of the studio band that helped record Kendrick Lamar’s To Kill A Butterfly, and yet this album barely has any slight hint of hip-hop. Saccharine, yet tough and strong, taking small doses of this three-hour musical journey is required at first before you subsume yourself with this incredible odyssey.
Recommended Tracks: Cherokee, Rerun Home, Change of the Guard
Dexter Gordon - Ballads (1991)
With a wealth of accomplished guests musicians featuring on this record, Dexter Gordon’s sophisticated and refined ballads are for those in an introspective mood. Gordon’s saxophone rings brightly like a beacon of light through an album that is full of melancholia. Soothing, and yet haunting, this album shimmers and is perfect for a rainy day.
Recommended Tracks: Don’t Explain, I’m A Fool To Want You, You’ve Changed
Erykah Badu - Baduizm (1997)
Stepping away from conventional jazz territory and more into soul/hip-hop, Erykah Badu’s debut album is deeply insightful. No other words can describe her voice other than it being like seeping treacle. Her philosophical anecdotes flitter throughout the album, making this album have a sense of ambiguity, but it's still so full of intoxicating songs that will definitely get you hooked.
Recommended Tracks: Otherside Of The Game, On & On
The RH Factor - Hardgroove (2003)
Trumpeter Roy Hargrove neo-soul/jazz project is laden with funky rhythms and embodies a sultry mood. This record is down-to-earth, vibrant, and almost “zen”, you will be shaking your hips and head unconsciously to the playful melodies that Roy Hargrove conjures so well they may stick to your head like peanut butter in the mouth.
Recommended Tracks: Juicy, Forget Regret, I’ll Stay
Words: Rhi Storer