Mary Lou Williams
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Listen: Close Out Jazz Appreciation Month 2021 With GRAMMY.com's Playlist - 40 Tunes For The Rest Of The Year
It's International Jazz Day, but many of its greatest musicians haven't worked in more than a year. Jazz Instagram is a cornucopia of hawked Zoom masterclasses. Many of the most beloved, irreplaceable physical spaces are gone—possibly forever.
What's the answer to getting more listeners on board? Maybe it's to make it less of a history lesson—and communicate that you can turn up Charlie Parker next to your favorite rock, rap or R&B song. You don't need accreditation. You don't need a college degree. You don't need to read a manual. It just sounds good.
GRAMMY.com is closing out Jazz Appreciation Month with a playlist of 40 tunes to bring into the rest of 2021. It's not meant to be remotely comprehensive; how could a playlist without Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong or the Art Ensemble of Chicago possibly be? Ignoring time and space in favor of (hopefully) uninterrupted enjoyment, it's simply the product of one unbroken train of thought.
Check out the annotations below, and you might get a sense of how one track connects to the next—whether by the musicians involved, the historical context or simply the vibe. But that's it. If you want to dig deeper, there are countless books, websites and documentaries on offer. But maybe simply enjoying the music is the first step.
GRAMMY.com's Jazz Appreciation Month 2021 playlist is available here via Spotify, Amazon Music and Apple Music. If you like any of the tunes below, click the album title to buy the record and support them or their estate directly.
Without further ado, let's enjoy the music.
- Charlie Parker, "Just Friends" (Charlie Parker With Strings, 1950)
In some ways, this is the only place to start. The greatest saxophonist of all time plays an improvised solo of jaw-dropping elegance, intelligence and integrity. "It's absolutely perfect on both an artistic and technical level," alto saxophonist Jim Snidero told Discogs in 2020.
- Lou Donaldson, "Blues Walk" (Blues Walk, 1958)
The alto saxophonist got friction early on for sounding too much like Parker, but more than carved out his own sound with masterpieces like "Blues Walk." At 94, Sweet Poppa Lou is still kicking—and totally cops to the associations. "I'm a copy of Charlie Parker," he said in the same article.
- Champian Fulton, "My Old Flame" (Birdsong, 2020)
Who played the most beautiful version of "My Old Flame" the world ever heard? That's right, Bird's your man—and the exquisite jazz singer Champian Fulton knows it. She's a fan of both Donaldson and Parker; her recent album Birdsong is a luminous tribute to the latter.
- Jim Snidero, "Autumn Leaves" (Live at the Deer Head Inn, 2021)
After months of no gigs during the COVID-19 pandemic, Snidero and his quartet played safely and socially distanced at a jazz hotspot in the Delaware Water Gap. Despite the low-key setting and setlist of standards, he showed that chestnuts like "My Old Flame" "Autumn Leaves" still have new dimensions to explore.
- Helen Sung, "Crazy, He Calls Me" ((re)Conception, 2011)
Pianist Helen Sung is connected to Snidero by at least two degrees: she and bassist Peter Washington have both played with him. Her entire body of work is worth spending time with; 2018's Sung With Words is an exceptionally well-done merging of jazz and poetry.''
Make no mistake: alto man Cannonball's only Blue Note album is a drop-dead must-have album. "Is that what you wanted, Alfred?" his sideman, Miles Davis, growls at producer Alfred Lion at the end of "One For Daddy-O." (Certainly, it was.)
- Miles Davis, "Freddie Freeloader" (Kind of Blue, 1959)
Er, you want this album too. Trust us.
Jimmy Cobb, who sadly left us in 2020, was the drummer on Kind of Blue, and you could set an atomic clock to his ride-cymbal hand. Cobb also plays on this Wes Montgomery masterpiece. Even though Montgomery couldn't read music and strummed exclusively with his thumb, he arguably remains the king of jazz guitarists.
Well, actually, it's either him or Jim Hall. (The ever-ethereal melodist Evans is also in the running for Kind of Blue MVP.)
Lage not only played with Jim Hall; the jazz world widely regards him as the Jim Hall of our generation. Not bad for a 33-year-old.
The guitar genius arguably made even better records than Bright Size Life, but as an entryway to his approach and thinking, nothing beats his ECM Records debut. (On bass: Jaco Pastorius!)
- Grant Green, "Idle Moments" (Idle Moments, 1964)
Another guitar god, playing his pianist Duke Pearson's slow-crawling masterpiece. The musicians were unclear as to whether each chorus should be 16 or 32 bars, thereby beautifully blurring the composition. The results are a must-play for your next long drive and long think.
- Miguel Zenón & Luis Perdomo, "Cómo Fue" (El Arte del Bolero, 2021)
Or, "The art of the bolero," or, "Two guys soothing themselves during lockdown with traditional songs they've known all their lives." Despite its low-key presentation—it was a Jazz Gallery livestream the altoist and pianist decided to record—this was one of the most captivating duo records in recent memory.
- Avishai Cohen & Yonathan Avishai, "Crescent" (Playing the Room, 2019)
ECM comes up for a reason; if you're not familiar with the ultra-prolific label, go to their website, find something with a blanket of snow or raindrops on windows as the cover, and chances are it's drop-dead gorgeous. And speaking of stellar duet albums, here's another, between the Tel Aviv-born trumpeter and the Israeli-French pianist.
- Craig Taborn, "Abandoned Reminder" (Daylight Ghosts, 2017)
Deeper we tread into the realm of ECM: Everything this brilliant pianist has made is worth hearing at least once. (Especially his Junk Magic project's latest album, Compass Confusion, which is not ECM and not jazz but is terrifying.)
The Harvard professor and pianist surveys the volatile landscape of 2021 with the radiant rhythm section of bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. (GRAMMY.com cited both Oh and Sorey as artists pushing jazz into the future.)
- Linda May Han Oh, "Speech Impediment" (Walk Against Wind, 2017)
One of the most prodigious modern bassists and composers, Oh made GRAMMY.com's list of five jazz artists pushing the form into the future. That's her on the Iyer tune, too, along with the drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey.
Everybody should know this brilliant pianist and composer; Iyer is possibly the most prominent figure promoting her work these days. (He recently wrote an academic paper about Allen; "Drummer's Song" from Uneasy is hers.)
In a just world, we'd regularly breathe Mary Lou Williams' name along with Ellington's and Armstrong's and her multidimensional masterpiece Black Christ of the Andes would be taught in schools.
- Alice Coltrane, "Turiya and Ramakrishna" (Ptah, the El Daoud, 1970)
In recent years, Coltrane has received wildly overdue reappraisal as her husband John's artistic equal. Still, only one album has seemingly been allowed into the canon: Journey in Satchidananda. But as more than a dozen musicians attested to GRAMMY.com in 2020, Ptah deserves a seat at the table, too.
- Lakecia Benjamin, "Syeeda's Song Flute" (Pursuance: The Coltranes, 2020)
Understanding that fundamental truth about the Coltranes, alto saxophonist Benjamin made the communal and devotional Pursuance: The Coltranes, which pays homage to both artists equally. (This is a John tune, but she found Alice before him.)
- Keyon Harrold, "Bubba Rides Again" (The Mugician, 2017)
The celebrated trumpeter Harrold shows up to jam on Benjamin's album, and his album The Mugician is a terrific gateway into the crossover world where jazz, rap and R&B blur.
- Kassa Overall, "Please Don't Kill Me" (I Think I'm Good, 2020)
Speaking of crossover: Kassa Overall is one of that sphere's very best. Understanding that jazz and rap are more similar than dissimilar, he opts not to blur them but crash them like cars, knowing the wreckage will look the same.
- Joel Ross, "More?" (Who Are You?, 2020)
This sublime vibraphonist (who appears on the previous Overall tune) is right on the front lines of the scene in 2021. Don't sleep on him or his elegant last album, Who Are You?.
- Jackie McLean, "'Das Dat" (It's Time!, 1964)
But if you really want to get into the heritage of jazz vibraphone, Bobby Hutcherson is the first man to know. Check out his performance on alto sax heavyweight J-Mac's It's Time!, which got an excellent pressing last year via Blue Note's Tone Poet Series.
Here he is again, performing Herbie Hancock's intoxicating tune with Hancock himself. (For Hancock's part, he's one of the most inventive harmonic thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries.)
The astonishing young pianist Joey Alexander met Hancock at the GRAMMYs when he was only eight. "He didn't say too much," he recalled to GRAMMY.com in 2021. "He thought I could play and he said, 'Keep doing it' and 'Don't stop.'"
- Jaleel Shaw, "The Flipside" (Optimism, 2008)
A.n excellent alto saxophonist, Shaw appears on Alexander's previous single, "SALT." "I was glad that Jaleel and [guitarist] Gilad [Hekselman] played in unison and sounded so strong," Alexander marveled in the same interview. "When I heard it back, I was like 'Wow.'"
- Rudresh Mahanthappa, "I Can't Get Started" (Hero Trio, 2020)
On an alto-saxophone kick? Mahanthappa has one of the boldest, brashest and most vibrant sounds on the instrument in 2021.
- Matthew Shipp, "Swing Note from Deep Space" (The Piano Equation, 2020)
Now, we shift gears to the solo piano; Shipp is one of the most prodigious modern improvisers in that realm. (The label that released The Piano Equation, TAO Forms, is one of GRAMMY.com's labels to watch in 2021.)
- Thelonious Monk, "Don't Blame Me" (Palo Alto, 2020)
More than a half-century ago, Monk played at a high school and a janitor recorded it. Nobody heard the slamming results until Impulse! released them in 2020.
These days, the "bebop" pioneer Diz might be more revered and analyzed than listened to. But he was a tremendous trumpeter throughout all seasons of his life—as attested to by this duo album with piano giant Oscar Peterson.
Need further proof? Check out the ultra-prolific Douglas' loving tribute to the clown prince of jazz.
- Jakob Bro Trio, "Copenhagen" (Bay of Rainbows, 2018)
The connection to the Douglas album is the ultra-perceptive drummer Joey Baron. Danish guitarist Bro's sets at Jazz Standard (before they shuttered their physical location thanks to COVID) were transformative experiences, as captured on this ECM recording from the New York venue.
Honestly, it just felt right to blow up the program in a volley of toms.
- Sonny Rollins, "Tune Up" (Rollins in Holland, 2020)
We're at the final stretch. Newk killing on a Netherlands tour.
- John Coltrane, "Mr. P.C." (Giant Steps, 1960)
"P.C." is bassist Paul Chambers, who left us too young. That's all the backstory you need. Turn this up like a Led Zeppelin song.
- Ralph Peterson, "Freight Train" (The Art of War, 2001)
Rest in power to Peterson, a ferocious drummer and sweetheart of a man who left us in 2021. Last year, he summed up his mentor, Art Blakey: "He's in the blue part of the flame," Peterson told GRAMMY.com. "The thing is: if you know anything about fire, the blue part of the flame might be the lowest part of the flame, but it's also the hottest part of the flame."
Now, we turn down the burner. "I'm going to play it until there's no need anymore," Frisell said in a statement about this civil-rights anthem.
- Oded Tzur, "Can't Help Falling in Love" (Here Be Dragons, 2020)