A short time ago, I listed my ten favorite live albums of all time. I got a lot of great feedback. Some of the comments had people listing their own favorites, which was exactly what I wanted. A couple of people mentioned jazz albums, which I also expected. What they wanted to know was why I didn’t put any such albums on my list.
Well, I knew right off jazz needed its own list, where my personal tastes are concerned. There was no way I could choose ten albums combined from jazz and non-jazz categories and be satisfied with it. Some lists need a space all to themselves. This is one of those occasions.
So what makes these albums my favorites? That’s a good question. I’m sure I could mention all kinds of pretentious and technical things, but in the end I think it comes down to the spirit of the gig. Most times, it’s the playing that makes the show special. Sometimes it’s the audience or some other intangible. Take intimacy, for example. Only one or two of the gigs on my list was recorded in what would be considered a “big room.” Jazz is music of immediacy and intimacy. The musicians want to connect with the audience — usually seated almost on top of them — quickly and personally. Since the band can see just about everyone in the room, they want to make sure they are actually reaching every person in the room. Whatever the factor, the album usually leaves me begging for more than what I got on LP or CD.
So here we are. I offer you, Dear Reader, ten of my all-time favorite jazz albums. (Once again, I remind you that I did not say “best” jazz albums. I said “favorite.”)
John McLaughlin & the 4th Dimension/Jimmy Herring & The Invisible Whip, Live in San Francisco. There is more than a little sentimentality in this pick. The album comes from John McLaughlin’s Farewell Tour of America in 2017. I had never had the privilege of seeing the legendary guitarist live, and I wasn’t about to miss out on this show, even though I had to make my way from St. Louis to Nashville, Tennessee to see it. This particular album was recorded on the tour’s last stop at The Warfield in San Francisco.
The show itself was an incredible experience. Guitarist Jimmy Herring (a virtuoso in his own right) played an amazing set, which opened each night with the Miles Davis tune “John McLaughlin,” from the legendary Bitches Brew album. His band, The Invisible Whip, played with fire and passion. Next came McLaughlin and his band, The 4th Dimension. Needless to say, they were every bit as jaw dropping.
Alas, neither of those sets are included in this release. What you do get is both bands joining together for the evenings third set, as the groups form the new Mahavishnu Orchestra and revisit favorites from legendary albums like The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire. The San Francisco set was played with every bit as much fire and passion as the Nashville set I saw a couple of weeks before. Like everyone else, I marveled at McLaughlin, refusing to believe the man was 75 years old. He had barely lost a step! And lest we forget, tunes like “Meeting of the Spirits” and “Birds of Fire” are not easy tunes to play. It was a magical experience that I am so grateful to have on CD, even if it wasn’t “my show.”
Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin, and Paco DeLucia, Friday Night in San Francisco. For a rock-loving teenage kid in 1980, there probably wasn’t a lot three guys sitting onstage with acoustic guitars could do for him. Or so I thought. Friday Night in San Francisco was released in 1981. I probably heard it a couple of years later. From the very beginning, I was positively floored by the sounds coming out of my speakers. How on earth could these three men play so damned fast? And accurately to boot? But it was more than mere speed. DiMeola (whom I knew from Return to Forever, a new favorite), McLaughlin (from the Mahavishnu Orchestra), and DeLucia (who was new to me) played with fire, passion, and soul. They were one thousand percent about what they were doing on that stage. I have never heard anything like it before or since. Is it “jazz” in the truest sense of the word? I don’t know and — more importantly — I don’t care. It’s just bloody brilliant!
Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, At Carnegie Hall. Buying this album was a no-brainer, even for someone not completely steeped in jazz. A legendary pianist and composer in Monk coupled with a then-star on the rise in saxophonist Coltrane struck me as a “can’t miss” proposition. And I was right! This show could easily be viewed as Monk’s gig, but ‘Trane more than pulls his weight within the band. Monk’s playing struck me as being a bit more “centered” than some of the other recordings I’d heard. For lack of a better term, he seemed to play it straight more often than not. He still used his highly unusual chord voicings, but more as support for his sax player, who made the most of the space afforded him. This gig (recorded in 1957) must have been something to behold in person.
Jaco Pastorius, Truth, Liberty & Soul. Relatively speaking, I arrived late to the Jaco Pastorius party. I knew who he was, but I spent a lot more time listening to Stanley Clarke at the height of my fusion days. I didn’t play a lot of Weather Report (that, too, came later). Well, better late than never, for I soon learned of the absolute genius that was the bass playing of Jaco Pastorius. I enjoy Jaco’s solo releases. They are, after all, legendary. But this gig, recorded at the Kool Jazz Festival in 1982, is absolutely mind-blowing! Not only is Jaco’s playing absolutely on point, but his band is right on the money as well. And while Jaco was a very “busy” bassist, his notes never interfered with the other soloists, and kept the groove air-tight. This is one of those albums that doesn’t get nearly enough “air time” at home. It should be part of any true fusion lover’s collection.
Wynton Marsalis, Live at Blues Alley. Wynton Marsalis’s trumpet was one of the first true jazz sounds I fell in love with. And this set (recorded in 1985 and released a year later) is the Gold Standard of the Young Lions jazz movement of the 1980’s. From Note One, Marsalis and his quartet (featuring legends to be in pianist Marcus Roberts, bassist Robert Hurst III, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts) absolutely blew the roof off the Washington, D.C. club, laying waste to everything it touched. I would have given just about anything to be at this show. Funny thing is, I wouldn’t have been old enough to get in the night of the recording. I can’t tell you how glad I am this gig ultimately came to me. Say what you will about Wynton and his current position in the jazz realm, this is a truly legendary gig.
Duke Ellington, Ellington at Newport. There are legendary performances and there are legendary performances. This, I would learn quickly, is the latter. With rock and roll on the rise, and most jazz artists playing in smaller combos, the Big Band sound was on its way out in 1956. Duke Ellington — one of the most innovative composers of the jazz era — was struggling to keep his band on the road. When they arrived at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7 of that year (which happened to be my mother’s 12th birthday), little was expected of them. Nevertheless, Duke took the time and effort to write some new pieces for the show, which were well received, but did little to turn any musical tide. Then Duke and company broke out “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” and nothing was the same afterward.
The band was locked in rhythmically from the get-go, but one would expect little else from an Ellington band. After the leader played an elegant (sorry .. couldn’t help myself) solo, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves stepped up to the mic. What happened next made history.
A “chorus” is a 12-bar section of 4/4 time during which musicians are usually allowed to take a solo, while being supported by the rest of the band. Rock bands usually allow one chorus for a solo. Blues bands usually allow at least two, and sometimes three choruses for the soloist to drive the point home. Once in a great while, a jazz band may allow as many as four choruses.
Paul Gonsalves stood up and started playing. The rhythm section (particularly the piano, bass, and drums) fell in behind him. Gonsalves played a chorus. Then two choruses. Three choruses. Five. Seven. Gonsalves was hot, and Duke knew it! Rather than reign his sax player in, he can be heard shouting encouragement, with the rest of the band following suit. Even I was yelling at the speakers with them, “Go, man, go! Keep playing! Go ‘head!”
In the audience, a lovely blonde woman in a black cocktail dress jumped up and started to dance. Festival organizers were worried they would have a riot on their hands, but Gonsalves kept playing and playing and playing until he had burned through a whopping 27 choruses! If my math is correct, that’s 324 bars worth of soloing. I get exhausted just thinking about it!
Lucky for us, the show was recorded. Upon its release, it became Duke Ellington’s best selling album, and with good reason.
Miles Davis, Live at the Plugged Nickel. You didn’t think I’d neglect Miles Davis, did you? If you did, you should know better! Picking a live set was not easy, as there are some really good ones out there. But this particular set stood out the most, primarily because of what it represented.
This was the beginning of one of the most legendary quintets in jazz history, featuring Miles on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. Each band member went on to become a legendary leader in his own right. I don’t know if the Chicago club where this was recorded in 1965 had any idea what was coming, but I’m sure they were glad to have been there with the benefit of hindsight.
Miles and company were still playing a standards as part of their set, but you can hear the band slowly but surely stretching out and away from those songs in their traditional form. It’s a cliche to say “the rest is history” from this moment forward, but … well, it is! To truly appreciate the band’s efforts, hunt down the complete box set, and listen to the band grow before your every ears.
The Manhattan Project, The Manhattan Project. The living embodiment of what a group of talented professional musicians can do. This was a one-off project recorded in New York City in 1989 (and released a year later). I stumbled over the CD at my base exchange in Japan in 1991. All I had to see was who was in the band: Wayne Shorter (tenor and soprano sax), Stanley Clarke (bass), Lenny White (drums), and Michel Petrucciani (piano) were the core group, supported by the keyboards of Pete Levin and Gil Goldstein. I was all in. And it paid off! The first half of the disc features Clarke playing acoustic bass while tastefully offering renditions of songs like White’s “Old Wine, New Bottles,” and the jazz standard “Stella By Starlight.” It’s a wonderful set of jazz. But things get taken to the next level when Clarke picks up his Alembic electric bass and leads the group through a red-hot rendition of Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.” Shorter’s solo is lovely, then Petrucciani ups the ante with his piano solo. Not to be outdone, Clarke shows us why he brought the electric bass along in the first place! If I’ve played this album once, I’ve played it a thousand times. I can hear those solos in my head note for note. And they never get old! This is one of those Favorite Moments in Jazz, even if the video doesn’t completely sync up here. I have this gig on DVD, which was recorded from a Laserdisc. Go figure.
The Quintet, Jazz at Massey Hall. The gig isn’t very well recorded, and the editing in between tracks is atrocious, but there can be no doubting the fire and historical significance of this gig. When I picked up the CD and saw the lineup, I couldn’t believe it. Charlie Parker was on sax (recording as “Charlie Chan” for this gig due to legal issues), Dizzy Gillespie was on trumpet, Bud Powell was playing piano, Charles Mingus was playing bass, and Max Roach was the drummer. Are you KIDDING me? Another band full of legends, setting the stage on fire in Toronto, Canada. Not even the poor quality of the recording (from 1953) could blunt the music coming off that stage. There are a couple of bad notes (primarily from Parker), but it hardly matters. This is yet another one of those moments when I wish I could have been there. When I hear this band, I rue the day I didn’t pursue becoming a jazz musician. This gig was where it’s at!
John Coltrane, Live at Birdland. It’s funny what stays in your head over the years. I can still remember the day I brought this CD home, in January of 1993. I was fresh out of the military, finally living in my own apartment, and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. For a brief time, I had abandoned all things rock, and embraced jazz full-on. One of the first records from that phase I brought back from a store called Record Reunion was this one. I knew of John Coltrane from his work with Miles Davis, but I had yet to truly explore his solo work. This may have been my first ‘Trane album. I was in for a revelation.
First of all, I was being introduced to arguably the greatest quartet in jazz history, featuring ‘Trane (tenor and soprano sax), McCoy Tyner (piano) Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones. If I didn’t know it when I put the CD on, I would 11 minutes later, when “Afro Blue” ended. I was floored!
Picture a 26-year-old man shouting encouragement toward a band playing a gig recorded before I was even born as though they were in the room with me. (I may as well have been there, as it doesn’t sound like there were more than a dozen or so people in the club for that set.) Secondly, I was being educated on the true nature of the flaming hot solo, which I got from both Tyner and Coltrane playing almost like they were competing with one another. Coltrane had a reputation for lengthy solos, which drove Miles crazy. Now ‘Trane was unencumbered and free to let loose. And man, did he! It’s a moment I’ll never forget, and treasure forever. Why do I love live music in general and live jazz in particular? Herein lies the answer.
And there you have it. Ten live jazz favorites. You may have noticed that I didn’t number this list. That was intentional. Because on any given day, any of these records (particularly the top five) could be my all-time favorite. Honestly, it’s like being asked to choose your favorite child.
I’m sure you have a few records of your own you can’t wait to tell me about. Before you do, check out these gems. Then fire away!
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