Desert Island Discs








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Some of the most entertaining email exchanges I have with fellow jazz fans center on the topic of favorite recordings. Often, the lists generated by these discussions are termed "Desert Island Discs" or recordings you simply would have to have if you were stranded on a desert island. Here's my own list in no particular order of preference. I've limited it to ten recordings as I would probably go on and on without any self-imposed limits. The other limitation I've placed is that this is my list of favorite Non-Pizzarelli recordings. My preference for John Pizzarelli recordings is already well documented on this site and it goes without saying that I could not tolerate being stranded on a desert island without some Pizzarelli CDs to listen to!

If you are interested in hearing some of John Pizzarelli's favorite recordings, be sure to listen to his Radio Deluxe syndicated program. John and his wife Jessica Molaskey spin some great music every weekend and I can't recommend the show highly enough. Finally, be sure to visit John Pizzarelli's List of Music You Should Hear compiled over at amazon. And now, without further ado, here's my list!

Art Pepper - Art Pepper + Eleven (Contemporary OJC, 1959)

Saxophonist Art Pepper was one of those rare musicians who simply never cut a bad record and this 1959 album was arguably his finest effort. A quintessential "west coast jazz" recording, Art Pepper + Eleven features a who's who of the late 50s California jazz scene including Jack Sheldon, Med Flory, Bill Perkins, Mel Lewis and Bud Shank playing the brilliant arrangements of Marty Paich. Paich employs his typically dense harmonies anchored by lower register instruments, providing Pepper with a strong vehicle to showcase his impeccable solos. One can safely say this recording is a true classic that belongs in anyone's jazz CD collection.

Selections: Move - Groovin' High - Opus de Funk - Round Midnight - Four Brothers - Shaw 'Nuff - Bernie's Tune - Walkin' Shoes - Anthropology - Airegin - Walkin' - Donna Lee

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross - Sing A Song Of Basie (ABC-Paramount, 1957)

Sing a Song of Basie was a groundbreaking jazz vocal recording that had significant influence on a number of later jazz vocal ensembles, most notably the Manhattan Transfer. Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross - utilizing a multi-tracking process that was quite novel at the time - provide vocal renditions of classic Count Basie Big Band arrangements with Hendricks writing lyrics to all the instrumental parts, including solos. This album would launch the "vocalese" craze begun several years earlier by such singers as Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure and would propel Lambert, Hendricks and Ross on a meteoric rise to fame in the jazz world.

Selections: Everyday - It's Sand, Man - Two For Blues - One O'Clock Jump - Little Pony - Down For Double - Fiesta In Blue - Down For The Count - Blues Backstage - Avenue C

Miles Davis - Miles Ahead (Columbia, 1957)

Miles Ahead is one of the truly great recordings produced by the historic collaboration of Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans. Without question, this partnership was one of the most significant in jazz history, spawning a number of top tier albums on the Columbia label. Throughout Miles Ahead, Evans weaves a rich tapestry of musical colors through the use of unusual and varied instrumentation combined with unconventional harmonies, providing Miles with a rich backdrop for his expressive solos. Davis discards his trumpet for this recording, instead utilizing a flugelhorn to provide the perfect tone to compliment Evans' arrangements.

Selections: Springsville - The Maids of Cadiz - The Duke - My Ship - Miles Ahead - Blues For Pablo - New Rhumba - The Meaning of the Blues - Lament - I Don't Wanna Be Kissed (By Anyone But You)

Ella Fitzgerald - Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook, Vol. 1 (Verve, 1961)

Without question, Ella Fitzgerald's series of "Songbook" recordings represents one of the most impressive bodies of work in the history of jazz. You really can't go wrong with any of Ella's salutes to the composers of the great American songbook and this compilation of Harold Arlen gems is no exception. Fitzgerald's impeccable taste, swinging vocal delivery, use of subtle changes in pitch, and perfectly executed phrasing are all on display here. The orchestra is arranged and conducted by Billy May who provides perhaps the most purely jazz oriented charts of the Songbook series. With Benny Carter leading the way in the sax section, the band compliments Ella's delivery without overpowering the overall performance.

Selections: Blues in the Night - Let's Fall in Love - Stormy Weather - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea - My Shining Hour - Hooray For Love - This Time the Dream's On Me - That Old Black Magic - I've Got the World On a String - Let's Take a Walk Around the Block - Ill Wind - Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive

Bill Potts - The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess (United Artists, 1959)

In 1959, arranger Bill Potts put together an all-star big band to record his jazz score of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. The orchestra featured such giants of jazz as Art Farmer, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Phil Woods, Zoot Sims, and Bill Evans just to name a few. The charts are amazingly imaginative with complex contrapuntal effects, extended ensemble parts and dynamic harmonies. Perhaps Andre Previn summed it up best in the original liner notes when he wrote, "The Musician's Union requires by law that arrangers be paid a certain amount per page of four bars each; if that law were changed to read that arrangers be paid per each new idea, Bill Potts could retire today a rich man." Despite all the acclaim, this remains a relatively obscure recording but seeking it out is well worth the effort.

Selections: Summertime - A Woman is a Sometime Thing - My Man's Gone Now - It Takes a Long Pull to Get There - I Got Plenty O' Nuttin' - Bess, You Is My Woman Now - It Ain't Necessarily So - Medley of Minor Themes: Prayer / Strawberries / Honey Man / Crab Man - I Loves You Porgy - Clara, Clara - There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York - Oh Bess, Oh Where's My Bess? - Oh Lawd, I'm On My Way

Bill Evans - Waltz For Debby (Riverside, 1961)

Recorded live at the Village Vanguard, this album (and the two other recordings produced from this session) represents a pinnacle of small ensemble work. Simply put, this is no standard jazz trio session. The interplay among Evans, bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian is mesmerizing. From my perspective, the appeal of Evans is somewhat unique. With his liberal use of oddly voiced chords to the often jagged solo lines he employs, one might think this would make the overall sound awkward on standards such as My Foolish Heart and My Romance. However, in Evans' gifted hands, it all works magnificently with the pianist's genius shining through. His touch and tone on this recording and indeed throughout his career are unmatched.

Selections: My Foolish Heart - Waltz For Debby - Detour Ahead - My Romance - Some Other Time - Milestones - (I Loves You) Porgy

Jim Hall - Concierto (CTI, 1975)

In this recording, legendary guitarist Jim Hall is surrounded by top notch musicians including Chet Baker (trumpet), Paul Desmond (alto sax), Sir Roland Hanna (piano), Ron Carter (bass) and Steve Gadd (drums) with arrangements by Don Sebesky. While all the pieces on this recording are a joy to listen to, Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Araunjez is the cut that pushes this recording to "desert island" status. This almost 20 minute track features extended solos by Hall, Desmond, Baker and Hanna with Carter and Gadd providing an almost hypnotic rhythmic cadence. It's worth the price of admission alone. Luckily, however, there are numerous other segments on this recording worthy of your listening pleasure.

Selections: You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To - Two's Blues - The Answer is Yes - Concierto de Aranjuez - Rock Skippin' - Unfinished Business

Mel Torme - Swings Shubert Alley (Verve, 1960)

Swings Shubert Alley finds Mel Torme at the top of his game. This was one of several recordings Torme made with the brilliant pianist/arranger Marty Paich and the magic of that classic collaboration is evident throughout. Paich employs a ten piece band (including french horn and tuba) to provide Torme with a much freer framework than the typical big band/strings set up that most vocalists employed at the time. The arrangements are fairly complex but are, at the same time, a perfect compliment to Torme's stellar vocal artistry. Torme's skill as a pure jazz singer is unmatched and his ability to blend in with this top notch ensemble, almost acting as another instrument in the band, shows versatility that many of his well known contemporaries would never be able to achieve. Torme's exuberant romp through this selection of Broadway hits is a must have for anyone who wants to hear vocal jazz at its best.

Selections: Too Close For Comfort - Once In Love With Amy - A Sleepin' Bee - On The Street Where You Live - All I Need Is A Girl - Just In Time - Hello Young Lovers - The Surrey With The Fringe On Top - Old Devil Moon - Whatever Lola Wants - Too Darn Hot - Lonely Town

Duke Ellington - And His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA, 1967)

This album was recorded shortly after the death of Ellington's long time musical collaborator Billy Strayhorn. Featuring both well known and rarely heard works by Strayhorn, this moving tribute to Ellington's close friend is both swinging and poignant at the same time. Duke's solo piano rendition of Lotus Blossom and Johnny Hodges' achingly emotional solo on Day Dream display the feelings behind the notes. Certainly, this is no run of the mill tribute album. It is a celebration of a musical genius, representing the best of Ellington's late period recordings.

Selections: Boo-Dah - U.M.M.G. (Upper Manhattan Medical Group) - Blood Count - Smada - Rock Skippin' At The Blue Note - Raincheck - Midriff - My Little Brown Book - Lotus Blossom - Snibor - After All - All Day Long - Day Dream - The Intimacy of the Blues - Charpoy

Orchestra New England - The Orchestral Music of Charles Ives (Koch Int'l, 1993)

Here is the one non-jazz recording that made my list. IMHO, Charles Ives is the greatest of all American classical composers. Combining an unparalleled ability to capture the spirit of the American experience with innovative musical techniques far in advance of his time, Ives' music is among the most original and powerful of the 20th century. Utilizing techniques such as polytonality, excruciating dissonance, and massive chord clusters, Ives' music would never be mistaken for easy listening. However, for those who take the plunge, the music is a rewarding experience.

This recording features a number of the more approachable pieces by Ives. The opening work, Country Band March, is a rollicking off kilter tune that is meant to represent an amateur band trying to work through a piece beyond its skill level. Cracked notes, missed beats and multiple other common musical mistakes are all employed by Ives to paint the picture of an old "country band". Also included in this recording is a masterpiece of American music titled Three Places In New England. The second movement, Putnam's Camp, represents two marching bands clashing and is based on a boyhood memory of Ives witnessing two marching bands crossing during a local celebration.

Perhaps one of the greatest tributes one could pay to Ives is by noting that his music, even today, is classified as Avant-Garde. This is despite the fact this most of his music was composed a century ago!

Selections: Country Band March - Set of Four Ragtime Dances - Postlude In F - Calcium Light Night - Yale-Princeton Football Game - Set For Theater Orchestra: In the Cage, In the Inn, In the Night - Largo Cantabile: Hymn - Three Places In New England: The Saint-Gaudens in Boston Common, Putnam's Camp at Redding, Connecticut, The Housatonic At Stockbridge

Ten Honorable Mentions:

  • Charlie Byrd - Brazilian Byrd
  • Erroll Garner - Concert By The Sea
  • George Shearing Quintet - Shearing on Stage
  • Rosemary Clooney - Blue Rose
  • Zoot Sims - Zoot Sims and the Gershwin Brothers
  • The Swingle Singers - Jazz Sebastian Bach
  • Quincy Jones - This is How I Feel About Jazz
  • Shelly Manne and His Men - The West Coast Sound, Vol. 1
  • Miles Davis - Birth of the Cool
  • Red Norvo with Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus - The Savoy Sessions

So there you have it, my favorite recordings. Though if you ask me tomorrow, the list might change. Do you have some favorites you'd like to share? Feel free to Email Me with your picks. Maybe we'll get a whole new list going.

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