The list: five essential non-jazz records for the jazz listener/musician

At any given jazz show, the chances of seeing a pop tune covered are almost the same as seeing traditional jazz standards performed. Here are five albums worth knowing before you head to the club.

In jazz, the word fusion has a very specific meaning and a very specific sound. Using the broader definition of the term, more and more jazz can fall under the umbrella of fusion. The Bad Plus incorporate rock, Robert Glasper hip hop and Chris Potter’s band is electric and covers Bob Dylan. The world-wide-web is undoubtedly expediting this process as every sound ever recorded is at the finger tips of anyone with a decent internet connection.

It is always fun talking to my friends who do not listen to jazz and explaining the act I am going to see on Friday night. “Well I guess they are jazz, but the band is electric, and there is no swing and no standards and the guitarist loves distortion and they cover J Dilla.”

Today, there are fewer Broadway tunes, and original scores for movies have fewer melodies that translate to jazz performance. The jazz musician of today has started looking elsewhere. Musicians are no longer limited to hearing music on TV and from the corner record store. Instead they can listen to anything, anytime, anywhere.

Many jazz musicians even perform other genres. Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland teamed up with Sting after the Police broke up. Chris Potter played with Steeley Dan. Even Miles Davis wanted to record with Jimi Hendrix. (If only Jimi Hendrix lived a little longer…)

The point is, at any given “jazz show” the chance of seeing a pop tune performed is equal to the traditional jazz standard. So here is my list of five popular albums that every jazz musician and jazz listener should know:

Stevie Wonder – Talking Book

Talking Book is the second record released during Stevie Wonder’s “classic period” from 1972-1976. Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life may be the five greatest consecutive albums of all time.

While it surprisingly didn’t win Album of the Year (Wonder won in 1973, 1974 and 1976), Talking Book contains some of Stevie Wonder’s most famous songs.

Every year, The SF Jazz Collective picks a composer and then arranges eight of his tunes for their tour and album. This year they chose Stevie Wonder. The influence of eight of the most important jazz musicians in the world covering his tunes will certainly shape the next five years.

Covering Stevie Wonder isn’t a new thing. Aaron Goldberg does a very creative interperatation if “Isn’t She Lovely.” Vijay Iyer’s cover of “Big Brother” may rival the original. As popular as Wonder’s sophisticated pop tunes may be now, they will be far more popular in the years to come.

Songs to know: Superstition, You Are the Sunshine of My Life, Big Brother

The Band – Rock of Ages

For legal reasons, The Band’s footage from Woodstock was never released and they weren’t included in Woodstock the movie. While The Band’s legacy has often gone overlooked compared to other artists that took that stage in 1969, Rock of Ages remains a hugely important album.

The Band is the Duke Ellington Orchestra of rock & roll. Every song is carefully constructed to the personalities of the performers. The Band wrote songs for Rick Danko’s falsetto while Strayhorn wrote melodies for Johnny Hodge’s seductive alto. The Band utilized Levon Helms punchy and characteristic singing while Ellington wrote lead parts for Cat Anderson. Strayhorn/ Ellington wrote pieces that would transport the listeners around the world while The Band wrote songs that would transport the listeners back to the Civil War.

The highlight of Rock of Ages is Allen Toussaint’s peculiar and sophisticated horn arrangements. The five person horn section utilizes tuba, euphonium, soprano saxophone , alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, english horn and Eb clarinet. The section included jazz greats like Snooky Young and Howard Johnson.

While The Band is not covered frequently, if you catch Fight the Big Bull playing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or “Jemima Surrender” you will experience the perfect combination of Bob Dylan style song writing, the blues, rock & roll, The South and an unmatched balance between complexity and spirit.

Songs to know: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down


The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

In the 1960’s Wes Montgomery covered “A Day in the Life,” “Yesterday” and “Elenor Rigby” and in 1970 Count Basie and His Orchestra released an entire Beatles Album. Ever since The Beatles took over the world, there has been no shortage Beatles covers.

Picking only one of their albums is tough. To many, it seems to be a cultural responsibility to intimately know the Beatle’s music, but if you only have $9.99 left on your itunes account, “Sgt. Pepper’s” is a must buy.

Songs to know: A Day in the Life, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, A Little Help From My Friends

Radiohead – Kid A

In 1999 when Radiohead began working on Kid A, the members of the band had conflicting visions for the project. Some wanted to make three minute pop songs. Thom Yorke wanted rhythm, synthesizers and to use his voice like an instrument. By 2000 the band had recorded 30 songs that would make up Kid A and Amnesiac.

In popular music over the past decade, the voice has played an interesting role. Rap, hip hop, metal and lots of rock vocals don’t translate well to instrumental covers. Thom Yorke’s singing on Kid A does. The interesting textures, harmony and rhythms also create a lot of possibilities for jazz musicians.

Radiohead did not hold back in the creation of Kid A. The second half of The National Anthem features a full horn section “sounding like traffic.” Kid A was the #1 album in the US and UK and it has what sounds like the Mingus Big Band going crazy for 3 straight minutes.

Songs to know: Everything in its Right Place, The National Anthem, Morning Bell

Listen to Morning Bell performed by Devil’s Workshop Big Band:

[audio: – Morning Bell.mp3|titles=Morning Bell|artists=Devil’s Workshop Big Band]
Purchase on CD Baby or iTunes

Stephen Norfleet

Nirvana – Nevermind

To someone who has never heard The Bad Plus, this may come as a surprise but even Herbie Hancock has recorded a Nirvana cover. Today an entire generation of jazz musicians that grew up on Nirvana and Weezer is performing everywhere from the Bowery Poetry Club to the Village Vanguard to Cous Cous.

Using the simple riffs and melodies of Nirvana songs, groups like The Bad Plus and Charlie Hunter Trio have earned mentions on Cover Wars while taking listeners on a nostalgic trip back to the 90’s.

Charlie Hunter performs “Come as You Are” at the Montruex Jazz Festival in 1995

Songs to know: Smells Like Teen Spirit, Come as You Are

There are hundreds of worthy selections and countless lists that could be made. No two people are likely to have an identical list so I encourage everyone to add their own lists below. I will then crunch some numbers and create a master list.

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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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