impossible lists


If someone asks me what my favourite album is I tend to answer, “The one I most recently liked best”.

The Jazz magazines are less obtuse and often go where angels fear to tread by presenting ‘top albums of the year’ (or ‘decade’) lists. To arrive at these lists some magazines employ readers polls but most rely on the collective opinions of the contributing reviewers and critics which is probably a reasonable enough methodology. The results invariably cause consternation among readers who can’t believe that a number of blindingly obvious album choices were stupidly omitted. In reality the matter of choosing and ranking lists is highly subjective and I would be very surprised if the critics agreed on more than a handful of choices. Examining record sales was once a beginning point but with internet sales, a multiplicity of download sources and 1,000’s of Independent labels in the marketplace that information would be extremely difficult to gather.

The other night my friends and I poured over just such a definitive list which outlined the ‘best Jazz big band recordings of all time’. At first people agreed with the choices as they were no-brainers. Well known albums by Ellington, Basie, Gil Evans/Miles, Thad Jones, Mulligan etc. Then one by one we started arguing over what had been missed and as the choices presented themselves we became certain that any ‘best of big bands’ list would probably need to contain at least a few hundred albums. As to ranking; that would probably end up in a knock down drag out fight, so we kept well away from that. While we were distracted the host snuck on a brilliant Clark Terry ‘Big B-A-D Band’ CD and here is the problem in a nutshell – It was the last best thing that we had ever heard.  Chuck it on the list guys.

I have since been considering my own ‘must add’ disks and here are just a few that require inclusion. Marty Paich “The Modern Touch’ (with Pepper. Sheldon, Giuffre, LaFaro, Lewis etc – what idiot missed that out?). Milt Jackson-‘Plenty Plenty Soul’ (I would die in ditch over that work of genius), George Russell-New York N Y (brilliant and edgy), Mingus-The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (to miss this is just ignorance).

I think that I need to stop this list making and above all I need to stop arguing with myself over my previous choices. Leave the lists to the critics because going that route leads to madness.

PS – feel free to add your own best big band choices in ‘comments’ – argue if you like and I will watch from a safe distance.

Healing Jazz; Katrina and other natural disasters

At a time when we are facing one natural disaster after another, music is a healing force.   Where jazz is concerned  that feels especially so and it is not surprising as the music arose out out of the miseries of slavery and transcended that abomination.  While the depths of sadness may have informed early jazz, it was in the end a joyful and healing music.   This power to surprise and to give pleasure also applies to the arts surrounding jazz.  I recently purchased the large coffee table book ‘Jazz’ by Herman Leonard.    Herman Leonard is arguably the greatest of jazz photographers and that is no small claim in a field already crowded with photographic genius.   Anyone possessing a reasonably sized jazz CD or LP collection will have sighted Leonard’s work even if they did not know it was him. His powerful images of jazz musicians have appeared on many an album cover and and no book about jazz is complete without a few Herman Leonard photographs.

Late one night in 1949 Leonard, a skinny jewish kid, son of migrants, turned up at the Royal Roost club and the pictures he took pleased the performing artists.   The artists were Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.  Quincy Jones said “I used to tell cats that Herman Leonard did with his camera what we did with our instruments”.    Even before success came, the musicians loved having him around as he made them look good.

Herman Leonard was in his eighties when hurricane Katrina destroyed his home in New Orleans and along with it his vast archives (including 10,000 prints).   Without hesitation he continued his important work which he described as ‘creating an image of what he was hearing’.   His record of the Jazz life is beyond compare.    Herman Leonard died in 2010.

After Katrina the Jazz musicians of New Orleans organised a number of concerts to lift peoples spirits and above all to convince them that the old ‘Latin Quarter’ had life in it yet.  Being able to swing so mightily in the face of terrible adversity is what jazz is about.  A profound music that reaches beyond the moment.


Google Herman Leonard for more images;