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Steve Shepherd on jazz

Significant Others

Jazz & jazz-related LPs that are off the beaten track (part 1)

It's 1980 and a gang of fifteen year olds are listening to the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Psychedelic Furs in a flat in Harrow, North London. J's mum is out with her new boyfriend and we are getting pissed.

I raise myself from the couch and my eye is caught by a red-wire record holder crammed with tatty LPs. Soon I am on my hands and knees flicking through. It turns out J's dad was a jazz drummer and these were left behind. And so it begins...

The following aren't necessarily "iconic" or "best sellers" but they are, after forty years of listening, some of the lesser-listed jazz LPs that stand out for me.

And why should we care what stands out for you? I imagine you asking. Well, in the late 1980s, I worked first in Honest Jon's Records in Portobello Road and then in Ray's Jazz Shop, 180 Shaftesbury Avenue. Both shops were staffed by extremely knowledgeable jazz types and are/were, I think it is fair to say, legendary. From Ray's I went to the BBC Gramophone Library as Jazz Archivist and from there I became a radio producer, eventually landing the dream job of running Jazz On 3 on BBC Radio 3 between 1998 and 2002.

That's eighteen years from the back of J's mum's couch to recording live jazz for the BBC, forty-eight weeks of the year. It's an honest to goodness jazz fairy tale. Along the way I have listened to thousands of hours of the stuff and unearthed some real treasure. Here's some of it in no particular order.

1. Blue Moods - Miles Davis

In 1957 Miles had been out of circulation for a while, cleaning up. This was a Charles Mingus date in all but name, initially released on the bassist's Debut record label. The copy behind J's couch was on Fantasy and was pressed on translucent red vinyl. The first jazz record I ever placed on a turntable; the only time Miles and Mingus ever recorded together.

2. Cannonball Adderley - Live At The Jazz Workshop

Another one from behind the couch. Please listen to the way Adderley, a renowned raconteur, gets himself into hot water with the audience and tries to extricate himself. By the end of the extraordinary opening track, "Primitivo", it seems all is forgiven. And so it should be.

3. Alla Mina Kompisar - Per “Texas” Johannson

Jazz on 3 was due to record a high profile American jazz star who will remain nameless. The parking permits outside Ronnie Scott's for our truck had already been purchased. At the last minute the artist's agent tried to jack-up the fee and impose restrictions on use. We decided to pull out and find something else to record on the same night. Meanwhile the Swedish embassy had brought an aircraft full of totally unknown (to us) young jazz musicians to the UK and were showcasing them in small clubs all over London. We drove the truck to The Bull's Head in Barnes and set up for Per "Texas" Johansson's quintet, not really knowing what to expect...

4. Piano, Bass, Drums - The Necks

The masters of thematic development, you'll need to set aside the best part of an hour for this Australian trio's unique, one track, masterpiece but you won't regret it

5. Strange Meeting - Power Tools

If one musician can be said to have changed the sound of contemporary jazz it is guitarist Bill Frisell. He has worked with so many of the great names and all of the music he touches sounds unmistakingly Bill-like. This is a relatively early example of him doing his own thing.

6. Etcetera - Wayne Shorter

Saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter, friend and young protege of John Coltrane, came to prominence in the late fifties as musical director and tenor man with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Poached by Miles Davis in 1964, he stayed until Bitches Brew in 1970 before forming Weather Report. His soprano sax was beloved by Joni Mitchell and the two collaborated on many recordings (including Mingus below). Etcetera is one of his lesser known recordings and, for me, one of his best.

7. The Cortege - Mike Westbrook

This epic work, which fuses Kate Westbrook's adaptations of European poetry with state of the art compositions and arrangements by Mike, is, in my humble opinion, one of the treasures of twentieth century art. Here is the raucous opening but do seek out the rest (on Spotify last time I looked).

8. Mingus - Joni Mitchell

Joni was a good friend of Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, and her swing towards jazz was evident a few years before this much maligned (by rock critics) LP. The complexity of her music had demanded jazz musicianship since Court and Spark in 1974. The record label deemed Mingus (1979) career suicide but Joni wasn't in the mood to compromise.

9. A Go Go - John Scofield

Scofield had been on the scene for a while when he received the call from Miles Davis in 1983. Previously, he had played some fusion with Billy Cobham and made trio albums for German jazz label Enja but there was nothing to suggest impending stardom. It's all relative of course: you'd still walk a long way down any high street before you found anyone who'd heard of him. As of 2023 he has forty-plus albums to his name and this is one of the grooviest.

10. It's Mostly Residual - Cong Vu + Frisell

This is a recent discovery and one I feel compelled to share.

11. Cityscape - Claus Ogerman & Michael Brecker

Master saxophonist Brecker makes the ultimate late night album. Give it a go.

12. Living Legend - Art Pepper

Alto saxophonist Art Pepper is one of those guys who had a second act. At the start it was all matinee idol looks, big bands and be-bop. Then came heroin, general degeneracy and San Quentin. He served four prison terms between 1954 and 1966. Whilst inside Art fell in love with the music of John Coltrane and the player who finally emerged, blinking into freedom, was much changed. Eight years after his release, this was his comeback LP.

13. Word Of Mouth - Jaco Pastorius

The bass virtuoso's often neglected second album. Jaco torpedoed his career by pursuing his unique vision. Warners expected a clone of Weather Report's breakout hit "Birdland". Instead they got "Crisis"!

14. Live at the Bohemia - Charles Mingus

Early Mingus, often overlooked. The compositions are top drawer; the solos are top drawer. For some unexplained reason, sax player George Barrow never had another chance to shine like this.

15. Vinicius - Vinicius Cantuaria

The most famous fusion of jazz and latin is probably still Getz/Gilberto, a somewhat unlikely crossover hit which climbed the US charts in the wake of JFK's assassination. Light music to escape the horrors of modern life perhaps? Vinicius is much darker in mood but no less lovely. With some wonderful interventions by that man Bill Frisell and a guest vocal by David Byrne.

16. Are You Glad To Be In America? - James Blood Ulmer

This was issued in the UK on Rough Trade records, and I probably heard the title track on John Peel's late night Radio 1 show. A disciple of Ornette Coleman, Ulmer's ragged style fitted well with post-punk funk. Don't miss the single at 38:13

17. Weird Nightmare - Meditations on Mingus.

The late great producer Hal Wilner was responsible for a number of high-concept albums which employed the most inventive contemporary jazz players. This is my favourite but his meditations on Thelonious Monk, Nino Rota and Walt Disney are also worthy of your attention. See if you recognise the guitarist.

18. Brilliant Corners - Thelonious Monk

Back behind the couch in North London, there was a strangely titled LP by an even stranger-sounding piano player. This album remains one of my desert island picks. In part it stands out because of the inclusion of two unusual instruments: celeste and timpani. Many years later I got to meet the man who produced the session, Orrin Keepnews. "What was Monk's concept?" I asked, thinking the Holy Grail of jazz esoterica was within my grasp. "When we arrived'', Orrin said, voice gnarled and nasal New York, "the previous classical session hadn't cleared their stuff out. Monk and Max Roach went straight to the celeste and timpani and started experimenting. Simple as that."

19. Bill Evans & Claus Ogerman - Symbiosis

This crops up in the film Sideways at the story's emotional climax. Can something be so beautiful that it causes pain? Well, yes.

20. Silver World - Hozan Yamamoto

As a young man, bass player Gary Peacock was part of a groundbreaking trio with saxophonist Albert Ayler. Later in life he was best known for his collaborations with pianist Keith Jarrett. In both settings he is extraordinary. In the early 1970s, Peacock spent some time in Japan, where he worked with shakuhachi player Hozan Yamamoto. This recording is obscure even by my standards. Enjoy.

Steve Shepherd now writes poems and takes photographs. He used to make radio programmes, mostly jazz.

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