From ear to ear: inspiring jazz songs for a stifled spring
As we enter another month of self-isolation and social distancing, many of us feel stagnant, uninspired, or just plain worried about the future. And while it may even be hot enough to be summer already as we cruise with the prospect of resuming our lives on some sort of trail, it’s important to remember that spring isn’t over yet.
You might be happy as the season draws to a close, or you might feel like you haven’t had a chance to really soak up it. Either way, there may still be time for reflection and growth, even if the circumstances do not. feel good.
I wanted my playlist this month to include songs that remind me of the good times I had as well as songs that make me think of the good times that I know I will see again soon.
“A foggy day” – Red garland
Red Garland has always been one of my favorite jazz pianists, and he has the added merit of being born in the same city as me – Dallas, Texas. His 1956 debut album, “A Garland of Red”, was an album I immediately dug into when I first heard the track “A Foggy Day”. It’s hard to describe how fluidly Garland swings with Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums. I like this tune the most in particular because, even though George Gershwin wrote it about London, it reminds me of San Francisco and the cool, foggy summer days ahead.
“Spring can really hook you the most” – Sarah Vaughan
This one is a no-brainer of course, and there aren’t many who can sing a tune quite like Sarah Vaughan did. From his 1963 album “Snowbound”, Vaughan treats the painful lyrics with grace on a superb orchestral arrangement by Don Costa. It’s the perfect description of feeling like being left at the starting line even though the shot has already been triggered – a feeling I’m sure many of us can relate to right now.
“Little Sunflower” – Freddie Hubbard
It’s hard to compose a jazz playlist without including the great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. “Little Sunflower” from Hubbard’s 1967 album “Backlash” is a cool classic and has a groove that could last for days. The composition is a powerhouse for horn and flute (provided by James Spaulding), but my fondness for it comes from a wonderful arrangement I played with the Bert Ligon guitar ensemble during my time at the University of Caroline from the south. Playing together in a room with six other talented guitarists is definitely something I crave now, and I bet a lot of my fellow musicians are too.
“Someone to Watch Over Me” – Amy Winehouse
Hidden within the B-sides of Amy Winehouse’s 2003 debut album “Frank” is one of the most amazing versions of Gershwin’s love song I’ve ever heard. It’s both sweet and powerful, proving that what started out as a demo would turn out to be one of the best gems. That, combined with the fact that the track was originally written as a rhythmic swing but settled down like a ballad, shows just how slowing down can give you something incredibly amazing.
“Younger than Spring / The Surrey with the bangs at the top” – Marty Paich
There’s nothing quite like a good mashup, and West Coast pianist and arranger Marty Paich is one of my all-time favorites. His 1959 album “The Broadway Bit” features Art Pepper, Jimmy Giuffre, Scott LaFaro and Mel Lewis among others. It was one of my first introductions to big band music and left a big impression on what swing was meant to sound like.
This combination of two musical hits from Rodgers and Hammerstein always makes me want to go to town, and while I can’t pull out Surrey quite yet, it still puts me in a good mood.
“Oop-Pop-A-Da” – Dizzy Gillespie
I wanted to give you at least one hot track on this list, and who better to spin you in your chair than the great bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. This particular recording of Babs Gonzales’ aria was taken from a live performance by Gillespie at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York in 1992. The album “To Bird With Love” was one of his last recordings. did before he passed away in 1993. There’s a whole host of stars including Paquito D’Rivera, Jackie McLean and Bobby McFerrin, and it’s eleven and a half minutes of pure chaos. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself like me, singing along to whatever you hear afterward!
“Swinging At The Haven” – The Marsalis family
One of the hardest hits in the jazz world to date due to COVID-19 came with the loss of great pianist and jazz teacher Ellis Marsalis Jr. last month. The patriarch of a world-class musical family straight from the jazz mecca of New Orleans has left a huge impact on countless young musicians and educators. This album is another live recording, from the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena in 2001.
It shows how powerful family can be and how powerful the connection of music is to all of us. Starring Marsalis’ sons Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis, who all made their own musical legacies, this date is truly a celebration of jazz. Check out “Swinging at the Haven”, one of my favorite compositions by Ellis Marsalis, Jr.
“You have to believe in spring” – Tony Bennett / Bill Evans
This duet between two jazz legends makes me both melancholy and hopeful, not necessarily an easy task for a single song. Bill Evans has a way of wearing an air that can only sometimes be described as out of this world, and Tony Bennett delivers the words with delicacy and warmth. From their 1977 album “Together Again”, this springtime ballad is one of the most poignant yet inspiring songs I have encountered so far. Here are the lyrics:
So in a world of snow
Things that come and go
Where what you think you know
You cannot be sure of
You have to believe in spring and love
“Driftin ‘” – Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock just turned 80 last month, and I can’t think of a jazz musician I know who hasn’t been influenced by him in some way. The compositions and collaborations are too numerous to count, so I picked one from Hancock’s 1962 debut album, “Takin ‘Off”.
First impressions are important and the longevity of this great pianist’s musical career proves that anything is possible if you embark on the adventure. With an infectious melody conducted by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, “Driftin ‘” tops the list of an album full of great tracks.
“Blue Sky” – Willie Nelson
This one might seem like an obvious choice given the themes on my playlist, but Willie Nelson’s 1978 interpretation of “Blue Skies” has a much deeper meaning to me than the season. I lost my grandfather in February of this year, and Willie has always been one of his favorite singers. Not only that, but my grandfather was also a pilot and airplane lover for most of his life. When you travel in the air, there is nothing better than a clear blue sky. Hearing this song makes me think of the incredible spirit and resilience he had in life, and it gives me a lot more hope for the future at a time when so many of us are struggling. Hope he can give you that too.
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