While jazz is a truly American art form, its roots in West African musical expression and European military marching music make it one of the most far-reaching musical genres on the planet. Whenever a style moves from being a noun to an adjective—jazz to jazzy—its ubiquity is ensured.
Jazz kicked off in African-American culture during the early part of the 20th century, an intriguing, rhythmic blend of blues and ragtime creating a home in small bars and living rooms. Thanks in part to vinyl records and touring bands, post-Depression jazz solidified its place on the national scene. Since then, it has gone through too many permutations to count: swing, gypsy, free jazz, jazz-rock, hip-hop and electronic forms all coexist.
No singular playlist could encompass the richness of this genre beyond genres. This is a personal playlist that represents places jazz has infiltrated over the course of my decades listening to and loving this music. While jazz is truly an international genre, I’ve mostly stuck to descendants of American jazz. If I accounted for the impact jazz has had on African, Cuban, and Brazilian music (just to start), the playlist would be days long.
It starts with two newer musicians. Though Makaya McCraven was born in Paris, the 35-year-old drummer and producer—he says “beat scientist”—cut his teeth on the Chicago circuit. “Universal Beings” is such a unique and grooving record, it makes for the perfect intro to jazz’s century-long evolution. (You’ll hear earlier strains of this lineage later with Alice Coltrane’s “Turiya and Ramakrishna.”)
Kamasi Washington has created an industry out of his sound. The Inglewood, California, native references John Coltrane at every turn; his opus (thus far), “Heaven and Earth,” is a grand operatic vision of the largeness of jazz’s possibilities.
Then again, jazz at its best is always about querying the impossible, which brings us to Coltrane. I’ve listened to his music more than any other musician. “Out of This World” truly is in another dimension. It’s where I head whenever I run into a barrier in life and need to claw my way around, under, above or through it.
Speaking of beat science, the combination of Kamaal Williams and Yussef Dayes makes for one of the best modern collaborations around. Following their hard-driving track “Remembrance,” another constant collaborator, Ben Lamdin (aka Nostalgia 77) appears. He’s produced many fun and diverse projects over the last two decades. His take on an Ethiopian classic makes for a brilliant homage to another place jazz has greatly impacted.
Jazz’s influence on R&B and hip-hop need not be stated. Such a scouring could take weeks to cover. I’ll stick with three: Leon Bridges (that guitar playing under his silky vocals!), Guru collaborating with Donald Byrd on a rap-jazz classic, and a track from the greatest hip-hop/jazz record of all time, A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory.”
Though I mentioned avoiding African music, Tony Allen’s tribute to his hero, Art Blakey, had to be included. Allen was Fela Kuti’s drummer and bandleader, in large part responsible for the Afrobeat founder’s success. His four-track EP, “A Tribute to Art Blakey,” is phenomenal. (Blakey drums in a little farther down the list.)
The Cinematic Orchestra recently returned after a 12-year hiatus with the luminous “To Believe.” One of the group’s first songs ever, “Channel 1 Suite,” holds up two decades after its release. Of course, good jazz is timeless, which is why the next track, Grant Green’s “Farid,” remains relevant nearly 40 years after he cut it one night at a Detroit club.
We’re heavy on the piano from here. I happily discovered Alfa Mist through Jordan Rakei’s music and love his classic approach; it’s simply great to hear a young cat throwing a head nod to his elders. Robert Glasper came into my view at the Canal Room roughly 15 years ago. I catch him live whenever I can; his Radiohead cover is gorgeous. Who can talk piano without mentioning McCoy Tyner, one-fourth of Coltrane’s greatest quartet? Mary Lou Williams and the inimitable Bill Evans round out the list.
Finally, there’s Miles Davis. “So What” is one of his most famous songs for a reason. My favorite record is “On the Corner,” which comes highly recommended, but that album takes time and a certain temperament to fall into. “So What” is a daily pill worth ingesting.
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