Last month, on the 75th anniversary of the founding of Blue Note, I whittled down the Blue Note catalogue to just eight albums that I would take to a desert island. Blue Note is the most iconic of jazz labels; yet, as I wrote last month, ‘if I were to compile a list of my favourite jazz recordings, not that many would probably be from Blue Note.’ So here are the non-Blue Note jazz albums to take to a desert island. Actually, two desert islands, as I could not squeeze it down to just eight. Even so, there are many great albums missing from this list, from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives & Sevens to Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby, from Sun Ra’s Jazz in Silhouette to Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters. Also missing, of course, are the Blue Note albums, so no Eric Dolphy or Cannonball Adderly. And no Ornette Coleman or Thelonious Monk either; I could have included The Shape of Jazz to Come or Brilliant Corners, but my favourite albums by both are on Blue Note, so they miss out here.
There is a structure to this list. The first eight are classic American jazz albums, mainly from the 1940s to the 1960s, mainly bop, post-bop and free jazz, with the odd big band (Count Basie) thrown in. Then there are four of my favourite vocal albums; then two landmarks of modern European jazz; and finally, two works of North African jazz, and the two albums that perhaps I listen to most these days, Anouar Brahem especially.
This is a highly personal list. Many of these albums – by Ahmad Jamal, Nina Simone, Anouar Brahem, Dhafer Youseff, perhaps even the Bessie Smith – would not find themselves on many people’s ‘best of jazz’ list. Whether Bessie Smith or Nina Simone can even be considered jazz singers is a moot point – they happen to be in my eyes, Bessie Smith in particular being crucial as a bridge from blues to jazz, and a mighty influence on subsequent jazz vocalists.
One note about the Billie Holiday choice. The album Lady Day: the Master Takes and Singles covers the greatest period of her singing career when she was contracted to Columbia Records. Strange Fruit is her greatest song. It was recorded in 1939, during her Columbia years. But it is actually not on the album. Columbia was so frightened by how its white audience might react to such powerful song about racism and lynching that it refused to record it. It was eventually recorded by Commodore Records. It is here as a reminder of the social climate in which many of these artists were forced to perform.
Charles Mingus Ah Um
Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus
Miles Davis Kind of Blue
John Coltrane A Love Supreme
Charlie Parker The Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings
Ahmad Jamal Ahmad’s Blues
Count Basie The Atomic Mr Basie
Dave Brubeck Time Out
Bessie Smith Complete Recordings
Billie Holiday Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles
Ella Fitzgerald Mack the Knife: Ella Live in Berlin
Nina Simone Sings the Blues
Komeda Quintet Astigmatic
(Polskie Nagrania Muza, 1966)
Tomasz Stanko Leosia
Anouar Brahem Barzakh
Dhafer Youseff Digital Prophecy
The photo at the top is of Thelonious Monk, taken by Eugene Smith for the cover of the 1953 album, Monk.