Illustration by Melinda Beck
I have often been asked over the years to name favorite jazz musicians or favorite recordings. These are difficult tasks. For one thing, there are hundreds of great musicians and thousands of great recordings. Our relationships to our favorites are also full of nuance. We might appreciate one piece for a particular kind of nostalgia it brings, how it throws us back to a specific time and place; another because it energizes us; another for the message of the lyrics. And those relationships change over time. What might move our 14-year-old self might leave our 63-year-old self cold, or vice versa. With those caveats in mind, here are a few recordings that are capturing my imagination at the present moment.

“Split” on Luciana Souza’s Speaking in Tongues (Sunnyside, 2015)

I find myself returning again and again to Souza’s haunting collaboration with Leonard Cohen, “Split,” to experience its aching irony: “And I swear by this love / Which is living and dead / That we will be separate / And we will be wed.” This album, featuring Lionel Loueke (guitar), Gregoire Maret (harmonica), Massimo Biolcati (bass) and Kendrick Scott (drums), provides many rewards.

“St. Louis Blues” on Herbie Hancock’s Gershwin’s World (Verve, 1998)

The composition “St. Louis Blues” was written by W.C. Handy in 1914 and has been a staple of jazz repertory ever since. There are many landmark recordings of the tune, but this one, sung by Stevie Wonder, stands out for its joyfulness, the ingenuity of the arrangement with Terri Lyne Carrington (drums) and Alex Al (bass), and Stevie’s inimitable vocal flexibility. Hear in the line “I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down,” toward the end of the recording, Stevie’s vocal leap of more than an octave between the words “to” and “see.” Then notice in the phrase “St. Louie woman with her diamond rings” how many notes
Stevie sings on the single syllable “rings.” I wouldn’t be surprised if he broke some kind of record!

“Song for Winnie” on the Uptown String Quartet’s The Uptown String Quartet (Polygram, 1989)

Legendary jazz drummer Max Roach sought to create a jazz repertory for string quartet, and this album, made up of commissions by some of the leading composers of the day, was his inaugural effort. Leslie Burrs composed “Song for Winnie,” a tribute to the now late Winnie Mandela. I love the combination of simple, direct, rhythmic language, lyrical melodies and bass loops, with complex, dissonant harmonies. And I love the way the quartet members—Diane Monroe (violin), Lesa Terry (violin), Maxine Roach (viola) and Eileen Folson (cello)—draw at once from a European classical chamber music tradition and an American blues-based tradition.

“That Moanin’ Trombone,” James Reese Europe (Pathé, 1919)

This is the oldest recording on my list, but in a way, it has also become the newest to me. I have known the recording for decades, having listened to it many times and even taught with it. Recently, though, I had my first opportunity to perform the piece with the great pianist/composer/bandleader Jason Moran. And through that process, I gained a new appreciation for what the musicians were doing in this recording—their formidable control at a very fast tempo, their coordination, particularly of the solo breaks. And when I saw footage of them playing on the deck of a ship in New York Harbor in February, I had to bow in respect.

Illustration by: Melinda Beck