The World‘s Best Basic Record Collection
What to do the next time you find a five hundred dollar bill in a record store.
What makes a record collection basic? One standard, of course, is enjoyment—the Desert Island test. What music would you want if suddenly you found yourself stranded on a desert island with nothing but a stereo set and a very long extension cord? We decided, however, on a different test: what records would a modern-day Noah hustle onto the Ark at the first sign of rain? Our panel of experts—regular Texas Monthly contributors W. L. Taitte (classical) and Chet Flippo (rock and country), and San Antonio jazz critic Doug Ramsey—have responded with a 110-album library of what they—and we—feel is our most essential music.
One other thing: no one has money to throw around these days, so we asked our experts to limit expenses to $500. The more mathematically minded readers may calculate that $500 divided 110 ways is $4.54, less than the list price of many records.
Oh, well. Everyone has to hunt for bargains these days.
Classical. The principle behind this particular list was to choose music that is both immediately appealing and of permanent worth. This music is for listening rather than for background, and generally falls outside the “pops” category—the “light classical” pieces that are attractive on first hearing but wear thin relatively soon. Lots of these works are light in mood, but they are substantial enough to be heard over and over again.
A basic library will necessarily focus on the orchestral repertory, but there are samples here also of works you won’t hear at symphony concerts. I have tried to choose examples from these categories—songs, works for solo piano, and chamber music—which will whet the appetite for more. Many of these intimate works were written to be performed in the home, and since few of us can play or sing them ourselves anymore, records are the ideal medium for hearing them.
All the works here have been recorded by many different artists, which is one of the problems faced by every newcomer to classical music. In most popular music the work and the performance are inseparable; there are not ten different versions of, say, Sgt. Pepper by ten different groups. But that war-horse of war-horses, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, is currently available on 33 records on 13 labels. How to separate them? One method is price. Labels like RCA Victrola, Odyssey, Seraphim, and Nonesuch often have brilliant performances at budget prices. Another is originality. But if a purchaser hasn’t heard the others, a highly original interpretation may only sound ordinary—or worse, weird.
To demonstrate the problems involved, let’s pursue the case of Beethoven’s Fifth. DGG has just released a performance by the Vienna Philharmonic under Carlos Kleiber that may well be the best since the classic by the conductor’s father, Erich Kleiber, whose version is twenty-odd years old, mono only, out of print, and thus out of the running. But could I in conscience recommend this expensive, imported, two-sided Fifth when Seiji Ozawa’s recording with the Chicago Symphony on RCA is almost as good, costs a dollar less, and includes a fine version of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony? Or should I recommend the excellent box of all the Beethoven symphonies on Columbia played by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell? Surely there are no more “basic” items in the repertory than these nine, and in this set you get performances in each case competitive with the best, and for an unbelievably low total price (I have seen the set on sale for less than $20 during the last year).
I avoided this dilemma by recommending two other Beethoven symphonies instead. In any case, I don’t recommend buying boxes of complete works when you are just getting acquainted with the music. The prudent listener gets to know one piece thoroughly before going on to the next. Choosing a new record which will give a first taste of one of the great masterpieces should be a delicious experience. You ought to prolong and multiply it as long as possible. Similarly, even if you should decide you must have everything on this list or perish, do not go out and buy everything at once. Savoring purchases is a large part of the fun of collecting records.
One further admonishment: on the principle of permanent interest, I have often recommended full-price versions of music for which perfectly decent budget editions are available. If you treat records without the care they require—if you leave them on the turntable for hours or (shudder!) days at a time, if you finger the grooves, if you lose the inner jackets or leave discs lying around in stacks—do not waste your money on the more expensive versions. They won’t stay playable long enough to justify the extra expenditure. Buy cheaper records until you’ve decided that a record collection deserves the care that will help make it permanent.
So, with all attendant simplifications and compromises, here is the list. Why no Haydn, why no late Romantic piano concertos, why no opera at all? Alas, no room.
Madrigal Masterpieces, Volume I—The Deller Consort (Vanguard Bach Guild)
A single record must stand for all the wonderful music in the two centuries before Bach; this one has something for everybody—heart-rending emotion, catchy tunes, singing of verve and perfection.
Handel: Messiah—Ambrosian Chorus and the English Chamber Orchestra; Charles Mackerras, cond. (Angel)
For me one of the greatest recordings of the stereo age. It’s stylish and authentically played and ornamented, but more important it’s full of life in every department. Messiah seems to be just about everyone’s favorite piece of music (each orchestra in Texas schedules it almost every year), so the expenditure on a complete set seems justified even in the smallest collection.
Bach: The Six Brandenburg Concertos—Concentus musicus of Vienna; Nikolaus Harnoncourt, director (Telefunken)
These joyous works can fall flat if played in a nineteenth-century style. The Concentus musicus solves that problem with idiomatic performances, at once incisive and sensitive.
E. Power Biggs Plays Bach in the Thomaskirche (Columbia)
The organ is an unwieldy instrument, hard to bring alive in performance. Biggs plays four of Bach’s best-known works for it in renditions that manage to be neither dull nor eccentric.
The Mozart Album (Columbia)
George Szell conducts the Cleveland and Columbia Orchestras in the “Jupiter” Symphony, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and two overtures, and is joined by Robert Casadesus for the “Elvira Madigan” piano concerto (No. 21 in C Major) and by Isaac Stem for Violin Concerto No. 5. Only two drawbacks to this two-disc bargain: it neglects the tragic side of Mozart’s genius (no works in a minor key); and it might deter you from later acquiring the splendid Szell collections (themselves bargains) from which these performances are drawn.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”)—Vienna Philharmonic; Sir Georg Solti, cond. (London)
The Vienna Philharmonic has a Beethoven tradition which ensures performances of warmth and majesty. Solti adds the crucial fire and brilliance.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (“Choral”)—Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Fritz Reiner, cond. (RCA)
All around, the best single-disc recording available. Though this format involves compromises in sound and breaks the continuity of the Adagio, it is probably the most practical for a basic collection.
Serkin Plays Beethoven Favorites (Columbia)
This specially priced two-disc set is probably the best modem recording of the three most famous sonatas (“Pathetique,” “Moonlight,” “Appasionata”). It also includes a fine “Emperor” Concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.
Schubert: String Quintet in C Major and “Quartettsatz”—Weller Quartet (London STS) An echt-Viennese performance of two of the most lovable works in the chamber repertory, at a bargain price.
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique—Concertgebouw Orchestra; Colin Davis, cond. (Phillips)
Davis now “owns” Berlioz because of the textual devotion and clarity of his performances. This one is less an opium dream and more a musical experience than its rivals.
The Chopin I Love, Volume I—Artur Rubinstein, pianist (RCA)
No one else plays these in quite the same Romantic fashion anymore.
Schumann: Liederkreis and Other Eichendorff Lieder—Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Gerald Moore, pianist (Angel)
The composer Ned Rorem compared Lennon-McCartney’s melodies to Schumann’s; if you’re a fan of the one, you might like the other. As for Fischer-Dieskau, he is the king of lieder singers.
Verdi: Requiem—Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus; Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. (Angel)
How to sneak Verdi into a list too short for opera? Include an inspired performance of his one great non-operatic work.
Klemperer Conducts Wagner Overtures—Philharmonia Orchestra (Angel)
I often prefer to hear just the overtures to The Flying Dutchman and Tannhduser rather than the whole operas. Rienzi is interesting because the whole opera is never performed, and the Meistersinger prelude is a good concert work, too. Besides, Klemperer’s performances are grand.
Brahms: Violin Concerto—Henryk Szeryng, violinist; London Symphony Orchestra;. Pierre Monteux, cond. (RCA Victrola)
This has always seemed to me the most accessible of Brahms’ large pieces, and the performance is one of the biggest bargains in the catalog.
Brahms: Symphony No. 4—Concertgebouw Orchestra; Bernard Haitink, cond. (Phillips)
Though this symphony had a forbidding reputation when first composed, it now seems pure melody. Haitink has become one of the world’s finest conductors of late Romantic music.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9—Berlin Philharmonic; Herbert von Karajan, cond. (DGG)
Some might not find this huge symphony suitable for a basic library, but an old mono version was one of the first records I owned, and I was fascinated from the beginning. Perhaps it was the mystery of the work, which von Karajan evokes so well in this performance, that held me.
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade—Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Sir Thomas Beecham, cond. (Angel)
The most colorful of war-horses in a classic performance.
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (excerpts)—Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, cond. (Columbia)
As regularly as Messiah, The Nutcracker rolls around every year. Everybody needs at least this much of the score (certainly more than the famous but niggardly Suite No. 1). If you want the whole ballet—that masterful vision of an adult’s nostalgic view of childhood—Vanguard Everyman has the Utah Symphony—Abravanel version available inexpensively.
Boulez Conducts Debussy, Volume I—New Philharmonia (Columbia)
Pierre Boulez gets crystalline performances of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux, and La Mer. Columbia also offers these at a special price in a larger set.
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde—Ernst Hafliger and Mildred Miller, soloists; New York Philharmonic; Bruno Walter, cond. (Odyssey)
Walter led the premiere of this work after the composer’s death, and his performances set a standard which no one has matched. All three of his recordings are now readily and cheaply available. I prefer the often underrated third one, not only because of its stereo reproduction but also because the singers have a very special way with the text, though their voices as such are not in the same class as those in the earlier versions.
Schonberg: Pierrot Lunaire—Jan De Gaetani, voice; Contemporary Chamber Ensemble; Arthur Weisberg, cond. (Nonesuch)
Schonberg is the greatest composer since Beethoven primarily because each of his works is so different from the others. This one is filled with sounds of the night—whispers, screeches, gasps—but also with beauty, poetry, and wit. Even in a performance this good the combination takes some getting used to, but when you come to know the work I think you’ll love it as I do.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring—Chicago Symphony; Georg Solti, cond. (London)
Though the composer’s own recordings of his works on Columbia are one of the great musical projects of the last twenty years, reluctantly I have to recommend this super-duper new best-seller even above Stravinsky’s own version.
—by W. L. Taitte
Rock. I never really thought you could put a price tag on good rock ’n’ roll (never mind the $12 tickets for many concerts these days) until I started thinking about assembling an essential record collection. After drawing up exhaustive lists and discarding many borderline cases, I found to my surprise that about 30 long-play records would serve to span rock’s brief history.
Rock’s exact origins are dim and misty—the term had long been a euphemism in rhythm and blues for making love, which is one big reason why certain of our elders sought to suppress the rise of rock ’n’ roll. Of the music predating and anticipating rock—from Jimmie Rodgers’ country blues to the Southern field hollers—I’ve concentrated on only a few records by performers whose influence is undeniable. Similarly, the other records chosen represent landmarks (or at least small historical plaques) in rock’s history. Were I to be banished tomorrow to Bujumbura or Bhutan, these are the rock records I would want to take with me. Careful readers will note that there are no records by the Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, Neil Diamond, Sonny and/or Cher, Grand Funk, or Elton John. Hate mail will be answered personally.
Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers (Columbia)
Johnson, the greatest of the southern blues singers and guitarists, is really just beginning to receive the recognition due him. He died a murder victim in 1938 in his late twenties. Little is known of his life or even his death (one story has it that he was hexed by voodoo and died on his knees, barking like a dog), but his influence is enormous. Listen to the Rolling Stones’ version of his “Love in Vain” or Eric Clapton on his “Crossroads” and what you hear is but a shadow of the raw power and often awesome emotional impact of the Robert Johnson originals.
History of Rhythm & Blues Volume 1, The Roots 1947- 1952 (Atlantic)
History of Rhythm & Blues Volume 2, The Golden Years 1953-1955 (Atlantic)
History of Rhythm & Blues Volume 3, Rock & Roll 1956- 1957 (Atlantic)
These three records are the quickest and least painful seminar on where rock came from and why it came at all. Atlantic, which was formed as a small independent company in New York in 1948, at one time or another had virtually everyone who mattered in rhythm and blues. These albums span rock’s early years from the doo-wop vocal groups, such as the Ravens and Orioles, through Ray Charles, LaVeme Baker, and the Coasters. Along with King Records in Cincinnati (which had on its rosier such influential performers as Hank Ballard, Otis Williams, and Little Willie John) and Chess-Checker in Chicago (with Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and others), Atlantic was chiefly responsible for providing the black music that later white performers would take up as rock ’n’ roll. Bill Haley, who many erroneously acknowledge as a founder of rock, began his career by offering laundered versions of R&B songs. As one example, he took Joe Turner’s Atlantic version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and cleaned it up because, as he said later, he didn’t want to do anything “suggestive.”
Best of Muddy Waters (Chess)
From the Beginning, B. B. King (Kent)
Here are two of the elders in the rock pantheon and the records here are my personal favorites—almost everything they recorded is worth having. I like these for Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Rollin’ Stone,” and B. B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen.” Howlin’ Wolf and Lloyd Price were important in this era too.
Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade (Chess)
Fats Domino, Legendary Masters Series (United Artists)
Little Richard’s Grooviest 17 Original Hits (Specialty)
16 All Time Greatest Hits, Bo Diddley (Checker)
The four horsemen of the apogee. Without these four gentlemen’s contributions, rock would not even begin to resemble what it’s become. The Fifties would have been bleak indeed without teenage music, which is what Berry, Domino, Richard, and Diddley are all about. Of the four, only Berry wrote lyrics that even began to make sense (as if that mattered in rock), but they were all masters of the beat. If some cruel dictator in the future should decide to ration everyone to only four LPs, these would be the four essential rock albums. The Berry album, especially, will stand for decades as the very spirit of wanton rock ’n’ roll. No one else has ever managed to write such perfect high school songs as “School Day,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over, Beethoven,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Without Berry’s repertoire to draw from, such later groups as the Stones, Beatles, and Beach Boys would have had large gaps in their work. Little Richard, the shrewd Prince of Fools, had a somewhat lesser influence, but this one album at high volume still hits you like mainlining adrenaline. Fats Domino, rock’s Mr. Goodvibes, also had less influence but no one else is quite so pleasant to listen to. And Bo Diddley—well, he’s a true original.
The Ray Charles Story, Volume 1 (Atlantic)
Save the Last Dance for Me, the Drifters (Atlantic)
Greatest Hits, the Coasters (Atco)
Farewell to the golden days of rhythm and blues. These are records that must be listened to, rather than written about. Charles is essential; the Drifters made some of the sweetest sounds this side of Baskin-Robbins; and, no matter that they were the puppets of white songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the Coasters were second only to Chuck Berry as black masters of the white high school sound.
The Buddy Holly Story (Coral)
Actually, all of Buddy Holly’s thirteen albums should be listed. A true musical genius, he came swirling out of Lubbock like a West Texas tornado and left a wide musical swath behind him. In rock’s history, he is second only to Chuck Berry in importance.
Elvis’ Golden Records (RCA Victor)
The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison (Monument)
The Golden Hits of Jerry Lee Lewis (Smash)
The Many New Sides of Charlie Rich (Smash)
The rockabilly-Sam Phillips-Memphis story is an important chapter in a definitive rock history. Sam Phillips ran a record store in Memphis and eased into the recording industry by leasing local recordings to national companies. His success encouraged him to form his own record company, Sun Records, and soon he had Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Conway Twitty filing in and out of his tiny studio. Sun was the first real chance for white southern singers; the ones with marketable talent soon moved on to the bigger record companies. The records listed above show Sun’s biggest rock talents at their peak—after, coincidentally, they had left Sun and before success and age diluted their abilities. Sun Records anthologies have been hard to find but are now being issued in imports from England.
Pledging My Love, Johnny Ace (Duke)
Two Steps from the Blues, Bobby Blue Bland (Duke)
Root of the Blues, Jimmy Reed (Kent)
Some of the best records to come out of Texas came from the late Don Robey’s Duke/Peacock factory in Houston. Johnny Ace, before his death in 1954 (supposedly in a game of Russian roulette), was setting a trend with soft blues ballads, a trend improved upon by Bland. Jimmy Reed, the Chicago singer, logged many years of singing his slurred, loping ballads and laments in Texas roadhouses and became as big an influence as Bland on young Texas singers.
My Generation/Magic Bus, The Who (MC)
Through the Past, Darkly, Rolling Stones (London)
Revolver, the Beatles (Capitol)
Layla, Derek and the Dominoes (Polydor)
In retrospect, the invasion of America by English bands over the past dozen years has not produced all that much in the way of lasting, memorable music. Truthfully, when was the last time you played your copy of Sgt. Pepper? Revolver or even Rubber Soul wears much better. And despite the Rolling Stones’ more recent records, Through the Past, Darkly contains the greatest concentration of their more powerful songs: “Street Fighting Man,’ “Paint It, Black,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” and “Honky Tonk Woman.” A wonderful party record.
Eric Clapton—the closest to a modern-day Robert Johnson we have—has an uneven history. He made his name as the Yardbirds’ guitarist, played in the supergroups Cream and Blind Faith, discovered drugs, left them behind, and recorded Layla, one of the most satisfying rock albums ever.
The Who, continuing today as one of the great touring rock bands, have nonetheless a spotty past as far as their records go. My two favorites, My Generation and Magic Bus have recently been reissued together.
Astral Weeks, Van Morrison (Warner)
Though the album has its flaws, this dark and mysterious collection of songs deserves a special award. Morrison is the Willie Nelson of rock. His exotic vocals were first heard when he was lead singer with Them. Instead of becoming a great British group, Them disappeared and Morrison went on to pursue a brilliant, if erratic, solo career.
Procol Harum (Deram)
Though I like almost everything Procol Harum has done, this first album always serves to remind me of the musical grandeur rock is capable of achieving. Cynics have referred to that grandeur as pretension.
Cheap Thrills, Big Brother and the Holding Company (Columbia)
Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan (Columbia)
Texas Tornado, the Sir Douglas Band (Atlantic)
Eat A Peach, the Allman Brothers (Capricorn)
Velvet Underground Live, 1969 (Mercury)
Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Byrds (Columbia)
Endless Summer, the Beach Boys (Capitol)
Nuggets/Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965—1968 (Elektra)
Well, I tried to hold it down to only 30 records, but some of these just sneaked onto the list. How could I leave off Nuggets? It’s a totally bizarre collection of 27 treasures from the psychedelic days, including the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and a character called Mouse who was the Texas Bob Dylan. The other selections in this last group represent what I consider to be the best of the diverse genres of American rock in recent years. Virtually any Dylan album could be included, as well as any Doug Sahm/Sir Douglas record. Cheap Thrills remains the finest example of Janis Joplin’s raw power and Eat A Peach was the Allman Brothers at their peak before Duane Allman’s death (though some of the cuts were completed after he died). What everyone’s calling progressive country rock is best illustrated by the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The Velvet Underground lowered the rock of decadence to new depths but their music was hardcore rock ’n’ roll. The Beach Boys with their unique sound belong on everybody’s list.
—by Chet Flippo
Country. A caveat to the uninitiated: to appreciate country music fully, you must grasp the fundamental ground rules. Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry are not quite as important as they sometimes seem. While country music is simplistic, it does not follow that it is necessarily simple. Those without a sense of humor or a sense of pathos are not invited to participate. And a certain fondness for platitudes is essential—if a line like “She’s acting single, I’m drinking doubles” makes you frown, count yourself out.
The problems of a historical survey are compounded by the fact that much of the best early country music is now unavailable except at inflated collectors’ prices (although many gems like Blue Sky Boys and the Delmore Brothers can still be found in junk stores and at garage sales). The records which follow are all generally available.
The Best of the Legendary Jimmie Rodgers (RCA)
The Famous Carter Family (Columbia/ Harmony)
Jimmie Rodgers was the first true country star, although Vernon Dalhart, an opera singer from Dallas, made the first commercially important record when he recorded “The Wreck of the Old 97” in 1923. Unfortunately, there are no Dalhart albums. It would be hard to find a country singer who would not admit to having been influenced by Rodgers, even though his brief career lasted only from 1927 until his death in 1933. Drawing heavily from black musical influences in Mississippi, Rodgers perfected the singing style that came to be known as white blues.
Almost as influential, chiefly through their huge repertoire, was the Carter Family, who first recorded in 1927 and remained active until 1943. Almost gothic in appearance and musical effect, the Carters were an important musical bridge linking nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon ballads with the sentimental rural fundamentalism of the early twentieth century. Maybelle Carter’s melodic guitar style has since been copied by many folksingers.
Feast Here Tonight, the Monroe Brothers (RCA)
For the Last Time, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (UA)
Any Stanley Brothers album (King or Starday)
Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, and other artists (UA)
Country music in the Thirties continued to be dominated by rural themes, although that began to change as radio greatly increased its popularity and performers gave more thought to commercial success. At the same time, rural music gave birth to what came to be known in the postwar years as bluegrass. Often called “folk music in overdrive,” bluegrass retained the high harmonies and string-band approach of the older music but is distinguished by the addition of the hard-driving sound of the five-string banjo. Bill Monroe is largely responsible for its growth, although Earl Scruggs with his banjo has been the great popularizer. The shift from rural music to bluegrass can be detected in recordings Monroe made with his brother Charlie. Scruggs, after playing for Monroe, joined Lester Flatt to form one of the all-time famous bluegrass groups, but for my money the most satisfying bluegrass band was the Stanley Brothers, whose high, lonesome sound can make your skin tingle. Scruggs, along with Roy Acuff and other music pioneers, is represented on Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a classic three-record jam session that is an excellent introduction to many styles. Acuff himself recorded some of the most tear-jerking songs ever; he often wept on stage when singing “Wreck on the Highway.”
Another major development during the Thirties was the rise of cowboy music, epitomized by Gene Autry and his rival Roy Rogers. Rogers’ group, the Sons of the Pioneers, specialized in beautiful harmonies on such songs as “Cool Water.” But the real master of the genre was Bob Wills (I trust no Texan needs an introduction to him), who perfected western swing. For the Last Time was his last record, cut in Dallas in 1973, and it stands as a fitting tribute to his spirit and his music.
The Ernest Tubb Story (MCA)
Dust on the Bible, Kitty Wells (Decca)
On Stage, Hank Williams (MGM)
Ernest Tubb, who still tours 300 days a year, first brought the western honky tonk sound to the Grand Ole Opry in 1942. He still sings “Waltz Across Texas” as well as ever. Kitty Wells began as a gospel singer and applied that same feeling to such country hits as “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” She was the first to win the title of Queen of Country Music. And, if she was queen, Hank Williams was surely king. He sounded like a gospel singer trapped in a roadhouse and when he sang “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive” you could be sure he meant it. He died at 29.
George Jones’ Greatest Hits (Mercury)
Okie from Muskogee, Merle Haggard (Capitol)
Loretta Lynn’s Greatest Hits (MCA)
These represent three of the best country recordings of the past fifteen or so years. It may seem strange to omit singers like Buck Owens and Johnny Cash, but Owens has slumped since his flattop years when he did “Cryin’ Time” and “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” and Cash’s mystique is more important than his music. A more significant force was Lefty Frizzell, whose style can still be heard in Merle Haggard and Charley Pride. Haggard, an ex-convict, is to my mind a better and more musical storyteller than Tom T. Hall and one with more feeling.
Like Buck Owens, George Jones used to have a flattop, but his records are consistently good, retaining his unmistakably Texan honky-tonk vocals with such classics as “She Thinks I Still Care.” Loretta Lynn, who kicked up a bit of dust with a song called “The Pill,” is more rightly known for carrying on the tradition of tough, straightforward country singing: “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.”
Red Headed Stranger, Willie Nelson (Columbia)
Lonesome, On’ry and Mean, Waylon Jennings (RCA)
Neither man needs an introduction to Texans. They are the future of country music, the ones who are able to keep it authentic while making it popular.
—by Chet Flippo
Jazz. Someone deciding to become a jazz listener in the 1970s could easily be sidetracked into a morass of commercially successful, superficially attractive, easily available musical pabulum. There’s a bewildering variety of jazz-rock, soul jazz, crossover music, and several unnamed brands of near-jazz that bear more or less the same relationship to Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker that Mantovani bears to Mozart. The schlock merchants would have you believe that Herbie Mann is an important jazz flutist, that the formerly inventive trumpeter Donald Byrd is doing serious work these days, that pianist-composer Herbie Hancock’s current approach has something to do with the creative music he was making in the 1960s.
Regardless of the aptness of the much-abused word “jazz” as a descriptive label, much of what is being marketed as jazz is inferior music by any lasting criterion. The records discussed in this article provide a durable standard. Once you become familiar with them, if Herbie Mann still satisfies you, I congratulate you on your inventiveness as a listener.
Thanks to the splendid reissue programs of many record companies, it is possible to listen to the history of jazz almost from its beginnings. This is a fairly recent development. A decade ago, one would have had to spend years and thousands of dollars to get the early segments of this basic jazz collection together. Now, 78-rpm singles have been remastered and transferred to LP. In most cases, with reasonably good equipment you can hear them more clearly than when they were first issued. All these recordings are currently available. That doesn’t necessarily mean your local record store has them in stock; some may have to be ordered.
There is one serious omission in this listing. There is nothing by the exciting and influential Woody Herman First Herd of 1945-6. Unaccountably, Columbia has dropped The Thundering Herds package, but it is definitely worth seeking out.
King Oliver: West End Blues (Columbia)
Oliver, born in 1885, was Louis Armstrong’s teacher, employer, and lifelong idol. A superb New Orleans lead cornet, he moved to Chicago in 1918, sending for young Armstrong in 1922. Louis’ glorious tone is stamped on these recordings like a hallmark, and his breaks on “Tears” show that he was leagues ahead of any other soloist of the day. The Oliver band, in the New Orleans tradition, was devoted to ensemble playing and collective improvisation. The kind of music heard here is what most purists are talking about when they bemoan the passing of “real New Orleans jazz.”
Jelly Roll Morton, 1923/4 (Milestone)
The same age as Oliver, Morton was flamboyant, ostentatious, braggadocious, and a genius. The controversy about his worth still rages 34 years after his death. But as time passes, it seems more and more of his claims are justified, that he invented jazz in 1902, that he was the greatest pianist alive, that he was the first jazz composer. His playing and his compositions clearly delineate the differences between what he called jazz and the ragtime and blues that dominated much of popular music in the early part of the century. He was a hell of a piano player, with an orchestral concept and the technique to bring it off.
The Genius of Louis Armstrong, Volume I, 1923-1933 (Columbia)
Through the mid-Twenties, Armstrong developed into the first great jazz soloist. This two-LP collection makes it possible for the listener to trace that development from 1923 into Armstrong’s big band period of the early Thirties. The set includes Louis’ pairings with pianist Earl Hines, nearly Armstrong’s equal as a soloist. They both have brilliant solos on “West End Blues,” and with his incredible introduction to that piece, Louis, serves notice that a new era has begun.
The Bix Beiderbecke Story, Volume Two: Bix and Tram (Columbia)
Beiderbecke was the greatest white jazzman of the Twenties. He didn’t begin playing cornet until he was fifteen, but he developed prodigiously and was working professionally at eighteen. When the Bix and Tram (saxophonist Frank Trumbauer) records were made in 1927 and 1928, Beiderbecke was a major jazz artist and one of the very few lyrical improvisers of that decade. His solos on “Singin’ the Blues” and “I’m Coming Virginia” are among the most eloquent ever recorded.
Louis Armstrong, July 4, 1900/July 6, 1971 (RCA)
This double album includes Armstrong singing and playing in a variety of settings, from his big band of the Thirties to some pop singles in 1956. There are four tracks reuniting Armstrong and trombonist Jack Teagarden, a perfect vocal and instrumental foil for Louis.
Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson: The Big Bands, 1933 (Prestige)
This album catches the Henderson band slightly after its peak but still with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins as its star. It includes Hawkins’ stunning improvisation on “It’s the Talk of the Town,” a performance that influenced tenor players everywhere. The Henderson band, one of the great organizations in jazz, is recorded extremely well, and there are superior solos from trumpeter Red Allen and trombonists Dicky Wells and Claude Jones, as well as several from Hawkins. The better Ellington is yet to come in this discography.
Django Reinhardt and the American Jazz Giants (Prestige)
Reinhardt, the amazing Belgian gypsy guitarist who flourished in France, performed with nearly all the American jazz stars who visited Paris in the Thirties and Forties. With Reinhardt in 1937, Hawkins and alto saxophonist Benny Carter recorded one of the timeless sessions in jazz. In that session and three others preserved in this invaluable album, Reinhardt performed with his typical irrepressible swing and artistry, a great guitarist.
Count Basie: Super Chief (Columbia)
This is a sort of encyclopedia of Basiedom during the classic mid-Thirties to early Forties. It begins with the happy collaboration in 1936 of pianist Basie and tenor saxophonist Lester Young on “Shoe Shine Boy” and includes the Basie band in all its power, majesty, and swing.
John Hammond’s Spirituals to Swing (Vanguard)
Lester Young, the next great soloist to emerge after Armstrong and Hawkins, got considerable solo time in Hammond’s celebrated 1938 and 1939 Carnegie Hall concerts when he was at the top of his form. Add the excitement of the Benny Goodman Sextet with guitarist Charlie Christian, the Sidney Bechet-Tommy Ladnier New Orleans Feet-warmers, the protean stride pianist James P. Johnson, singers Helen Humes and Ida Cox, an array of leading blues and spiritual artists, and you have one of the most valuable of jazz recordings.
Jimmie Lunceford: Lunceford Special (Columbia)
Lunceford’s style has been copied or approximated by dozens of bands. The Lunceford band was tightly arranged and disciplined, and it swung in an infectious and tricky way. It had excellent soloists in alto saxophonist Willie Smith, trombonist Trummy Young, tenor saxophonist Joe Thomas, and trumpeter Snooky Young. This album focuses on the period from 1939 to 1940, Lunceford’s pinnacle of musical achievement and popularity.
Duke Ellington at His Very Best (RCA)
Although Ellington was creative and staggeringly productive for more than half a century, it is generally conceded that he reached Olympian heights between 1940 and 1944. All the great Ellington soloists are on board. And the master’s genius for orchestration and catalytic leadership are breathtakingly audible in masterpieces like “Concerto for Cootie,” “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Warm Valley,” “Ko-Ko,” and “Black, Brown and Beige,” Ellington’s magnificent tribute to his fellow black Americans.
Art Tatum: God Is in the House (Onyx)
The title of the album is a quote by Fats Waller, uttered on the occasion of Tatum visiting a club where Fats was playing. It reflects how most pianists feel about the great man from Toledo. This album is made up of performances captured in 1940 and 1941 at house parties and Harlem after-hours joints, where Tatum shed the self-consciousness sometimes apparent in the calculated routines of his studio recordings. The two duets with trumpeter Frankie Newton are among the most astounding jazz performances ever recorded.
Coleman Hawkins (Mode)
Here’s Hawk again, ever aware of the winds of change, encouraging new musical trends. This is the first bebop recording session, for Apollo, in February 1944. The young upstarts include trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Max Roach. Hawkins’ style fits beautifully with that of the boppers because of his incredible ear for harmonic changes. Among the performances that would help launch a new music: Gillespie’s “Woody’n You.”
The Charlie Parker Story: Savoy (MG)
Less than two years after the Hawkins date, the bop revolution was complete. Its leader was Charlie Parker, an alto saxophonist from Kansas City who knew Lester Young’s music by heart and quickly developed into the fourth great soloist jazz had produced. Parker possessed an imagination unequaled in jazz and approached by few musicians in history. He had the technical ability to execute his most outrageously difficult ideas, but his roots were in blues and his solos never lost touch with that heritage. The album includes the final take of Parker’s “Koko,” quite possibly the most perfect jazz solo on record, a standard by which all improvisation can be judged.
The New York Scene in the Forties (Columbia)
This is a fine survey of important bands in the development of bop and leads us into the so-called “cool” era. It contains some important early Dizzy Gillespie tracks and presents Sarah Vaughan in some of the finest recordings of her career, backed in part by trumpeter Miles Davis, whose obbligati fit Miss Vaughan’s style like a black kid glove.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Capitol)
These 1949 and 1950 recordings brought together the enormous talents of Davis, Gil Evans, pianist-composer-arranger John Lewis, and saxophonist-composer-arranger Gerry Mulligan. The music that emerged from Davis’ nine-piece band was unhurried, brilliantly arranged with close attention to harmonic textures, and inspirational and complementary to the soloists. The records encouraged a trend toward ensemble playing that manifested itself in the establishment of what came to be known as West Coast Jazz.
Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker (Prestige)
West Coast Jazz encompassed a variety of styles and approaches. Indeed, sometimes it was cool, occasionally to the point of rigidity. But some wonderful things came out of it, and one of them was the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. More than a quarter of this two-record collection is made up of Mulligan’s collaboration with the lyrical trumpeter Chet Baker. Baker and Mulligan were one of the great matches in jazz, and their pianoless quartet produced music of classic quality.
The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (Prestige)
Not all was cool in the early Fifties. Parker and Gillespie, the fountainheads of bop, were reunited at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1952. With the incandescent rhythm section of pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer Max Roach behind them they played music that quite possibly justifies the claim of the album’s title.
Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers (Blue Note)
The music of which pianist Silver and drummer Art Blakey came to be the best-known purveyors was called “hard bop,” a formidable and misleading title. The theory rampant in the jazz press in 1954 was that hard bop was the opposite of and an antidote to cool. Silver and Blakey probably merely thought of their music as music. At any rate, it was rhythmic, powerfully swinging, and good-natured.
The Modern Jazz Quartet (Prestige)
The MJQ, until it disbanded last year, was the world’s oldest established permanent floating jazz combo. It was formed out of the rhythm section of the Dizzy Gillespie big band, and it was magnificent for 23 years. The MJQ’s music, sensitive to classical forms but always blue at the roots, contained the very pulse and heartbeat of jazz.
Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus and More (Prestige)
Tenor saxophonist Rollins is one of the most forceful, witty, and inventive soloists in jazz. His 1956 “Blue Seven,” included here, is a tour de force of melodic improvisation. The collection also has three tracks from Rollins’ days with the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet. Brown, still a model for young trumpet players nearly two decades after his death at 26, was a thrilling soloist who developed his twinkling, harmonically bursting style out of Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro.
Basic Miles, the Classic Performances of Miles Davis (Columbia)
This Davis anthology includes several tracks of the remarkable Davis Quintet with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Jo Jones. There are samples of Miles’ 1957 big band collaboration with Gil Evans and of two of Davis’ sextets.
Monk Trane (Milestone)
Between stints with Davis in 1957 Coltrane was a member of the Thelonious Monk Quartet. As he described the experience, “Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order.” The architect helped Trane build one of the most complete and daring saxophone styles in jazz. In these recordings the rapidly evolving Coltrane concept is astonishing. And guess which veteran tenor saxophonist is aboard with Coltrane on some of these adventuresome trips? Of course. Coleman Hawkins, in his fourth decade among the avant-garde.
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (Columbia)
This was unquestionably a turning point in jazz. The Davis Sextet in 1959 had Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley on alto saxophone, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. For the session, Davis provided musical settings that were little more than sketches. Within these simple frameworks Davis and his musicians improvised with great freedom, showing the way toward a less restricted kind of jazz, a New Thing which in less capable hands was often to become chaotic. But Kind of Blue is relaxed, moody, and utterly beautiful.
George Russell: New York, New York and Jazz in the Space Age (MCA) Russell has had great influence on the development of jazz through the Sixties and Seventies. He is an unsung hero practically unknown to the public at large. Nonetheless, his big band compositions are a fair summation of jazz in the middle and late Fifties. And they are full of indications of the directions the music was about to take. The soloists include Coltrane, Evans, trumpeter Art Fanner, alto saxophonist Phil Woods, and pianist Paul Bley.
John Coltrane, Giant Steps (Atlantic)
This is Coltrane unleashed, announcing a new era almost as dramatically as Armstrong did with “West End Blues” in 1928. On the one hand, his “Giant Steps” solo explored to the outer limits the possibilities of conventional harmonic improvisation; on the other, it burst through the limitations into a new kind of freedom.
Ornette Coleman: Free Jazz (Atlantic)
Collective improvisation did not die after King Oliver, but this 1960 recording by the Coleman double quartet may be the best since the King. Two quartets improvise together without restrictions for 38 minutes. The music soars. This session not only paved the way for the free jazz of the Sixties; it also gave it its name.
John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (Impulse)
By 1965, Coltrane was the unquestioned leader of the New Jazz, and in this recording he and his quartet reach, as Leonard Feather has written, “a new synthesis of almost religious fervor, emotional force, and a nearly hypnotic tension.” Little free jazz being played ten years later approaches the intensity or musicality of this performance. And since Trane’s death in 1967, free jazz has in many important ways lacked direction.
Inevitably, anthologies contain a certain amount of chaff but these albums have a high percentage of valuable music and represent several important players not covered in the previous list. The Blue Note series, of which only one album is mentioned, is a worthwhile addition to any library. Prestige’s 25-year retrospective two-LP collection (25 Years of Prestige) gives a fair survey of modern jazz; and if you’re in the market for jam sessions, Cobblestone’s Newport in ’72 contains some very good ones.
Blue Note’s Three Decades of Jazz, 1939-1949 (Blue Note)
Recordings by several major figures and a number of important secondary players. This includes Sidney Bechet’s gorgeous 1939 “Summertime.”
A Jazz Piano Anthology (Columbia) This runs all the way from Eubie Blake to Cecil Taylor, with such pianists as Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Mary Lou Williams, James P. Johnson, Bill Evans, Erroll Garner, and Dave Brubeck.
—by Doug Ramsey