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Practicing jazz should be fun. That's why we created a series of jazz play-alongs — to help you enjoy building your improvisational chops, no matter what level you are or what instrument you play. For more info about jazz play alongs and access to all of our tracks please visit

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Essential Jazz Recordings

May I just say, first of all, that this is an impossible task. So I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway. There are plenty of places on the web to find top 100 jazz recordings of all times. Go here for a page that lists a few of the lists.

I've looked through a few of these attempts to come up with a satisfactory selection and I'm going to have a whack at it here, with a few caveats: I'm not going to set a number limit to begin with. I'm going to choose artists of historical importance (mainly old guys and dead guys who influenced the many musicians who came on the scene later). I'm going to choose stuff I personally love unless it is something I don't care for but is too influential to omit.

 Louis Armstrong: Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, Ella and Louis (with Ella Fitzgerald and the Oscar Peterson trio)
Duke Ellington: Blanton/Webster Band, Great Paris Concert
Count Basie: Sinatra at the Sands, April in Paris
Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach: Jazz At Massey Hall Stan Getz: Getz/Gilberto
Oscar Peterson: Night Train
Cannonball Adderley: Somethin' Else, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, Cookin', Steamin', Workin', Relaxin', Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, E.S.P., Nefertiti...
John Coltrane: Giant Steps, A Love Supreme
Bill Evans: Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Intermodulation (w/Jim Hall), Portrait in Jazz, Waltz for Debbie
Charles Mingus: Presents the Charles Mingus Quartet, Great Concert of...
Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus, Tenor Madness, The Bridge Thelonious Monk: Monk's Music, Brilliant Corners, Carnegie Hall Concert (w/ Coltrane)
Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil, Alegria
Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage, Empyrean Isles, Speak Like a Child
Dexter Gordon: Our Man in Paris, Go
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Moanin', Free for All
Horace Silver: Song For My Father
Joe Henderson: Inner Urge Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder
Wes Montgomery: The Incredible Jazz Guitar of ..., Smokin' at the Half Note Charlie Parker: Complete Dial and Savoy recordings
Dave Brubeck: Time Out
Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come, This Is Our Music, Free Jazz
Clifford Brown and Max Roach: Study in Brown
Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, Light As A Feather
McCoy Tyner: The Real McCoy
Lester Young: with the Oscar Peterson Trio, Billie Holiday and Lester Young
Jaco Pastorius: Jaco Pastorius
Weather Report: Heavy Weather
Dave Holland: Conference of the Birds, Prime Directive, Not for Nothin', Triplicate
Cecil Taylor: Unit Structures
Pat Metheny: Bright Size Life
Coleman Hawkins: Body and Soul
Art Tatum: Solo Masterpieces
Bud Powell: The Genius of ...
Eric Dolphy: Out To Lunch
Lee Konitz: w/Wayne Marsh and Lennie Tristano

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Ellington's Jungle Band

Duke Ellington's orchestras paved the way for so much small and large ensemble music to come. One of Duke's techniques was to write tunes and arrangements for specific members of his band. He had such stable personnel over the years and he knew their playing so well that he was able to take advantage of the unique strengths of his musicians. This performance of the band's staple Rockin In Rhythm amply demonstrates this aspect. Plus - this is just a great, rollicking ride because these musicians really know how to function as one entity.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Jazz As A Group Thing

One of the most fun things about playing jazz is the interaction between you and your band mates. All musical ensembles depend upon the ability of the individuals to listen to one another in order to create a cohesive group performance. But due to its improvisatory nature, playing jazz demands that each musician make instantaneous decisions about many aspects of their performance. With orchestral, chamber and other forms of "concert" music, many of these decisions were made by the composer. Such parameters as pitches, rhythms, articulations, dynamics etc. are pre-determined (to varying degrees) in the written score. Conversely, while jazz musicians usually start with a written composition, that piece is often merely a sketch - perhaps just a melody and a set of chord changes - which gets filled in with great detail by the players during each unique performance.

In light of this, then, it's ironic that jazz is often thought of as the domain of the soloist. When (and if) civilians think about jazz, they often conjure up the visual or aural image of a favorite musician they may have heard (or heard of). For many people, jazz IS Miles Davis or Charlie Parker or Ella Fitzgerald or (shudder) Kenny G. But for others, it may be an ensemble that is at the top of a listener's mind: Duke Ellington's Orchestra, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Bill Evans Trio, Weather Report, The Jazz Messengers and so on.

So there is this long-standing tension between jazz as an ensemble vs. a soloistic art. One or the other aspect has been ascendant throughout the history of the music, although most of the time it seems like there's been a pretty fair balance. These two aspects seem to co-exist peacefully most of the time.

Musicians by necessity concentrate our efforts on improving our individual skills. We spend a lot of time learning how to improvise so that we'll know what to do when it's our turn to "take a solo". Most of the time we're confined to our practice spaces, surrounded by all the materials that help us further our personal growth - instrument(s), metronome and tuner, recordings, transcriptions, play-along tracks (!) and so on. It's only rhythm section players who actively focus on their accompaniment skills, but even this practicing takes place primarily in a musical vacuum. The only time most of us consider what it means to play in an ensemble is when we're either rehearsing or performing.

So let's invest a little time thinking about jazz as an ensemble music. To do this I'm going to start near the beginning of recorded jazz and point out some of the techniques I hear being used to achieve each group's particular sound.

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five: Struttin' with Some Barbecue (1927)

This classic recording demonstrates the use of improvised counterpoint to support the main melody of the tune. The dividing line between what's written and what's spontaneously created is deliberately blurry here. Listen to how Johnny Dodds (clarinet) and Kid Ory (trombone) weave through the harmonies as Louis states the melody. Dodds and Ory are, of course, separated by their disparate instrumental ranges, but the counterpoint they create goes beyond just staying out of each other's way.

The absence of bass and drums makes it very easy to hear what's going on. The simple clarity of Lil Hardin Armstrong's piano and Johnny St. Cyrs's banjo gives the band a kind of "lighter than air" vibe which brings the melody instruments even more into the foreground. Think of how different this is from the modern standard performance mode where one person plays the melody and everyone else accompanies. As we move forward we'll get to hear how these textural possibilities develop over time.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

FREE Jazz Play-Along Videos of the Month

Here are links to this month's video mixes, "Rhythm Changes" in Bb. Play with the track while the chord changes scroll by.

TRIO (for horn players)

PIANO/DRUMS (for bass players)

BASS/DRUMS (for guitar, keyboard and vibes players)


PlayJazzNow site re-design

We've just spent the last few months reorganizing the layout of the site to make the tracks you want more accessible. Each set of tracks now has its own separate page plus we've implemented several of your suggestions, including:
  • Many more of our STANDARDS tracks are available in a single key
  • Each instrument (and voice) now has an individual SONG LIST
  • Some popular sets are now sporting an even lower price
  • Most downloads now include chart pdfs (and we're working to make that ALL d/ls)
Here's a brief video explaining the new setup:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Music Zone

There's an old joke in the music biz: Q: "How do you make a musician complain?" A: "Give him a job." That is as succinct an assessment as I can imagine about this rather subversive business of making art. Even though we love to play, we are constantly struggling with the practicalities of making a living doing this. Just a few of the inconvenient truths are: the unpredictability of a freelance income, dealing with incompetent and/or arrogant colleagues, living on the road, competing for gigs with other players of one's instrument, and so on.

And so the question must be asked: Why do we do it?

There's a form of "addiction" that holds the lives of many musicians in its thrall. I put quotation marks around the word because the "whatever it is that keeps us coming back" isn't a physical or psychological addiction in the AA sense. I think that it's more of an emotional glue that binds us to the experience of making music. I will try to explain this more fully, though it is difficult to put into words.

Performing artists spend inordinate amounts of time, energy and sustained effort to become proficient at our crafts. The investments we make involve the kind of personal commitment that only exist outside of the arts in the most rarefied professions, such as education, health care and politics. The level of psychic, spiritual and emotional effort required goes way beyond the requirements of most other "jobs".

Most musicians, actors, dancers and other performing artists gave little or no thought to the "business" part of being a performer when they started studying, practicing and becoming addicted to expressing themselves in these ways. I did not, for example, learn how to play all the modes, triads, seventh chords, pentatonics and so on in all twelve keys so that I could play Louie Louie at weddings. I gave no thought to the commercial or practical aspects of playing music when I was playing original compositions and tunes by the likes of Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus and Chick Corea in tiny jazz dives in the late 1970's. I did it because I loved the music and the way it felt to create a literal and figurative groove with my band mates. I worked hard because I wanted to do it well and to (as Mingus would put it) "get it in my soul."

It is indeed rare to see a highly skilled musician walk away from this world voluntarily and permanently. The harsh economic realities and the other stressors associated with a musician's life usually have little sway when it come to separating a player from his horn. So, it's partially this commitment that keeps most of us in the game, but there's more to it than that.

So what exactly are we "addicted" to? Performing for other people is important. We like connecting with an audience, getting that feedback in the form of applause or, for the most part in my niche of the biz, the occasional positive comment like "It probably doesn't seem like we were listening, but you guys were great". Comedian Lenny Bruce summed up the motivation for performing by equating it with the psychological need for attention: "Everything we do is: Look at me, ma!" But I'm more "addicted" to the feeling I alluded to a moment ago. For lack of a better term I'll appropriate one from sports: it is this being in "the zone" that keeps me playing and practicing.

The "music zone" is the feeling of being wholly in the present moment, of being connected viscerally to the other players, of being subsumed as an individual into the temporary collective mind, of being outside of chronological time and free of bodily sensation. It looks really kooky on paper, but this is where the analytical/rational/linear part of the human mind fails to serve. For a few moments at a time (and it may not last long) I can re-connect with that feeling of living only in the present, without concern for the mundane, for what happened five minutes ago or for what will happen five minutes hence. None of that counts for a hill of beans when I'm in the "zone".

Rather than give that up, many of us diversify. The field of music encompasses not only the act of performing but other potentially remunerative endeavors as well. We can compose or arrange or copy music. We can become conductors, music directors or band leaders. We can go into music history, music theory, music therapy, arts administration. We can teach privately and at every academic level from kindergarten to graduate school.

All of these ancillary fields can serve as ways to augment our performance income or as primary careers. If you are skilled and lucky enough to have a job in a major orchestra or as a member of a major rock or pop act then you probably don't need a second job. But many of us blue collar musicians have to have multiple income streams to satisfy the performing jones.

There is no substitute for the experience of performing in the "zone", which is why I continue to do this crazy thing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Problem With Studying The "Jazz Language"

This piece is a guest post by Bill Plake. Bill is a Los Angeles based professional saxophonist and Alexander Technique teacher whose specialty is helping musicians perform pani free, effortlessly and confidently.

The other morning I was giving a first lesson to a young jazz guitar player and was struck by something I notice quite often: Young jazz students spending a seemingly disproportionate amount of practice time learning and memorizing jazz lines and improvised solos.

When I asked this musician what he practices, he said that most of his practice time is spent learning new tunes, heads (like Donna Lee, Milestones, etc) and transcribing and playing improvised jazz solos by the “masters”.

This is all good stuff to do if you’re studying jazz. It lets you go deeply into the  heart of the jazz tradition, giving you perspective and context. It gives you insights about how the musicians formed their ideas. It helps you develop technical skill that you can use as an improviser. It improves your ear. All good stuff.

But then when I asked my student what else he practices, his face went blank. He said, “That’s pretty much it. I want to really absorb the jazz language. All my teachers tell me this is the best way to do that.”

Then I listened to him play. He was very competent, very fluent, had a nice time feel, clearly showing how much, and to whom he had listened.

He was also stunningly unoriginal, and rather disconnected from the improvisational process. Everything he played sounded like an excerpt from one of the lines or solos he’d memorized. I don’t mean he was copying things note for note. It was…well, as if he weren’t really feeling at all what he was playing. It was as if it came from some external source, foreign to him.

As I pressed on in my questioning, he said that he already knew his scales and chords thoroughly. As I sort of tested him on this, he showed great competence with his scaler and harmonic knowledge. So why the disconnect?

Well, as we went further into the lesson, it became clear: He wanted everything he improvised to sound as if it came squarely from the jazz language, the jazz tradition as it were (or at least his conception of those things).

That got me to thinking about what exactly that might mean. Especially, the jazz language. Is there a jazz language? If there is I don’t know how to define it.

Is it certain harmonies used in modern jazz? Nope. All those extended harmonies are found in many different pieces of 20th century classical music.

Is it the chromaticism? No. There’s plenty of chromaticism from other forms of music. Beethoven used it to great effect.

Is it the types of rhythms that are predominantly used in jazz? Not that either. There’s no such thing as “jazz” rhythmic figure. Even syncopation has been around forever.

Is it the time feel? Now at least were getting close. Jazz musicians have a certain way of feeling time and expressing it rhythmically that is immediately palpable.

But what is it exactly? The so called “swing” eighth note feel isn’t even close to being codified. Some musicians (I’m thinking of Clifford Brown here) play jazz eighth notes virtually “straight”. Yet when you here them play, you can easily tell it’s jazz.

And that’s usually the case. You might not be able to define what the jazz language is, but you can sure recognize it when you hear it. But the bottom line is that for every rule or principle of the jazz language there are countless exceptions. So why all the “learning the jazz language” emphasis?

If you examine the work of the great innovators in jazz they all had one thing in common: They redefined, edified and expanded the so called jazz language. Sure they might have spent quite a bit of time copying other players and learning tunes and heads and so forth.

But they also did one very important thing. They spent the vast majority of their time improvising (truly improvising) to find what they had to say as artists. In fact, many had to actually ignore the jazz language of their time. They needed to free themselves from it in order to find a more personal expression.

Miles Davis was famous for this. As was John Coltrane. So was Lester Young for that matter. They was constantly pushing back against the established jazz language of their day. And they were consistently finding newer, more innovative ways to express themselves through what we still call the jazz tradition.

How did they do this? Well, if we take Coltrane as an example, he spent a huge amount of time re-mastering and exploring the elements of music: new ways of stacking chords; new ways of thinking about scales and modes; new ways to imagine rhythm and its relationship to harmonic tension. He in essence stopped looking at jazz and started looking at music in the much broader sense.

It’s important to keep in mind that if you’re an improviser, your also a composer. You compose spontaneously, but you compose nevertheless. So follow the path of great composers. Study the tradition. Absorb and understand what has been created before you. But get down to the business of finding out who you are.

In my experience both as teacher and performer,  I’d say you’re best off giving this top priority, even when you’re at the stage of development where you’re mimicking and studying others. Don’t wait for some magic moment of creative maturity. You’re ready right now. Cultivate those moments every single day, no matter what level of proficiency you’re at. Make the music yours.

For you this might mean spending a great deal more time creating and learning  your own distinctive scalar, intervalic  and harmonic patterns, building your own language. It could mean spending the next few years of your practice life devoted nearly exclusively to broadening your rhythmic conception (polymeter, odd meters, time feel, etc.). Explore the materials of music deeply.

Use your imagination, intellect, musical knowledge and ear to find (as the great jazz pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano would say) “your own melody.” Don’t let an over-emphasis on language limit your self expression.