As we roll into another month of self-isolation and social distancing, many of us are feeling stagnant, uninspired, or just plain worried about the future. And while it might even feel hot enough to be summer already as we navigate the prospect of getting our lives back on some sort of track, it’s important to remember that spring isn’t over yet.
You might be happy as the season nears its end, or you might be feeling like you didn’t get the chance to really soak it in. Either way, there can still be time for reflection and growth, even if the circumstances don’t feel right.
I wanted my playlist this month to include pieces that make me think back to good times I’ve had as well as pieces that make me think ahead to the good times I know I’ll have again soon.
“A Foggy Day” – Red Garland
Red Garland has always been one of my favorite jazz pianists, and he has the added credential of being born in the same city as me — Dallas, Texas. His debut album from 1956, “A Garland of Red,” was one I had immediately dug into upon first hearing the track “A Foggy Day.” It’s hard to describe how fluidly Garland swings with Paul Chambers on the bass and Art Taylor on drums. I like this particular tune the most because, even though George Gershwin wrote it about London, it makes me think about San Francisco and the city’s cool, foggy summer days to come.
“Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” – Sarah Vaughan
This one’s a no brainer of course, and there’s not many who can sing a melody quite like Sarah Vaughan did. From her 1963 album “Snowbound,” Vaughan treats the sorrowful lyrics with grace over a stunning orchestral arrangement by Don Costa. It’s the perfect description of feeling left at the starting line even though the shot has already gone off —a feeling I’m sure many of us can relate to in this moment.
“Little Sunflower” – Freddie Hubbard
It’s hard to comprise a jazz playlist without including the great trumpet player Freddie Hubbard. “Little Sunflower” from Hubbard’s 1967 album “Backlash” is classic cool and has a groove that could go on for days. The composition is a powerhouse for horn and flute (provided by James Spaulding), but my fondness for it comes from a wonderful arrangement I played with Bert Ligon’s guitar ensemble during my time at the University of South Carolina. Playing together in a room with six other talented guitarists is definitely something I’m longing for now, and I’ll bet many of my fellow musicians are too.
“Someone To Watch Over Me” – Amy Winehouse
Hidden in the B sides of Amy Winehouse’s 2003 debut album “Frank” lies one of the most stunning versions of Gershwin’s longing love song that I’ve ever heard. It’s sweet and powerful at the same time, proving that what was at first just a demo would turn out to be one of the best gems. That, combined with the fact that the tune was originally written as an up-tempo swing but settled in as a ballad, shows how slowing down might just give you something unexpectedly incredible.
“Younger Than Springtime / The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” – Marty Paich
There’s nothing like a good mashup, and West Coast pianist and arranger Marty Paich provides one of my all time favorites. His 1959 album “The Broadway Bit” features Art Pepper, Jimmy Giuffre, Scott LaFaro and Mel Lewis among others. It was one of my first introductions to big band music and left a big impression on what swing was supposed to sound like.
This combination of two Rodgers and Hammerstein musical hits always makes me want to hit the town, and even though I can’t take the surrey back out quite yet, it still puts me in a great mood.
“Oop-Pop-A-Da” – Dizzy Gillespie
I wanted to give you at least one burnin’ track on this list, and who better to make you spin in your chair than the great bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. This particular recording of the Babs Gonzales tune was from a live performance by Gillespie at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City in 1992. The album, “To Bird With Love,” was one of the last recordings he made before passing away in 1993. It’s got quite the line up of stars including Paquito D’Rivera, Jackie McLean and Bobby McFerrin, and is eleven and a half minutes of pure mayhem. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself like me, scat singing over everything you hear afterwards!
“Swinging At The Haven” – The Marsalis Family
One of the hardest hits so far to the world of jazz due to COVID-19 came with the loss of the great jazz pianist and teacher Ellis Marsalis Jr. this past month. The patriarch of a world class musical family, straight from the jazz mecca of New Orleans, left a huge impact on countless young musicians and educators alike. This album is another live recording, from the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena in 2001.
It shows how powerful family can be, and how powerful the connection of music is for all of us. Featuring Marsalis’ sons Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis, who have all made their own musical legacies, this date is truly A Jazz Celebration. Check out “Swinging at the Haven,” one of my favorite compositions of Ellis Marsalis, Jr.
“You Must Believe In Spring” – Tony Bennett / Bill Evans
This duet between two jazz legends has me feeling melancholy and hopeful at the same time, not necessarily an easy task for just one song. Bill Evans has a way of carrying a tune that can sometimes only be described as otherworldly, and Tony Bennett delivers the words with delicacy and warmth. From their 1977 album “Together Again,” this spring ballad is one of the most poignant yet inspiring tunes I’ve come across in this time. Here’s a bit of the lyrics:
So in a world of snow
Of things that come and go
Where what you think you know
You can't be certain of
You must believe in Spring and love
“Driftin’” – Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock just turned 80 this past month, and I can’t think of one jazz musician I know that hasn’t been influenced by him in some way. The compositions and collaborations are too numerous to count, so I picked one from Hancock’s debut album from 1962, “Takin’ Off.”
First impressions are important and the longevity of this great pianist’s musical career proves that anything is possible if you hit the ground running. With an infectious melody led by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, “Driftin’” tops the list of an album full of great cuts.
“Blue Skies” – Willie Nelson
This one might seem like an obvious choice given the themes of my playlist, but Willie Nelson’s 1978 rendition of “Blue Skies” has a much deeper meaning to me than the season. I lost my grandfather in February of this year, and Willie was always one of his favorite singers. Not only that, but my grandfather was also a pilot and lover of planes for most of his life. When you’re traveling in the air there’s nothing better than a clear blue sky. Hearing this song makes me think of the incredible spirit and resiliency he had in life, and it gives me a lot more hope for the future in a time when so many of us are struggling. I hope it can give you that too.
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