Remember when you were a kid? You’d hear a certain song on the radio, and there was something magical about it that made you want to buy it and play it over and over again. You weren’t sure whether it was the melody, rhythm or harmony that hooked you… Maybe it was just the groove. Whatever it was, it had that indefinable something that made it special.
Jazz has had its share of classics, brought to us by the likes of Miles Davis, Eddie Harris, Horace Silver, and Herbie Hancock and more. Today, let’s examine some contemporary jazz classics you may have overlooked.
Freddie Hubbard — “First Light”
While he was under contract at Creed Taylor’s CTI Records, Freddie Hubbard released some of the best- selling albums of his career. In the early 1970s, Hubbard was leading all the jazz polls as the nation’s top trumpeter. Although Hubbard’s Blue Note albums remain classics of modern bop, his CTI recordings are notable for their impressive personnel, expansive instrumentation and the beautiful arrangements of Don Sebesky that fit Hubbard’s full tone like a glove. “First Light” won a well-deserved Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album in 1972. It remained Hubbard’s favorite album.
Duke Pearson — “ESP”
Everyone knows the name Duke Ellington, but this jazz classic comes from another Duke: Columbus Calvin Duke Pearson, who was born in Atlanta in 1932. As a record producer, Pearson played a big part in shaping the Blue Note sound of the 1960s.
Pearson was a prolific composer and pianist who also recorded many notable albums of his own for Blue Note. Some of his finest to my ears were “The Right Touch” and “Sweet Honey Bee.” But it was Pearson’s 1964 album “Wahoo” that included a finger snappin’ tune called “ESP.”
Woody Shaw — “Rosewood”
By the late ‘70s, trumpet master Woody Shaw had recorded eight critically acclaimed albums for independent jazz labels, two for Contemporary and six for Muse. Any speculation that Shaw’s music would take on a more commercial sound when he signed to a major label was put aside when Shaw, under the watchful eye of his longtime producer Michael Cuscuna, recorded “Rosewood” for his Columbia Records debut.
“Rosewood,” the album’s title composition, was written for Shaw’s parents. It was first recorded in a small group context by Bobby Hutcherson. Here, it’s given expansive instrumentation, an awesome arrangement by pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs and fluid solos by Joe Henderson and Shaw. A master of harmonic color, Shaw’s rich tone and clean phrasing were appreciated by his colleagues, including Miles Davis.
“Rosewood” was nominated for two Grammys and was voted jazz album of the year by the DownBeat Magazine readers’ poll in 1978. The album upheld Shaw’s uncompromising standards and signaled his continued dedication to the tradition set by the masters who preceded him.
Wayne Shorter — “Speak No Evil”
All throughout the ‘60s, Wayne Shorter composed music like a man possessed. He contributed to the bands of Art Blakey and Miles Davis not only as a fine soloist, but as a prolific composer. Concurrent with his residency in Davis’ band, Shorter made many classic Blue Note dates as a leader, always with sidemen of commensurate abilities. “Juju,”“Adam’s Apple” and “Schizophrenia” all showed off Shorter’s fountain of compositional creativity, but somehow “Speak No Evil” continues to stand out as something special
While some of Shorter’s compositions, including “Dance Cadaverous” and “Witch Hunt,” have a haunting, dreamlike presence, the title composition, “Speak No Evil,” is cool, elegant, and timeless. Shorter uses an economy of sound, never trying to fit too many notes into a statement. When he solos, he’s conscious of using space, never rushing or trying to show off his chops. Pianist Herbie Hancock also takes a brilliant solo and the rhythm section of Hancock, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones fits Shorter like a glove.
Recorded on Christmas Eve in 1964, “Speak No Evil” is truly a jazz classic.
Harrison/Blanchard — “Infinite Heart”
Saxophonist Donald Harrison and trumpeter Terence Blanchard have a lot in common. Both hail from New Orleans, both were members of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and both have gone on to distinguished careers as top drawer improvisors, composers, and leaders of their own bands.
In the 1980s, Harrison and Blanchard co-led a group releasing seven albums over seven years. In 1988, their Columbia release “Black Pearl” contained a gem written by Harrison titled “Infinite Heart.” This classic combines a mellow ambiance with a subtle groove, spotlighting the infectious soulful lyricism of both soloists. The Harrison/Blanchard band was one of the most stimulating acoustic groups of their generation, and years later, “Infinite Heart” remains an enduring jazz classic.
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