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The Best Classic Modern Jazz Compositions For the New Listener

Modern jazz is a music that can have so many diverse meanings, amazingly the music almost mirrors the musical personality of Miles Davis himself.

It is incredible when you think about it, if you only listened to the music of Miles Davis alone, and no other artist within jazz, you would just about be exposed to every form of the music since World War II.

Bop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, large band orchestrated jazz, post bop, free bop, jazz rock, jazz funk, and even a few musics that barely even resemble jazz that have gone on to influence so many diverse musicians of different styles, you can't hope to name them all.

I make no apologies for including 4 Davis tunes within this list of my favorite 10, the surprise might be the fact tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter has two of his own compositions on my list, one with Davis, and one as a leader.

This list is really just a personal list, not meant to slight any artist or genre. I have been seriously into jazz for about 20 years now, and these tunes were the ones that affected me early on in the infancy of my love for jazz.

These 10 compositions are drawn from absolute classic albums that must be heard in their entirety. I guarantee you this, if you're just getting into modern jazz, you would have a great ten albums to start with. Don't worry, no free jazz or avant-garde to wade through here, those sub-genres may very well peak your interest down the line though. So let us begin...

Miles Davis: "Footprints"

Footprints, a Wayne Shorter composition that was recorded both on Miles Smiles as well as Shorter's own Adam's Apple. Shorter sure could make a simple melody seem mysterious and complex.

It has been said that Miles created at least one "perfect" album within every style he was a part of: Birth of the Cool and Cookin' from the early 50's, and Kind of Blue, and Porgy & Bess from the late 50's. Miles Smiles is the perfect album from the second great quintet in my opinion.

Lee Morgan: "The Sidewinder"

The Sidewinder is the quintessential Blue Note Records recording. A danceable Bogaloo, with the fiery hot trumpet work of Lee Morgan.

Hard to find fault with the entire vibe. Morgan captures the Blue Note sound perfectly, the entire album is stellar. If you can find an original mono vinyl copy, your mind will be blown at the sound of this record.

Buddy Rich "Channel 1 Suite"

"Channel 1 Suite" from the album Mercy Mercy is a Bill Reddie composition that is a tour de force of big band power. Buddy Rich delivers a powerful performance as usual, his solo on Chanel 1 suite is worth the price of the album.

Outside of Tony Williams, If there ever was a better technical drummer than Buddy Rich I haven't found them. Any of Buddy's 60's albums are killer and have the same in your face style as Chanel 1 Suite.

Thelonious Monk: "Round Midnight" via Miles Davis

This Thelonious Monk tune is an all time classic. This version from the album billed as 'Round about Midnight, Is one of the greatest themes in Jazz history. Miles Davis is able to play this romantic theme in a way they strips it bare. Every last ounce of pretentiousness is gone.

Monk's own original, and the live at the Five Spot version with Johnny Griffin should also be heard, but Miles' Round About Midnight is stunningly perfect to my ears.

Don Ellis: "Indian Lady"

This Don Ellis Orchestra recording from the album Electric Bath is a fine example of Indian poly-rhythms on top of unorthodox time signatures.

Ellis has always been underrated, he composed the Oscar nominated film score for The French Connection. His early death in 1978 is probably why you never hear him mentioned in most people all time lists.

No body had a better big band in the late 60's and early 70's than Don Ellis.

Miles Davis: "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down"

Miles Runs the Voodoo Down is one of the signature songs from Miles Davis During his Electric Period, a classic funk bass line, with some of Miles' most muscular trumpet Dais ever recorded.

Miles jabs like a prize fighter, Bending notes, trills and punctuation. The track sort of runs out of steam at the 11 minute mark, But as a whole, Miles Runs the Voodoo Down is spectacular. Why is it, the elitist jazz critic of the period could never come to understand this jazz rock classic?

Wayne Shorter: "Witch Hunt"

Witch Hunt from the Wayne Shorter album Speak No Evil Is a very important composition and album. Practically every modern jazz album released since has been influenced by Speak No Evil.

Certainly every saxophonist has had to deal with Wayne Shorter and his music. The composition has such a smooth simple melody, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard is also on top of his game throughout Speak No Evil.

Charles Mingus: "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"

"Good Bye Pork Pie Hat", a tribute to the then recently departed Tenor Saxophonist Lester Young, a beautiful mournful ballad, that does manage to capture the essence of Lester Young.

Mingus Ah Um is a riotous album at times, but this ballad provides the perfect relief from the hard edges of Mingus' madness. You really can sense the presence of Lester Young within the composition.

John Coltrane: "Acknowledgement"

For some reason when I listen to Acknowledgement, I envision a beautiful sunset, oranges and yellows come into my head? Acknowledgement comes from the John Coltrane masterpiece A Love Supreme.

The solo is incredible, and the unusual Chanting at the end a - love-su-preme, a- love-su-preme, closes the track out in style. A Love Supreme is the second best selling modern jazz record of all-time.

Miles Davis "So What"

"So What" from Kind of Blue may be the best composition of any form of music, I love the bass Intro with the orchestrated touches. Then the Bass setting up the theme, the track just flows so naturally.

The Bill Evans Piano, and the Saxophone solos By Coltrane and Adderley are some of their best on record. The entire album Kind of Blue just sounds like a walk down 52nd Street In New York City 1959.

Don't let jazz, or instrumental music intimidate you

If you're are new to this type of instrumental modern jazz, and have a hard time following music without lyrics, try this: Listen to the rhythm section of bass, drums, and piano, or sometimes Guitar with, or instead of piano.

Anyway, let the rhythm section be the foundation for your ears, feel the rhythm, sense its presence without focusing on the individual instruments.

You can of course focus individually if you want, but I have always felt that feeling the beat, or the vibe of the bass, drums, and piano will allow you to focus on the picture painters, the trumpet, saxophone, or when the rhythm instruments solo.

In fact, down the road if you grasp this concept, a band like The Bill Evans piano trio will blow you're mind, where anything can happen, and usually does in regards to time keeping and soloing. Who's doing what, shifts so much, that rhythm and improvisation are almost interchangeable...

If you are new to jazz below are several fantastic box sets you may find well worth your time if you have an interest in becoming familiar with Post WWII jazz in particular.


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