Phil Dunlap’s 15 Favorite Jazz Albums

Phil Dunlap

When I was asked to participate in choosing my top 15 jazz records, I really had to stop and think. There are so many great albums out there….I would surely be able to come up with 15, right? But when I really started mulling over my potential list, I realized that the task would be much more difficult than I originally thought. There are a ton of records that I like, but a lot of them make my favorite list for only one or two tracks. This is my attempt to pick 15 favorites from the recorded history of jazz, and like my colleagues, I have shied away from listing CD compilations. This is by no means a comprehensive list and they are listed in no particular order.

McCoy Tyner – The Real McCoy

I can honestly say that this is one of my all time favorite records. Recorded two and a half years after his stint with John Coltrane, this record epitomizes the sound and contributions of McCoy Tyner (for you jazz-heads, I am talking about Tyner’s use of quartal harmonies). “Four by Five,” “Passion Dance” and “Blues on the Corner” were of particular impact on my own growth as a musician, and I spent many an hour in the practice room during college transcribing McCoy’s solos on those tunes. Beyond that, how can you go wrong with Tyner, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones?

Count Basie – Have a Nice Day

Recorded in the early 1970s, this album showcases one of my favorite incarnations of the Basie band. All of the compositions and arrangements were done by Sammy Nestico and a few of them featured the great Al Grey and his masterful “plunger” solos. The icing on the cake for me is the inclusion of one of my favorite Basie band drummers, Harold Jones. When I was in high school, our jazz band director always encouraged us to listen to jazz as much as we could. Luckily, there was a great record collection in the back where I spent many an hour listening to various records, and this was one of them. To this day I can sing along with most of the tracks on this recording, including backgrounds, solos, shout choruses and solis. At one point, I even had it transferred from vinyl to a CD with each side as one long track. While in jazz band, we performed some of my favorites from Have a Nice Day, including “Scott’s Place,” “Jamie” and “The Spirit is Willing.”

Johnny Griffin – A Blowin’ Session

I picked up this one at an EMI CD sale for three bucks when I was in college. I had never heard of Johnny Griffin at that point and only picked it up because of the rhythm section, which consisted of Paul Chambers, Wynton Kelly and Art Blakey. I must admit that I was blown away by the first track, “The Way You Look Tonight,” which features a squaring-off between three of jazz’s greatest tenor saxophonists: Johnny Griffin, John Coltrane and Hank Mobley. Unfortunately, Mobley gets a proverbial beat-down from Griffin and Trane on the first track, but is able to redeem himself in the subsequent tracks. Anytime I am in need of some good chops, I put this one in my CD player.

Phineas Newborn, Jr. – A World of Piano

I ordered this one after a visit to SIUE (my alma matter) from pianist, Harold Maybern. Newborn’s virtuosic technique and lyrical improvisations drew me instantly to his trio recordings. Aside from Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, I had never heard a pianist play this way before. His arrangements of “Oleo” and “Manteca” were ones that I transcribed and attempted to play while I was in college. After purchasing this album, I bought every Phineas Newborn CD I could find. In fact, I am listening to this exact record as I am writing this blog.

John Coltrane – Blue Trane

This is another one that I discovered while I was in high school. A classic Blue Note recording, this was where I really started to check out Lee Morgan, the featured trumpet player from this session. Prior to hearing Morgan, I had gone through a Maynard Ferguson phase and was really into “high-note” trumpeters. This recording showed me how lyrical the trumpet could be and that there was a lot more out there besides tacky, screeching trumpets. The title track is another one of those where I can sing just about every part.

Joey DeFrancesco – Incredible!

Incredible! was my first real foray into the genre of jazz organ players. Like many younger musicians, I was drawn in by musicians that displayed a lot of facility on their instrument (we call this having “chops”) and this CD provides lots of this. It was also one of my first introductions to Jimmy Smith, who is also featured on this recording. My particular favorites include “The Champ” and “When You’re Smiling.”

Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

Some might think that it is cliché to list Kind of Blue as it is the best selling jazz album of all time –  achieving quadruple platinum record sales in 2007. The recordings on this album influenced countless musicians and recordings that followed, and is cited as an influence by not only jazz musicians, but rock musicians. For me, this was another one that I dug into while in college, transcribing Miles’ solos on “Freddie Freeloader” and “So What” as perfect examples of methods to navigate tunes based on modal harmonies.

Cannonball Adderly – Fiddler on the Roof

I became familiar with Cannonball through listening to recordings by Miles Davis (including Kind of Blue) but didn’t really get into him until I picked up this record. I had been involved in a production of Fiddler on the Roof while in high school, which is probably the initial reason I was drawn to this recording. However, once I discovered Cannonball’s intensity and the raw, yet beautiful tone of his alto sax, I was hooked. The title track, a.k.a. “Tradition,” is a particular favorite as are “Match Maker” and “To Life.” This recording was my gateway to the rest of Cannonball’s amazing music.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra – Live in Swing City

I’m pretty sure I got this CD in 1999, which was the year we celebrated Duke Ellington’s centennial. At that time, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (then known as the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra), led by Wynton Marsalis, was focusing their entire repertoire on Duke’s music. This recording is a collection of tracks recorded during a live tour they did with swing dancers. Each track swings, not only showing their mastery to interpret Ellington’s music, but the amazing compositions of the man credited by many as America’s greatest composer. The recordings by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington program) were my introduction to Ellington’s music. I bet a lot of others could say the same.

Oscar Peterson Trio – The London House Sessions

Despite the less than perfect recording quality and an out-of-tune piano, the London House Sessions represent one of the greatest piano trios ever and my particular favorite of Oscar Peterson’s many trios. Accompanied by Ed Thigpen (drums) and Ray Brown (bass), this group had a huge impact on my musical development and how I approach playing in a piano trio setting. In college, I transcribed many of the arrangements from this collection of recordings, including “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “Chicago,” “Tricotism” and “Close your Eyes.” All of the sessions (recorded live in Chicago during the early 1960s) combined make up about 50 tracks, but many were issued separately under various other titles. I still break these out when I need something swingin’ to listen to.

Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio

This album showcases Oscar’s drummerless trio of Ray Brown (bass) and Herb Ellis (guitar). I will be honest in saying that I really only like this CD for two tracks, “I Want to Be Happy” and “Pennies from Heaven.” I am really not even a huge fan of Stan Getz, but I dig his playing on these two tracks. If I remember correctly, I purchased this at my local Sam Goody back in high school, and it was my first introduction to both Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz. It opened up all of Oscar’s wonderful repertoire, but I’ve never found another recording of Stan Getz that I really liked. Sorry to all you Getz fans…I guess I just don’t Getz it.

Jimmy Smith – Groovin’ at Smalls Paradise

A lot of my connection to recordings stem from my time in college where I totally immersed myself in this music. This is no exception. I have a special affinity for live recordings, and this is definitely one of my favorites. Not only does this recording swing, but I was particularly drawn to its sound. Probably due to how it was recorded, this album has a raw sound that really drew me in more than other recordings of organ trios. My go-to tracks on this double disc are “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “The Champ.”

Red Garland – The P.C. Blues

This is another recording that had a huge influence on my development as a musician, and Garland is among my top-three greatest influences. I distinctly remember sitting in the car in front of my grandmother’s house while I was home for Thanksgiving break, listening to Bob Parlochia’s show. It was the middle of the tune so I had to wait till the end to find out the name. Unfortunately, the track was over 13 minutes long, but Garland’s approach to improvisation made so much sense to me as a musician that was trying to find his way. The track was “Tweedle Dee Dee,” which is an old rock ‘n’ roll tune, and I ended up buying up every Red Garland CD I could find. Interestingly, “Tweedle Dee Dee” is the only track on the entire CD that I think I’ve ever listened to. It was just such a great tune that I never felt a reason to listen to the rest.

Brad Mehldau – Art of the Trio, Vol. 4

You’ll notice that this is one of the only contemporary recordings in my list. Like many of the others, I picked this one up in high school and was immediately mesmerized by Mehldau’s solo intro to “All The Things You Are” as well as the great ballad, “I’ll Be Seeing You.” This record features Larry Grenadier (bass) and Jorge Rossy (drums) and is my favorite of Mehldau’s trios.

Count Basie – Atomic Basie

I couldn’t finish my list without putting this one on here. Another of my top Basie band recordings, this one contains so many great compositions and arrangements by the great Neil Hefti. Much like Have a Nice Day, I can sing most of the parts on this CD. “Splanky,” “The Kid from Red Bank” and “Lil’ Darlin’ ” are my top tracks. In fact, I may listen to this one next.

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