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Top 10 Soul Jazz Tracks

This week I’ve had multiple occasions (as a teacher) to address the topic of soul jazz, that nebulous intersection between the sounds of jazz and the bluesy and/or gospelly sounds that one might define as “soulful.” To top it off, one of my students (who was taken by Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”) asked for some advice about good soul jazz to check out. That, of course, got me contemplatin’ (note: ending a word with n-apostrophe makes it more soulful). Because I wasn’t sure whether to focus on the swinging end of soul jazz or the more backbeat-driven form, I decided (it’s my blog, after all) to do 10 of each, with brief commentary. I’m using my own internal judgment to evaluate what constitutes soul jazz vs. simply “jazz that is soulful” (thus excluding things like the Benny Golson/Art Farmer Jazztet or Clifford Brown) or jazz-inflected R&B (like Avery Parrish’s “After Hours” with the Erskine Hawkins band or various things by the Crusaders).

Without any further ado:

Top 10 swinging soul-jazz tracks:

1 ) Bobby Timmons Trio: “Dat Dere” (live)

There is no shortage of great versions of this tune, from Timmons’ original (with Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb, from This Here Is Bobby Timmons) to those by Cannonball Adderley, Art Blakey and Oscar Brown, Jr., but this is my favorite. Taken at a slightly faster tempo in a trio with Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, my knuckles hurt just thinking about how finger-popping the groove is.

2 ) Horace Silver: “Kiss Me Right”

There are plenty of classic Silver examples, from “Sister Sadie” and “Filthy McNasty” (the latter from the same live album as this one) to groove tunes like “The Jody Grind” and “Song for my Father.” I have a particularly soft spot for this sly swinger, though, and the solos by Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook are characteristically fiery.

3 ) Richard “Groove” Holmes: “Misty”

Okay, I’ll admit it – I’m not a huge “Groove” Holmes fan, and actually find most of this album to be pretty weak. But even in the ITunes era (e.g. single-song downloads) I’d gladly pay fifteen bucks just to have this track in my collection. If ever a performance has swung harder than this one, I haven’t heard it.

4 ) Donald Byrd: “Jeannine”

This one is on the cusp of the “jazz that’s soulful” (as opposed to “soul jazz”) threshold, but the tune (composed by the pianist on the track, Duke Pearson) is so catchy and the performance so grooving that I included it anyway. Trumpeter Byrd and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams blow hard, but with a great deal of attention to thematic development.

5 ) Jimmy Smith: “Organ Grinder Swing”

The king of jazz organ recorded plenty of hard-grooving tunes, including perhaps more celebrated examples like “Back at the Chicken Shack.” This hard-grooving track is barely over two minutes long, but Smith, guitarist Kenny Burrell (himself an important soul jazz artist with tracks like “Chitlins Con Carne” and “Midnight Blue”) and drummer Grady Tate make it sound like an epic.

6 ) Phineas Newborn: “Harlem Blues”

Okay, this one doesn’t swing initially, but once it gets there, hoo boy! Phineas could probably inject blues feeling into the national anthem, and this track gets the slight nod over his work on the Roy Haynes version of “After Hours” (from We Three), a much slower example of his blues approach. Much credit here also goes to the seemingly mismatched but strikingly effective rhythm section of Ray Brown and Elvin Jones.

7 ) Charles Mingus: “Ecclusiastics”

Mingus is not usually referred to as “soul jazz,” but his Oh Yeah! album is about as raw and soulful as jazz gets. This one is not the hardest-grooving on the record, but the soulful playing of Mingus and Roland Kirk is quite remarkable here.

8 ) Art Blakey: “The Soulful Mister Timmons”

Picking a single Art Blakey tune for this category is kind of ridiculous. The most obvious choice is “Moanin’,” but somehow my inclination is to call that “proto-soul-jazz.” Or something. More to the point, though, my gut tells me to give props here to this underappreciated incarnation of the Jazz Messengers, featuring Wynton Marsalis, Bill Pierce, Bobby Watson, Charles Fambrough (R.I.P. Broski) and one of my heroes, pianist James Williams, who composed this tune for one of his own heroes and predecessors.

9 ) Ramsey Lewis Trio: “My Babe” (live)

This cello-driven live recording represents the same classic incarnation of Lewis’ trio (with Red Holt and Eldee Young) that spawned his hit version of Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd.” In this case the song is by blues harpist Little Walter, and they swing hard and soulfully.

10 ) Brother Jack McDuff: “The Honeydripper”

On balance, I’m most partial to McDuff’s quartet featuring guitarist George Benson and saxophonist Red Holloway, whose Live! album is an absolute classic in the organ-jazz world. In this case, though, I have to give a shout out to this grooving track featuring the searing guitar of Grant Green and the gritty tenor saxophone of Jimmy Forrest, alongside the drumming of organ jazz giant Ben Dixon.

Top 10 groove/backbeat soul-jazz tracks

1 ) Stanley Turrentine: “Sunny”

Stanley Turrentine is perhaps the ultimate soul jazz saxophonist, and his version of the Bobby Hebb R&B classic is an underrated gem (thanks to Ted Dunbar for turning me on to this). There are also great solos here by Blue Mitchell and McCoy Tyner.

2 ) Bobby Hutcherson: “Goin’ Down South”

This one is pretty modern for soul jazz, but holy crap is it irresistible. Hutcherson (on marimba) and saxophonist Harold Land play fabulously over a driving, gospelly groove featuring soulful chording from the song’s composer, Joe Sample, and an amazing backbeat from Mickey Roker, usually a swing machine.

3 ) Les McCann and Eddie Harris: “Compared to What”

Les McCann is perhaps rivaled only by Ramsey Lewis in the world of full-on soul jazz pianists, and Eddie Harris’ 1970s work is to many people the epitome of blues-based jazz saxophone. This live recording (also featuring McCann’s soulful vocals) captures a truly classic moment of spontaneous synergy.

4 ) Wayne Shorter: “Tom Thumb”

Like the Hutcherson example above, this one is simultaneously modern and catchy. Shorter and Herbie Hancock (his bandmate in Miles Davis’ band, of course) star here, but the x-factor is the astringent, emotional alto saxophone work of James Spaulding. Tunes like this and Shorter’s “Adam’s Apple” could be seen as foreshadowing his later electric work, but they stand mightily on their own terms as acoustic groove tunes.

5 ) Cannonball Adderley: “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”

This is perhaps the definitive slow soul jazz tune. Cannonball could be cited for plenty of swinging examples as well (such as “Work Song,” “This Here” and “Sack o’ Woe”), but this is the one that became a pop hit single! Is it just me or is it amusingly ironic that this all-time soul jazz classic was composed by Joe Zawinul, a Caucasian from Austria?

6 ) Herbie Hancock: “Cantaloupe Island”

One more in the modern-yet-ridiculously-soulful category. When I was in college, this one got a bit overexposed, thanks to :”Cantaloop,” the US3 rap tune based on a sample of Herbie’s recording. It’s understandable why, though, with this amazing song. The original also features some super-hot playing from Freddie Hubbard on trumpet.

7 ) Lou Donaldson: “Alligator Boogaloo”

Donaldson, one of the first credible alto saxophone disciples of Charlie Parker, made an effective transition into the world of soul jazz in the 1960s. This classic track also features several other stars of the sub-genre, including guitarist George Benson, organist (Dr.) Lonnie Smith and drummer Leo Morris, soon after to be better known as Idris Muhammad.

8 ) Ray Bryant: “Let It Be”

This one (featuring the R&B rhythm section of Chuck Rainey and Jimmy Johnson along with a number of horns) is out of print and hard to find. But boy does it groove! Bryant’s writing and playing on classic tunes like “Little Susie” and “Cubano Chant” in many ways provided the template for the development of soul jazz, so given that (and his recent sad departure) I feel doubly inclined to make sure he’s on this list.

9 ) Lee Morgan: “The Sidewinder”

The formula for a classic jazz boogaloo goes something like this: put Billy Higgins on drums and have Lee Morgan play a trumpet solo. Combine that in this case with an infectious melody and rhythm section riff and we have one of the most iconic songs in soul jazz.

10 ) Yusef Lateef: “Nubian Lady”

Many folks think of Yusef (and legitimately so) for his more experimental work, but it’s important to note his soulful work, particularly on Atlantic albums like the Blue Yusef Lateef. This one is a largely electric soul performance featuring Lateef’s flute and the twin keyboards of Ray Bryant and the song’s composer, Kenny Barron.

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  1. Danvir

     /  July 30, 2011

    No Hank Mobley? For me whenever I’m in the mood for something jazzy & soulful “Soul Station” is the first track that comes to mind. Actually, that whole album for me is perfect for someone in the mood for Soul Jazz. Would you consider that track to be Soul Jazz?

  2. That’s a tough one, yeah. But no, just as I don’t consider a lot of early Art Blakey or Horace Silver (or pre-boogaloo Lee Morgan) to quite be “soul jazz” (considering it, rather, prototypical hard bop), same goes for Hank Mobley. “Soul Station” is certainly a great (and extremely soulful) album, though! And that tune definitely straddles the line between hard bop and soul jazz (if, indeed, there is a line).

  3. Dick Roche

     /  July 8, 2014

    Just found your web-site – Love it! – I’m a long time jazz fan of 50+ years (every since I heard Ahmad Jamal’s recording of Poinciana in 1959) – Coltrane is my musical hero and my jazz claim to fame is that I saw him twice in person in the L.A. area in the early 60’s (along with Miles, Monk, Cannonball, the MJQ and others) – I just thought you might include Les McCann’s recording of A FOGGY DAY IN LONDON TOWN from the CD THE SHOUT (recorded live at The Bit in L.A. where I also say Les in person) to your Soul Groove list – To me this is the epitome of what Soul Jazz piano trio playing is – keep up the good work with your web-site and I will continue to check it from time to time – Dick Roche (retired high school history teacher and football coach)

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