Of course, given the role that jazz plays in our society there are only a tiny handful of albums that DON’T fit this category (“unjustly obscure jazz album” is kind of like “ice cream flavor containing dairy products”). But there are some albums that I think are exceptional and, in some cases, important in their time, that have been essentially forgotten even among the jazz intelligentsia.
I have divided this list into two categories based on availability. As such, the first ten are albums that deserve wider recognition but that (as of this writing) at least you are likely to be able to find by legitimate means through one of the various online streaming/downloading outlets (ITunes, Spotify, Rhapsody, etc) or new in CD form (as opposed to having to hunt for used copies). When I first compiled this list years ago, a good many of the albums on this list were not as readily available, so I’m encouraged! The second ten will require you to do some hunting-down, alas.
And, as with all of my lists of this sort, remember that these are my personal favorites and I’m not trying to make any case for these being necessarily more “important” than any others.
IN PRINT (OR SORT OF IN PRINT)
1 ) Hampton Hawes – Blues for Bud (a.k.a. Spanish Steps)
This record, made in Paris in a trio with Jimmy Woode and Art Taylor, is my favorite example of the late-60s, post-prison era of Hampton Hawes, where his signature flowing lines and bluesy time feel are enriched by a deeper sense of modern harmony and phrasing. Considering how ubiquitous that approach has become, it’s puzzling to me that this record hasn’t gotten its due among fans of Chick, Herbie et. al.
2 ) Kenny Barron – Quickstep
This one is finally available again. It features Kenny’s “classic” quintet with Victor Lewis, John Stubblefield, Eddie Henderson and David Williams (who took over the bass “chair” from Cecil McBee) and had a huge formative impact on my own musical concept.
3 ) Mickey Tucker – Blues in Five Dimensions
Though guitarist Ted Dunbar released a number of albums under his own name, he intimated to me that this was the recorded work of which he was proudest. It’s easy to hear why – the vibe is unlike anything else and he and Tucker play some of the most melodic solos I have ever heard.
4 ) Young Men from Memphis – Down Home Reuinion
Booker Little, George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Phineas Newborn, Jr. and more, jamming hard. In particular, check out the quartet workout on “Star Eyes,” featuring Strozier and Newborn.
5 ) Joanne Brackeen – Six Ate
Joanne Brackeen generally doesn’t get her due, and much of her most inspiring work is out of print. Fortunately you can still get your hands/ears on this 1970s trio session with Cecil McBee and Billy Hart, featuring her flowing yet angular playing at its muscular best on some jazz classics and some signature Brackeen originals.
6 ) Jaki Byard – Solo/Strings
Jaki Byard playing solo piano is always a treat, and this two-fer features his Solo Piano album packaged with his remarkable Jaki Byard and Strings album, with a “string” section of Ray Nance’s violin, Ron Carter’s cello, George Benson’s guitar and Richard Davis’ bass, alongside the drums (and on one track vibes) of Alan Dawson. That record features some of the most authoritative, modern-yet-swinging playing in Byard’s catalog.
7 ) Tom Harrell – Moon Alley
This record has Tom Harrell at his lyrical best as a writer and player, a spot-on-rhythm section of Kenny Barron, Ray Drummond and a young Ralph Peterson, Jr. and an early featured slot for Kenny Garrett on alto and flute. In my opinion, this is one of the great records of the 1980s.
8 ) Tete Montoliu – Piano for Nuria
Because he played in the U.S. relatively infrequently, Tete’s piano work is inherently underappreciated. At that, it wasn’t even until recently that I stumbled upon this authoritative trio set featuring some great interplay with “Tootie” Heath on drums. The piano sounds pretty lousy, but it doesn’t matter.
9 ) Mary Lou Williams – Free Spirits
This is as low as it is on the list because I like to think it’s maybe not quite as obscure, but it’s a shame for any young pianist not to dig into this trio set with Buster Williams and Mickey Roker, both because of how it debunks preconceptions about age and gender and because it’s one of the best examples in recorded history of that sweet spot that accommodates both soul and modernity.
10 ) Do The Right Thing (score)
I think I can call this a jazz album, though there are parts that are largely orchestral in nature. Bill Lee’s gorgeous writing for his son’s movie is brought forth by lush but soulful strings and a jazz cast including Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Jeff “Tain” Watts and my two biggest direct piano influences, Kenny Barron and James Williams.
OUT OF PRINT
1 ) James Williams – Magical Trio 2
This album (with Ray Brown and Elvin Jones) changed my life and is more responsible for my becoming a jazz musician than any other.
2 ) Ahmad Jamal – Tranquility
Given the amount of Ahmad in print, it’s strange that this classic example of his late 60s trio (with Jamil Nasser and Frank Gant) is hard to find. Worth the search, though.
3 ) Various Artists – That’s the Way I Feel Now
This Hal Wilner-produced multi-artist Thelonious Monk tribute has never been issued on CD to my awareness. Do seek out the two-record set, though, featuring contributions from jazz greats including Charlie Rouse, Steve Lacy, Elvin Jones, Carla Bley, Randy Weston, Barry Harris and many others . . . as well as luminaries from other genres including Joe Jackson, Dr. John, Todd Rundgren and (I’m not making this up, and it’s actually kind of burning) Peter Frampton.
4 ) Sweet Basil Trio – St. Thomas
Of all the many great recordings with Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins, this live trio set with Ron Carter is my personal favorite.
5 ) Out of the Blue – Inside Track
One of the original young lion supergroups (on Blue Note) I really don’t understand how this 1980s band gets so little attention now. Kenny Garrett, Ralph Bowen, Michael Mossman, Harry Pickens, Robert Hurst and Ralph Peterson, Jr. show the balance between reverence and forward motion that one always hopes to find in young musicians, and indeed their subsequent evolution as musicians bears that out.
6 ) Sphere – Bird Songs
The recorded output of Sphere (Charlie Rouse, Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, Ben Riley) is generally hard to find, and that’s particularly true of this irresistible album in which they broke away from their Monk-centric repertoire and focused on Charlie Parker’s music.
7 ) McCoy Tyner – Expansions
I really haven’t the vaguest idea why this important Blue Note album is out of print. With a front line of Wayne Shorter, Gary Bartz, Woody Shaw and Ron Carter (on cello) backed by McCoy, Herbie Lewis and Freddie Waits, this features incendiary playing and some of the most gorgeous, intense Tyner writing and arranging on record.
8 ) Clare Fischer – Machaca
Michael Mossman turned me on to this one in college. With a bevy of great percussionists and the guitar of Rick Zunigar, Fischer shows here why he was one of the unsung giants of Latin jazz.
9 ) Billy Taylor – I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free
Many people know and love this soul-jazz song turned civil rights anthem penned by Taylor, but it’s really hard to find the original album. And it’s worth the search, as the whole album (a live set with George Tucker and Grady Tate) is delightful.
10 ) Danilo Perez – The Journey
There is plenty of work available by Perez, as there should be, but my socks were first fully knocked off by this 1993 album, a suite of music that is emotionally intense and compositionally rich and unified on a level that had a direct impact on some of my own larger-scale works down the road.