For me, one of the transformations associated with the surreal nature of the past year has involved my listening habits. I started creating these Pandemic Playlists to share some of the sounds that enthused me as I was compiling them, but they only scratch the surface of the new melodies that have been bouncing and swinging and grooving in my head.
In the pre-COVID times, much of my listening was, in effect, tied to work. There was always another concert on the horizon, and so another band’s oeuvre to discover and rediscover in the weeks leading up to the performance so that I could enjoy, and cover, the show with authority. This year without live music has thrown a wrench into that routine. It’s been a free-for-all in my audio imaginarium, with plenty of room for classic country, vintage psych, hardcore punk and ambient soundscapes to muscle through the phalanx of ‘90s and 2000s indie rock that has long been the foundation of my record collection.
Not to mention buckets of jazz. Twenty-twenty will be remembered, in part, as the year I really got into jazz. Granted, pockets of it had infiltrated my archive since college—a Stan Getz here, a Chick Corea there—and I have been beguiled by the mystical cosmic jazz of Sun Ra for as long as I’ve taken music seriously. But for a dozen years, I’d owned just one Ornette Coleman LP, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, somehow believing that was enough. Now I have five, which of course is not nearly enough.
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when the dam broke, but a solid genesis precedes 2020 by maybe a year, when I popped into a Central Florida Goodwill on a Monday morning en route home from a vacation and discovered first pressings of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Birth of the Cool. For a quarter a piece. Seriously. (Don’t ask me which Goodwill. Not because I won’t reveal my secrets but because I haven’t been able to find the place since—and I’ve tried. The more I reflect on this, the more I’m starting to believe we entered some sort of alternate universe.)
But the expansion definitely flowered in 2020, when my ears became unshackled from routine concert prep. This is when one paradigm-shattering discovery begat another, thanks in no small part to the incestuous nature of jazz musicians, all those geniuses playing on other geniuses’ records.
I still cannot say I understand the music in the straightforward manner in which I understand Nirvana or Black Flag or the first half-dozen LPs of my beloved Mountain Goats, wherein a musical novice could follow a basic chord structure and identify which sound emanated from which instrument. But the challenge of jazz is embedded in the appeal; I love listening to an extended Coltrane freakout or a discordant Don Cherry composition and feeling transported to unfamiliar realms. Since I don’t have a background in music theory and have never played an instrument, I will likely never be able to write about jazz with the expertise of the scribes on the liner notes of so many essential records. Because of this, I’ve changed the format of this Pandemic Playlist, stripping the commentary I usually provide about each song, and simply letting this wonderful and sometimes difficult music speak for itself.
This is not intended, in any way, as an “Introduction to Jazz.” These are just a few of my favorites from a year of sonic discovery. A full playlist of all the tracks is available at the bottom of this post. Enjoy!
Miles Davis, “Bitches Brew”
Lonnie Liston Smith, “Expansions”
Herbie Hancock, “Watermelon Man”
Ornette Coleman, “Civilization Day”
Keith Jarrett, “De Drums”
Ola Kvernberg, “Wintermelon”
Spin Marvel, “Tuesday’s Blues”
Dexter Gordon, “Cheese Cake”
Kamasi Washington, “The Magnificent 7”
Sonny Rollins, “St. Thomas”
The Tony Williams Lifetime, “Big Nick”
John Coltrane, “Syeeda’s Flute Song”
Sun Ra, “The Magic City”
Thelonious Monk, “Blue Monk”
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