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Essential Jazz Trumpet Listening

In conversations with students over the past few months, I decided it would be good to come up with a list of essential listening for jazz trumpet players. Certainly there are about a hundred thousand albums I could spout off the top of my head, but to avoid the danger of paralyzation due to too many choices, I wanted to narrow a list down to things that I truly thought of as the things that really need to be heard - the seeds that grow into finding all of that other great stuff, a primer and introduction for people trying to look at the whole history of jazz trumpet in an accessible size. Also, I wanted this list to kind of function as a reference for jazz trumpet students, to hear great examples of the places they're trying to go. Obviously creating this list necessitated a lot of personal judgment calls that many people won't agree with, but too bad, it's my list! I had a great time discussing this with friends on Facebook the last couple of days, too, and here's the list of ten (ish) albums that I landed on, plus ten more for further listening.

1. Miles Davis - Kind of Blue (1959)

An especially good track: "So What"

This is probably the most well known 'jazz' album of all time, and for those learning jazz, it features three tunes that are very common for beginning jazz musicians, plus one of the nicest ballads ever recorded, and... "Flamenco Sketches." (Which is a really cool track but it's weird enough that no one ever plays it, making it the forgotten one on this album, for sure.)

Truthfully, there are at least ten Miles albums from this era that could have been included, and his career is broad enough that we'll hear more about Miles in a little bit. But for more albums that are representative of Miles' style during this time period, where he is most imitated by jazz trumpeters (especially young ones), check out all the late Prestige sessions (Walkin', Cookin', Steamin', Relaxin'), the Gil Evans big band projects (Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain), Milestones, Someday My Prince Will Come, Round About Midnight, and Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else, which feels like a Miles album, and was a big one for me personally. These were all recorded between 1955 and 1961.

2. Louis Armstrong - The Complete Hot Fives and Sevens (1925-1930)

An especially good track: "West End Blues"

Louis Armstrong's recordings done with his Hot Five and Hot Seven, which were recorded on a series of releases between 1925 and 1930, basically defined what jazz trumpet (and, truthfully, all of jazz) would become. You can argue that basically all jazz music is rooted to these recordings, and the concept of the jazz soloist - still the dominant small group jazz idea, 100 years later - definitely grew out of these sessions.

Perhaps modern ears may find these recordings dated, but I've grown to appreciate them more and more as I grow older. And if you really want to feel the impact, listen to some of the earliest jazz recordings done before these, and then listen to the later Hot Seven recordings, and see how much progress has been made in just a few short years.

3. Oliver Nelson - The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961 - Freddie Hubbard on trumpet)

An especially good track: "Stolen Moments"

I have heard that Freddie Hubbard considered his playing on this album (he was 23 at the time) to be the best he ever recorded. I don't know if that's actually true or not. But Hubbard was basically infallible between 1961 and 1966. Seriously, the string of incredible recordings that Hubbard was featured on in that time is like no other stretch in jazz history. There are many, many more, but some other albums he is on from this time that I truly consider essential listening include Herbie Hancock's Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage, Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil, and Hubbard's own release Ready for Freddie.

Hubbard's power, grace, and precision became a model for trumpet players everywhere on Earth, and it's my opinion that his sound and style are kind of held up as the jazz trumpet ideal. No one is as good as Freddie, of course, but it's still something to strive for.

4. John Coltrane - Blue Train (1958 - Lee Morgan on trumpet)

An especially good track: "Lazy Bird"

Lee Morgan exists in my mind as the quintessential hard bop trumpet player. He plays aggressively with a strong tone, like Freddie, but there's a major blues aspect to his playing that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Morgan's most famous trumpet solo (and one of my favorites) is on the title track of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' Moanin' (1959), another essential album, but Blue Train features wonderful playing across a variety of tunes. You can hear him play a brilliant blues solo on the title track, and we hear him rip through some difficult changes on "Lazy Bird" and "Moment's Notice."

Further Morgan listening should include the aforementioned Moanin', and his own albums Search for the New Land, The Sidewinder, and Cornbread. The latter two, especially, showcased Morgan's knack for capturing the essence of "more popular" Black music at the time and applying it to a jazz context.

5. Clifford Brown and Max Roach - Study in Brown (1955)

An especially good track: "Cherokee"

Clifford Brown was a true freak of nature. I don't even know sometimes how to fathom the things that he recorded in the short time that he was on Earth, especially considering he didn't play for nearly a year following a car accident when he was 19, and was only 25 when he died.

I personally came to Clifford late - I barely knew who he was until I got to college - thus he wasn't quite as influential for me as he was for many others. But his combination of technique and soul is remarkable, and his physical gifts (and, to get into the nitty gritty, his articulation) were incredibly important for the overall development of jazz trumpet history.

Study in Brown features his most well-known recording of "Cherokee," played at about a billion beats per minute, a ridiculous solo that manages to be melodic and beautiful despite moving at roughly the speed of a comet. There are plenty of other fantastic Brown recordings, a few especially notable ones being Clifford Brown with Strings, Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street, and the Jazz Messengers' A Night at Birdland recordings.

6. Chet Baker - Chet Baker Sings (1954)

An especially good track: "But Not For Me"

A naturally gifted musician who maybe made the best pure note choices of any trumpet player ever, Chet Baker is another musician (like 50s' Miles) whose attractive melodicism, easy-to-comprehend harmony, and lack of obviously flashy technique make him a favorite for those learning jazz.

Chet Baker Sings is a great place to get a feel for his natural ability to just play a beautiful melody, and obviously you hear him sing a lot, too - listen for how similar his singing and his trumpet playing are. There's a lot of other great Chet, too. A couple of my favorites include the Chet Baker Quartet Live albums and She Was Too Good to Me, a later album from a different era, but still a good one, and the first Chet album I really knew.

7. Ambrose Akinmusire - When the Heart Emerges Glistening (2011)

An especially good track: "Confessions to My Unborn Daughter"

Ambrose has altered the modern jazz trumpet landscape more than any other trumpet player in many years, at least since Woody Shaw, maybe since Miles and Freddie. Some people might find that statement bold, but I don't think so. Basically all the trumpet players I know who are familiar with Ambrose acknowledge that he essentially made them understand that trumpet players could do things that they didn't realize they could do.

This is Ambrose's first major label album (recorded on Blue Note). I probably like his second Blue Note album (The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint) better, but if someone had never heard of him, the absolute first thing I'd point them to would be the track mentioned above, "Confessions to My Unborn Daughter." With a long solo trumpet statement to open the piece, it's one of the more incredible introductions - to an album, to an artist - I've ever heard. To that point, Akinmusire's only release was Prelude: To Cora on the Fresh Sound label in 2008. I loved that album, but it's not this. His more recent albums, including the live A Rift in Decorum and his most recent on the tender spot of every calloused moment, further demonstrate his ability to find what we considered the boundaries of jazz trumpet and push them further outward.

8. Miles Davis - Miles Smiles (1966)

An especially good track: "Gingerbread Boy"

I needed a separate place to talk about Miles' "Second Great Quintet," so here we are. The albums that Davis released with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams expanded how we conceived of jazz form and the role of the rhythm section. (This work was certainly built on the work of many others, most notably Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and even Bill Evans.)

But these are the most "accessible" and prominent examples of where this type of jazz group concept comes from, one that's influence is still very, very evident on the modern landscape, even though it's been almost sixty years since these albums were released. Any of the second quintet albums are crucial listening, but alongside this one I'd especially recommend E.S.P., Nefertiti, and The Complete Concert 1964 (My Funny Valentine plus Four + More).

9. Wynton Marsalis - Standard Time, Vol. 1 (1987)

An especially good track: "Autumn Leaves"

Wynton's career is odd, often frustrating, but also crucial in many ways. While his contributions to jazz education are unassailable, his dogmatic beliefs often cloud the fact that he's actually made some really good music, even if I personally believe that those same dogmatic beliefs have held him back in many respects. I maintain that my favorite Wynton solo comes from a track called "Fuller Love" off a live Jazz Messengers album, Keystone 3, made when Wynton was 21. He sounds totally uninhibited and just lets loose. It's great.

In any case, I think Standard Time, Vol. 1 is maybe the best way to get to know Wynton. These arrangements are really slick and the playing is essentially perfect. But he's still playing standards! I also really like and respect Black Codes (From the Underground) and Hot House Flowers, both early albums of Wynton's as a leader, roughly from the same era as this one. For a demonstration of Wynton's sheer ability, which is currently unmatched, listen to Live at the House of Tribes, from 2005. A fearless Marsalis just cannot be stopped.

10. Dave Douglas - The Infinite (2002)

An especially good track: "Poses"

Sneakily, Dave Douglas has had a huge impact on modern jazz. His output as a composer is nearly unparalleled in modern times, and he's also had a big influence on the twenty-first-century business model for jazz musicians. But I think his influence as a trumpet player sometimes gets diminished. You do not have to look very hard to find trumpet players who clearly have some of Douglas in their sound, even if they didn't spend a ton of time listening to him. He just kind of snuck in there.

It's hard to choose a single album for Douglas, since he's got so much out there. My favorite album of his is 2012's Be Still, but I think The Infinite is a bit more representative of the style that had such a big impact on the scene. Other great albums include Strange Liberation and Charms of the Night Sky - both offer very different representations of his skill as a composer, and the latter, especially, showcases his adventurousness as a jazz musician and wide variety of influences.

Ten More

Woody Shaw - Imagination (1987)

The first "modern" jazz trumpet player? It feels weird to leave him out of the "top ten." I also love Larry Young's Unity, even though Shaw really sounds a lot like Freddie back then. Rosewood is another big one, though it has some truly awful album art.

Nicholas Payton, Christian McBride, and Mark Whitfield - Fingerpainting (1997)

This trumpet/bass/guitar trio, playing all Herbie Hancock compositions, is one of the biggest flexes in jazz trumpet history. Payton was untouchable during this era. Also check out Payton's Place.

Avishai Cohen - Introducing Triveni (2010)

Cohen has a bunch of great music in a bunch of great places, but my favorite playing of his is with this trio with Omer Avital and Nasheet Waits, who have a couple other albums, too.

Booker Little - Booker Little and Friend (1961)

Booker Little was one of the best trumpet players and best composers in jazz when he died. He was also 23. The biggest what-if in jazz history. Also hear Out Front and Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot.

Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959 - Don Cherry on trumpet)

Don Cherry holds a very important place in jazz history, sort of the patient zero of free jazz trumpet. Some people find his tone and approach a little grating, but the feeling and expression is undeniable.

Dizzy Gillespie with Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins - Sonny Side Up (1957)

It's hard to know what to do with Dizzy Gillespie when talking about jazz trumpet as a broader topic. His playing was so virtuosic that I've never met a trumpet player (other than Jon Faddis who I met for about 30 seconds after a concert once) who actually cited him as an influence. It's just too hard. The music is wonderful though, super fun and bombastic and joyful.

Oscar Peterson - Oscar Peterson Trio + One (1964 - Clark Terry on trumpet)

Clark Terry's playing is also joyful, and it's also super polished. I feel like Terry doesn't always get the credit he deserves, and this is probably the best showcase for him.

Kenny Wheeler - Angel Song (1997)

I cite this album because it's my personal favorite, but any of his classics should be checked out: Gnu High, Deer Wan, Double Double You. Admittedly, I view Wheeler as more important as a composer than as a trumpet player, but these albums are all too good to pass up.

Joe Henderson - Page One (1963 - Kenny Dorham on trumpet)

Kenny Dorham sometimes falls in line behind some of his contemporaries, but he's an important voice. Page One features a couple of mega-standards, "Blue Bossa" and "Recorda Me," plus a few more tunes with some great Dorham playing.

Ingrid Jensen's playing on big band albums

My last suggestion here is a little bit cheating. But I think she might be the greatest big band trumpet soloist of all time. Hear her on Maria Schneider's Sky Blue ("The Pretty Road") and Concert in the Garden ("Pas De Deux"), Darcy James Argue's Infernal Machines ("Transit"), and her sister Christine's album Treelines.


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