Hmmmm….I initially went for 20, this expanded to 30 and then I culled it dramatically and painfully to 20 again. These are not necessarily the ‘best’ albums – though I think they might be: they are the albums which mean the most to me.
Some of my hugest influences are omitted as I can’t think of one particular album to include – I spend a lot of time listening to Prince, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sigur Ros, James Brown, Jobim, Parliament Funkadelic, James Taylor, Slave and Frank Sinatra for example but couldn’t really choose a definitive album.
These are in no particular order:
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
The single record I’ve listened to most; the greatest record ever. An atypical jazz record but incredible in it’s generation of mood, the stellar participants, the crystalline beauty created by the improvisation within. Miles took inspirations for such sources as Ahmad Jamal, Sinatra, Thumb Piano and Gospel but rather than ape them, he let them subtly influence his music on this beautiful record.
Miles Davis – Agharta
Miles is the only person I allow 2 albums in my list. Not because of his indubitable genius but because of the diversity of his output. As Kind of Blue is somehow supposed to represent the great number of acoustic Miles records I’ve worn out (Steamin’ etc, Live at the PLugged Nickel, Birth of the Cool, Miles Smiles etc); Agharta is somehow representing the like of Bitches Brew (one of my favourite records of all time, Pangea and Jack Johnson). This is a stunning record from a stunning band – Miles, Pete Cosey and Michael Henderson are incredible. It is funky and futuristic and intense and I adore it. I love the combination of groove and adventurous improvisation.
Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil
Oh my! The compositions, the playing, the unique mood of this record. It makes my hair stand on end when I hear it. Similarly to Kind of Blue it features a stellar cast: Hubbard, Shorter, Hancock, Carter, Jones who all play in quite a restrained manner but in a way that creates a really unique soundscape.
Joni Mitchell – Shadows and Light
Yes, I know Hejira is probably the one (and I love Mingus) but I’m a sucker for live records and this has all Joni’s beautiful tunes and singing and the relatively unsurpassed line-up of Pastorius, Metheney, Mays, Michael Brecker and Don Alias. It don’t get much better than this folks. I almost take off every time I hear Dry Cleaner from Des Moines
Santana – Welcome
It was a toss-up between this and Lotus which is a stunning record. Abraxas, III, Caravanserai, Swing of Delight, Borbeletta, Festival, Moonflower, Milagro, Santan/Shorter, Love Devotion and Surrender, Illuminations – they’re all fantastic records. Lotus is wonderfully over the top and features Carlos at his most vital before he simply recycled his own cliches – it’s a dream band too, with two great keyboard players and a record of intense jazz-fusion rather than rock. I chose Welcome over this, however, as Doug Rauch the bassist is given more freedom and there is less of Santana as a soloist and more great solos from keyboards, saxophone and flute. Flora Purim and Leon Thomas sing beautifully on songs that manage to be spiritual but avoid cringeworthy lyrics; the percussion section is a blast and there are some awesome grooves on this record.
Meshell Ndegeocello – Spirit Music of Jama – Dance of the Infidel
This record manages to effectively feature avant-garde playing, incredible grooves, lyrical melody and cinematic sonic architecture. Meshell, who is one of my favourite bassists, plays little bass on this. She doesn’t sing either. There are some telling bass parts that she plays – repetitive, hypnotic, deeply grooving but on this record she plays more of the role of the composer/director and it is remarkable and beautiful music. There are some very intense moments where I get completely carried away listening. Gregoire Maret (harmonica), Chris Dave (drums), Matt Garrison (bass) and Kenny Garrett (alto sax) play key roles; and there are features for guys like Ran Blake and Oliver Lake from the old school of avant-garde.
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
What is there to say? What a singer? What incredible performances from bassplayers James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt. Jamerson for me is the epitome of what a great bassist is about. He plays so much melody while pinning down the bass function, being rhythmically about as solid as you can get and absolutely always functioning as the glue in the band. I love the arrangements and the concept of this album. Essential.
Donny Hathaway – Live
You might think there are few surprises here, that these are all acclaimed records. Well, they are the records that have had the greatest impact on me and I’d love them even if they were obscure. Donny has the voice of an angel and the band is something special. The material is great and the band is something else. Willie Weeks gives a complete lesson in soulful bass and plays that famous solo into the bargain but Donny Hathaway plays some wonderful Fender Rhodes too.
Nguyen Le – Purple
This is a blast from start to finish. Le takes well known Hendrix tunes and reworks them to include some stunning fusion workouts, other worldly vocals and strong underlying influences from his Vietnamese heritage and love of North African music. Michel Alibo is one of my favourite bassists and he is given a free reign on this one. Terri Lynne Carrington’s drumming and singing, Le’s intense and imaginative guitar, Aida Khann’s striking singing, Meshell’s funky guest bass and Bojan Z’s electric piano solo are all to savour. Of course, Hendrix’s tunes are strong enough to survive this treatment and be launchpads for spectacular improvisation.
Weather Report – Black Market
Probably my favourite group. Zawinul is a genius of sound and Shorter too. I used to prefer Myserious Traveller for it’s sense of (wait for it) mystery and it’s unique sound and I love almost all of Weather Report’s albums but this is the one I love most. When I hear Black Market I always sing along to virtually everything; either aloud or in my head. It’s a funky record and it grooves deeply and Zawinul’s arrangements are genius.
I tend to prefer Weather Report without Pastorius much as I love the performances with him and, for me, Alphonso Johnson was the perfect bassist for them. Alphonso plays with intensity and without the licks crazy style that Jaco tended towards. That said, on Cannonball, Jaco plays at his most effectively and tastefully. Joe Zawinul is a great composer of bass lines and always surrounded himself with greats of the bass. Every note on Black Market is wonderful.
D’Angelo – Voodoo
This record blew me away and still does. D’Angelo’s style and delivery is a thing of beauty. I’m not a huge hip-hop fan – so much seems a stylistic dead-end – though I love Tribe Called Quest, Common, Digable Planets and the more atypical groups. And a lot of modern r’n’b seems to value production sound over musical content which is anathema to me. But Voodoo is contemporary RnB, featuring hip-hop that is wonderfully clever, intense, musical and playful. The approach to rhythm and the arrangements opened new doors in a lot of musical minds. Pino Palladino, Ahmir Thompson (?uestlove) and D’Angelo himself play beautifully and the record sounds new every time you hear it.
Jimi Hendrix – Live at the Filmore/Band of Gypsies
Live at the Fillmore is the same record as Band of Gypsies with some more tracks. Jimi was one of the first musicians who grabbed me. His playing was so wild, free, imaginative and full of soul. I much preferred the Band of Gypsies line-up with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox. Jimi opened my ears and mind for later musical exploration of the recordings of Trane, Ornette, Albert Ayler and others. He was also a sublime blues player and I had spent so many hours of my youth listening to blues guys like Muddy Waters and BB King he was a stepping stone for me to other music.
John McLaughlin – Extrapolation
One of a kind: a unique record. You can hear hints of what was to come in McLaughlin’s playing but it’s a group performance. The tunes are good and the interaction between John Surman, Brian Odgers,Tony Oxley and McLaughlin is conversational and sensitive.
Tye Tribbett & GA – Victory Live
I love Gospel music and could have named any number of records but this is the one. For the stunning band, the message of the lyrics, Tye’s frontman style, the arrangements, the choral aspects this is a wonderful record. I also play the DVD of the same show a lot too.
Salif Keita – Soro
I immersed myself in African music in the 1980s. I loved Youssoou Ndour, Salif, Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti and musicians and styles from all over the continent. It was a dream come true when I played in a London Anglo-Ghanaian band and made real the connections between different African musics that had moved me so much.
Soro is not a typical record, it dismayed some purists as it was miles away from Keita’s Malian style but, for me, it wonderfully combines Keita’s plaintive vocals, great tunes and a brilliantly arranged fusion style. Again, it features Michel Alibo on bass whose playing on this record is exciting and fluid. Keita’s voice and tunes are compelling: when I hear this record I get goose pimples.
Khaled – Hafla
Rai had such an impact on me when I heard it – such a joyous sound. For years I dreamt of forming a Rai-Salsa fusion group with some local Algerian musicians. I loved the Arabic modes too which infused the music. I could have chosen 1,2,3 Soleils but this live album from Khaked means a lot to me. The band grooves as one, the horn section is tight and the singalong style Arabic lyrics uplift me every time. Khaled is someone who has had exile and threats on his life in Algeria but creates music which is so beautifully joyous and human.
Mahavishnu Orchestra – Inner Mounting Flame
Intense, spiritual, dramatic, beautiful. I love this record. McLaughlin never sounded such a free spirit as on this over the top record. I love its rough edges and wild soloing. Billy Cobham was the perfect drummer for this group too and he plays like no other drummer ever did. There are moments of pastoral beauty amid the mayhem and the band plays as one.
Billy Cobham – Spectrum
When records like this and the last one were made, fusion was still an adventure in sound rather than a genre and the musicians were brave pioneers. This is fantastic record with an unlikely line-up that pretty much stands unique even among fusion records. The line-up works incredibly well. Cobham is himself – a force of nature; Lee Sklar a great bassist for fusion despite appearing so rarely in the genre – awesome time feeling and restraint; Jan Hammer is the mad professor on the keys and then there’s Tommy Bolin. Such a tragedy he died so young. His playing seems so effortless and soulful on this record. Cobham wrote all the tunes – Stratus and Red Baron are among the greatest fusion anthems/standards so it’s surprising Cobham didn’t write many other famous tunes.
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme
One amazing this about music is that the audience/listener can often sense the confidence of the musician and how much he or she means it. John Coltrane meant it, everything! I spent months as a student listening to Trane for hours a day every day – pretty much every note he recorded. I immersed myself into his intense musical universe. His passion; and that of Jones, Tyner and Garrison; drew me in. Sometimes I’d get tired just listening. This is the definitive spiritual record and such a great piece of music.
Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um
Another passionate and intense musician, I always loved Mingus’ playing and writing; and his bands. He was the living link between Jelly Roll Morton, Armstrong, Ellington, Parker and the avant-garde. This is a wonderful record and if you’ve never heard it – you have to!
Other records considered included Duke Ellington – Far East Suite; Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti; Sonny Sharrock – Ask the Ages; Living Colour – Vivid or Times Up; Chess Masters; Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith – Yo Miles – Skygarden; Red Hot Chilli Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magic; Ryuichi Sakamoto – Beauty; Jill Scott – Live in Paris; Erykah Badu – Live; Lost Tribe – Lost Tribe; Albert Ayler – Spiritual Unity; Incognito -Tribes, Vibes and Scribes; Stevie Wonder – Innervisions; John Martyn -Solid Air, Cassandra Wilson – Travellin’ Miles and Steve Coleman – Sine Die.