Jazz began life as social music (but not #SOCIALMUSIC… sorry, Don Cheadle). The advent of bebop had drawn some chin-strokers into the audience, but dancing was still most of jazz’s raison d’être until the late 1950s, when intrepid early explorers of the music’s harshest angles — John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler — began to delve into music that, while still intended for collective uplift, was hardly conducive to rug-cutting. Meanwhile, another set of largely African-American musicians were making inroads in mainstream pop by adding increasingly sleek flourishes to more dancefloor-friendly R&B, in a stylistic amalgam we’ve all come to know as soul music.
Plenty of musicians with jazz chops wanted to keep up with the times, but were neither comfortable going full pop nor diving headfirst into the chaotic din of “The New Thing.” Instead, these musicians found a way to bring the social, danceable element of jazz into modern times, taking the soul sound of Motown and Stax and infusing it with the free-wheeling improvisations and fleet-fingered dexterity of bebop and cool jazz. The results, collectively known as soul jazz, were funky, sophisticated and run through with sinuous grooves. Little before or since has been as thumpingly danceable; it’s not for nothing that these records were picked clean for samples starting in the late 1980s, when the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets and The Beastie Boys raided their respective parents’ record stashes to slice and dice some funky music of their own.
It would be dishonest to try to paint the following as anything resembling a complete list of “the greats.” That would be an insult to conspicuously absent heroes like Jimmy Smith, Grant Green, Lou Donaldson, Lee Morgan… the list goes on. That said, if you want to start digging into some records with breakbeats that slap, deep-dive bass and plenty of free-wheeling horns ducking and weaving around the groove, these are 10 great places to start.
Saying that Herbie Hancock is a jazz giant many times over is kinda like saying George Clooney is an alright-lookin’ dude: you ain’t wrong, of course, but all of us have eyes to see and ears to hear, so ya kinda don’t need to say it. Who else but Hancock has successfully jumped from ’60s dance floor crossovers to heady improv, from spidery fusion to alien electro, with as much success (yeah, yeah, Miles Davis, but most would agree that Hancock did better in the ’80s)?
For sheer, sexy fun, though, this 1969 Hancock set is tough to beat. This collection of soul jazz burners was originally recorded for a Fat Albert TV special, but one needn’t see the special (nor give a thought to that cartoon’s scumbag creator) to appreciate what’s on offer here. Actually, you don’t even have to know who’s making the music; all you’ve gotta do is dance.
Words do no justice to the funk of this record. Organist Charles Kynard has plenty of gooey, head-nodding tracks throughout his catalog, but this confident, slow-rolling record makes it sound like he invented a new kind of bedroom music single-handedly.
Not that Kynard did it alone: The band here — including guitarist Grant Green, saxophonist Houston Person and bassist Jimmy Lewis — is so sick, you might wanna get vaccinated before listening. The real ace up their sleeves, though, is session master/breakbeat monster Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, whose intricate, relaxed drumming here makes you wish every track went on forever. No wonder Steely Dan tapped him to lay down the beat for “Peg.”
Remember the part in that Chris Brown track from a couple years ago, “Look At Me Now,” where Busta Rhymes comes in midway, promptly brushes Brown aside with “hold my beer” bravado, and proceeds to drop the fastest, dopest verse that had been on the radio since… well, the last time Busta was on the radio? This is kinda the jazz version of that. Lots of older jazz musicians tried to get with the times in the 1960s-’70s, with varying degrees of success, but Diz really comes in on this one and shows everyone how it’s done. Huge beats, killer trumpet (duh) and on the track “Rutabaga Pie,” an unrelenting clap-stomp assault complete with a girl gang which just struts around singing the title. Transcendent.
It’s an old saw among heads that even the least of pianist Ramsey Lewis’s efforts has at least two total rippers on it (I’ve had three people independently say as much to me in the last two weeks, but that may just be indicative of the company I keep). Another Voyage, however, is a Lewis album which drips with nothing but his sweetest juice. Lewis and company storm through 10 tracks here, including sturdy covers of Stevie Wonder and Eddie Harris, but the hottest heat emanates off of “Uhuru,” a kalimba-infused composition by the band’s percussionist (and future Earth, Wind & Fire member!) Maurice White.
Like Ramsey Lewis, organist Jimmy McGriff dependably produced a steady stream of sturdy records through the 1960s-’70s, all with at least a couple jaw-dropping party starters per platter. The most ounces of drool here drip for the title track, but there’s plenty of triggers for the saliva glands, not least of all the avenue-cruising majesty of “Blue Juice.”
Saxophonist Monk Higgins never got to be a big name like some of the others on this list, but in the soul jazz world, he’s an MVP. Higgins did loads of extraordinary work as a composer, arranger and sideman, with too many collaborators to even start listing, but if he was involved, you can bet one eye was always on the groove. Though this album doesn’t feature Higgins’ most heavily sampled track, “One Man Band (Plays All Alone),” nor his one radio hit under his own name, “Who-Dun-It?” Extra Soul Perception is perhaps Higgins’ most cohesive and funky set. This fact has served to also make it among his most collectable in recent years, but lucky for those of us on a budget, the good people at the Real Gone label have freshly reissued the album on vinyl and CD.
Freddie Hubbard was a brilliant trumpeter who was unafraid to traverse the outer limits of jazz, lending his full and fearless tone to dates with Dolphy and Coltrane, and even collaborating with experimental Turkish composer İlhan Mimaroğlu for the album Sing Me a Song of Songmy. Still, he was a hard bopper first and foremost, and on this, his first LP for Atlantic, Hubbard lays it on heavy. Hard-thumping rockers like “The Return of the Prodigal Son” and the title track are pure go-go dancer fuel; closing ballad “Echoes of Blue” is something else altogether, as soulful as it is wild and experimental. Short and sweet, this is Hubbard at his most accessible, and almost certainly his most danceable.
Hubert Laws: Flute By-Laws
Flutist Hubert Laws’ reputation largely rests on his successful career as a smooth jazz artist, but much of his earlier work is tough, pounding soul. At first, I was having a hard time picking between this and the album which preceded it, The Laws of Jazz (dude got plenty of mileage out of that pun, eh?), but about four seconds into this album’s opening track ‘Bloodshot’, the decision was pretty well made. The best tracks on Flute By-Laws all drive hard, but Laws’ flute lends just a touch of cool melancholy to even the hottest sections.
Eddie Harris, like Rodney Dangerfield, got no respect in his prime (also like Dangerfield, he was a bit of a standup comic, but that’s another story). Oh, he was pretty famous and all, but the jazz intelligentsia treated his electrified sax — adopted a couple years before Miles took that ball and ran with it on his trumpet — as a cheap gimmick, and thought his way with a melody was simply gauche.
Time, however, has smiled on a good deal of his catalog, and while it’s easy to oscillate between favorites (this writer’s personal favorite is actually Free Speech, but that isn’t quite as good an introduction), The Electrifying Eddie Harris is probably the most sensible starting point, if only for its inclusion of the monster joint “Listen Here.”
Few records evoke the time and place from whence they came quite like Woodard and company evoke 1970s Detroit on Saturday Night Special. There’s a traumatized sadness which hangs like a cloud over the proceedings, an ache carried over from the riots and white flight which left the city in shambles. Yet, through that murk thumps a buoyant beat, the heartbeat of the Motor City itself, a rhythm that demands you keep on keepin’ on. Other records on this list are more dancefloor friendly, or more slick, but none are quite as tough and deeply felt.