June 14, 2024

A Conversation With
Neil Tesser
by Mark Ruffin

This month, noted jazz journalist and annotator Neil Tesser debuts a new book on jazz. “The Playboy Guide to Jazz” is an entertaining and informative guide through the important developments in jazz. The overriding theme of the book is an honest effort to help consumers, from a jazz novice to a worn veteran, build a music collection at home. Each chapter in the book deals with a direction in jazz and then details the essential albums to have in that form. The end of the book is devoted to what Tesser thinks are the 50 most essential albums to have to represent all the various directions in which jazz has gone.

JazzUSA: I noticed, and what I like about the last list in the book is that it covers such a wide space in jazz history, that had to be hard.

NT: Here’s the thing I did. I made clear that this is not the 50 best albums. That’s not what I tried to do here. What I did try to do is go through each chapter and each decade and try to pull out a few things that would be representative. So if you actually did buy all of these, you’d have a full chronology. There are better albums from the 50’s than Roy Hargrove’s The Vibe, which is 45 on this list. The reason I picked that was that I felt it was important to have a couple of things from the 80’s, and that’s a pretty good representation of that style atthat time. One reason that that gets picked is because in the 80’s, there were no where as many good albums as in the 50’s.

JazzUSA: Also wasn’t it important to have young lions of the future like Hargrove and Danilo Perez represented?

NT: I think so, because I think what Danilo is doing is very important. Frankly, the album I picked here, The Journey, I think is pretty good, but it has problems. I think Danilo Perez is an example of someone who has never yet made an album that is a good as his performances. I wrestled with that for a long time, and that will be one of the one that’s controversial, another one is Myra Melford. People are going to say, well what are they doing there. I say, well let’s talk in five or ten years and see then if it made sense to put them on there.

JazzUSA: So the last part of the list is like prognosticating?

NT: To a certain extent. Although I do believe that, looking at the list, Danilo Perez, Myra Melford, Cassandra Wilson and Bill Frisell really represent certain areas of what’s going on in the 90’s and that if you have those albums, you have a really good idea of what the 90’s are about. Bill Frisell, with the lower New York thing and Cassandra because she’s Cassandra and she’s been so important. I think that Danilo combining North and South American music, I think that’s already an important thing in the 90’s, and it will be more important in the next decade. I don’t know, Myra, I just might have slipped on, it’s got Dave Douglas on it, people are on it that I think are really important. And I love the album, so maybe I think something inside me wanted to shake things up just a bit.

JazzUSA: It must have been hard also to make the choice you had to make concerning the be-bop period.

NT: It wasn’t really that hard, because in be-bop, since so many of those guys played together, it was okay not to have a Dizzy Gillespie album in there, because he’s all over the Charlie Parker collection. It’s really just the four or five of them, if you count Ella. It’s Ella, Monk, Powell, Parker and the Woody Herman, which was kind of transitional thing. If you were going to sit down with people and say here’s what you need to hear to understand be-bop, you’d pretty much come up with Bird and Diz, Powell and Monk and a couple of other people. So, that part wasn’t as hard. When I looked at them and said, whoa, there’s only four or five of them here, but when I realized that the albums that are there involved so many of the other important people that it worked out okay. I think it was probably harder to keep the swing stuff down to nine or ten, which I did, and it was definitely hard from the 50’s because there’s so much good stuff there.

JazzUSA: And what about Duke Ellington? Miles is represented, but there’s one Duke Ellington album.

NT: Well it’s a three cd set.

JazzUSA: Even so, to say the 50 essential jazz albums and then limit the Duke Ellington. How do you make that call?

NT: You sit down and you say I have to make it. Again, throughout this book, and it’s kind of exemplified on the last list, but really throughout the book, I had to keep uppermost in my mind what the goal was which was to provide a stripped down yet fairly complete introduction to jazz. You and I could sit down and make a list of people who are not really mentioned in this book at all, and it would be funny. Two that are going to bother me for a while are Ray Anderson, he’s in the index, but there’s no albums of his, and Stanley Turrentine.They’re going to bug me for a while. And yet, when I got to the 50’s and was trying to keep it reasonable…. The overriding idea was not just that I want you to hear all this stuff that I like or here’s my friend that you need to hear. Ray Anderson is a friend. The overriding concern was what you sort of need to have to get what’s going on in that period while keeping your expenses down. I applied the same thing to the final list.

I think Miles is the only person who’s on more than once, and he could have been on four times. The reason for that is unlike Ellington, Miles continued to spearhead entirely new movements. Duke, I think, is beyond reproach and beyond comparison, but basically,from the 40’s on, what he wrote was set. He refined it and expanded it in the 60’s with suites and stuff, and the sacred concerts, but it’s not like he spearheaded a new movement. So in my mind, it was easy to say, it’s just going to be one Duke, and there’s going to have to be three Miles’. There’s The Birth Of The Cool, there’s Kind Of Blue which you can’t leave off, and then how can you tell people what fusion was without Bitches Brew. But the reason, Miles is represented three times and Coltrane twice is that each of those albums were just a Miles album or a Coltrane album, but a key album in a different direction in jazz.

What I wanted was that if people had a hold on to all the 50 albums on this list they would have, not only a good sampling of the important musicians, but also a good handle on the different directions that jazz took. So it would be hard to leave off Giant Steps, if you were so inclined, because that’s like a summation of the whole hard-bop thing. And if would be hard to leave out A Love Supreme, or something like it, because that direction was so influential on so many musicians, and Coltrane was Coltrane. That doesn’t mean that I think that he’s a greater musician than Duke Ellington. It had more to do with the fact that Duke Ellington didn’t make these radical lurches in his stylistic presentations. That’s not just the kind of musician he was. Now you could argue that he probably had a more fully formed idea of what he wanted to do and say at the beginning than these other guys. Maybe he didn’t make those changes because he knew earlier than they did what was the thing that he should be doing.

JazzUSA: You also didn’t take the easy out by putting on the list something like the Miles Davis Chronicles: The Complete Prestige Recordings or the complete John Coltrane recordings. Isn’t that an easy way to build an essential jazz collection?

NT: I actually said something about that in the introduction at the very beginning of the book. Roman numeral twelve says, “in choosing which albums to recommend, I could easily have cheated.” I then talk about these completed boxes. Again, the idea was to try to keep this reasonably priced to new listeners, and I don’t think that’s fair. I think saying this eight-cd set counts as one entry, you know, no new listener and pretty few old listeners are actually going to sit down and listen to those eight discs. Those serve a different purpose. Those are for people who want to have everything or want to be able to reference that information. It’s not really for people listening to the music as a new experience.

JazzUSA: What about the advent of, and I hate the term, smooth jazz?

NT: I hate the jazz part of it. They can call it smooth whatever they want. I didn’t cover that.

JazzUSA: But beyond covering that, there’s a period in jazz that is often overlooked, and smooth jazz folks are overlooking it too, and that is what happened when fusion and r&b kind of came together,

NT: Okay, you’re talking about what, like Herbie Hancock?

JazzUSA: Yeah, and George Duke, the Crusaders, I mean there was some serious improvisation going on and some growth in the late 70’s.

NT: Yeah, it wasn’t smooth. It wasn’t elevator music. People complained about fusion, because it was electronic and rock oriented.They didn’t say ‘oh, it’s just snoozy.’ They said it’s noise. I covered that, because I felt that that stuff was important and I felt that was a real outgrowth of developments in jazz and the history of jazz is complete with the constant infusion of elements from other musics and from other areas. They were bringing in elements from rock and electronics. To me, that fits quite comfortably in the history of jazz, at the time, the next logical development. It didn’t necessarily go very far, but at the time, it was probably the right thing to do.

In terms of smooth jazz though, the stuff that’s come up in the 80’s and 90’s, I don’t recognize that as jazz. Fusion was still primarily jazz, but it hasn’t changed a lot. But this stuff is, for the most part, just pop instrumental music, or in many cases, vocal music that they have thrown some jazz instruments onto like saxophone and trumpet. But I don’t think it’s recognizable as jazz, in even the broadest definition. I think, in most cases, it’s been a marketing ploy designed to connect to the fact that a lot of people seem to think that jazz is something cool and somewhat forbidden and somewhat elitist and so if you let people think that they’re connecting with that idea, but don’t actually give them the music that led to those ideas, well then you have a successful radio format. Oh man, I just love that Randy Crawford, and oh man, that Gerald Albright. Now, he can sometimes play.

JazzUSA: That’s exactly my point there. Gerald Albright can play.

NT: But he doesn’t usually. He can play, but he doesn’t usually bother, or he’s not usually allowed to. Which is worse, a guy that doesn’t have the ability and makes money like Kenny G, or a guy who has the ability and purposely puts it under the table.

JazzUSA: Well take people like Ramsey Lewis, Joe Sample and Grover Washington Jr. These are all people that we know can play, right?

NT: Yes.

JazzUSA: Yet, they still play, unfortunately, what has become a form of smooth jazz, but actually a lot of that is an outgrowth of what they were trying to do in the 70’s.

NT: I don’t think of Grover Washington Jr. and for the most part, Joe Sample, as playing smooth jazz.

JazzUSA: But they are associated with it.

NT: Yeah, it’s hard to say, but it is an outgrowth of the 70’s and at the time it was considered like kind of like a soul jazz thing, different from the funky stuff of the 50’s and 60’s. I’ve always felt that Grover could play pretty well and even on those albums in the 70’s that he played the hell out of that stuff. While it was kind of tamed from a rhythmic standpoint, I thought there was a lot of good jazz playing going on. And I’ve always liked Joe Sample. I’ve always thought that Joe Sample was kind of like the 70’s answer to Errol Garner. And Ramsey I like personally. I like some of his music, I mean, what is he going to do when he picks up the book and find out he’s not mentioned. What kind of friendship are we going to have now.(laughs).  But where would you put him? Where would you put him in this book saying to somebody here’s what you really need to know about jazz.The best stuff is the stuff that’s been re-issued, which is sort of watered down Ahmad Jamal. Or you could say The In Crowd, simply because it was a hit, but is that an important development in jazz?

JazzUSA: As important as Horace Silver to really spur that movement?

NT: Right, and if you really want to understand that movement, what are you going to do, recommend Horace Silver or Ramsey Lewis? In retrospect, I wished I’d found a little room to give him mention.

JazzUSA: What was the hardest thing to do about this book?

NT: Everything. Well, you know, I never wrote a book before. And as simple as it sounds, it’s just a matter of thinking of a book like this as a series of smaller articles. That sounds simple, but it took me halfway through it before I was able to understand that. Because you’re writing stuff in chapter one and you’re thinking of stuff for chapter five, and you’re always writing down notes and wondering what if I forget this. You make yourself very crazy. I would say the single hardest thing was in really sort of ruthlessly whittling down the many albums that are available. Each chapter is made up of essentials, the last chapter is that 50 essential, but each chapter is based on the idea that there are 20 or 25 essential albums that will help you really get this. I’d say the hardest part was in deciding what to leave out. You and I both know that there are 60 albums for each chapter that you can recommend to people and all of them for good reason. I’d say the hardest thing was making those choices and in my own mind, defending those choices. If somebody said to me, ‘how could you pick this album over this one?,’ for the most part, I’ll be able to tell them, because I’ve been thinking these things through. These are not chosen arbitrarily. Very often, I went back and listened to different things.The other hard thing was trying to find out what was still available and trying to keep it current.


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