25 Records Influencing My Music
This list was only supposed to be ten albums but that turned out to be impossible. The point was not to name favourite records, although some would fit in that category, but to identify ones that had a hand shaping me musically. Off we go now:
1) David Bowie “Honky Dory”
This is the first record I bought and my entire musical DNA can be traced back to it. It is a mix of musical styles and sets in place a practice of being open to anything. In the early seventies, Bowie and his music were as unique as it comes. He also played a bit of sax and always featured it in his music. This led me to more Bowie, Lou Reed, Mott the Hopple, the New York Dolls, T Rex and eventually punk music. Punk music then led to all sorts of new musical directions.
2) The Beach Boys” Good Vibrations”
This was a British import I believe. The album included “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” but also had other songs that were not the typical Beach Boy radio fodder like “Heroes and Villains”. This record prompted me to openly express my desire to start a band. I tried to do so with a friend who drummed and who was a huge Kiss fan. I needed to learn an instrument or sing but I didn’t have the courage or wherewithal to do either.
3) Duke Ellington “The Best of Duke Ellington”
This would seem to be an odd selection for a teenager growing up in a working class house in London Ontario in the 1970s. But it is true. I am not sure what it was I was hearing but I liked it.
4) The Clash “The Clash”, The Sex Pistols “Never Mind the Bollocks”, The Ramones “Rockets to Russia” and Elvis Costello “My Aim is True”
Yes I am cheating but it was more of a collective impact. I could add other records like Patty Smith’s “Horses” but these were the biggies for me. To be 16-17 and experiencing the punk explosion at the same time that your body and mind are trying to figure out the process of moving from childhood to adulthood was a defining moment. I feel very blessed to have been there when this music came onto the scene. It had a huge impact on me philosophically and politically. Elvis Costello has stuck with me throughout my adult life. At one point I learned some of the piano chords from his album “North”.
5) Nick Lowe “Pure Pop for Now People”
“Little Hitler”, “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass”, “Rollers Show”, just to name a few of the songs on this record that was called I believe, “Jesus of Cool” in the UK. It gave me an appreciation for sophisticated and catchy music but in a different way from say the Talking Heads or Television. I think Nick Lowe was a natural stepping stone towards jazz. I started listening to him again a few years back. He has aged well writing very appealing music that reflects his station in life.
6) The Clash “Sandinista”
It might not be as good a record as “London Calling” or it just might be better. Cast your vote today. I loved them both but with Sandinista I was more ready for the jazz, dub, reggae and God knows what else Sandinista dabbled in. It was indulgent, and political but a lot of fun.
7) Bob Marley “Live”
I bought tickets to see him and the concert was cancelled. He died shortly afterwards. I could have put a few other Bob Marley records on this list in its place but the influence was the same. Marley was my first heavy exposure to music from the developing world and I have been listening to tonnes of it ever since.
8) Bruce Springsteen “Born to Run”
Well, let’s start with Clarence Clemons and his saxophone. Yes, I loved the Boss and I have the concert ticket stubs and countless bootlegs to prove it but Clarence was the first of a number of sax players who kept saying to me “it is time to heed the call up”.
9) Charlie Parker “The Savoy Recordings Master Takes” and Charlie Parker “Summit Meeting at Birdland”
I went into “Sam the Record Man” in London Ontario as a 19 year old and asked the guy working at the counter to recommend something different and he said why don’t you try Charlie Parker. In terms of Jazz I had only really listened to Ellington, Tony Bennett, and Ella Fitzgerald so for me Parker was from another planet. The music was frenetic, intense yet really melodic. I listened to these two records endlessly. I looked around for a saxophone but still couldn’t really get my act together. Everyone calls Parker a genius and he, Louis Armstrong and Brian Wilson might be the only ones I know enough about to think they might deserve this mantle. But In all three cases, it is clearly more about hard work then their special musical gifts.
10) Fela Ransome Kuti “Sorrow Tears and Blood”
I saw Fela a few times before he died but the occasion I was really hoping to see him was when I was living in Ghana but something happened as it often did with him. He said something and it set off a storm. I remember West Africans telling me Fela was a “small boy”, to distinguish him from a “Big Man” or someone having importance. A lot of people could be down on him because of his politics and things like the Kalakuta Republic. I was in love with his music and I agreed with most aspects of his politics. When I finally started to play the saxophone some of the first songs I wanted to learn were his because the horns were incredible.
11) James Brown “Live at the Apollo”
Just like with Fela, I wanted to teach myself some of the grooves James Brown’s horn players were laying down.
12) Ornette Coleman “Free Jazz”
I think Punk, Charlie Parker, and Ornette Coleman were the biggest musical mind blowers. With Coleman the music was intense and exhilarating. By the time i was listening to this I owned a saxophone and while struggling to learn chords, scales and arpeggios and basic intonation, I would try to play what I was calling “Free Jazz”. I understood it to mean getting together with musicians and playing with little musical structure. I came to learn that this was not what Free Jazz was really about. There were and have been too many records from the jazz avant-garde that I have listen to. It was always amazing where you would come across people who dug this type of music. For example, I played a lot of experimental jazz in Madagascar with up and coming jazz and traditional musicians. After one public performance we were called out in a newspaper article for wasting people’s time.
13) Thelonious Monk “Monk's Blues”
I found Monk’s music to be catchy and quirky but also very beautiful. When I started to play the piano a first task was figuring out Monk’s chords. I am sure it was listening to Monk that gave me the bug to compose. Monk was different, a compromise between the avant-garde and standard jazz and I was very comfortable with this.
14) Sonny Rollins “On Impulse” and John Coltrane “Ballads”
Yes, I am cheating again with records. I remember reading once about a young saxophone player in rural America who only listened to sax players at the level of Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon or John Coltrane. He assumed every horn player should have a “big personal sound” like these players. I imagined him in a cornfield playing his fingers off. There are a lot of people who attempt to sound like a Parker or a Coltrane but isn’t the same thing. You try to learn from greatness and hopefully you end up someplace better than if you had never heard a Parker or Rollins and with your own sound.
15) Pharaoh Saunders “Rejoice”
This was part free jazz, part African and part spiritual. I loved his sound. I found it to be warm despite all the cacophony.
16) Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron “Sempre Amor”
I think too often jazz records are nothing more than a collection of songs by musicians playing nice tunes and showing off their huge technique. This record for me was art. It is a collection of rare Ellington songs stripped down to soprano sax and piano. I tried to emulate this when I recorded “Sunswept Sunday”. Another record that I think of in a similar vein is Chico Freeman’s Spirit Sensitive, a jazz outsider who put together a record full of standards and made something unforgettable.
17) Abbey Lincoln “People in Me”
This recording set me up as a long time listener of Abbey. She composed music that was broadly in the category of jazz but had a very separate sound and identity. It was comforting to know you could come up with modern jazz that was somehow accessible, had artistic merit but was not part of the jazz mainstream.
18) Abdullah Ibrahim “Water from an Ancient Well”
This record is full of beautiful melodies and great playing. For me it slips into the category of higher art. It was inspiring for me both as a composer and sax player. It is a nice combination of African music and jazz.
19) Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”
I listened to Pet Sounds when I was kid but I was too young to get it. It is probably the record I have listened to the most over the last twenty years. I liked so much pop and rock music from the sixties but this one I think has a bit more to offer in terms of musical arrangement, instrumentation, and melodic ideas. I am always hearing new things when I listen to it.
20) Raymond Razafimbahiny (R.R.Majunga) “His collective work”
This is the music of my father-in-law. I never had the pleasure of meeting him in person as he passed on at a very young age. I produced and played on two records that covered a good part of his musical repertoire. I like him for the same reasons I appreciate a Brian Wilson or a Thelonious Monk. The melodies are different but catchy and his music can also be profound and dramatic. I have integrated a number of his composing techniques into my song writing.
21) Claude Debussy “Piano Works Volume1”
When I first started listening to Debussy all I could think was how beautiful his music was. I started transcribing different parts of his songs to the musical key of my saxophone and tricked my classically trained piano-playing neighbour into accompanying me as I butchered Debussy’s music on a soprano sax built for playing in a marching band.
22) Duke Ellington's “The Ellington Suites”
At one point I started collecting a lot of Ellington music. The music I was most drawn to came from the later years like “Single Petal of a Rose”. While nearing death, Ellington kept trying to grow and find new ground as a composer and this music had more to do with Debussy then Big-Band Ellington. He is a good example of how someone can keep evolving musically well into old age.
23) Michael Blake Kingdom of Champa
“Champa” is by a Canadian sax player. It mixed jazz with musical influences from Vietnam. It was influential in the sense that it drove home the idea of how one could make a different type of jazz record that connected to different part of the world.
24) Jane Bunnett “Spirits of Havana” and Charlie Haden “Nocturne”
I know I am cheating again by putting two records in the same slot but please hear me out. “Spirits of Havana” is a great Canadian jazz record. It helped turn me onto Cuban music and contributed to my love of classic Bolero music. There is a song on “Spirits of Havana” called “Song for Argentina” and I tried to write similar types of songs but it didn’t work out. Eventually I ended up composing a bunch of songs that have a bit of a Bolero influence. Charlie Haden also had this love affair with the softer tendencies of Latin music. Nocturne is perhaps the best example of this. I also liked what Haden did with his group Quartet West. He wrote some very good originals music while including songs by people like Pat Metheny that I ended up really liking and learning from. This was inspiring for me because at the time I was very discouraged by the quality of the song writing in modern jazz.
25) Beach Boys and Brian Wilson ”Smile” (tracks from the abandoned Smile project of 1966-67 and Brian Wilson Presents Smile in 2004)
There is no other music like Smile. There, I said it. I think if it had been released in 1967 when it was supposed it would have been as strong a reference point for the Sixties as Pet Sounds has become or anything the Beatles did. I also think its influence would have extended to jazz unlike most other forms of pop music offerings. We can listen to Smile today whether it is the various bootleg music files floating around on the Internet from the recordings of the 1960’or the 2004 version that Brian Wilson produced and recognize this is something very different. Smile weaves a tapestry of sounds or musical flows as Wilson calls them that move from one piece to the next or from one section to the next within the same song. It is full of ideas on how songs can be constructed differently.