iTunes, Amazon and other pay-as-you go download sites remain dense jungles for most jazz shoppers. As I remarked in my Open Letter to iTunes and Amazon back in August, these sites make it next to impossible for jazz fans to browse for old releases and reissues the way they want to. Newly added albums are just flipped into artists' folders, so unless you look at every single jazz artist each time you shop, you'd be hard-pressed to know what's new from the decades you prefer most.
From time to time, I take out my flashlight and boots, and shimmy through the ducts at the iTunes Store in search of superb albums that aren't well known. Then I report back to you. (If you wish to access the other volumes in this series, simply go to the search bar in the upper right-hand corner of this page and type in "Hidden Jazz Downloads.")
Here are five terrific recordings that I discovered at iTunes over the past couple of days that I think you'll enjoy:
James P. Johnson—Snowy Morning Blues (Decca). Johnson is the father of the stride jazz piano, which combined the Midwestern rags of Scott Joplin and urban jazz, blues and popular song. Johnson never repeated passages without altering them, and his relaxed approach to stride became the basis of swing. So it's easy to understand why Johnson had such a big influence on Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie and Art Tatum. A contemporary of Jelly Roll Morton's, Johnson began publishing the first of his some 200 songs in 1917. He backed blues singers in New York in the 1920s, and composed classical orchestral pieces in the 1930s. In the 1940s, he was a legend and performed in clubs. He also recorded for Decca Records. His sides for the label in the mid-1940s are captured on this album, which includes Carolina Shout, a 1918 composition that inspired Duke Ellington and other young jazz musicians of the early 1920s.
Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, John Coltrane and Hank Mobley—Tenor Conclave (Prestige). It's hard to believe this album even exists, but it does. Recorded in 1956, the date brought four tenor giants together, each with a different approach on the instrument. Here you have Al Cohn and Zoot Sims' Prez-meets-Woody Herman feel up against Hank Mobley's hard bop and John Coltrane's game-changing intensity. Only four long tracks were recorded, and the result was Two Brothers meets the Young Turks. The rhythm section featured Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums. It's a freewheeling blowing session with four different textures.
Mary Lou Williams—Presents Black Christ of the Andes (Smithsonian Folkways). This 1963 recording is an unusual album in that it fuses a lush mixed-voice choir with Williams' lyrical jazz piano style. After a 1954 performance in Paris, Williams retired from the jazz world for a few years to meditate and pray daily. From 1957 on, she imbued her playing with a deep spiritual message. This concept album was her first work of spiritual jazz, and it's remarkable on several levels. You have hymnal masterpieces such as St. Martin de Porres and jazz standards such as It Ain't Necessarily So. And then you also have originals such as Miss. D. D., the album's highlight. This fascinating tune was named for heiress Doris Duke, who helped launch the Newport Jazz Festival.
J.R. Monterose—J.R. Monterose (Blue Note). This 1956 recording was the tenor saxophonist's first date as a leader and an early hard-bop model that Blue Note would use repeatedly with other artists. Monterose's initial recording dates a year earlier were with modal vibraphonist Teddy Charles and bop trombonist Eddie Bert. After playing in Teddy Charles' famed Tentet in January 1956, Monterose recorded with the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop before joining Kenny Dorham's Jazz Prophets. This album of originals is notable for Monterose's assertive, bluesy tenor style and Horace Silver's especially percussive piano attack.
Herbie Mann—Do the Bossa Nova (Atlantic). Mann is often written off as an overly commercial artist whose adventures in the pop and World music genres all but erased his accomplishments in jazz. But just before Mann drifted over the line, he recorded a series of Bossa Nova albums in 1962 that became the basis for much of the Brazilian-jazz that followed. This album is a compilation of Mann's 1962 recordings, many of which were done with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto in Brazil. Regardless of what you think of Mann or how musically thin he became in the years ahead, his flute playing here in '62 swings, and he truly gets the Bossa Nova rhythm and feel.
Tomorrow, I'll feature a super-rare download compilation by a superb tenor saxophone legend. Most people probably aren't even aware this collection exists, since iTunes stupidly packaged it as a bland, run-of-the-mill release. It's anything but.