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Ten Gateway Crossover Albums for Non-Jazz Listeners

Alexander Brown
Contributing Writer / @relaxandaspire

As I mentioned in a previous column, Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio is wildly accessible to a variety of music listeners and could serve as a way to get more music fans past this barrier that is the labeling of jazz. However, Glasper’s ode to mid-to-late twentieth century pop isn’t the only way to introduce your friends to jazz music and concepts. A variety of mainstream and indie artists have blurred the lines between what is and isn’t a jazz recording and will serve as a great icebreaker into how a music lover views jazz as a whole part of music rather than a ghetto.

1. The Mars Volta - De-loused in the Comatorium (Universal) 2003

To most causal listeners of rock the sudden wave of noise will hit the ears like Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker. However a careful listener will note that what is commonly called “math-rock” is nothing more than a modern hardcore form of bebop and free jazz. The description is very apt given that math-rock is a modern descendant of progressive rock, which itself is just 70’s and 80’s jazz fusion with a more marketable title.

2. Tom Waits - Small Change (Asylum) 1976

Before Waits was alt-rock's questionably insane uncle he was a dive bar crooner with a record deal. His standards-style jazz and blues records are similar enough to your grandparents’ era of pop music, but just grimey enough for people to relate to in these times of hardship.

3. Me'Shell NdegéOcello - The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel (Shanachie) 2005

While admittedly a jazz album, The Spirit Music Jamia really belongs on the spectrum of releases by downtempo luminaries as Air and Thievery Corporation. The fact that Me'Shell included so many great jazz artists (including Wallace Roney, Chris "Daddy Dave, Jack DeJohnette, Lalah Hathaway, Cassandra Wilson, and a cadre of others) further adds to the blurring of jazz and electronic compositions.

4. Becca Stevens Band - Weightless (Sunnyside) 2011

I am still amazed that the alt-country, alt-folk, and bluegrass scene has yet to pick up this album and run with it, proof of the eerie segregation of jazz and jazz affiliated albums into even mainstream indie.

5. Erykah Badu - Live (Kedar) 1997

One of the albums that launched the neo-soul fascination into the mainstream pop charts, it’s easily a standard bearer of a jazz vocalist’s showmanship. It’s a small step from this into basically everything Rachelle Ferrell has done.

6. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth - Mecca and the Soul Brother (Elektra) 1992

I expect that many reading will have already poured into the works of A Tribe Called Quest or are familiar with the belated Guru’s Jazzmatazz series of albums. Often ignored is Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, one of the greatest collaborations of all time. Rock’s delivery is much more straight forward than Tip’s and smoother than Guru’s making it more palatable to modern rap audiences.

7. Amy Winehouse - Frank (Island) 2003

Given that the late great Ms. Winehouse was one of the heralds of our nostalgia influenced current pop culture, it should come as no surprise that her early work borrows heavily from the era in which the lines between jazz, r&b, and pop were notoriously arbitrary. Whereas Back in Black is more Phil Spector in its concept, Frank harkens back to notorious torch singers as Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday.

8. Massive Attack - Protection (Virgin) 1994

The Wild Bunch has long had a fascination with traditional black music, and their earliest releases were a blend of jazz, blues, R&B, soul, reggae, and dub. This second major release borrows heavily from mid-twentieth century cool jazz and bop while being noticeably less hip-hop than Blue Lines.

9. Vince Guaraldi Trio - A Very Charlie Brown Christmas (CBS) 1965

Given that this is the only holiday album that isn’t getting on your last nerve by December 10th, it says a lot for just how infinitely listenable a well-crafted jazz album can be. It also speaks to the power of mixing media when it comes to the staying power of music.

10. Kaki King - Dreaming of Revenge (Velour) 2008

Kaki King continually releases some of the most indulgently guitar-centric albums that won’t appear at a G3 tour, and yet none of the tracks blend together in one atonal 80’s metal solo fifteen minute monologue. Her albums are pure musicianship, or in another term, jazz.

Bonus: Cowboy Bebop score by Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts

Part of the wonderment with Cowboy Bebop was the fact the score, expertly crafted by Yoko Kanno, explicitly added to the majesty of the series rather than being background filler. Sit your friends down to watch the entire run and have philosophical conversations on how jazz theory plays a huge part in not just the music, but the overall themes of this critically lauded anime.

Alexander Brown is a freelance writer. More of his work is available at his blog, Relax and Aspire.