Thirteen Pieces of Music You Should Take The Time to Really Hear

by Steve, February 7th, 2007

Those who know me off-line (and some who have only read about me here) know that before I developed a mid-life obsession with playing hockey, I had an avocation as a musician. I’ve played out on alto sax, clarinet, bass guitar, string bass and guitar. Music is thus very evocative to me in terms of moods, times and spaces. I once had an argument with a writer friend of mine who insisted that language is more specific than music. My response is that music is every bit as precise; in fact more so.

Anyway, without any more rambling, here are Thirteen Pieces of Music You Should Take The Time to Really Hear:

  1. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony I know this is totally cliche to say, but this really is about as close to perfect as you can get with a musical work. As Homer J. Simpson would say, “This show has everything!” It was my favorite record when I was eight, and I still get goose bumps when I hear it. Wacky Mommy got me a nice CD of it by the Cleveland Symphony for x-mas.
  2. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 A.K.A. “Pathetique”. I’m listening to it now, recorded by Glenn Gould in either 1980 or 1983 (stupid liner notes aren’t specific) on CBS Odyssey. Ludwig van and Glenn Gould are a formidable combination.
  3. I’ve often thought it would have been nice to have started out on strings instead of winds (my first instrument was cornet) and have become a cellist. Maybe that’s why I’m so fond of chamber music, especially string quartets and trios and piano trios and such. You can’t go wrong with Any Beethoven String Quartet. Pick one and listen to it uninterrupted. Then listen to it again.
  4. Any Brahms String Quartet. See above. Pay attention to form.
  5. A composer friend turned me on to Bartok’s string quartets when I was working in a sheet music store in Beaverton, Ore. I special ordered the score to read along with, but the best way to listen to his quartets is with the lights off, sitting perfectly centered between your speakers. I recommend Bartok’s String Quartet No. 5 Sz 102. Bela was writing rock ‘n’ roll in 1935. Then there’s Bartok’s String Quartet No. 3 Sz 85 which you shouldn’t listen to if you’re feeling anxious or touched. Old Bela wrote some choice cello lines in this one. (Note: If you’re not already comfortable with the string quartet, you should start with some Brahms and Beethoven, and turn on with Bartok when you’re ready to blow the doors off. Seriously. Work up to these.) I’ve got a nice recording of Bartok’s three, four and five recorded by the Chilingirian Quartet in 1988 on Chandos.
  6. I never appreciated Bach until I played Bach, first on clarinet, then on guitar, and finally on piano. There is a mathmetical precision to his rhythms and harmonies that are best understood and felt from the inside. With two voices, he could weave a tapestry with richly implied harmonies. With four voices he can lose all but the most intrepid listener. I can’t get enough of his simpler works, like the Two- and Three-Part Inventions, BWV 772-801. I have a recording by Glenn Gould, in which he reorders the pieces to better fit his interpretation. I’m so used to hearing them in this order, it sounds odd to hear them in the order in which they were written. This recording by Gould is on Sony Classical, recorded 1964. My wife requested that we play this CD for the birth of both our children.
  7. One final classical entry. If you like the two-part inventions, and the three-part inventions left you wanting more, take the next step to Bach’s The Art of the Fugue.
  8. But enough of the old stuff. Let’s move into the second half of the 20th century at least. Get right into it with Thelonius Monk’s Brilliant Corners (Riverside, 1956) featuring Sonny Rollins on tenor sax.
  9. Keep that inimitable Monk groove going with Monk’s Music (Riverside, 1957) to get a sense of the places the 32-bar popular song form can go. Deceptively cute melodies are backed by jagged swing rhythms and complex harmonies both sublime and strident, and give way to solos by Ray Copeland on trumpet, Gigi Gryce on alto sax and both Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenor sax. Ruby my Dear alone is a clinic by Hawkins in playing the hell out of a ballad on the tenor sax. (Somewhere I think there’s an outtake of Coltrane playing the lead on this at the same session, but the CD I have today does not have that as a bonus track.)
  10. Moving up a couple years to 1958, you’ve got to get cool with Miles Davis Kind of Blue. Featuring Cannonball Adderly, my favorite alto player, trading solos with Coltrane, this record is so well worn that Davis’ solo on So What has become as important in recognizing the song as the head itself.
  11. Speaking of Coltrane, let’s move right up to 1960, put on a sweater and listen to some of his own compositions. John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, that is. A mind-blowing record in 1960, it can still open your eyes.
  12. Almost done, and it’s tough to figure what I’ll leave off… Definitely not Mingus Ah Um/Charles Mingus. Absolutely one of the most important jazz albums in my collection.
  13. Finally I leave you with a Latin jazz selection, Poncho Sanchez Cambios (Concord Picante, 1991). Go ahead and get up and dance to this one, featuring Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and flugelhorn. This is some of the funnest music I can think of to listen to. I’ve heard Poncho live a few times, and he puts on a hell of a show. These guys tour like mad, and there’s fairly high turnover. This is his band at a peak, anchored by the incredible bass and timbale combo of the Banda brothers, Tony and Ramon. There is nothing locked-in like the rhythm of brothers playing bass and drums (think Aston and Carlton Barret). If I ever got back into the music world, it would be playing (or composing/arranging) music like this.