Bowler Hat Science

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Jazz 201

A little while back, someone asked me to recommend some jazz albums for newbies, so I obliged with a short list of 5 albums I thought would give anyone a decent start on the genre. Obviously any list like that is very much a matter of opinion, and can’t even begin to be comprehensive.

However, I thought I’d revisit the topic and recommend five more albums, which are a little more challenging, but not excessively so — and in fact include some beloved albums for people who aren’t big jazz fans, so as always your mileage may vary.

  1. "A Love Supreme", John Coltrane. Saxophonist Coltrane made two appearances on the first list: once with Duke Ellington, once as a sideman with Miles Davis. "A Love Supreme" is a four-movement tone poem expressing mystical religious devotion, which sounds like it might be weird or incomprehensible. The opposite is actually true: it’s a powerful work of art, with two straight-ahead jazz movements and a closing passage accompanied by tympani, which is a poem "spoken" through the tenor saxophone. This piece has inspired at least two books, a number of musical interpretations (including the likes of Carlos Santana and U2), and the love of many people.
  2. "Solo Monk", Thelonious Monk. I included a Monk album on the first list, but that was all pieces written by others. This album is a mix of original compositions and covers, but performed on unaccompanied piano. If I had to pick a single Monk album to express what he was about as a musician, it would be this one. It’s whimsical, serious, rollicking, and passionate by turns.
  3. "Mingus Ah Um", Charles Mingus. My favorite jazz composer is Mingus, who wrote everything from short simple pieces to sprawling compositions as long as classical symphonies. In the third installment, I’ll discuss one of those longer works (which is also my favorite work of 20th century music), but “Mingus Ah Um” — a Latin joke, for those keeping track — is straight-ahead jazz. It has a few of Mingus’ essential songs, such as the sorrowful ballad “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” and “Better Git It In Your Soul”.
  4. "These Are the Vistas", The Bad Plus. I’m horribly remiss in not including more modern albums. Jazz kind of fragmented in the 1970s and ’80s into a lot of subgenres, many of which weren’t terribly accessible to most listeners, and others of which were so backward-looking that they feel more like imitations than anything. The Bad Plus, on the other hand, is a basic jazz trio (piano, bass, and drums) that draws from 20th century classical music, modern rock, and their own quirky personalities to create a new type of jazz. This album has some wonderful original compositions alongside covers of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Heart of Glass", and "Flim".
  5. "The Blues and the Abstract Truth", Oliver Nelson. Nelson is best known for his later arrangement and bandleading work (he did a lot of film scores, for example), but for this early album he put together one of the most talented ensembles. With the exception of the exquisite "Stolen Moments" — one of the best jazz compositions of all time — the songs aren’t much to note, but the players…the players are amazing.

I will write one more installment in this series, going a little farther afield, but I’ll give you a tip in the meantime. If you love a recording, look at the names of the players, then look for other albums with the same musicians. You might find some truly wonderful stuff; I’ve found some of my favorite recordings using that method.

Filed under music jazz

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Feynman is not my hero

"Because every time I hear someone in my department or in one of my classes go on about how Feynman was so awesome I mean he was kind of a jerk to women but whatever, I file him (and it is almost always always a him) away as someone who would have sided against me in every single one of the situations I’ve mentioned. Every time I see a joking tweet or post about how Feynman’s second wife divorced him because she didn’t like that he was always doing calculus in his head, while totally ignoring the fact that the divorce papers indicate that he would fly into a rage, attack her, and break furniture whenever she interrupted said mental calculus, my world gets a little bit smaller.”

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Heroes, human “foibles”, and science outreach. | Doing Good Science, Scientific American Blog Network

More philosophical and ethical reflections from Janet Stemwedel, with regard to Richard Feynman.

You may be intending to convey the message that this was an interesting guy who made some important contributions to science, but the message that people may take away is that great scientific achievement totally outweighs sexism, racism, and other petty problems. But people aren’t actually resultant vectors. If you’re a target of the racism, sexism, and other petty problems, you may not feel like they should be overlooked or forgiven on the strength of the scientific achievement.