I’m not quite certain when I first heard the term “desert island discs,” but it was probably while in college and most likely during one of the wonderful “What If” sessions with college radio buddies. If you’re not familiar with the term let me explain. You’re stranded on an island in the ocean far away from known civilization – unless your loved one or Wilson (see the movie ‘Cast Away’ for this pop culture reference) was also washed ashore. You somehow managed to land with ten of your favorite discs. These will keep you company for the rest of your natural days – or until you’ve been saved by a coast guard crew, members of the indigenous population on the other side of the island, or by building a seaworthy craft to pilot yourself (with discs) to civilization. And, for this conversation, we’ll paint a romantic vision of ourselves with a portable turntable that not only survived the landing, but which we can power using a coconut, banana leaves, and electric eel…(thanks to the Professor on ‘Gilligans Island’).
Truth be told I’ve never been a fan of limiting myself to only ten discs, because I love music – all kinds of music, but for the sake of argument I’ll stick to the unwritten rule of ten. Also, keep in mind, when the notion of the desert island disc conversation began it was during a period when music fans had only the LP, cassette, 8-track and reel-to-reel to rely on for home listening. Today I could store over 100 albums on my iPhone, but I’m going to pretend my iPhone was water logged during my swim to the island and there’s no jar of rice for me to bury it in to allow for natural water absorption.
Friends, I’m now going to place myself on that island (where I’m certain there’s plenty of fresh water and edible vegetation) and name the top records which will serve not only as my companions, but as a firm tether to reality and hope. So, because this is a blog where I highlight the Great American Songbook and jazz, I’m going to keep the discs I name within the genre. As with every desert island disc list it’s all about personal preference, so there’s no right or wrong answer. Just choose the music that sustains you. Also this list will only include LPs I own in my personal collection, and isn’t in any particular order. (If given the opportunity to number the list, the putting of the albums in order would change continuously, delaying the publication of this blog).
“Ella and Louis” – Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. This 1963 release is no stranger to Best Of lists and for good reason. It’s sublime. It’s the First Lady of Song with Satch, two dear friends in the studio illustrating why they’re considered the best at their craft. It also doesn’t hurt that the backing musicians include Oscar Peterson on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Buddy Rich on drums, and on trumpet? Yes, of course you know. My personal LP highlight – the opening track “Can’t We Be Friends.”
“Mel Torme Swings Shubert Alley” – Mel Torme with The Marty Paich Orchestra. I always thought Mel was at his level best when working with larger bands; I believe it’s a soulful connection that he had with the format of the big band and especially Marty Paich. The two were born to work together. This is a 1960 release on Verve records and the song collective, including “Too Close For Comfort,” “Just in Time” and others, give Torme room to stretch out. My personal LP highlight – “Once in Love With Amy.”
“Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” – Ray Charles. Brother Ray crossed genres as easily as anyone alive; jazz, blues, R&B, easy listening, and yes country and western were in his repertoire, and he made it all sound so ridiculously easy. This 1962 ABC-Paramount release gave us some of the best from the world of C&W like “You Don’t Know Me” and “Born to Lose” and fused them with his gloriously soulful voice gifting us with a classic album. My personal LP highlight – “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
“The Atomic Mr. Basie” – Count Basie Orchestra. This 1958 Roulette album opens with a big blast of sound that resonates even after the music has ended. With the exception of “The Kid From Red Bank,” co-written by Basie and Neal Hefti, all the music tracks from the original LP were written by Hefti, a gifted composer and arranger who would later go on to write and score for film and TV, including the theme to “The Odd Couple.” The music ranges from the sublime “After Supper” to the whimsical “Flight of the Foo Foo Birds.” My personal LP highlight – “The Kid From Red Bank.”
“Hometown, My Hometown” – Tony Bennett. No. This isn’t my favorite Tony Bennett LP, but this 1959 release on Columbia is a time capsule for that era of Manhattan and one that continues to live on today; the majestic avenues, the crowded yet lonely streets of the Big Apple. On that desert island I’d spin this disc whenever feeling sad and lonely for New York City – and I suspect it would be quite often. My personal LP highlight – “The Skyscraper Blues.”
“Kind of Blue” – Miles Davis. I tried really hard not citing this LP on the list – its inclusion on every “Best of” list almost cliché – but who am I kidding? It’s one of my favorite discs of any genre ever. From the opening notes of bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Bill Evans on “So What,” you’re drawn into their mystical musical world, floating on a cloud of infinite modality – there’s no turning back. When released in 1959 on Columbia there’d been nothing like it, and “Kind of Blue” would help change the course of jazz. My personal LP highlight – “Freddie Freeloader.”
“Only The Lonely” – Frank Sinatra. Yes, this album is for the lonely in all of us, a celebration of what it means to have loved and lost, and Sinatra once said in an interview this was his favorite album. I can see myself on that faraway island, having learned how to ferment coconut juice into an adult beverage, placing the needle upon this record and staring at the stars while contemplating life. On this Capitol records release from 1958, songs like “What’s New,” “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry” and “Gone With the Wind” will literally move your soul. My personal LP highlight – “Good-Bye.”
“The Swingin’s Mutual!” – George Shearing Quintet with Nancy Wilson. I really don’t remember a time when this LP, released on Capitol in 1961, wasn’t a part of my life. My father was very partial to this album and I’ve owned it – twice. Shearing’s quintet was known both for swinging hard, and for a sensual sound. Here we’re provided with both, and Nancy Wilson is our vocal ticket to each end of that spectrum from “On Green Dolphin Street” to “The Nearness of You.” My personal LP highlight – “Let’s Live Again.”
“Mink Jazz” – Peggy Lee. If approached by someone who’d sworn they never heard of Peggy Lee I’d kindly lend them this LP (insisting of course upon its return) and allow them to revel in the jazzier side of Lee, featuring the versions of “It’s A Big, Wide Wonderful World” and “The Lady Is a Tramp” that are the definition of early 60s cool. I’m a fan of her earlier big band work, but in her later years when working with smaller combos she turns it up a notch, mingling playfully with lyrics – or musicians. My personal LP highlight – “Where Can I Go Without You?”
“Lady Sings The Blues” – Billie Holiday. This has always been my go-to choice for Billie. At its core it’s a jazz album infused with the color of blue, an autobiography set to music. When it was released in 1956 on the Clef label, songs like “Lady Sings The Blues” and “No Good Man” helped paint a picture of Holiday’s love life, filled with turmoil and heartache. Yet there are moments out of the darkness and into the comforting warmth of sunlight, like “Too Marvelous For Words.” My personal LP highlight – “Willow Weep For Me.”
It could have been so easy to include another thirty LPs in this list, but I promised myself I’d stick to 10, and that I did. I guess I should be really thankful that the possibility of my being stranded for any length of time on a desert island is very remote – and because of my phone, if it does happen I won’t be left with only a handful of music at my disposal. But, perhaps I should go out and purchase one of those nifty solar powered phone chargers – just in case.