Hearing, more than smell, brings (my) memories to life

I know. I know. It is widely assumed and believed that smell is the strongest sense tied to memory. But for me (and a handful of musicians that I spoke to), music – in some cases even just a few bars of a song –  can draw upon some of the most powerful memories in a persons life.

It has been an interesting month for me, for a variety of reasons, some good and some less than. Everyone has months like mine. Certainly the events are unique to each persons life, but similar where a variety of things go on, and regardless of whether or not they are all positive, the mere quantity of them can be overwhelming.

Through it all and along the way, music has seemed to fall into my lap as if it was intentional, triggering a variety of powerful memories, stronger than any smell could ever offer.

When the thought came in my head to write about this, I decided to ask some jazz friends their thoughts on the topic, and what music takes them back to a point in their life.

“I think recordings are a bit like scents. You may not experience a smell for years… say, the faint smell of your high school auditorium… and you wouldn’t even remember that it exists, except that when you’re exposed to it again, all the memories come rushing back. For me it’s not so much a particular song as a particular recording – the particular combination of musicians and how they hooked up that day and what little figures they improvised.

The John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman album has that quality for me. The whole album. Sophomore year in college was a very melancholic time for me. I broke up with my first real girlfriend and was doing a lot of soul-searching. I poured that intensity into how I listened to music, and I listened to a lot, probably to no recording more than Coltrane & Hartman.

That whole album has such a cohesive vibe that it more or less effects me as a whole … though I suppose if I had to choose one standout track it might be Lush Life. I’ve listened to the album periodically since, so it doesn’t invoke quite the same *surprise* rush of memory that it used to, but it remains supercharged with that larger-than-life emotional intensity I associated with it.

And there’s the song that I wrote for my wife and played at our wedding ceremony. I never recorded it. I’ve performed it a small handful of times. More often than not I’ve had to fight off tears when I do. In fact, I cried some while I was writing it at the piano, and I cried playing it at the wedding. I suppose you could say it has some emotional memories attached!”

– Saxophonist Anton Schwartz

I also heard from Taylor Eigsti…

“Well for me, the music most tied to my memory is not jazz. But as far as jazz songs go, my favorite, and the one that makes me pretty emotional every time I hear it, is Nancy Wilson / Cannonball “The Masquerade is Over”. I think that’s the single most beautiful track ever recorded – in my opinion, the closest thing to perfection in recorded form. Can’t get through it with dry eyes, ever. ”

– Pianist Taylor Eigsti

…and from Grace Kelly.

“When I hear Desafinado done with Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz it really resonates with me. I grew up listening to Stan Getz as a kid around the sounds and would sing along to his solos not even knowing it! When I hear this song I remember being at home, happy as a button and just chilling around the kitchen as a little kid.”

– Saxophonist Grace Kelly

I think that some of the key points made by these wonderful musicians can be the most true when it comes to most people. A particular song can trigger thoughts of a relationship, childhood, beauty, pain, or simply just a deep appreciation for the overwhelming importance of the recording itself and the first time that someone heard it, whether it is jazz or not.

Dorothy by Dr. John is a song that I not only found timelessly beautiful the first time I heard it, but it is also a song that I am not allowed to play when a certain person is around because of a completely different emotional attitude that she has towards it. The Dave Matthews/Tim Reynolds live album (while not jazz) became sort of a summer anthem for me in my 20’s, and always takes me back to the treks from Seattle to Spokane for college.

I remember not being able to get the shrink-wrap off of Michael Brecker’s Pilgrimage quick enough, after hearing for months what genius Michael had contributed to this recording while his body was being ravaged with cancer. I remember breaking down in tears in the production studio of the radio station listening to it realizing that all of the hype was correct, and I still can’t believe that the music world is without him.

I remember Basie’s version of One O’clock Jump live at Newport in 1957 being my first inspiration to becoming a real musician, Freddie Hubbard’s Birdlike making me want to become better, and Arturo Sandoval’s A Mis Abuelos demonstrating to me what I would never be able to do on the trumpet, but what only one man could.

Bach’s Mass in B Minor takes me to a German cathedral where I first heard it while studying abroad in college. Talk about the ultimate emotional surround sound. The cheesy international pop hit Macarena by Los del Rio will always take me back to a mission trip I took to Ivanhoe, Calif., in high school where the song played on a local radio station over the loudspeaker around the clock. It didn’t seem to get old while sitting in the orange groves, soaking up the sun, eating fresh fruit.

I remember seeing Brad Mehldau live on solo piano. Just him and the piano, no wires, no amplification. After a virtuosic set in a beautiful room on a stunning piano, he came out to perform his final encore, Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years. While the song is a tune embedded with nostalgia in the lyrics alone, I had never thought a whole lot of it. Mehldau’s down-tempo, thoughtful, complex interpretation was probably the most touching version of another musicians’ tune that I had ever heard. On the drive back from Seattle to Tacoma from the concert, it was 30 minutes into the commute before it struck me that the radio was off, and I had been repeating Mehldau’s final 8 bars of that song over and over in my head the entire drive. His timing, his chord construction, his touch was perfect, and I will never hear Paul Simon’s voice again when thinking of that song. Just those eight bars.

Love, childhood, road trips, friends. I find it safe to say that there is not a person out there that does not have a song that has triggered a powerful memory from the past. And I will make that claim that these triggered memories via sound are far more powerful than any odor or fragrance could ever inspire. But then again, maybe I just have a bad sense of smell.

Kindred spirits: Taylor Eigsti & Becca Stevens

Pianist Taylor Eigsti and vocalist Becca Stevens stopped by our studios for a live performance and interview. Below is audio of the session, photo, and video.

Kindred spirits: Taylor Eigsti & Becca Stevens

By Justin Steyer, Abe Beeson and Nick Morrison


Pianist, Taylor Egisti and vocalist/guitarist, Becca Stevens, stopped by the KPLU Seattle studios on May 16th to brighten an otherwise rainy Monday afternoon in the Pacific Northwest with an performance and interview, hosted by Evening Jazz host Abe Beeson.

Both artists are in the process of building strong solo careers for themselves.  However, their paths crossed frequently in the New York jazz community and they soon found that their individual approaches to jazz were compatible and inspiring.

They began performing together from time to time and recently recorded together (Stevens is featured on Eigsti’s latest CD, Daylight At Midnight).

In this Studio Session they performed duet versions of two songs from Eigsti’s, Daylight at Midnight, and two songs of Becca’s CDs Weightless and TeaBye Sea.

My Top Ten Jazz Albums That You Probably Don’t Own

I recently found myself doing some cleaning of my album collection. More than cleaning, it is a chance for me to revisit some albums that have, through no fault of their own, been sitting on the shelf too long.

I came to realize that I am fortunate to have the opportunity to be a jazz radio disc jockey, as well as someone who can spend hours in jazz record stores. With the decline in jazz record sales, and the bulk of jazz album sales going to big name vocalists or timeless classic recordings like Kind of Blue, it hit me that just because I have exposure to some wonderful gems of the last thirty years, doesn’t mean that everybody has.

That being said, I decided that I wanted to share my favorite albums from the last thirty or so years that, for one reason or another, might not be sitting on your shelf. And, as always, I encourage you offer your hidden gems.

1. Pilgrimage – Michael Brecker (2007)

pilgrimageEven without the sentimental value of this album (Brecker recorded it while battling MDS and Leukemia, and never did live to release it), it is the best jazz album over the last twenty years. The writing and improvisation from Brecker is stellar, and each member of the band play to their full potential. Winner of two Grammy awards.

Recommended tracks: Tumbleweed, Anagram

Billboard Jazz Chart Peak Spot: 3

2. Trumpet Evolution – Arturo Sandoval (2003)

trumpet-evolutionMany critics called this the best trumpet album of the last twenty years. Sandoval’s ability to capture the sound and emotion of each trumpet player he honors (19 in all) is something I don’t believe any other musician has the ability or talent to do.

Recommended Tracks: I Can’t Get Started, Up Jumped Spring

Billboard Jazz Chart Peak Spot: 6

3. Beyond The Missouri Sky – Charlie Haden/Pat Metheny (1996)

beyond-the-missouri-skyTo be honest, I am not a huge Pat Metheny fan. On this album however, you are hard pressed to find a track that isn’t increadibly beautiful. The two musicians are in perfect sync, and you could have this release playing in your CD player over and over for days and continually enjoy it. A Grammy award winner.

Recommended Tracks: Two For the Road, The Moon Song, Cinema Paradiso (Love Theme)

Billboard Jazz Chart Peak Spot: 1

4. The Birthday Concert – Jaco Pastorious (1981)

the-birthday-concertJaco Pastorious decided to throw himself a 30th birthday party in the form of a concert, and what a party it was. Jaco shows why he is the best electric bass player ever, and his supporting cast (Bob Mintzer, Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, Don Alias, and the Peter Graves Orchestra.

Recommended Tracks: Soul Intro/The Chicken, Invitation

Billboard Jazz Chart Peak Spot: 7

5. Flow – Terence Blanchard (2005)

flowAfter going through an embochure change (which just sounds painful to brass players), Blanchard came back strong with this release. Working with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Aaron Parks, this album features wonderful arrangements and performances with alot of intensity.

Recommended Tracks: Over There

Billboard Jazz Chart Peak Spot: 10

6. An Evening with Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea – Herbie Hancock/Chick Corea (1978)

an-evening-with-herbie-hancock-and-chick-coreaHerbie and Chick had both gone pretty electric during the late 70’s, so to have them come together and do a live acoustic set was somewhat of a shock. They play extremely well together, and this concert is a wonderful result of that.

Recommended Tracks: Liza

Billboard Jazz Chart Peak Spot: 8

7. Contemporary Jazz – Branford Marsalis (2000)

contemporary-jazzBranford displays a wonderfully artistic side on the first album with this quartet, which as of today has spent ten years together. While many of the compositions are complex, no member of the band struggles with them. On the contrary, each band member shines as part of a quartet that would continue to make fantastic music together. A Grammy award winner.

Recommended Tracks: In The Crease

Billboard Jazz Chart Peak Spot: 12

8. Democracy – Kenny Werner (2006)

democracyI know Kenny Werner is talented. But until this live recording, he had yet to truly move me. David Sanchez and Brian Blade are especially good on this album, and all of Werner’s compositions are especially good.

Recommended Tracks: One For Joni

Billboard Jazz Chart Peak Spot: N/A

9. Lucky To Be Me – Taylor Eigsti (2006)

lucky-to-be-meJust 21 at the time of the recording, Eigsti proved that he is the future of jazz piano (in addition to virtuoso Eldar). The performances show maturity, energy, and complexity. Even more impressive is 17 year old guitarist Julian Lage.

Recommended Tracks: Giant Steps, Woke Up This Morning, Love For Sale

Billboard Jazz Chart Peak Spot: 15

10. Earfood – Roy Hargrove (2008)

earfoodIt is wonderful when a musician can continue to put out music that demonstrates that they have yet to peak. Roy Hargrove continues to get better and better with every album, and this no doubt is his best. While Earfood was snubbed when it came to Grammy nominations, it is widely agreed upon that it was easily the best jazz album released in 2008.

Recommended Tracks: I’m Not So Sure, Speak Low, Bring It On Home To Me

Billboard Jazz Chart Peak Spot: 7