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Joseph Blake: 10 amazing CDs to explore in our COVID-19 isolation

Longtime music writer shares his favourite records from his vast collection
A collaborative record by jazz saxophone great John Coltrane and lesser-known but equally talented vocalist Johnny Hartman tops Monday Magazine contributor Joseph Blake’s top 10 CDs list from his huge collection. They’ll make for some great listening for those times spent at home during the isolation around COVID-19.

COVID-19 has driven us all inside, and for me the silver lining in self-isolation is returning to my extensive collection of CDs … 10,000 and counting.

If I only had one recording on my COVID-19 desert island, it would be John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (Impulse), the beautiful mid-60s collaboration between the greatest, modern jazz saxophonist and the greatest, albeit lesser-known jazz vocalist. Coltrane is at his most gorgeously lyrical best, and Hartman’s singing of six standards is like the darkest, sweetest chocolate. Arguably, the most romantic music ever made.

Our own jazz vocal star, Joe Coughlin recently re-released a 35th anniversary CD version of his Second Debut ( recording, remastered by Rick Salt. Backed by Ed Bickert, Mark Eisenman and a team of Toronto studio masters, the CD showcases Joe’s velvety, horn-like phrasing on 10 gems, including four Coughlin originals co-written with Eisenman and sax star Kirk MacDonald.

Paris Café (Putumayo) is literally a trip in time to the City of Lights and the bistros of Paris. It kicks off with the great Charles Tenet’s “Douce France,” Lucienne Delyle’s “C’est Magnifique” and Francis Lemarque’s “Un Gamin de Paris” before launching into a collection of Django Reinhardt-inspired Gypsy jazz. By then, you’ll forget that you can’t travel. Pour yourself a glass of wine and enjoy this recent recording.

Live at Little Gem Saloon (Bain Street) is another collection that will send you on a trip, this time to New Orleans. The CD presents live performances by Jason Marsalis, Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield, Los Hombres Calientes, Dr. Michael White and Davell Crawford on a repertoire of remade, funkafied classics like “Summertime,” “Autumn Leaves” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” as well as modern gems like Crawford’s “Don’t Ever Be Blue/Ode to Louisiana” and Marsalis’ “Bourbon Street Ain’t Mardi Gras.” One listen, and you’ll know what it means to miss New Orleans.

HaitiaNola (Cumbancha) by the Haitian band Lakou Mizik is a collaboration with Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Rėgine Chassagne, plus Jon Cleary, Trombone Shorty, Cyril Neville, Lost Bayou Ramblers and a host of other Big Easy music royalty jamming on a collection of Haitian tunes that demonstrate the historic cultural links between the most Caribbean city in the U.S. and Haiti. Music to get your groove on.

You Want It Darker (Columbia), Leonard Cohen’s last recording plumbs the depths of this world and is the perfect soundtrack for our current days of plaque. Cohen’s final testament, like all his work, reaches the bottom with a wry, well-lived wisdom that transcends the darkness of death. What a final gift!

Jazz Party (Troubadour Jass) by Delfeayo Marsalis and Uptown Jazz Orchestra is another trip to New Orleans. Delfeayo is one of Ellis Marsalis’ jazz-playing sons (along with Jason, Branford and Wynton), and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra is a weekly presence on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. This CD has echoes of The Dirty Dozen (“Blackbird Special”) and a repertoire of originals by members of the 18-piece band, including the wailing, set-capping “Mboya’s Midnight Cocktail.” Bon Ton Roulet!

Passion Flower: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (Sunnyside) by John DiMartino is a recent release that celebrates Duke Ellington’s great collaborator’s compositions and a too-little known contemporary pianist backed by a fine band featuring tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. Raul Midón’s vocal on the band’s version of “Lush Life” (that Strayhorn wrote when he was 15) is stunning. I love DiMartino and the band’s versions of “Take the A Train,” “A Flower Is a Lonesome Thing,” “Blood Count” and “Chelsea Bridge,” too. You might recognize several other tunes by the man they called Sweet Pea. Highest recommendation.

Eight Track III (Strikezone) by Dave Stryker is the guitarist’s third series of funked-up jazz versions of hits by The Impressions, The Temptations, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Burt Bachrach and other soulful pop masters. Stefon Harris on the vibes and Jared Gold on organ are solidly locked into Stryker’s tasty, minimalist guitar improvisations. It’s such cool fun you’ll wish you still had your eight-track in the car.

Count Basie Live at the Sands (Before Frank) (Reprise) is a recently discovered recording of the Basie Band’s Las Vegas performance before the famous Sinatra at the Sands was recorded in 1966. The Count Basie Band famously backed up Sinatra on the much-loved recording, but this opening, instrumental set captures Basie and company in full flight, swinging mightily as only the Basie Band could. From the opening “Splanky” and the Ray Charles-inspired, bluesy “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” to classic versions of “Makin’ Whoopee,” “One O’Clock Jump,” “Whisky Bird” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” this is the essence of big band swing. Highest recommendation.

Begin Again (Palmetto) by Fred Hersch and the WDR Big Band brings the big band form up to date with the great, Cologne-based German band teaming up with arguably the greatest living jazz pianist on a set of originals arranged and conducted by Vince Mendoza. Hersch composed the nine originals and also arranged his tune “The Orb” featuring one of the pianist’s most daring solos. His playing on “Havana,” “Out Someplace (Blues for Mathew Shepard),” “Pastorale,” “The Big Easy” and the CD’s title track are awe inspiring. What a player. Highest recommendation.

Joseph Blake is a long-time music reviewer who has written about recordings and live performances for Oak Bay Star, Monday Magazine, Coda Magazine, and the Times Colonist for over two decades.