When I was growing up in rural Washington state in the 1970s, my first set of records—big-band 78s—came from my grandparents. That’s when my love of jazz began, and the two things that always caught my ear were soaring melodies and the undercurrent of powerful rhythms. Decades later, when I studied drumming in West Africa, one of my teachers said that melody represented the “Spirit” and rhythm represented the “Earth.” Now that I’m in my fifties, I see that timeless truth in all classic songs, and that’s because the mark of any great song, regardless of the genre, is its ability to convey a great melody with a powerful rhythm. Here are 10 instrumental songs in chronological order that greatly influenced me as both a composer and drummer, largely because of these two qualities.
Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all 10 of the tracks mentioned below:
“Sing, Sing, Sing”
Two-part single (Brunswick, 1937)
This is one of the first songs I remember hearing with my grandparents, and it’s immediately infectious because of Gene Krupa’s archetypal tom-tom rhythm and the growling brass-section melody. When you add in Benny Goodman’s clarinet piercing through the roar of the band, you have a perfect combination of rhythm and melody, which is as timeless as any song ever written.
Latin Kick (Fantasy, 1956)
I am admittedly very late to the Cal Tjader party, but I discovered his music in the mid-1990s when my A&R at Epic Records turned me onto a greatest-hits album. I was blown away; although Cal could rip like any of the vibraphone greats, he also had an uncanny sense of melody. “Invitation” is a gorgeous, exotic tune over a simple conga pattern. Of all the different versions that people have done, it’s Cal’s shimmering vibraphone that captures that melody best.
Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1960)
In graduate school, I was in a piano trio where I played both drums and vibraphone. I absolutely loved to play “Naima” on vibes, because the melody is so mystically beautiful, especially the remarkable coda. Jimmy Cobb’s brushwork is totally sublime. I could say this about several of Coltrane’s songs (like “Resolution,” from A Love Supreme), but for me, “Naima” is the gold standard for jazz melodies.
Speak No Evil (Blue Note, 1966)
I could have picked any song from this masterpiece album, because every song is so brilliant. Elvin Jones’ drumming is untouchable and the whole thing is like a perfect pop album, except it’s a jazz work of genius. The sophistication of Shorter’s melody on “Witch Hunt” is staggering: It keeps evolving, and it’s a minute in length before it finally repeats. One can immediately hear why he’s had such a long and incredible career, both as a solo artist and as a collaborator—his melodies are timeless.
Single (Josie, 1969)
“Cissy Strut” is of course one of the best-known instrumental funk tunes, and I’ve played it numerous times as a drummer (although I’m not sure I’ve ever mastered Zigaboo Modeliste’s supremely greasy groove). What’s equally impressive is the guitar melody that Leo Nocentelli plays right at the start of the song. It’s incredibly catchy, simple in its form, but totally recognizable as soon as you hear it.
Natural Feelings (Buddha/One Way, 1970)
This song uses non-lyric “vocables” from Airto’s wife, Flora Purim, vocables being a huge part of Brazilian music. It’s a way to establish a melody with the beauty of the human voice, without cluttering it with lyrics. Flora’s vocables are followed by a burnin’ Hammond organ solo and Airto’s perfectly executed cuica playing, creating a relentless 6/8 groove. Every song on Natural Feelings is a monster, but “Xibaba” is the melody you always remember.
Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970)
I finally heard Bitches Brew in about 1985, after I started formal college music education. “Spanish Key” immediately destroyed me, because I had never heard a groove so dirty and infectious. The double drums of Lenny White and Jack DeJohnette are staggering; it’s the signature groove of the album. Miles plays that repeating, ascending melodic loop—it’s like Gabriel’s call to arms.
Wayne Shorter/Milton Nascimento
Native Dancer (Columbia, 1974)
I’ve worked in Brazil off and on for almost 20 years. I met Milton Nascimento there, and instantly became a fan of his angelic voice. The album that hit me hardest is his collaboration with Wayne Shorter on Native Dancer (which is technically a Wayne Shorter album, but it’s all Milton’s songs). Lilia is Milton’s mother’s name, and his use of non-lyric “vocables,” combined with Shorter’s soprano sax, creates an incredibly dark, mysterious melody, which, in my opinion, is one of the greatest songs in Brazilian history.
Return to Forever
Light as a Feather (Polydor, 1973)
I absolutely love this song, and we played it in my high-school jazz band around 1983. Everyone who has ever played “Spain” remembers that fast staccato melody, which appears before and after every solo section. As complex as it is, once you learn it, you can’t help but sing it every time. One of the great masterpieces of fusion jazz, still unmatched.
“Water No Get Enemy”
Expensive Shit (Sounds Workshop, 1975)
What I love about Fela’s songs is that his tenor sax lines are usually established long before the vocals ever come in, which can often be more than five minutes into a song. It’s like his strategy is to hypnotize the listener with Tony Allen’s Yoruba-god grooves, and then when he’s ready to sing, his lyrics come in, simple and to the point, more like a mantra than a melody. As always, though, Fela’s tenor is what you remember first, and “Water No Get Enemy” is perhaps the most memorable melody of his epic life.
Barrett Martin is a percussionist based in Seattle. In the 1990s, he was the drummer for the alternative-rock band Screaming Trees. He has since played with numerous artists, including Tuatara, Queens of the Stone Age, and Nando Reis. In 2018 his own jazz-inspired ensemble, the Barrett Martin Group, released its sixth album, Transcendence, on Sunyata Records.