JazzTimes 10: Essential Jazz Flute Albums

So you say the flute isn't a key jazz instrument? It can still blow your mind.

The flute is almost universally regarded as a secondary instrument in jazz. Only a handful of players claim it as their main axe, and if one of those players isn’t the leader on a given date, it only shows up in cameos or as a contrasting color. If you go to a big-band performance, you might see that a member of the reed section has a flute standing by their seat—it gets picked up maybe once, sometimes not at all.

Apart from being a shame, this simply makes no sense. The flute is a natural fit for jazz, and for modern jazz in particular. (Although a tip of the hat goes to Wayman Carver, who first brought flute to Benny Carter and Chick Webb’s big bands in the early ’30s.) That high, penetrating tone is one of the most distinctive in music, and the instrument’s structure makes it naturally agile in handling melody. What’s more, that relative handful of specialists mentioned above are among the most imaginative minds around. Here are 10 of them.

1. Rahsaan Roland Kirk: I Talk with the Spirits (Limelight/Mercury, 1965)
Exhibit A. I Talk with the Spirits is not necessarily the greatest jazz flute album ever made (is there one?); it is, however, the one that shows off the instrument to its fullest potential in the jazz idiom. “Trees” has its passages of floating, new-age-ish sounds, but it’s also a surefooted swinger, showing off a flexible tone that the polymath Kirk stretches to the limit, from flutters to graceful vibrati to coarse off-key groans. (It certainly helps that he plays a variety of types—of course he does—including bass, alto, and African wood flute.) On “The Business Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues,” he turns the instrument into a hardcore gutbucket scraper, with flashes of split tones; then on the next (title) track, he goes in exactly the opposite direction and kisses the ether. Even the standard canon gets a treatment (via “Django”). For a robust introduction to the jazz flute, created by an artist who fully understands its capabilities, there’s no better place to go.

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.