It’s rare that I buy a record new. To me, that ruins the hunt.
I’d much rather rifle through stacks and stacks of decades-old unorganized vinyl. It makes that moment so much sweeter when you find the one, the diamond in the desert. Especially since you can usually get it for $7 or less. What a victory!
Sometimes, though, the triumph is mixed with trepidation. There’s a chance you’ve just taken a risk on something you’ll never listen to. Without the turntable, there’s no way to know if you’ve made the right choice. Today I have compiled my top 5 favorite records that truly surprised me. Whatever my expectations (if I even had any), they were far exceeded.
And in case one of these descriptions strikes your mind’s ear, I’ve included links where you can purchase these and experience the surprise yourself. Ok, here we go!
Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story- Marian McParland
I don’t remember where I picked this one up, but it was only a few dollars. What caught my eye was not the album name (I can’t say I’ve ever listened to the entirety of West Side Story), but rather the artist. Marian McParland, a jazz pianist, was a constant figure of the genre from the 1930’s through the 1980’s, though was never given the level of acclaim she surely deserved. I’d done quite a bit of research on her by this time, and was curious to hear more. That’s why I include it in this list; I was intrigued but unsure. These are odds I’m willing to risk for $4 at the thrift store.
This album is just solid. Ben Tucker on bass and Jake Hanna on drums are referred to as “Marian’s two righthand men” in the liner notes, and I quite agree with that phrasing. Yes, I’m a sucker for a piano trio, but this band is tight. Throughout the album, lead lines are passed or doubled, and the transitions between feels (especially in “I Feel Pretty,” I find) are clean and intentional, but, above all, these guys do a fantastic job of letting the piano shine. I realize that may sound incredibly biased toward my own instrument, but sometimes 3 voices is just enough. Wildly popular Broadway tunes become intimate conversations in a way I didn’t expect, which is why I love this record as much as I do.
Neapolitan Mandolins- Gino Del Vescovo
I’ll be honest, this record is a testament to the Power of the Sleeve. The following is printed on the front of the album, even before the title:
“Listen...pulsating mandolins in the hands of passionate Italians. The men of Naples serenade you. See the shimmering bay, feel the exquisite silk, taste Pizza alla Napoletana. Life is sensuous here.
You are in Naples.”
Like, how do you pass that up?
Nevermind that nowhere on the sleeve is anything about the ensemble or the individual pieces; it took me a while to realize that Gino Del Vescovo is in fact a very accomplished mandolinist and that this is his group (I think?). I was just promised an Italian oasis full of the most passionate musicians on the planet, “the kiss of sea air, and all the tantalizing flavors of pizza and soft wines in the little ristoranti.” Sold!
In fact, this album is beautiful. I don’t know much about mandolins or traditional Italian repertoire, but the sound is unmistakable. Some tunes I did recognize, others I had never heard before, but it was all the same to me. I felt that Gino did deliver on the bombastic claim made on the front cover; it does transport me. Note to self: play this record the next time I make pasta.
Hit Movie Themes Go Latin- Orchestra Del Oro
This record was actually in a box that my mother had acquired somehow at a library sale or something, I can’t remember. I was selective as I sorted through the stacks, keeping only what really interested me (it was a huge box), but this album made me stop my excavation altogether. I went straight to the record player and dropped the needle on “Tara’s Theme” from “Gone With the Wind”, a piece I’ve heard dozens of times. I’m not sure what I was expecting, maybe a weird fiery big band thing; “orchestra” can mean anything. I braced myself.
Instead I was greeted with a full 90-piece ensemble playing that famous theme in all its glory, but with a tasteful latin groove underneath. I was instantly hooked; the whole time I was thinking, “This should not work,” yet couldn’t stop listening. This whole album feels both dramatic and relaxed, like I’m on the set of an old Hollywood film in Havana. Even the tunes I don’t recognize are just fun to listen to. Each arrangement is different through Robert Lowden’s masterful orchestrations (the theme from “Exodus” is particularly theatrical), but the record overall is a cohesive reiteration of these famous themes, and definitely one I will listen to again and again.
Your Favorite Christmas Carols, vol 5- Julie Andrews and the Firestone Orchestra
Oh Julie, how perfect you are. There’s no reason I wouldn’t love this album, so let me explain my apprehension. I feel like anyone even remotely interested in secondhand records has come across these Firestone Christmas collections, the ones with the bows on the sleeves at some point or other. I’m not usually a fan of commercial collections like this, but I saw her name, Julie Andrews. In my opinion, this woman is one of the best performers of our time, and when this was recorded in 1965, I don’t believe there was a finer voice to feature. That name was all I needed; I was willing to take the risk.
I have no idea what any of the other volumes sound like, but this record is now a Christmas staple in my house. Everyone knows: first Charlie Brown Christmas, then Julie. The arrangements, written by André Previn, are complex and patient, and the tracklist includes a unique collection of carols (you can’t just hear “Wexford Carol” any old day). Yes, Andrews is the star and the main reason I love this album, but the orchestra complements the vocals beautifully. Moral of the story, if you come across a stack of Firestone compilations, look for the pink one with the red bow.
Leis of Jazz- Arthur Lyman
Alrighty folks, I’ve saved the best for last. This record is actually one of the first I ever purchased, and for some reason I just connect with the ridiculous thing.
Picture this, I’m a little college nerd about to wrap up my first year of official music study, walking around Richmond and feeling like August Rush when I happen upon a record store (It’s Plan 9 for anyone local, here’s my official endorsement). I have no idea what my thought process was here. I probably saw the lei on the cover and recognized enough tunes on the tracklist and thought what the heck, I’ll gamble $5 for this pretty-looking thing. Yes I’d say there’s a bit of me that always wants to be back in Hawaii sipping a mai tai, and this record seemed to be the perfect prescription. I also probably thought this was super hip, this is jazz, I’M SO JAZZ.
This is a quartet led by vibraphonist Arthur Lyman with Alan Soares on piano and celeste, John Kramer on bass and Harold Chang, “who plays as dazzling and overwhelming an array of percussions as you’ll ever see or hear” (for a 1959 album literally called “Leis of Jazz”, you know the liner notes are gonna be good). Vocalist Ethel Azama also joins the group on “Lullaby of the Leaves”.
It’s hard to say why I love this album so much. Is it when the vibes rush the transitions ahead of the rest of the band and everything feels up in the air? Is it the varying orchestrations from tune to tune? Is it the fact that it becomes the perfect background music for playing Mariokart? Probably all of these things. It’s light, it’s fun, it’s different, and it reminds me of a time when this was one of the only jazz records I owned (between this and Kind of Blue, that’s all you need to be hip, right?). I’ll listen to it forever, and if/when I go back to Hawaii, this will be the soundtrack of my life.
Hopefully this list can give you a fresh perspective on those heaps of sleeves you see at the thrift store. Yes, there have been plenty of times when I took the risk and it wasn’t worth it, like that time I thought I was buying a recording of “The Rite of Spring” when I was actually buying a historical commentary on Stravinsky. BUT! Sometimes you find exactly what you’re looking for, or better still, something you’re unsure about that turns out to be wonderful. That’s the fun of the search, after all.
But in case you’re not yet that adventurous, here’s how you can purchase these five records more directly:
Until then, jazz on.