I don’t listen much jazz, but I love odd musical pairings, like heavy metal played on bluegrass instruments or acoustic punk rock. After coming across an old jazz record that featured a harpist, I started wondering, “What other jazz records feature unusual instruments?”. So I did some research, and here’s what I found. (I also made a youtube playlist to go along with this post)
Dorothy Ashby’s “Hip Harp” (1958)
This is a smooth jazz record that features a harpist. A harp is certainly not a common instrument in jazz, but I think Dorothy Ashby is also notable as one of the early female musicians in jazz. There obviously were a few female singers in the genre, but aside from singers, I think there were very few women in jazz bands at the time. Please let me know if I’m wrong.
Various Artists “Kind of Bloop”
“Kind of Bloop” is a 8-bit tribute to Miles Davis. This project was put together by Andy Baio and was one of the first big successes on Kickstarter. The original album, “Kind of Blue”, is something I had tried to listen to several times in my life, but it never really pulled me in. I did enjoy the cover album, but thats mostly because I love chiptunes. In fact, I enjoyed them so much that I eventually gave Kind of Blue another try and now I love it. Kind of Bloop is available as a free download on https://kindofbloop.com/
Rufus Harley- Scotch and Soul (1966)
Rufus Harley, was probably the world’s first jazz bagpiper. I’ve dropped one of his songs below, but if you are interested in Rufus, you can also check out his appearance on I’ve Got A Secret.
Kid Koala- “Drunk Trumpet”
I love Kid Koala’s experiments with turntables and jazz. In “Drunk Trumpet”, Kid Koala takes a classic Louis Armstrong track and spins it into something new.
also check out Kid’s version of the classic jazz waltz, “Moon River”.
Alice Coltrane– “Journey in Satchidananda” (1970)
Another jazz harpist! Alice Coltrane was a renowned pianist and harpist, she was also married to John Coltrane. You can hear her harp playing on “Journey in Satchidananda”, along with a droning sitar. The whole album has a real 70s psychedelia vibe to it.
Wolfgang Dauners- “Et Cetera” (1970)
What if jazz, but with ring modulation. This track is a pretty cool combination of early electronics combined with jazz. If you liked this track, then check out “Output“. It has amazing cover art and features a lot more electronic-prog-jazz-experimentation.
Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters- “Watermelon Man” (1962)
Herbie Hancock has written many jazz standards, while often working in some unusual instruments. Most famously, his 1982 hit “Rockit” was one of the first songs to feature a turntable a lead instrument, inspiring a new wave of young DJs.
But I wanted to talk about his 1962 hit, “Watermelon Man”, which features a style of singing that also involves blowing into a tube. For this technique, Hancock held a glass soda bottle in front of his mouth. He’d sing a note, then blow into the bottle, then sing a different note, then blow into the bottle. The end result is unusual and kind of percussive. I bet you didn’t know your favorite Herbie Hancock song featured a couple of beer bottles.
If you still don’t understand the technique, check out this video of Bill Summers, the original musician who made the sound for Herbie, demonstrating it live. Watch the full video if you want to hear about how Herbie might have used Bill’s work without any credit or payment.
Lyle Ritz?– “How About Uke?” (1957)
A nice little jazz record featuring a ukelele as the featured instrument.
Sun-Ra and his Astro Infinity Arkestra- “Strange Strings” (1967)
Look, we all know that Sun-Ra was out there, but “Door Squeak” is even weirder than the rest of Sun’s releases. It’s 10 minutes of a squeaky door with minimal jazz accompaniment off of his album “Strange Strings”. Hear the full album here.
André Hodeir- “Jazz et Jazz” (1960)
This short piece used cut-up analog tape along with a live jazz band. The end result is surprisingly similar to how a musician might use digital samples now.
Terry Riley and Chet Baker, “Music for The Gift, part 1” (1963)
Another early experiment with analog tape loops. For this song, Terry used a long loop of tape that he’d record on. Essentially turning it into a delay effect. The band would play along with Terry as he’d record onto the tape, then improvise a little with with the delayed results.
steve Turre- Live (2007)
Steve Turre is a legendary trombonist that has adapted his skills to playing on conch shells. I heard some recordings of Steve playing and I thought the shells sounded just like a trombone. So I had to find a video of it so I could see it with my own eyes.
Yusef Lateef- “Love and Humor” (1965)
Yusef Lateef uses several of experimental techniques on “The Sounds Of Yusef”, like singing while playing the flute to create a sort of polyphony. The track “Love and Humor” particular stands out for featuring rubber balloons and a 7-Up bottle. (hat tip to Joe Germuska for recommending this track)
Rahsaan Roland Kirk- “The Inflated Tear”
Rashaan Roland Kirk is a fantastic sax player who is known for playing multiple reed instruments at the same time. In the video below, Rahsaan plays three saxophones at the same time. (hat tip Mark Growden)
Those are some of my favorite unusual instruments in jazz, but I’m sure I’ve probably left out a few of your favorites. If I did, drop a line in the comments below telling me about what I missed and what makes it weird.
Hat tip to Tom Holme’s history of electronic jazz, which covers a lot of interesting recordings that predate the synthesizer.