By Matt Silver
Best of Halloween playlists are ubiquitous this time of year—and, frankly, most of them consist of the obvious, low-hanging fruit. Of course, clichés are clichés for a reason: they have staying power. So, here we acknowledge the very best of the tried-and-true—along with some...deeper cuts. From the absurd and campy to the spooky and truly frightful, you’re sure to find something in these five tunes that speak to what you love most about Halloween.
Nina Simone’s I Put a Spell on You (1965)
1. "I Put a Spell on You”— Nina Simone from I Put a Spell on You (1965)
One of the High Priestess of Soul’s broadest hits from her poppiest album, this one pretty aptly characterizes the experience of listening to Nina Simone. Few could manipulate the emotions of an audience quite like Nina. To listen to her is to be in thrall to her. The gravitas of the string orchestra backing levitates Simone’s vocals and the tenor sax interlude in this context plays like a sorcerer’s incantations.
Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins from Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins (1956)
2. “Friday the 13th”—Thelonius Monk and Sonny Rollins from Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins (1956)
Monk reveled in keeping listeners off balance, but this one has the added benefit of musically recreating the low-level unease that accompanies the only combination of day and date that can fill a Friday with foreboding. There’s a definite spellbinding quality to the circular repetition of Monk’s dissonant chord progressions. Combine that with his trademark tendency toward unorthodox intervals and heavy, percussive solos, and you’ve got the melodic makings of the consummate nursery rhyme for bionic children constructed in a mad scientist’s laboratory. Rollins, with bluesy lines and a warm, round tenor sound, is the perfect earth-bound spokesperson for Monk’s more alien ideas. And speaking of alien, it’s not often you get to hear Monk comping for a French horn (Julius Watkins) or, for that matter, that French horn trading measures with Sonny Rollins. Meanwhile, Percy Heath (bass) and Willie Jones (drums) are the dark matter keeping this potentially wayward vessel faithful to its elliptical orbit.
It doesn't get campier than Philly Joe’s Blues for Dracula (1958)
3. “Blues for Dracula”—Philly Joe Jones from Blues for Dracula (1958)
Campy? Check. Bizarre? Heck yes. I mean, just have a look at the cover art from this 1958 Riverside album, recorded shortly after Jones left the Miles Davis Quintet. And then, of course, there’s Philly Joe’s vocal preamble, a clearly practiced Bela Lugosi impression that devolves into a lengthy monologue about how the “Bebop Vampire” will suck your blood if you’re not careful. But the opener and title track from Jones’s debut as a leader is endearing and hilariously hokey in a manner that Gen-Z hipsters will go crazy for. The tune itself skulks in a bluesy manner, as though Johnny Griffin’s tenor sax is really just cover for a midnight grave robber. And Nat Adderley, playing cornet, raises his level to meet that of his esteemed company, lending credence to that which Philly Joe declares at his monologue’s close: “The children of the night make such beautiful music.”
Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil (1966)
4. “Witch Hunt”—Wayne Shorter from Speak No Evil (1966)
His third album in the calendar year 1964 for Blue Note, Speak No Evil forever put to bed the notion that Shorter was yet another tenor saxophonist in the mold of John Coltrane. Fans and critics alike began to recognize Shorter—who just about a year prior had replaced George Coleman in Miles Davis’s “Second Great Quintet”—as an innovative composer and a playful, idiomatically nimble instrumentalist bridging hard bop and jazz’s increasingly influential avant-garde strain. For many, “Witch Hunt” represents Speak No Evil’s high-water mark. The two-part horn prologue from Shorter and Freddie Hubbard presents as a salutation of the sort that would open a grand pagan festival like Halloween. And the intensity of Elvin Jones’s drum fills leading into Shorter’s first solo will delight those who find being startled by giant claps of thunder exhilarating.
Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity (1965)
5. “Ghosts: First Variation”—Albert Ayler from Spiritual Unity (1965)
Ayler was a pioneer of free jazz. And whether you love it or loathe it, free jazz is freaky, it’s esoteric, and, like a haunting spirit, it often sounds as though its practitioners have a chip on their shoulder, some unfinished business to set right, a compulsion to keep pushing beyond the agreed upon vanishing point. While the other selections here are emotionally evocative, either rhythmically or melodically or both, this one evokes through its texture, through the plaintive honks and moans issued through his saxophone. The first 45 seconds or so sound a little like a calypso-styled theme played by a Sonny Rollins admirer after a couple tiki drinks, but things travel to a different spiritual plane—perhaps a different dimension entirely— from that point. Ever have a dream that you recognize after the fact as totally implausible, but while you’re in it, it feels as real as any waking experience? That’s kind of what Ayler’s “Ghost” is like.