If you ask any serious jazz fan or musician to tell you what the 10 best jazz albums of all time are, you’ll probably receive either a very short answer (“impossible!”) or a long one, which is subject to change depending on the day of the week.
With so many thousands of amazing records in the history of jazz, maybe a definitive list of ‘best albums’ is not feasible.
But there are, though, a core collection of releases that have come to be seen as essential jazz records: ones that every jazz fan knows – or should know. Music that has stood the test of time, influencing other musicians and receiving critical acclaim over the years.
So here’s our selection of some of the essential – or dare we say it – best jazz albums ever.
Let us know in the comments section which ones you think should be added for the next update.
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
Kind of Blue (1959) is the top jazz album on most ‘best-of’ lists and is cited as jazz’s biggest-seller. The Miles Davis classic has reached the kind of mainstream popularity that sees it included in the record collections of non-jazz fans as the token jazz album.
But its legendary status is very much warranted: Kind of Blue is surely some of the greatest, most atmospheric and influential music every recorded.
‘So What’, the album’s most famous track, continues the experiments with modal music that Davis had had begun on Milestones, with Jimmy Cobb’s famous cymbal fill setting up the bandleader’s cool, spacious solo.
Pianist Bill Evans provides an introspective, impressionistic touch to the gorgeous ballad ‘Blue In Green’, whilst John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley contribute some contrasting fire on tenor and alto saxophones respectively.
Another highlight is Wynton Kelly’s hard-swinging solo on ‘Freddie Freeloader’: Kelly replaced Evans on the piano chair in Davis’ working band, and is heard on just one track here.
Davis was a relentless innovator who refused to stand still: his music would change drastically over the following years, taking in freer forms and jazz fusion, but Kind of Blue, for many, remains his definitive artistic statement and certainly a great starting point when it comes to jazz for beginners.
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme
This 1964 album takes the form of a four-part suite: ‘Acknowledgement’, ‘Resolution’, ‘Pursuance’ and ‘Psalm’.
As suggested by the track titles, the saxophonist was heading in an increasingly spiritual direction that would characterise much of his later work, and the music can be interpreted as an expression of gratitude to a higher power.
Coltrane himself chants verbally on the opening track, hypnotically repeating the words that make up the album title.
Check out our guide to the 10 most essential John Coltrane albums here.
Dave Brubeck – Time Out
Brubeck, a classically-influenced pianist, was hugely popular on the college circuit playing for enthusiastic young students, and he would become only the second jazz musician, after Louis Armstrong, to feature on the cover of Time magazine.
His best-known album, one of a number of jazz records on this list that were made in 1959, is notable for its experimentation with unusual time signatures at a time when the vast majority of the music was in 4/4 time, along with the occasional waltz.
‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ is inspired by a Turkish folk song in 9/8 time while ‘Pick Up Sticks’ is in 6/4.
The album’s most famous piece, ‘Take Five’, in a lilting 5/4 throughout, is actually composed by alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, Brubeck’s most important collaborator, who memorably claimed that he aimed to sound “like a dry Martini”.
Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus
Tenor saxophonist Rollins laid out his claim to be considered one of the most inventive improvisers in music across a selection of the best jazz albums of the mid-late 1950s – The Sound of Sonny, Way Out West, Tenor Madness, Newk’s Time and Freedom Suite are all brilliant – but this, from 1956, is probably his most famous.
The calypso ‘St. Thomas’ is his most recognisable composition, although it is actually derived from a Caribbean nursery rhyme that his mother sang to him as a child.
‘St. Thomas’ and ‘Blue 7’, a blues with an off-the-cuff melody that Rollins came up with in the studio, are particularly good examples of the clever, highly rhythmic thematic development that characterises his improvisational voice.
This essential jazz album also contains a powerful rendition of the standard ballad ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ and another wonderful solo on Kurt Weil’s ‘Moritat’ (AKA ‘Mack The Knife’).
Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um
Bassist, bandleader & remarkable composer Charles Mingus was a notoriously fiery character and a true musical original.
There was something Ellingtonian in his approach: leading bands of devoted disciples, his music was highly thematic, deliberately written to evoke a particular person or mood.
Mingus Ah Um, another classic jazz album from 1959 and Mingus’ first for Columbia Records, contains a number of musical tributes: ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ is a mournful elegy for the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who died two months before this recording was made.
Meanwhile, ‘Jelly Roll’ refers to the New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton and ‘Open Letter to Duke’ is an Ellington homage. ‘Better Git It In Your Soul’ brings to mind devotional church music and preaching, while ‘Fables of Faubus’ is a protest directed at Arkansas Govenor Orval E. Faubus, an opponent of racial integration.
Read more about Mingus in our roundup of the best jazz bass players of all time…
Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage
Herbie Hancock would later work as a pioneering fusion musician, experimenting with electro, funk and pop sounds.
But the pianist first appeared on the scene in the early 1960s as a hugely exciting talent in acoustic jazz, before helping redefine the role of the rhythm section with Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, along with Tony Williams and Ron Carter, who are both present here.
Now regarded as a classic jazz album, 1964’s Maiden Voyage is a concept record, with a nautical, oceanic theme.
The static modal harmony of the title track suggests open waters, whilst ‘The Eye of the Hurricane’, an up-tempo blues, features blistering solo work from Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and George Coleman on tenor saxophone.
‘Dolphin Dance’, a medium swinger and one of Hancock’s most celebrated compositions, contains a classic jazz solo from the pianist.
Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto – Getz/Gilberto
This Brazilian-American collaboration is credited with kick-starting the Bossa Nova craze that took the USA by storm in the 1960s.
Antonio Carlos Jobim was the primary composer of this new fusion of samba and jazz, and he is heard here on piano, along with fellow Brazilian Joao Gilberto, whose languid, rhythmically dextrous guitar playing and singing fits perfectly with Stan Getz’s sweet tenor sound.
During the 1963 recording session it was suggested that they record an English language version of Jobim’s ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ and, as the only Brazilian present who could speak English, Astrud Gilberto, Joao’s wife, sang the song.
Despite the fact that she had never sung professionally, Astrud’s soft vocal approach suited the composition and the band perfectly, and the piece has gone on to become one of the most famous songs in the history of jazz.
A number of Jobim favourites are present, like ‘Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars)’ and ‘Desafinado’, with Getz following up each vocal chorus with a short, perfectly formed saxophone solo. Getz/Gilberto was a critical and commercial smash hit, winning multiple Grammy Awards.
Billie Holiday – Lady in Satin
By 1958 years of addiction had taken their toll upon Holiday’s distinctive voice, and she had lost the top of her vocal range.
But whilst, from a technical perspective, Lady in Satin may not contain her strongest singing, Holiday’s performance is filled with an incredible intensity of feeling, no doubt inspired by her own complicated life.
Newly signed to Columbia Records, this was her most expensively produced album, with a 40-piece orchestra arranged by Ray Ellis, who was initially considered something of a left-field choice.
While some listeners prefer her classic 1930s recordings with the likes of Teddy Wilson and Lester Young, this moving programme of American Songbook ballads offers another kind of emotional power and depth. She would die the following year, aged just 44.
Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come
Another revolutionary album from 1959, this signalled a new direction in jazz, as musicians sought to break free from conventional structures like chord sequences and compositional forms.
Coleman’s quartet, fronted with his long-standing collaborator Don Cherry on trumpet, would play one of Ornette’s memorable themes as the ‘head in’ at the beginning, and the ‘head out’ at the end, just as a standard jazz band would.
However, the improvised solos in between these melodies dispensed with chord changes and form, in a technique known as ‘time, no changes’. The Shape of Jazz to Come includes some of Coleman’s most memorable compositions, including ‘Peace’ and ‘Lonely Woman’, and, despite its radicalism, is steeped in infectious, bluesy swing.
Duke Ellington – Ellington at Newport
Ellington’s career was not at a high point in 1956: many of the classic big bands had folded and Duke’s Orchestra did not even have a record deal.
However, a legendary performance at that year’s Newport Jazz Festival, thankfully recorded for posterity, helped revive his flagging career.
The highlight of the set, and a famed moment in jazz history, is Paul Gonsalves’s inspired 27-chorus tenor solo on ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue’.
Other highlights include alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges’ features on ‘I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)’ and ‘Jeep’s Blues’, and Ray Nance’s vocal turn on ‘Tulip or Turnip’.
The excitable crowd can be heard clearly on the recording, and apparently gave Ellington and the Orchestra one of the biggest ovations in Newport Jazz Festival’s history.
So that’s our list of best jazz albums. What did we miss? Let us know in the comments section…
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!