If you ask any serious jazz fan or musician to tell you what the 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.
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.
We started out with the goal of highlighting the 10 best albums of all time, but there were just too many amazing records missing.
So, as a result, here’s our updated selection of 50 essential – or dare we say it – best jazz albums ever, from some of the greatest musicians of all time.
Look out for links to more in-depth reviews of some of these albums which we commissioned international jazz journalists to write.
50. Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook
Legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald was one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century, providing many of the definitive versions of classic jazz songs.
Many of these came from her ‘Songbook’ series, a collection of 8 albums released between 1956 & 1964 which saw her team up with songwriting greats of the day.
Whilst each of these (plus a bonus 9th, released in 1981) deserves careful listening, her collaboration with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra is perhaps the highlight.
‘The First Lady of Jazz’ (as she was known), works through standards including Take The ‘A’ Train, Perdido & Satin Doll, with the album also being notable as the only one in the Song Book series where the composer is also featured as a performer.
49. Jaco Pastorius: Jaco Pastorius
Every facet of electric bass player Jaco Pastorius’s ability is on kaleidoscopic display in this wildly ambitious debut album.
Pastorius starts off with a jaw-dropping version of Miles Davis’s “Donna Lee” (all via a single bass part accompanied by congas!) and goes on to showcase a collection of jazz fusion royalty, from Lenny White and Herbie Hancock to the Brecker brothers and Wayne Shorter.
Classy strings and Latin rhythms share space with catchy funk and bouncy bebop.
More importantly, the album made clear that Pastorius had a musical mind as brilliant as his playing ability.
The whole dazzling package launched his name as a force to be reckoned with in the music world.
48. Charlie Christian: Solo Flight, The Genius of Charlie Christian
Unlike almost every other musician on this list, jazz guitarist Christian barely recorded as a bandleader.
He was, though, one of the most influential early musicians on his instrument and deserves a place in every jazz fan’s collection.
This compilation is an excellent choice, as it brings together some of his most notable work with Benny Goodman (including some with Count Basie at the piano) as well as some quintet tracks under Christian’s own name.
47. Louis Armstrong: Satchmo at Symphony Hall
It’s hard to talk about the history of jazz without noting the original superstar of the music, Louis Armstrong.
He might be known by the wider world as a gravely voiced entertainer, but “Satchmo”, or “Pops”, as he was sometimes known, was first and foremost a virtuoso jazz trumpeter.
This 1947 live recording sees him return to a classic Dixieland small band setting, alongside an all-star frontline of Barney Bigard on clarinet and Jack Teagarden on Trombone.
Two decades after his emergence, he showcases that same jaw-dropping improvisational, technical and rhythmic prowess that made him a star.
46. Wes Montgomery: Smokin’ at the Half Note
A jazz guitar favourite, Wes Montgomery developed an unconventional playing style with a frequent use of octaves, producing a highly distinctive sound that was always joyous, soulful and swinging.
This 1965 recording, recorded live at the Half Note jazz club in New York, sees Wes accompanied by Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.
Backed by three hard-swinging musicians from the 1959-63 Miles Davis band, the incredible jazz guitarist displays the powerful and inventive soloing which first endeared him to fans around the world.
45. Dizzy Gillespie: Afro
Many of the best jazz albums in history transcend music and actually document the evolution of the genre.
This is certainly the case with this 1954 big band album from trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, which showcases the major role he played in bringing Afro-Cuban music into the jazz arena.
Legendary arranger Chico O’Farrill provided the charts for the session which sees mostly American horn players accompanied by a Cuban rhythm section.
This fusion with bebop was known for a time as “Cubop”, although the term never really stuck.
The penultimate track is Gillespie’s beautiful “Con Alma” which is still played regularly by jazz musicians today.
44. McCoy Tyner: The Real McCoy
Described by producer Alfred Lion as “a pure jazz session”, this 1967 album was recorded after the pianist’s departure from the John Coltrane quartet.
It does, however, retain much of the power, enlisting bandmates Ron Carter on bass and Elvin Jones alongside tenor sax player Joe Henderson.
‘Passion Dance’ is a modal jazz classic, and McCoy Tyner’s solo is a masterclass in approaching static harmony, employing techniques such as inside-outside playing.
43. Kurt Rosenwinkel: The Next Step
Perhaps due to the increasing affordability of recording music in the latter part of the 20th Century, the choice of jazz records became exponentially bigger.
Few, however, had the impact of the Kurt Rosenwinkel album, The Next Step, released in 2001.
Developed over the course of a long residency at New York jazz club Smalls, Rosenwinkel brings together Berklee alumni saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Ben Street and drummer Jeff Ballard for a set of tunes that have become something of modern jazz standards for a whole generation of students.
Listen out, in particular, for his tune ‘Zhivago’, a real anthem of early noughties contemporary jazz.
42. Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage
Herbie Hancock may be better known 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.
His 1964 album Maiden Voyage is a classic 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.
41. Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here
Most of Art Tatum’s classic work was recorded before the LP era, but it didn’t seem fair to exclude the piano legend from this list of the greatest jazz albums just because of that.
The Piano Starts Here compilation, released in 1968, includes classic 1933 solo takes like ‘Tea For Two‘, ‘Sophisticated Lady‘ and the famous ‘Tiger Rag‘, as well as some live tracks from 1949.
Fresh, swinging and hugely impressive technically, this is essential listening for every jazz pianist out there, as well as jazz fans in general.
40. Count Basie: The Atomic Mr. Basie
For many, the swing era of the 1940s and 50s epitomises the excitement and power of jazz music.
Count Basie was responsible for many classics during this time and this 1958 album features the Second Testament edition of the Count Basie Orchestra playing compositions and arrangements of Neal Hefti.
Whilst certain players in the band would have success as solo instrumentalists, it is less an all-star group and more an incredibly swinging unit working their way through some of the classic big band charts of the day.
Read our full review of The Atomic Mr Basie
39. John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman
By 1963, saxophonist John Coltrane had already established himself as a jazz pioneer, having toured extensively with Miles Davis and released albums including Giant Steps, Blue Train & My Favorite Things.
Fans may have been surprised, then, by the decision to record with romantic singer Johnny Hartman.
Whatever the circumstances, the session resulted in one of the classic jazz ballad albums of all time, showcasing yet another aspect of Coltrane’s emotional range on the sax.
Listen out, in particular, for the beautiful treatment of the jazz song ‘My One and Only Love’.
38. Lee Konitz: Motion
This 1961 album from alto saxophonist Lee Konitz is unique on this list in that the band barely play the melodies of any of the five jazz standards it includes.
Instead, the frontman launches into pure, inspired improvisation on what many consider to be his finest album ever.
The choice of rhythm section on this record is also fascinating: the drum chair is held by powerful drummer Elvin Jones (most famous for his role in John Coltrane’s firey, spiritual quartet) and bassist Sonny Dallas, a student of cool jazz icon Lennie Tristano.
Regardless of how this match-up might look on paper, it provides the setting for one of the great improvised albums of all time.
37. Ahmad Jamal: At the Pershing: But Not For Me
Ahmad Jamal’s highly distinctive approach and concept famously influenced Miles Davis and is an essential addition to any jazz collection.
In the late 1950s, Jamal’s trio had a residency at Chicago’s Pershing Hotel which, as with several others on this list, allowed him to pull together various sets of music into a live album.
This is a true ‘group’ album, rather than a star soloist; intricate arrangements highlight his sidemen Israel Crosby (bass) and Vernel Fournier (drums), with the latter’s groove on the tune ‘Poinciana‘ proving particularly influential for subsequent drummers.
The success of this 1958 live recording allowed Jamal to open his own jazz club, The Alhambra, in Chicago.
36. Michael Brecker: Tales From The Hudson
Whilst so much acclaim rightly goes to those bandleaders in the 1950s and 1960s who established jazz as a popular genre, one saxophonist, in particular, stands out as carrying that torch on throughout the latter part of the 20th Century towards what we’d now call modern jazz.
Michael Brecker was an astonishingly versatile musician, whose career included work with pioneering jazz-rock and fusion bands, sideman appearances with older jazz masters, extensive session work with some the biggest pop and rock acts in the world, and acclaimed, award-winning albums under his own name.
One of his most memorable – Tales From The Hudson – was released in 1996 and won the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Album and Best Jazz Instrumental Solo.
The album features a ‘who’s who’ of the mid 90s jazz scene (both old and new) with Pat Metheny on guitar, Joey Calderazzo & McCoy Tyner sharing piano duties, Dave Holland on double bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and percussionist Don Alias.
35. Joe Henderson: Inner Urge
Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson may have first found widespread fame for his solo on Horace Silver’s ‘Song For My Father’, but it’s his 1966 Blue Note release which really cemented his place in jazz history.
The title track itself, ‘Inner Urge‘, has become a jazz standard and has provided countless jazz students a tricky technical workout.
[jazz education note: beginning with a locrian sound, each following Lydian chord is held for four bars, before a faster-moving sequence of major seventh chords towards the end…]
Another standout track, ‘El Barrio’, is a brooding, Spanish-tinged piece that uses two scales.
The album finishes with a reharmonised version of the Cole Porter classic ‘Night and Day’.
34. Charlie Parker: Charlie Parker With Strings
Bebop pioneer Charlie Parker took a deep interest in classical music, with Stravinsky, Brahms and Bartok amongst his favourites, and it was a long-held ambition of his to record with an orchestral ensemble.
This dream was realised in 1949 when he made Charlie Parker with Strings, accompanied by a string section including harp, plus oboist Mitch Miller and a standard jazz rhythm section.
As the featured soloist, ‘Bird’ soars above the ensemble on a selection of standards arranged by Jimmy Carroll.
After this brilliant Charlie Parker album found commercial success, a second recording – also included on this Master Takes edition – was made the following year.
The double time-filled alto solo on the opening track “Just Friends” is a particular highlight, and continues to be transcribed by awe-struck students learning jazz today.
33. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Ella and Louis
In 1956, Armstrong teamed up with Ella Fitzgerald, ‘The First Lady of Song‘ and one of the greatest jazz singers ever.
As vocalists, the pair are almost opposites: Armstrong’s voice is deep and earthy, while Fitzgerald’s is clean and light, almost girlish.
They complement each other perfectly though, their sunny personalities shining brightly, and this is a gloriously accessible classic jazz record.
It’s the perfect gateway drug for newcomers to the genre, but these are artists with enough timeless quality that it also bears repeated listens for seasoned jazz fans.
This was Armstrong’s first production for Norman Granz’s Verve Records.
Following the success of this first effort, he and Fitzgerald would soon record Ella and Louis Again and Porgy and Bess, a selection of songs from George Gershwin’s opera.
32. Bill Evans: Waltz for Debby
As a sideman, Bill Evans’ introspective and thoughtful playing was heard on some of the greatest recordings of the 20th Century.
As a bandleader, he favoured the piano trio format and helped redefine the lineup as an interactive, democratic unit.
Perhaps most famous iteration featured Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, which is the lin up on the jazz classic Waltz For Debbie.
Recorded live at The Village Vanguard in New York, it is based on more standard harmonic material than other releases from that period and is perhaps most notable as the final recording from this line up; Scott LaFaro died in a car crash less than 2 weeks later.
31. Alice Coltrane: Universal Consciousness
This 1971 recording was Alice Coltrane’s fifth solo album, with the bandleader playing harp, organ and contributing string arrangements.
The mystical and highly spiritual jazz combines elements of modal, free improvisation and more structured composition.
An essay on “100 Records That Set The World On Fire” in The Wire states that Universal Consciousness “clearly connects to other dyspeptic jazz traditions – the organ trio, the soloists with strings – yet volleys them into outer space, ancient Egypt, the Ganges, the great beyond.”
30. Horace Silver: Song For My Father
American jazz pianist Horace Silver was one of the leading components of the hard bop movement and the title track from this Blue Note album is perhaps his most well-known contribution to the world of jazz.
Whilst Song for my Father has gone on to become a true jazz standard, the album contains 9 other gems, including the latin-influenced Que Pasa? and punchy, up-tempo number The Kicker.
29. Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs
Recorded in 1968, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs was Chick Corea’s second album as a bandleader and perhaps his most famous.
It features the musician in a classic jazz piano trio lineup with Miroslav Vitouš on bass and drummer Roy Haynes, who had previously featured on classic bebop recordings with Bud Powell and Charlie Parker.
It mixes Corea’s originals, the Monk tune ‘Pannonica‘, the standard jazz ballad ‘My One and Only Love‘ and passages of free improvisation.
The line-up changes at various points on the album, but features trumpeters Carmell Jones & Blue Mitchell, tenor saxophonists Joe Henderson & Junior Cook, bassists Teddy Smith & Gene Taylor and drummers Roger Humphries & Roy Brooks.
28. Charles Mingus: Changes One & Two
After encountering health issues in the mid 1960s, bassist Charles Mingus had to step back and even take a break from playing for some time.
It wasn’t until 1974 that he started a new quintet with his longtime collaborator Dannie Richmond on drums, Don Pullen on piano, George Adams on tenor sax and Jack Wallrath on trumpet.
They released two albums, “Changes One” & “Changes Two” for Atlantic Records in 1975 that were praised by the critics and marked his successful comeback.
Now available as a double album, we took the liberty of including both in the same entry.
His famous ballad “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” was Mingus’ obituary to his longtime idol who passed away shortly before. The song contains literal quotations of Ellington’s tunes “Lush Life”, “Blues in Black, Brown and Beige” and “Take the A-Train“.
Sue’s Changes is dedicated to his last wife Susan Graham (now Sue Mingus).
“Remember Rockefeller at Attica” is another political title such as “Fables of Faubus” which is quoted. It refers to a prison riot in New York in 1971 where Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered to storm the prison, which lead to 39 dead people.
Devil Blues is co-written with saxophonist George Adams and has, once again, its roots in Gospel & Blues music, with Adams taking in the role of a traditional Blues ‘shouter’.
27. Bud Powell: The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1
Bebop pioneer Bud Powell was famously described as ‘the Charlie Parker of piano’ for his role in the emergence of this style of jazz.
First released by Blue Note in 1952, the album is centred around his usual piano trio setting, but includes tracks with the addition of Fats Navarro and a very young Sonny Rollins on trumpet and tenor saxophone respectively.
One track in particular – ‘Un Poco Loco’ – is considered particularly significant as an early example of Afro-Cuban music’s consolidation as part of jazz music.
Other well-known number Bud Powell compositions are heard too, including ‘Dance of the Infidels’, ‘Bouncing with Bud’, ‘Wail’, and ‘Parisian Thoroughfare’.
26. Art Pepper: Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section
This 1957 session sees alto saxophone great Art Pepper accompanied by Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.
As members of Miles Davis’ quintet at the time, they are perhaps the antithesis of the West Coast style that Art Pepper was known for which may, in part, make this album such a fascinating listen.
Described by All Music as “a classic east meets west, cool plus hot but never lukewarm combination” the playing is raw and exciting.
Standout track “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” in particular showcases Art Pepper at his inventive best.
Check out our in-depth article on the album here
25. Frank Sinatra: Sinatra at the Sands
His film-star career and off-stage antics may lead some hardcore jazz fans to consider Sintra more of a pop star, but this 1966 live album, from the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, sees him at his captivating best.
Accompanied by the Count Basie Orchestra, with brilliant arrangements by Quincy Jones, it’s hard not to tap your foot as Sinatra delivers definitive versions of songs that he’s come to be known for.
Performances of ‘Come Fly with Me’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ in front of one of the best big bands of all time makes this an essential jazz album for every fan of the swing era.
24. Hank Mobley: Soul Station
Soul Station may not be a game-changer in the way some albums on this list charted the journey of jazz itself, but it features some of the most seriously swinging, grooving bop versions of jazz standards that you’ll ever hear.
Hank Mobley was one of the most swinging tenor saxophonists of the hard bop era and this outing – alongside Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) & Art Blakey (drums) – is indisputably his most famous album.
23. Chet Baker: Chet Baker Sings: It Could Happen To You
Whilst Chet Baker rose to prominence as a lyrical and swinging trumpeter, it was his decision to begin singing in the mid-1950s which really put him on the map.
His light, delicate voice did not really sound like any other singers of the time and divided opinion in the jazz world, but they proved a commercial success and have stood the test of time.
Our pick of the best album from the Chet Baker catalogue is the 1958 session Chet Baker Sings: It Could Happen To You which sees him singing and swinging on a great selection of standards, as well as taking short but wonderfully melodic trumpet solos.
The title track, as well as ‘Everything Happens to Me‘, in particular, have become defining performances of the artist and is an essential jazz album for anyone who wants to better understand the art of phrasing.
22. Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters
Herbie Hancock rose to prominence as a part of Miles Davis’ band, joining what came to be known as his Second Great Quintet in 1963.
But alongside masterpieces such as E.S.P and Miles Smiles, he found time to record extensively for the Blue Note record label throughout the 1960s and can be heard on dozens of records both as a sideman and a leader.
His biggest hit, however, which put him on the musical map with music fans of all styles, came in 1973 when he formed the group Head Hunters.
Their eponymous album sold over a million copies and features Hancock extensively on synthesisers, fusing elements of funk, groove and R&B.
The deep, earthy sound resonated with the public and one track in particular – Watermelon Man – is one of those rare jazz songs which seem to be known by everyone, regardless of musical taste.
21. Sonny Rollins: A Night at the Village Vanguard
It takes a special sort of musical talent to release a live album that stands up to the best studio sessions of the day.
That’s exactly what we find with Sonny Rollins’ 1957 recording A Night At The Village Vanguard, though.
Rollins chose to document his first live recorded performance as bandleader with a saxophone trio, fellow musicians here being Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones.
He didn’t have a regular group at the time and was constantly altering his ensembles.
The playing is raw and exciting and perfectly sums up the seemingly endless rhythmic creativity of the tenor man.
20. Lennie Tristano: Tristano
Pianist Lennie Tristano was much more than a musician; he took on the role of educator for a whole generation of cool jazz musicians who followed.
His 1956 album ‘Tristano‘ is undoubtedly one of the most influential records, and was groundbreaking for more than just the playing.
The pianist’s improvisation on the old standard ‘All of Me‘ (named “Line Up” on the album) is full of breathtakingly complex rhythmic trickery and odd phrase lengths.
However, it was apparently recorded at half speed and an octave lower, separately from the bass and drums, before being sped up to the tempo and pitch that we hear, which accounts for the recording’s other-worldly sound quality.
The piece ‘Turkish Mambo‘ also utilises multi-tracked recording.
These recording techniques were almost unheard of in the mid-1950s, and some people considered Tristano’s use of them tantamount to cheating.
The second half of this album is a more standard quartet affair, featuring Konitz and a great rhythm section of Art Taylor and Gene Ramey.
19. Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder
As with several albums on this list, the title track of The Sidewinder has entrenched itself as a classic jazz standard, called at jam sessions and pickup gigs the world over even today!
But the big hit aside, it’s an addictive album whose 5 songs ooze blues, soul and groove, with plenty of complexity just underneath the surface.
Jazz trumpet great Lee Morgan is joined by legendary saxophonist Joe Henderson on tenor, Barry Harris on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass & Billy Higgins on drums.
As you might expect, it featured prominently on our list of the best jazz trumpet albums too!
18. Oscar Peterson: Night Train
Widely considered to be one of the great pianists in the history of jazz, Oscar Peterson’s long and decorated career saw him release over 200 recordings, scoop up seven Grammys and perform thousands of concerts worldwide over a period of nearly 7 decades.
This 1963 release on Verve is his most famous, featuring the classic Ray Brown & Ed Thigpen rhythm section which served him so well throughout his career.
As you’d expect from Peterson, Night Train is highly swinging and accessible.
Its fairly short track lengths (allegedly planned to make it more appealing to commercial radio stations) makes it a particularly good introduction for newcomers: an essential jazz album for every collection!
“What makes Night Train such an important record is not the dazzling virtuosity, but because the record takes a respectful look at the mainstream” – British jazz journalist Nick Lea
17. Miles Davis: The Birth of The Cool
Ever the innovator, Miles Davis was a central figure in the emergence of Cool jazz, as this collaboration with the influential arranger Gil Evans attests.
The nine-piece band on this historic recording is lent a chamber-jazz sound by the unusual inclusion of tuba and French horn.
With his iconic trumpet tone and striking sense of visual style, Miles was the perfect frontman for a band that included some of the most forward-thinking soloists of the day.
Birth of the Cool must have sounded hugely futuristic when it was recorded in 1949. With its contrapuntal arrangements and a harmonic palette informed by impressionistic classical music, the band’s sound was foreshadowed by Evans’ writing for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra.
Davis would collaborate with the orchestrator again on later classic jazz albums like Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess.
Check our in-depth guide to the album by British jazz journalist Nick Lea here.
16. Cannonball Adderley: Somethin’ Else
Countless jazz fans around the world have been drawn to the genre for its soulful, feel-good qualities and, as such, no ‘best of’ list would be complete with alto saxophone great Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley.
His ebullient playing is perhaps most well-known as a sideman on Miles Davis records, but this 1958 release showcases Cannonball as bandleader and ringleader.
Along with Hank Jones (piano), Sam Jones (bass) and Art Blakey (drums), the album is memorable for featuring a rare appearance from Miles himself as a sideman.
It’s the trumpet player who, at the end of the song “One for Daddy-O”, can be heard uttering the now-famous line to the producer:
“Is that what you wanted Alfred?”
15. John Coltrane: Giant Steps
John Coltrane was deeply involved in the modal jazz revolution that took place in the late 1950s, joining Miles Davis in moving away from traditional chord functions towards a more static harmonic landscape.
But alongside that, the tenor and soprano saxophonist was plotting his own contrasting harmonic upheaval.
This evolution is heard, fully formed, on the 1959 Atlantic release Giant Steps album, memorable for its rapidly changing tonalities and use of his ‘Coltrane Changes’ sequence.
The title track remains a tune that’s studied by jazz musicians around the world – almost a rite of passage for students – but is also a thrilling listen for jazz fans.
Listen out in particular for the beautiful ballad ‘Naima‘, reportedly Coltrane’s favourite of his own compositions, and a tender dedication to his first wife.
Want more? British music journalist Nick Lea of Jazzviews.net reviewed Giant Steps for us here.
14. Keith Jarrett: The Köln Concert
Perhaps no musician better bridged the gap between the legendary musicians of the 50s and 60s with the 21st Century than Keith Jarrett.
His 1975 album The Köln Concert for ECM Records sold more than 3.5 million copies, easily making it the best selling solo-piano album in jazz history.
Whilst it could technically be described as a kind of free jazz (it is, after all, a completely improvised solo piano concert), it’s a million miles away from the sometimes-dissonant conception of avant-gardists like Ornette Coleman.
Jarrett, seemingly overflowing with ideas, demonstrates his sound which ranges from from sensitive beauty to hypnotic grooving vamps.
13. Duke Ellington: Ellington at Newport
Duke 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 from this essential jazz album 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.
12. Eric Dolphy: Out To Lunch
When you think of 1960s Blue Note, you probably don’t immediately imagine free jazz.
But that’s exactly what was presented in 1964, with the iconic and forward-thinking Eric Dolphy album Out To Lunch.
All of the musicians on the record had serious jazz pedigree – especially trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who is perhaps thought of as more of a hard bop player – and the combination of Dolphy’s bass clarinet with Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone is a highly distinctive sound.
Incredibly, drummer Tony Williams had only just turned 18 when he made this record. Although, as a fully fledged member of Miles Davis’ ‘second great quintet’ he was by no means a surprise…
11. Miles Davis: Bitches Brew
Inspired in the late 1960’s by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, and fuelled by the desire to always explore new artistic directions, Miles Davis is rightly credited as one of the most important figures in the birth of jazz fusion.
Bitches Brew, released in 1970 and featuring fellow fusion greats such as Joe Zawinul & John McLaughlin, is arguably his most influential, continuing his experimentation with electric instruments started a year before with the release of In a Silent Way.
The distorted guitars, heavy-rock influenced arrangements and abrasive in-your-face playing mark Bitches Brew as one of the most important early examples of jazz-rock.
Top 10 Best Jazz Albums
A little note before we continue onto our pick of the ten greatest jazz albums of all time…
Of course, there can be no definitive pick for something as subjective and emotional as music.
These records, though, don’t stand out just for the music contained on them; their popularity is enduring (both commercially and critically) and they each highlight not just some of the best playing of all time, but capture definitive moments in jazz history.
In fact, in listening to these 10 iconic albums, you can almost hear the evolution or emergence of various styles of jazz we’ve come to know any love.
10. Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1
A conversation about the most influential figures in jazz history isn’t complete without the one and only Thelonious Monk and this album is our top pick from his extensive discography.
Compiling tracks recorded in 1947 for the iconic Blue Note label, the music must have sounded shockingly modern when it was first released.
Reissues of this disc have presented different track-listings with alternate takes, but the big hits are all there.
It includes a number of favourite Monk tunes, including ‘In Walked Bud’ (a dedication to Bud Powell), ‘Epistrophy’, ‘I Mean You’ and ‘Round Midnight’, his most famous composition.
As with all albums in this top 10, the music is not just a jazz fan-favourite, but has woven its way into the consciousness of millions of other listeners around the world.
9. 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’s bossa nova classics are present, like ‘Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars)’ and ‘ Desafinado’, with Stan Getz following up each vocal chorus with a short, perfectly formed saxophone solo.
Getz/Gilberto wasn’t just a watershed moment in the history of jazz; it was also a critical and commercial smash hit, winning multiple Grammy Awards.
8. Billie Holiday: Lady In Satin
By 1958 years of addiction had taken their toll upon Billie 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 a whole other level of emotional power and depth.
Perhaps combined with the knowledge that she would die the following year, aged just 44, Lady In Satin is a must-have for every jazz enthusiast.
7. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Moanin’
This hard bop masterpiece from Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers is an absolute classic and can be found in the record collection of jazz fans of all persuasions.
The band itself reads as something of a who’s who of the hard bop scene at the time: Art Blakey is joined by Lee Morgan (trumpet), Benny Golson (tenor sax), Bobby Timmons (piano) and Jymie Merritt (bass).
The drummer-bandleader was central in the emergence of this jazz style and this album – and in particular the standout track Moanin’ – became synonymous with the bluesy, groovy, soulful music coming out of the East Coast of America.
Add to that some of the most memorable solos from the era (that Lee Morgan trumpet break just before the 1 minute mark on Moanin’ or Benny Golson’s trademark singing, melodic lines on Come Rain or Come Shine) and you’ve got yourself a classic…
Read the full story of Moanin’ here.
6. Dave Brubeck: Time Out
Dave 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 1959 Columbia release Time Out was ground-breaking at the time for its extensive use of unusual time signatures and achieved massive commercial success.
It peaked at number 2 on the pop charts, was the first jazz album to sell over one million copies, and its enduring popularity saw it inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009.
The album features six compositions by pianist Brubeck, and one (the biggest selling jazz single ever, ‘Take Five’) by saxophonist Paul Desmond whose sound was described by the bandleader as “like a dry Martini”.
Brubeck’s compositions draw inspiration from a wide range of musical backgrounds.
‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ is inspired by a Turkish folk song in 9/8 time while ‘Pick Up Sticks’ is in 6/4.
Brubeck’s defining Cool masterpiece is both sophisticated and accessible: a must-have in any jazz record collection.
5. Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus
Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins laid out his claim to be considered one of the most inventive improvisers in music across a selection of the best jazz records of the mid-late 1950s – The Sound of Sonny, Way Out West, Tenor Madness, Newk’s Time and Freedom Suite are all brilliant – but Saxophone Colossus, from 1956, is probably his most famous album.
The calypso ‘St. Thomas’ is his most recognisable song, 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’).
British jazz journalist Nick Lea reviewed the album for us here, concluding that “this extraordinary recording witnessed the emergence of Rollins as one of the giants of the music and guaranteed him a place in the pantheon of tenor saxophonists along with Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster and John Coltrane.”
4. Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come
Another revolutionary album from 1959, The Shape of Jazz To Come isn’t just a great album, it signalled a whole new direction in jazz, as musicians sought to break free from conventional structures like chord sequences and compositional forms.
Ornette 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 Ornette Coleman’s most memorable compositions , including ‘Peace’ and ‘Lonely Woman’, and, despite its radicalism, is steeped in infectious, bluesy swing.
Discover albums similar to this in our round up of the best free jazz & avant garde albums in jazz history…
3. Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um
Bassist, bandleader & 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.
Perhaps the album that best sums up the spirit of his writing, his playing and his influence as a bandleader is Mingus Ah Um.
Another classic jazz album from the legendary year of 1959, Mingus Ah Um was his first for Columbia Records and 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. ‘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.
2. John Coltrane: A Love Supreme
This 1964 classic 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.
Accompanied by his classic rhythm section of McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (double bass) and Elvin Jones (drums), Coltrane wrings every melodic possibility out of this intense modal jazz .
1. 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 their token jazz record.
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.
Thanks for joining us on this trip through our pick of 50 of the most essential jazz albums of all time – we hope you discovered at least a few new albums to check out!
If you’re interested to dive deeper into this genre, check out our guide to the different types & styles of jazz.
And, as you might have noticed, the word ‘blues’ crops up often; discover more about that via our pick of the most famous blues albums in history.