If you’re looking for raw energy and improvisational magic, look no further than this list of 10 iconic live jazz recordings that were captured and released as albums.
The majority of the best jazz albums of all time were planned, rehearsed and recorded in a studio with the luxury of multiple ‘takes’ of each track.
But whilst this undoubtedly helps the musicians produce exactly what they were searching for, live jazz albums (ie captured on stage in front of an audience) can provide an extra layer of excitement and atmosphere.
You can hear the audience reacting and communicating with the musicians via applause, shouts, and whistles.
And, if there are mistakes or unexpected happenings, they stay in!
So, to help in the quest to deepen your knowledge of jazz, we’ve picked out 10 of the best live jazz records of all time that deserve at least a listen, and at most a prized place on your record shelf!
10. Jazz at Oberlin 1953 (Fantasy Records) – Dave Brubeck Quartet
Recorded: 2 March 1953
Personnel:Dave Brubeck – pianoPaul Desmond – alto saxophoneRon Crotty – double bassLloyd Davis – drums
Dave Brubeck’s Jazz at Oberlin is an essential milestone in jazz and jazz education history.
He recorded in the Finney Chapel at Oberlin College in Ohio. The significance of this album is it proved jazz music also played in a concert hall.
The young audience was very enthusiastic throughout the concert, which is audible on the recordings. Some say this concert made jazz a legitimate field of musical study at Oberlin, the oldest coeducational liberal arts college in the US.
Paul Desmond’s virtuoso, be-bop fuelled alto saxophone melodies channelled his well-known, sweet mellow sound which, paired with Brubeck’s sometimes free-jazz like piano solos, gives us a truly remarkable album to enjoy.
Although all the compositions are widely known songs from the Great American Songbook, the group added arrangements that suit Dave Brubeck Quartet’s sound.
Recommended track: “The Way You Look Tonight”.
9. Ellington at Newport (Columbus) – Duke Ellington Orchestra
Recorded: 7 July 1956
Personnel:Duke Ellington – pianoCat Anderson; Willie Cook; Clark Terry; Ray Nance – trumpet & vocal;Quentin Jackson; Lawrence Brown; John Sanders; Britt Woodman – trombone Johnny Hodges; Russel Procope – alto saxophone & clarinet Paul Gonsalves – tenor saxophone Harry Carney – baritone saxophone Jimmy Hamilton – clarinetJimmy Woode – double bass; Al Lucas – bass; Jimmy Grissom- vocals; Sam Woodyard – drums
By the 1950s, big band music was becoming less popular and, as such, Ellington’s band was the only one that ever performed at the famous Newport Jazz Festival.
What may have been planned as a kind of ‘heritage’ act turned into one of the most famous live jazz albums of all time, partly due to the epic 27-chorus solo taken by saxophonist Paul Gonsalves that connected two of Ellington’s classics, “Diminuendo” and “Crescendo in Blue”.
The tenor man is fuelled by the band members’ shouts and screams (“Come on Paul – dig in! Dig in!)” to perform one of the most iconic solos in the history of jazz.
The performance sent the audience into a frenzy; people danced and didn’t want the band to leave the stage.
Ultimately, this concert rebuilt Duke Ellington’s popularity until he died in 1974.
There’s another story to this though (which we describe in more detail here): the original release of this included overdubbed, faked solos due to recording issues, and it wasn’t until 1999 that the full, unedited concert was released publicly!
Recommended track: “Diminuendo in Blue”.
8. A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note) – Sonny Rollins
Recorded: 3 November 1957
Personnel:Sonny Rollins – tenor saxophoneDonald Bailey – double bass on afternoon setPete LaRoca – drums on afternoon setWilbur Ware – double bass on evening setsElvin Jones – drums on evening sets
Sonny Rollins, the Saxophone Colossus, a legend of jazz, made this incredible landmark recording in 1957 at the legendary Village Vanguard in New York.
The album contains music from the three sets (two evenings and one afternoon, hence the different line-up) and is one of the finest examples of trio playing.
Rollins is simply magnificent; his phrasing, free-flowing melodies and time feel are just perfect, with two significant rhythm sections.
In 1999, Blue Note Records released a remastered version of the album, with all the available recordings from afternoon and evening sets.
Recommended track: “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise (Evening set)”.
7. Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note)
Recorded: 29 November 1957
Captured in 1957, Blue Note didn’t find the recording until 2005, releasing it after restoration.
The concert at Carnegie Hall was a benefit, the so-called “Thanksgiving Jazz” for the Morningside Community Centre in Harlem, with other performers included Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker and Zoot Sims.
This album has a massive significance as, until its release, we didn’t have many recordings that showcased the musical partnership between Coltrane and Monk.
Coltrane had started out with Monk and, later, he explained that his love of playing in piano-less trio format originated during the times with Monk, as Monk would just stop playing for significant parts of the songs, leaving him just with the bass and drums.
After its release in 2005 it quickly became the number one selling recording on online stores.
It’s a very genuine recording, made even more real through some minor ‘mistakes’ in the tunes; the melodies aren’t played perfectly together but that’s part of the magic!
As four people play together, they communicate, follow each other, and react to each other’s playing on the spot.
Recommended track: “Nutty”.
6. Sunday at the Village Vanguard (Riverside) – Bill Evans Trio
Recorded: 25 June 1961.
Personnel:Bill Evans – pianoScott LaFaro – double bassPaul Motian – drums
Widely considered one of the best piano trio recordings of all time, Bill Evans’s Village Vanguard engagement is one of the finest examples of the influence of European classical music on jazz in the 1960s.
The original album consists of six songs selected from five sets (two afternoons and three evenings); the trio played on the 25th of June.
The tracks present on the album were chosen by producer Orrin Keepnews and Bill Evans himself to represent best of Scott LaFaro who tragically lost his life in a car accident only 11 days later.
This is the last performance of the legendary trio, and is a real gem.
After working mainly as a sideman with Chet Baker, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis, Bill Evans formed his legendary trio with LaFaro and Motian in 1959 and released 5 LP’s that were to define the art of piano trio playing.
The album’s first and last songs are Scott LaFaro compositions, honouring his memory this way.
In 2005, Riverside recordings released the entire recordings as a three-CD box set, The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961.
Recommended track: “All of You Take 2”.
5. “Live” at the Village Vanguard (Impulse!) – John Coltrane
Recorded: November 1961
Personnel:John Coltrane – soprano and tenor saxophoneEric Dolphy – bass clarinet on “Spiritual.”McCoy Tyner – pianoReggie Workman – double bassJimmy Garrison – double bassElvin Jones – drums
The third, and last, of the albums recorded at the Village Vanguard on this list, is Coltrane’s landmark album.
This was the first time the “Classic Coltrane Quartet” played together, as Jimmy Garrison replaced Reggie Workman… and what a replacement he was!
In 1961, Coltrane decided to add Eric Dolphy to his quartet, which led to many controversies and negative reviews of the band’s music.
DownBeat critic John Tynan wrote “musical nonsense being peddled in the name of jazz” after the group’s residency in late October 1961.
The original release contains three compositions, “Spiritual”, with Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, a famous pop song of the era, “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”, and a blues, “Chasin’ the Trane“, recorded in trio with Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.
Undoubtedly this is one of the most famous Coltrane performances; an astonishing 16-minute-long improvised masterpiece that showcases the genius of the tenor sax player as he gets away from any sort of standard form, harmony and chords – and how Garrison and Jones are following him.
The well-known critic Ben Ratliff said about this solo that “Chasin’ the Trane” is a unifier of free jazz and straight-ahead jazz.”
Recommended track: “Chasin’ the Trane”.
4. Live at Birdland (Impulse!) – John Coltrane
Recorded: October 1964
Personnel:John Coltrane – soprano and tenor saxophoneMcCoy Tyner – pianoJimmy Garrison – double bassElvin Jones – drums
We have to admit that this recording only just about sneaks into our ‘live jazz albums’ criteria… because only three of the five songs were actually recorded live!
The remaining songs were recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio later.
Despite that, it’s an excellent insight into the raw power and inventiveness of John Coltrane’s playing in this period and deserves a deeper listen.
We can find the piece “Alabama” on the album, which is a tribute to the four children killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, a terrorist attack by white supremacists.
According to jazz historian Bill Cole, the melody was developed from the rhythmic and melodic inflexions of the speech given by Dr Martin Luther King following the bombings.
In the live part of the recording, we can admire Coltrane’s soprano playing on tunes “Afro-Blue”, “The Promise” and the Billy Eckstine ballad, “I Want to Talk About You” (which he also recorded on his 1958 album, Soultrane).
This album allows us to ear-witness one of the greatest jazz quartets performing live. A true gem!
Recommended track(s): “I Want to Talk About You and Alabama”.
3. Four & More: Recorded Live in Concert; My Funny Valentine (Columbia) – Miles Davis
Recorded: 12 February 1964
This live jazz album was recorded at Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Centre, NYC on 12 February 1964, at a benefit concert for voter registration in Mississippi and Louisiana.
There is an interesting background story to this album: one of the reasons behind the band playing so much up-tempo is that the musicians were frustrated after not getting paid for the performance.
Not only that, but they came off stage feeling they’d played badly – especially the young rhythm section who were feeling the pressure of performing with Miles.
However, it was arguably their most effective date yet, as the resulting recording showcases.
Regardless of the furious tempo, Miles’s playing is revitalised and George Coleman – who would be replaced by Wayne Shorter shortly after this – soars through the rhythmical challenges that the young rhythm section (displaying their early prodigious talents) lays down.
Columbia assembled two albums from this concert. The fast tempo pieces became known as Four & More, while the My Funny Valentine (released in 1965) consisted of slow and medium-tempo parts.
Recommended track: “Seven Steps to Heaven”.
2. Smokin! at the Half Note (Verve) – Wes Montgomery & Wynton Kelly Trio
Recorded: June 1965 and September 1965
Wes Montgomery – guitarWynton Kelly – pianoPaul Chambers – double bassJimmy Cobb – drums
This is yet another album that is only partly live yet deserves to be on the list, as it is an essential album to understand Montgomery’s brilliant and influential guitar playing.
AllMusic jazz critic Jim smith wrote that “Montgomery never played with more drive and confidence, and he’s supported every step of the way by a genuinely smokin’ Wynton Kelly Trio.”
The versions of “Unit 7” and “Four on Six” are one of the reasons these songs are established jazz standards.
Recommended track: “Four on Six” & “If You Could Hear Me Now”.
1. Sinatra at the Sands (Reprise) – Frank Sinatra & Count Basie and His Orchestra
Recorded: January and February 1966
Personnel: Frank Sinatra – vocals; Count Basie – piano; Bill Miller – piano; The Count Basie Orchestra: Quincy Jones – arranging & conducting Harry “Sweets” Edison; Al Aarons; Sonny Cohn; Wallace Davenport; Phil Guilbeau – trumpetAl Grey; Henderson Chambers; Grover Mitchell; Bill Hughes – tromboneMarshall Royal; Bobby Plater; alto saxophone, clarinet, flute; Eric Dixon; Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis – tenor saxophone, flute; Charlie Fowlkes – baritone saxophone/bass clarinetFreddie Green – guitar Norman Keenan – double bass Sonny Payne – drums
This may be the second big band album on the list, but it’s the only one led by a singer: the legendary Frank Sinatra himself.
Recorded live in the Copa Room of the former Sands Hotel and Casino, in Las Vegas, in 1966, it was the first Sinatra live album to be released, and documents many of his hits of the day.
Classics such as “Fly Me to The Moon”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Luck Be a Lad” sit alongside some lesser-known surprises.
It’s an enjoyable and entertaining album to listen to with the band on fire, swinging hard and Sinatra in fine humour. His 12-minute-long stand-up comedy-like monologue demonstrates the relaxed atmosphere and adds to the experience.
During ‘the tea break’ he jokes with the audience, making fun of his own and Dean Martin’s drinking habits, and mocks himself about his skinny childhood physique.
Recommended tracks: “The Tea Break & Angel Eyes.”
Looking for more from Ol’ Blue Eyes? Check out our guide to the biggest Frank Sinatra hits.
That’s it from us! Whilst there are undoubtedly another 100 live albums that could have been added here, we hope this gives you a springboard for some more live listening today!