They are plenty of “best of” list. Which are the best jazz album ever?. Here is a list which we should agree make sense. The jazz albums listed below are among the greatest ever recorded. Mostly selected from the golden “modern” jazz music era of 1940’s to the 1970’s, these recordings captured the great passion and emotion that these musicians spent a lifetime developing.
Kind Of Blue – Miles Davis
While it is one of the top selling jazz albums of all time, many consider this to be THE best jazz album of all time. This may be because this unrehearsed recording session from 1959 marks a great turning point in jazz history as well as showcasing the top form of some legendary musicians. Miles showed up to the Columbia recording studio with some rough melodies and chords jotted down on paper and the band proceeded to track each song in one or two takes. That’s how Miles liked to do it, he made sure the music was spontaneous and in the moment. This album also marked a departure from the traditional bebop style with songs that are simple melodies over simple chord progressions leaving room for the deep improvisational exploration. What a treat it is to listen to time and time again. (https://youtu.be/32gWo9CfoxA)
A Love Supreme – John Coltrane
This album completely revolutionized the jazz scene in 1965 and even today its influence can be found in many musical styles. Instead of showcasing the complex and dense harmonic language in a post-bop style developed with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, Coltrane blows over simpler chords freely with a raw spiritual passion. The four songs on this album convey emotions of anger, joy, sadness, ecstasy, tragedy and triumph. Many types of artists, such as writers or painters, use this album to inspire energy and passion from within themselves for their own personal art. This album also marked a turning point in Coltrane’s playing as he ventured into performing music from it’s deepest, most spiritual roots rather from a his previous technical perspective.
Time Out – Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck created a masterpiece which became the first instrumental jazz album to sell over a million copies. The single, “Take Five” was a number one hit on music charts which is outstanding for a jazz song, especially a song with 5/4 time signature. This album had a strong influence from Eastern European culture as Brubeck used many of their rhythms and time signatures. The complex rhythms he uses sound unique yet very natural and easy to listen to, probably the reason for it’s success.
Ellington At Newport – Duke Ellington
This historic concert was a triumphant moment for Ellington’s band… It was 1956 and many big bands were struggling due to the rise of bebop and modern small group format. So at the 3rd annual Newport Jazz Festival, Ellington attempted to please the crowd with some new suites and arrangements, but the crowd was still sedated. Then finally on a two-section song, Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue, Duke had the two sections connect with a sax solo by Paul Gonzalves and allowed him to play the solo as long as he felt like playing. He only usually took a couple choruses but this time Gonzalves took a 27 chorus solo that eventually had the crowd off its feet and dancing! This historical moment changed the face of jazz and also gave Ellington’s band some new success. Duke’s band continued performing from this newfound popularity for 18 more years.
Jazz At Massey Hall – The Quintet
This album appears reissued under the name “The Greatest Concert Ever”. It is an all star lineup of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach; all who were prominent in the development of bebop about 15 years beforehand (1953) and thus were all seasoned veterans by the time of the concert. This is the only recording of these five legends playing together and everyone plays brilliantly. In addition, the recording quality is very good for its time so it is a great album to really hear these masters perform at their best.
The Best of the Hot 5 & Hot 7 Recordings – Louis Armstrong
No greatest jazz album list is complete without Louis Armstrong. Besides being a legendary entertainer and musician, he helped bring jazz out of it’s dixieland roots into a more contemporary sound. This album is a compilation of some of his best recordings from his early years in the 1920’s as he set up the template for modern jazz era to come having musician taking turns soloing individually rather than the group jam style of dixieland. The musicians on these recordings are tight, joyous, and even a little silly at times. Louis Armstrong is jazz’s first superstar and this album showcases him at his best.
Blue Train – John Coltrane
Recorded in 1957, this album was Coltrane’s first album as a leader. It’s very interesting to hear how Coltrane was playing before he started heading to the freer, passionate playing that he later developed in the mid 60’s. Did you know that just a few years earlier, Coltrane was considered just a mediocre player? He studied and performed so much that he has became an icon of musical discipline. He was known to constantly practice after gigs late into the night while other band members partied. These songs and performances show his immense strength and power he had developed up to this point. (https://youtu.be/fEqrnR7_yT8)
Getz/Gilberto – Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto
This album was very popular and even won the 1965 Grammy Award for Best Album. Additionally, it created a bossa nova craze in the United States as people embraced it’s lush chords and subtle, mellow style. Stan Getz, Joao and Astrud Gilberto are extremely graceful and intimate as they float along through this wonderful material composed by the great Antonio Carlos Jobim. I think the best word to describe this album is relaxing.
Mingus Ah Um – Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus had a way of making his bands sound complex, original, and of course swing like crazy. In addition to the swinging tunes, there are some amazing ballads filled with colorful and inventive horn arrangements. I personally love the song “Fables of Faubus”, a track dedicated to the infamous former governor of Arkansas who strongly opposed racial integration in schools in 1957. It is a great example of musicians using their art to make a powerful political statement.
Concert By the Sea – Errol Garner
Errol Garner is a legendary pianist who has a wonderful recognizable style. It’s worth mentioning that he couldn’t read a note of written music and plays entirely by ear. This album is very interesting both harmonically and rhythmically. His left hand swings so hard in a way that was not typical of other pianists. While his playing exudes joy he is also quite technically fluent and plays extravagant arrangements of many popular standards like Autumn Leaves and I’ll Remember April.
Bitches Brew – Miles Davis
This album was a triumph for Miles Davis later in his career in 1970. Two drummers, two bassists, three keyboardists consisting mostly of free spontaneous electric improvisation. Also for the first time, the recording tape was sliced and diced a bit in the studio to make certain parts repeat and to add effects which was unheard of on a jazz record. Yet even with all that… or maybe because of all that… it is Miles’ second best selling album of all time behind Kind of Blue. When it was released, people were debating whether it was a great album or just experimental nonsense but today in hindsight it is easy to see that it is truly is a timeless masterpiece.
Saxophone Colossus – Sonny Rollins
This is one of Sonny Rollins best albums he ever recorded among the hundreds he has made over a long lifetime that still continues today. Recorded in 1956, every song is feels so sophisticated yet soulful and smooth. It only has five songs but each one is a hit and Sonny’s playing never fails. Sonny plays complex bebop that is very accessible because he plays every note with conviction and has a great sense of melody.
Moanin’ – Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
Here’s another gem from 1958. Art Blakey assembled an all-star group consisting of Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Benny Golson (who wrote four of the six songs on the album) and Jymie Merritt. The title song, Moanin, became an instant hit with it’s catchy New Orleans style. In fact, Woody Shaw was asked once for his biggest influence and he quickly replied, “The solo Lee Morgan takes on Moanin.” (https://youtu.be/8TdY6iqV2k0)
Clifford Brown and Max Roach
Clifford Brown was one of the most revered until his untimely death in 1956 at age 25. Who knows what he would of gone on to influence jazz as it developed through the 60’s if he’d remained alive. His playing is so technically polished and perfected that he is constantly studied by trumpeters. This music just radiates joy with brilliant playing by the entire lineup. Many people consider Brown’s solo on Joy Spring as one of the best improvisations ever recorded in jazz.
At Carnegie Hall – Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane
Luckily this recording was discovered in 2005. This is a documented concert at a pivotal point in Coltrane’s career. In early 1957, Coltrane was kicked out of Miles Davis’ band for drug use and partnered up with Monk for about a year. There is a fantastic album recorded live from April to July 1957 early in their partnership. This recording is from later in the year: November 28, 1957. The duo worked together quite well considering their different styles of playing. Cotrane was at his peak of complex, lightning fast lines (inspired by Monk’s unique runs perhaps) while Monk remains sparse but poignant. This album can be listened to countless times and is filled with brilliance of two geniuses influencing each other. (https://youtu.be/dgq_QZ74VI0)
Soul Station – Hank Mobley
This is Hank Mobley’s best album. Hank’s saxophone playing is some of the most lyrical and accessible playing I’ve ever heard. It also helps that the supporting band consists of the most swinging players of that time: Art Blakey, Paul Chambers, and Wynton Kelly. Mobley plays melodies that sound like he’s truly singing through his horn.
Somethin’ Else – Cannonball Adderley
In 1958, this album features a superstar lineup and brought together a few different styles of jazz. There was Miles from the school of cool, Adderley from the school of bebop, and Art Blakey from the school of hard-bop, Hank Jones from the school of swing, and finally the versatile Sam Jones on bass. Every track is outstanding as Miles takes the lead on most songs and the combination of talent makes this album truly somethin’ else.
Speak No Evil – Wayne Shorter
This album is packed with some of Shorter’s best written tunes. Recorded in 1964, these songs suggest a more modern flavor than the bebop and hard bop from the decade prior. The group consists of Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones. Each songs invokes a strong mood and the soloing is very interesting, easily capturing the listener’s attention.
Birth of the Cool – Miles Davis
In 1949, Miles was still playing alongside Charlie Parker and DIzzy Gillespie. He was ready to break out of the current standard of bebop and explore some new musical territory. He teamed up with arranger Gil Evans and created a masterpiece which was a quite different than the blazing fast bebop of the time. The music is very lush and mellow but not lacking energy. It’s the perfect backing for Miles’ introspective and emotional trumpet style.
Maiden Voyage – Herbie Hancock
This is one of the great albums by Herbie Hancock. He uses the same band from Miles’ second quintet but replaces Miles with Freddie Hubbard (also George Coleman is on instead of Wayne Shorter). Herbie captures the spirit of the ocean with some modern post bop impressionistic jazz. The rhythm section of Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Herbie are an amazing force as they meander through different textures and seem to communicate almost telepathically.
A Boy Named Charlie Brown – Vince Guaraldi Trio
Unlike many of the albums on this list, Vince Guaraldi didn’t revolutionize the jazz world nor did he stand out as one of the most talented musicians of the time. However, by being the soundtrack to “Peanuts”, this album introduced jazz to a whole generation of people who might of not discovered it on there own. This album has a child-like innocence to it with its simple and lyrical style. With some easily recognizable tunes like “Linus and Lucy”, this album is doorway into a wonderful nostalgic world.
Out to Lunch – Eric Dolphy
This is Dolphy’s last studio recording before his untimely death in 1964. It is a wonderful display of his unique avant garde spirit. This album creates a mysterious sound scape with the use of the talented Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Richard Davis on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. Dolphy had an unprecedented technique and could play strange exotic melodies that had an almost eerie quality.
The Blues and The Abtract Truth – Oliver Nelson
This is a pretty serious album recorded in 1961 which goes in depth on different forms of the blues. The first track, Stolen Moments, is a remarkable use of four horns to create a atmospheric mood with amazing solos from Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Nelson, and Bill Evans. This album has the energy and overall quality that rivals the many of the best albums in jazz but with a slightly more modern touch.
Go – Dexter Gordon
This is Dexter’s finest recording which he did in 1962. He has such a smooth, full, confident sound in his playing. Overall, Dexter is pretty much the epitome of a cool jazz cat with his style, looks, and playing. It practically evokes the feeling of being in a late night jazz club in New York in the 60’s.
With Clifford Brown – Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan has an amazing voice with a comfortable three octave range. She could scat and sing with the same harmonic sophistication as the best instrumentalists of the time. She also had an extraordinary ability to communicate lyrics effectively. This album from 1954 also features the great Clifford Brown alongside her as they play jazz standards like Embraceable You, I’ll Remember April, and Lullaby of Birdland.