Jazz is a vast musical realm, stretching over many countries and a full century. It encompasses everything from New Orleans street bands of the 1920s to Robert Glaspar’s electronic mashups, from Harlem to Havana and every continent. So getting started with jazz can be overwhelming.
The following list has several thoughts behind it. For one, all of these albums were made using modern, stereo recording technology, which became mainstream in jazz around 1959. By and large, they were made before multitrack recording became the thing (late ’60s, early ‘70s), so the recordings are basically live, one take recordings in which each instrument has a distinct place left to right, front to back. To modern ears, the recording itself will not be the distraction that earlier ones might be.
That leaves out much of bebop, big band, and trad jazz that came before it, but we will address them later. We are also stopping short of electrified jazz (except for electric guitar) and the whole rock/jazz intersection, which will also be the subject of a future article. Ditto for jazz from Brazil, Cuba, Africa and Europe.
Instead, we’ll start in the middle, in the period between 1956 and 1966, for me a kind of Golden Age. Most of the musicians represented here cut their teeth on bebop, some actually playing with Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, and the other lions of bebop. They took that music, its spirit, and found ways to give it more colors, flavors and freedom by further exploring African and Latin scales and rhythms, European modal music, and by remixing the blues and even R&B music. These musicians were highly influential, most of them known also as composers, others as band leaders who nurtured multiple generations of great players.
I’ve also left out vocalists. This era featured some great ones: Billie Holiday for a bit, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Nina Simone, Carmen McRae and many others. But vocal jazz is its own thing, and we’ll try and get their eventually.
So for now, if you want to start to develop a taste for jazz, try these seven albums. Rollins and Hancock are still alive, so go see them if you can (I’m not sure if Rollins is still performing, but Hancock definitely is).
Miles Davis — Kind of Blue
People often say that if you have only one jazz album, this should be it. And yet, it is a somewhat singular album. The very first tune, So What, announces itself with a singular little byplay between bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Bill Evans. And then it launches into a bass riff that sounds like the very first funk tune ever and at the same time announces a new, more relaxed (compared to bebop) approach to jazz. Technically, it’s called modal jazz, but for the novice listener, that’s not that important.
Most of the tunes on this album were being played for the very first time by anyone when this was recorded. The horn playing by alto sax Cannonball Adderley and tenor John Coltrane is as good as it gets, each launching great solo after great solo on this new music. Miles stakes out his claim as well, his minimalist brush strokes simultaneously illustrating the key musical stepping stones for the band and the painting an emotional picture with great skill.
Pianist Bill Evans probably embraced Miles’ modal vision more than anyone else in the band at that point in time, and both his playing behind the solos (comping, as musicians call it) and his solos are masterful. Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb provide perfect time and feel. All in all, this sexted is probably the greatest jazz sextet ever recorded.
It’s become a bit fashionable to knock this album as overrated, but if you take this out twice a year, pour a glass of wine, and listen undistracted, you will always find new pleasures.
Further listening. If you find that Freddy the Freeloader is your favorite tune, you may want to look backward in Miles’ catalog to the Walkin’/Cookin/Relaxin’/Workin’ quintet that immediately preceded it. If you find yourself more entranced by Blue in Green, check out Miles’ last great acoustic quintet from the early to mid ’60s, where he works out with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. ESP, Miles Smiles and Nefertiti all work for me. If Flamenco Sketches touches your heartstrings, try Sketches of Spain.
John Coltrane — A Love Supreme
This 1964 record is the Hallelujah Chorus of jazz. Trane was arguably the greatest musician of his time (in any genre), harnessing his immense technique to a deep and abiding search for meaning and expression in life and through music. This record has only three songs, really three movements of a single work, that expresses his deeply held spiritual beliefs. It doesn’t have repeating choruses, like most songs, but themes and motifs that come up periodically. It’s more like a classical composition that way.
The piece is played by arguably the greatest jazz quartet ever, with McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums) joining Trane’s soprano sax.
It’s a work that’s rarely performed live (Trane himself only played it live once) and the recorded version is the canonical one, a treasure to be experienced with some concentration. Not much point in describing it — it speaks for itself. If you don’t get it right away, come back to it later.
Further listening. If you’re intrigued by the sound of Trane but are looking for more conventional compositions, not to worry, there are many directions to go in. If you want to hear these guys play tunes, check out Giant Steps, which has much of what made Coltrane a giant in his own time. My Favorite Things is pretty great, too. If you want a real treat, listen to any version of 1961’s Live at the Village Vanguard. The force, the optimism, the willingness to go beyond that was so much of the first part of 1960s culture bursts from every seam. If you’re looking for sheer beauty and romance, try Coltrane’s collaborations with singer Johnny Hartmann (John Coltrane & Jonny Hartman) or the man himself, Duke Ellington (John Coltrane & Duke Ellington. I personally love the Hartman version of Lush Life and the duet the Trane and Ellington do on In a Sentimental Mood. If you want to hear the farthest reaches of Coltrane’s music, try Ascension.
Charles Mingus — The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
Mingus was a rarity — a bass player who was a band leader. And what a band leader he was! His imagination drew together every form of African-American music, from store-front church gospel to free jazz, and he drove his bands with feeling and groove. He began as classical cellist in the 1930s, not an easy road for a Black musician at the time. He switched to bass, spent some time in the Ellington band, and soon was at the forefront of NY’s jazz scene. Always pushing the envelope, he was part of the Beat scene where jazz mixed with drama and poetry, as well.
This album is from 1963. Like Trane, he was interested in the long form. The album should really be considered a symphony, a la some of Ellington’s long works. Like Ellington, Mingus generally had a lot of instruments in his work, and they are very artfully arranged. You will hear 1920s New Orleans, the Harlem Rennaissance, bebop and the early ’60s all coexisting in a compelling and moving work of great genius. If you’ve ever thought that Gershwin and Bernstein did some nice things with jazz, but wondered what would a more central jazz composer do in that vein, your search is ended. This is a record that will bear new revelations at every listening.
Further listening. Mingus has a vast catalog, and frankly, I haven’t heard all of it. I recommend 1959’s Mingus Ah Um if you want to hear a more straight ahead set built around typical tunes. If you’re particularly drawn to the greasier side of Mingus, Blues & Roots is a joy. Git it in Your Soul features Fables of Faubus, Mingus’ broadside against the Arkansas governor and rabid segregationist. For more adventure, any of his work with avant garde phenom Eric Dolphy in the 1960s is worth listening to.
Sonny Rollins — The Bridge
Rollins is The Other Great Tenor player of this era. He never had the cultural influence that Trane had, but he remains to this day a force of nature with a horn in his mouth. His early work with Max Roach and Clifford Brown is pretty great. But this album is most satisfying to me because of the duet work with Jim Hall and the freshness of some of it.
It’s a legendary record. Rollins was feeling somewhat at a loss in his playing and had basically taken time off performing and recording to “shed” — short for “woodshedding” as in “going back to the woodshed to practice.” His favored location for shedding was the walkway on the Williamsburg Bridge, near his Manhattan apartment. Hence the title of the album.
The title cut is a fresh take on classic post-bop ideas — continued rhythmic syncopation and a propulsive melody that evokes urban life.
The surprise element was Jim Hall, at that time a little known guitar player who was working out on guitar some of the same kinds of harmonic ideas that Bill Evans was using on piano. Hall is able to both back up Rollins and challenge him (gently) at the same time. Their work together on “God Bless the Child” is among the finest dual improvising you’ll hear.
Not that evident on this album, Rollins is one of the great blowers of all time. Probably the greatest single performance I’ve ever seen was him playing with a bass player and drummer at Boston’s Paradise, a rock club, in the early ’80s. Specifically, he played “Here You Come Again,” made famous by Dolly Parton, for what seemed like 20 minutes (it was probably 10). He took this somewhat corny tune and played it sideways, upside down, set it on fire, just did everything that could be done to this melody as if it were totally natural. And with fire!
I witnessed his love of melody more recently, about 10 years ago, at a more conventional concert in Boston. He mentioned that earlier in the day he had remembered a tune that his mother loved to listen to on the radio in the late 1940s. He hadn’t heard it since, but remembered it and had written out charts for the band that afternoon. He then proceeded to turn this 1940s calypsoish pop tune into a masterpiece.
Further listening. The early period featured a number of great sessions. I’m partial to Saxophone Colossus (where Sonny first indulged his love of Caribbean music with St. Thomas) and Plus Four (Valse Hot is a classic on that album). There are many mid-60s fiery, avant-gardish Rollins albums — check out East Broadway Rundown for that flavor. And then Sonny kind of settled into being Sonny. Like many great musicians, by that time he had a list of tunes that he liked to explore — A Nightingale Sings in Berkely Square, Without a Song, and a number of others — and he did. You can hear what might be considered his valedictory address in 2001’s Without a Song, the 9/11 Concert, recorded in the days after. I often wish that Sonny had challenged himself later in life by playing with the kind of top flight musicians he played with up until the mid ’60s, but by and large his post-1990 work is with a competent, comfortable but unexciting (except for Sonny) group.
An exception to that are the cuts on his series of Road Show releases. These are bootlegs that a devoted fan has made and Sonny has authorized for release. Many of the cuts feature him with topflight musicians in one-off collaborations, and for that alone, these albums delight.
Herbie Hancock — Maiden Voyage
If Kind of Blue signaled a new approach to jazz, 1965’s Maiden Voyage is one of its most famous and brightest children. Both the title tune and Dolphin Dance have become jazz standards, and the other tunes are great, too.
Hancock’s compositions are almost all modal, his rhythms include not only swing but New York Latin (think Watermelon Man, which he wrote earlier while with Mongo Santamaria) and I hear R&B poking through here and there, too. So this is post-bop with the emphasis on post.
I hope you’ll enjoy the moody, impressionistic quality of Hancock’s chords. George Coleman on tenor and the great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard add their own lyricism to the mix. Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums are an advancement of the kind of rhythm section that Scot LeFaro and Paul Motian first pioneered with Bill Evans. They’re not content to just play the beat and simply outline the chords — the wring much more tension out of both with their sophisticated playing. All in all, this is one of the most beautiful jazz albums I know, and never veers into precious.
If you replaced Coleman and Hubbard with Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis, you’d have the second great Davis quintet that reigned from 1964 to 1968.
Further listening. Where to start! All of Hancock’s work with Davis is worth listening to, must listening if you like that era. Later, Hancock became a pioneer of fusion with The Headhunters and other lineups and even had a Top 40 hit with Canteloupe Island. He also worked up a funk version of Watermelon Man. Even if you’ve never heard this music, you’ll find you probably have, as Hancock’s fusion work is among the most heavily sampled by hip-hop artists of the last 25 years.
In recent years, he’s focused a lot on bridging jazz and popular music, notably rock. He’s done a series of albums with guest performers, including vocalists, that are household names to younger audiences (John Legend, Joss Stone, Derek Trucks, etc.). My favorite of these is The Joni Letters, where he and Wayne Shorter team up with vocalists on Joni Mitchell tunes. Their instrumental duet version of Both Sides Now is pretty special, too.
Bill Evans — The Complete Village Vanguard Records, 1961
This recording showcases several things. First, there’s Evans, who as much as anyone explored where jazz could go on the piano after bebop. His innovations are difficult to explain without getting into a very technical discussion of harmony and the piano, but you’ll hear the feel of it right away. Chords flow one in to the other as if a constant river of harmony, rather than abrupt changes. I don’t think of Evans as a highly rhythmic player, but he was a great champion of the jazz waltz, which is its own little world.
By the way, this recording was originally released as two separate albums: Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. They’re both good in their own right.
Beyond Evans, this trio really was a template for trios to come with its emphasis on equal importance for all three members and constant interplay between them. Many jazz bands play through the melody and then begin solos; during the solos, the rest of the band plays in the background and doesn’t react much to the solo. In the Evans trio, there’s more of partnership between all three, constantly adjusting to each other. In a way, the trio played tunes but almost as free jazz. This requires a very high level of musical ability, but these guys have got it covered.
Scot LeFaro was a true pioneer on the standup bass, breaking free of some of the conventional ways that bass players functioned as basically the left hand of the piano. Later, players like Jaco Pastorious would build on this freedom on the electric, but LeFaro rewrote the rules. Motian also eschewed a strict timekeeping role, and players like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette took that further a well.
Further listening. Sadly, LeFaro died 10 days after Sunday at the Village Vanguard in a car accident. The band’s catalog on Riverside leading up to it is all worth listening to. Evans repeats certain tunes –Waltz for Debby, Israel, My Romance, My Foolish Heart tend to show up now and again. But I also like another Evans lineup, with Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morrell on drums. There are two Live at Montreux albums with them that I quite like.
Thelonius Monk — Brilliant Corners
Monk was the quirky, brilliant manic depressive often caricatured by ignorant critics. By now, most of the “he played that way because that’s all he could do” comments have been discredited, but during his life they plagued him.
To me, Monk is sort of the pure beating heart of jazz. He came of age in New York when boogie woogie piano players dazzled nightly. A player who copped another guy’s licks on a gig would likely find that guy was not only sitting in the club, but would thank him for the imitation with a beat down. All of that is to say that he developed in a time when originality was at a premium. He was an unsung (for many years) founder of bebop, but outlived and outlasted it. Even today, learning how to play Monk tunes is a right of passage and a bit scary.
For me, his contribution to jazz was to combine constant syncopation with constant harmonic tension. After many years, I’ve come to hear him as a Duke Ellington whose melodies and harmonies were built around the very tension notes that bebop had highlighted. Unlike the Parker/Gillespie flavor of bebop, he was less concerned with playing up tempo than with a highly syncopated, herky jerky rhythm and that highlighted those tensions. Whereas Parker would circle the tensions, Monk would creep right up to them, half step by half step. He wrote many famous tunes — Ruby My Dear, Epistrophy, ‘Round Midnight, Crepuscule with Nellie and many more — that embody that.
That fundamental approach to harmony and melody is not that different than Davis, in my opinion. If Monk is Ellington with more tensions and syncopation, Miles is Monk with just the tensions. Both evoke Ellington, both were minimalists in their own way.
It’s hard to pick Monk’s best album, but many people do pick this one. The title tune and Bemsha Swing are among my favorite Monk tunes.
Further listening. One of the great lost but discovered albums in jazz is Thelonius Monk With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, a 1957 radio concert not released until 2000. It’s the only real record of Trane’s brief tenure with Monk and a wonderful collaboration. Monk’s Time is also fine, as are a good deal of his 1960s Columbia catalog. He’s a little like Evans — it’s tough to pick a standout album, as most have moments of brilliance among moments of just goodness.
In a future article we’ll delve into more great albums by other great and very good artists — Cannonball Adderly, Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter and who knows who else. But these seven albums will give you a foundation in the working vocabulary of the post-bop jazz that dominated the jazz scene, and a point of departure for what came later.
Sit back, turn up the volume a tad, and enjoy! After these seven albums, you will have heard the greatest tenors (Coltrane and Rollins), trumpet player (Davis and Freddie Hubbard), drummer (Elvin Jones with Coltrane, runner up to Tony Williams), piano players (Monk, Evans, Hancock and McCoy Tyner with Coltrane), and bass players (Mingus and LeFaro) of their era and frankly, of most eras. You will have heard some of the most classic modern jazz tunes. And you will have heard how the music invented by the grandchildren of slaves reacted to the civil rights and Black Liberation movements of the late ’50s and ‘60s.