I've heard a lot of people say "I wish I could get into Jazz." However, many listeners are intimidated by the sheer volume of music available, especially with so many different artists and subgenres involved. Compounding the problem, oftentimes one album by an artist will sound completely different from another (looking at you, Miles Davis). I’m here to help you get a foot in the door, with 10 albums that are great to start listening to jazz. I’ll include a few subgenres, and hopefully start to help you understand the difference between “cool”, “hot”, “fusion”, “avant-garde”, and more styles of jazz, so that you can continue to find albums you'll like.
Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1959
Even if you’ve never bought a jazz album in your life, there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard one song from this album. “Take Five”, penned by saxman Paul Desmond, is basically the aural equivalent of a dry martini: cool, effortless, aloof, and sophisticated. Its uneven 5/4 beat and Desmond’s unique tone elevate the simple 2 chord vamp into something higher. While the group would take the song in many different directions when playing live, the album cut remains one of jazz’s definitive songs, and many listener’s entry point into the genre.
The album’s other tracks are no less monumental - Time Out was written to break out of jazz’s traditional 4/4 time signature and experiment with alternate and complex rhythms. The quartet adapts to each time signature effortlessly, even on songs like “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and its constantly changing beat.
A classic from the moment it was released in 1959, Time Out sounds as fresh today as it did then.
Kind of Blue
Miles Davis Sextet, 1959
Miles Davis brought in simple sketches and ideas - no full songs - to the sessions for Kind of Blue. He had begun exploring so-called 'modal' music with his earlier albums like Milestones, and found it gave him and his band a far greater level of creative freedom than they had previously known. He wanted to encourage his musicians to create and communicate on the spot, and his sextet (consisting of jazz legends like John Coltrane, ‘Cannonball’ Adderley, and Bill Evans among others) performed with flying colors. From the delicate Evans-penned piano intro to “So What” that starts the album, to the driving 6/8 “All Blues,” Kind of Blue was a revolution that turned the jazz world on its head.
Davis never played the same music for long - by the mid-60’s, just 5 years after Kind of Blue’s release, his band would be completely different in both roster and style. But its influence would be felt for generations, inspiring musicians across the board - from the jazz-rock of Steely Dan to minimalist composers like Steve Reich, and many more.
Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley, 1958
Understanding is the least important thing about digging jazz because, unlike anything else, jazz is a form of entertainment. It is created to be enjoyed, not understood like you read a blueprint
- Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley
One of the members of Davis’ Kind of Blue band was Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley. A former high school music teacher, on a trip to New York City in 1955 he went to see one of his favorite performers, bassist Oscar Pettiford and his band. Without a saxophone player, the band invited guests to sit in - Adderley came on stage, took a solo on Pettiford’s “Bohemia After Dark”, and immediately became the talk of the town. Cannonball’s style was ebullient, joyful, and he possessed masterful technique. By 1957, he was playing in Miles Davis’ group and had established himself as the heir to Charlie Parker.
Adderley’s first solo release, Somethin’ Else featured Davis on trumpet, along with other luminaries like Hank Jones and Art Blakey. A masterpiece of cool, Adderley’s rambunctous saxophone is perfectly balanced by Davis’ sparse trumpet. From the smokey jazz club vibe of ‘One for Daddy-O’ (where one can hear Davis’ signature growl after the tune, asking the producer ‘Is that what you wanted, Alfred?) to the brilliant interpretation of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale”, Somethin’ Else truly lives up to its name, and even hints at the developments that would come one year later, when Adderley and Davis recorded Kind of Blue. Adderley would go on to great commercial success after leaving Davis' band, forming a quintet with his brother that would find popular success with hits like "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and "Country Preacher," proving that there was indeed a market for great jazz music. He was an excellent ambassador for music, filling his live sets with stories and anecdotes about his life and music, involving the audience in the show, and generally being the complete opposite of Miles' back-to-the-crowd, hyper cool style. Renowned modern jazz pianist Robert Glasper may have said it best:
Cannonball Adderley said, 'First 20 minutes we're going to jazz out, then the last hour it's gonna be songs people paid to see.' Which is why he was driving a Rolls-Royce
Ella & Louis
Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, 1956
Though the last three albums listed could all fall under the 'Cool Jazz' subgenre, this one is a more traditional, swinging affair. Two of the biggest names from the early days of jazz, Ella and Louis shows two masters at their peak. Louis Armstrong essentially invented solo jazz improvising during his career, and his influence is still felt and heard to this day. Between his jubilant trumpet playing and one-of-a-kind voice, its nearly impossible to listen to Armstrong without a smile on your face. Jazz legend Duke Ellington may have said it best:
He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone on the way.
Fitzgerald is one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, and her amazing technique, tone, and improvisational ability are all on full display on this album. A collection of standards provide songs that these two icons are eminently comfortable on. A personal favorite is “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” where both featured artists shine and showcase the skills that made them stars.
With a backing band consisting of legends Oscar Peterson (piano), Buddy Rich (drums), Ray Brown (bass), and Herb Ellis (guitar), the musicianship on the album is second to none. In fact, it was such a success that one year later the group reunited for Ella & Louis Again.
Portrait in Jazz
Bill Evans Trio, 1960
Moving away fromt he traditionalism of the last album, Portrait in Jazz was a decidedly modern album. Bill Evans was a master songwriter and performer, with a wholly unique style highlighted by a light touch and excellent use of space. Evans’ technique could dazzle with the best of them, however, and nowhere is this more evident than on 1960’s Portrait in Jazz. His first album with what would become his most famous group, featuring Scott LaFaro on double bass and Paul Motian on drums, the group would revolutionize the traditional jazz piano trio. Evans was a notable proponent of not underestimating his audience, believing that if people were given deeper music, they could gain a deeper understanding of it:
"I think some young people want a deeper experience. Some people just wanna be hit over the head and, you know, if then they [get] hit hard enough maybe they'll feel something. You know? But some people want to get inside of something and discover, maybe, more richness. And I think it will always be the same; they're not going to be the great percentage of the people. A great percentage of the people don't want a challenge. They want something to be done to them -- they don't want to participate. But there'll always be maybe 15% maybe, 15%, that desire something more, and they'll search it out -- and maybe that's where art is, I think."
- Bill Evans
Featuring LaFaro’s bass nearly as much as the leader’s piano, Portrait in Jazz astonished listeners of the time, with its free-flowing improvisational moments blending together so perfectly that many critics refused to believe it hadn’t been written out beforehand. Portrait in Jazz is a masterclass in unspoken communication, and led the way for artists from Pat Metheny and his ECM colleagues to Kurt Rosenwinkel and the most modern jazz artists.
The Next Step
Kurt Rosenwinkel, 2001
This next album takes us from the beginnings of 'modern' jazz to one of it's brightest current stars. Philadelphia native Kurt Rosenwinkel was destined for musical stardom from a young age. Attending high school with future music legends like ?uestlove, Boyz II Men, and Christian McBride, he then attended Boston’s Berklee School of Music for 2 years before dropping out to tour with artists like Gary Burton, Joe Henderson, Paul Motian, and the Brian Blade Fellowship. 2001’s The Next Step was Rosenwinkel’s fourth album as a leader, and combined the innovate modern techniques he had been working on his whole life. One such technique was singing along with his incredibly complex solo lines into a lapel mic, creating an entirely unique sound no other guitarist could replicate.
“It represents the culmination of many life phases for me. Some of these phases started ten years ago and have finally found resolution in this record. It represents the next step in my music and in my life”
- Kurt Rosenwinkel
“Zhivago,” the opening track, shows an artist and group in complete command of their faculties. After a rubato introduction, the ¾ beat seems to float effortlessly, making the technical fireworks of the band seem almost flippant, like anybody should be able to do it. Rosenwinkel’s opening solo flows seamlessly into saxophonist Mark Turner’s, and the chemistry between the two (they had been playing together for 7 years at that point) is immediately obvious. Turner’s saxophone almost seems an extension of Rosenwinkel’s guitar, and creates a sound far greater than the sum of its parts. "Zhivago" has become a Rosenwinkel staple, and he has revisited the song many times, including with a Portugal's Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos ensemble for 2010's Our Secret World
The remainder of the album is just as groundbreaking, innovative, and hip, all while remaining incredibly listenable. From the spacey “Minor Blues” to the tender “A Life Unfolds”, every jazz listener deserves to give The Next Step a serious place in their collection.
Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, 2000
One hallmark of modern jazz is the shift from songs built around solos to ensemble performances, and there are few jazz ensembles that play as a unit like the Fellowship Band. Brian Blade is the closest thing to a musical chameleon you can find - his drums have found themselves accompanying luminaries like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Seal, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and many many more. When he put together The Fellowship Band, Blade put together a group that could seamlessly blend any musical style asked of them, creating a whole far greater than the sum of it's (already great) parts. The following video, recorded over 10 years after the release of Perceptual, shows the group's ever-evolving nature and ability to sound like one unified piece of music, instead of individual parts.
Blade’s drumming buoys the entire group, providing the drive the group needs without even dominating the proceedings. The result is a singular piece of art that stands apart from nearly every other modern jazz recording. From the swinging 5/4 of ‘Crooked Creek’ to the plaintive “Trembling” featuring Joni Mitchell on vocals, this is a true masterpiece of modern jazz.
“Calling the music made by drummer Blade’s assemblage ‘jazz’ is like calling Lady Liberty a statue – it is, and so much more. Drawing from jazz, rock, country, folk, and pretty much every musical idiom either indigenous to or nurtured in America, ‘Perceptual’ is a melting pot of sound that wordlessly speaks of the conflicts and triumphs of the human experience.”
- Billboard Magazine Review of 'Perceptual', 2000
Duke Ellington and John Coltrane
Duke Ellington, 1962
No list of jazz albums would be complete without either of these two artists - both had monumental influence on the music of their times. Ellington was already a legend by this album’s release, and had begun to work with many modern artists, including Charles Mingus and Max Roach. However, none clicked as well with him as Coltrane did, due to their mutual love and mastery of the blues.
“I was really honored to have the opportunity of working with Duke. It was a wonderful experience. He has set standards I haven't caught up with yet. I would have liked to have worked over all those numbers again, but then I guess the performances wouldn't have had the same spontaneity. And they mightn't have been any better!”
- John Coltrane
Each artist brought their backing bands to the sessions, and split the accompaniments evenly. Every artist involved in these sessions intimately understood the music, and the end result is an album with no weak moments. Ellington’s classic “In A Sentimental Mood” becomes a haunting reminiscence with Coltrane’s tenor, and the Billy Strayhorn-penned “My Little Brown Book” shows the supreme lyricism of Coltrane’s playing, and was even sampled by Ghostface Killah, showing the continued legacy this music has.
The Atomic Mr. Basie
Count Basie and his Orchestra, 1958
In the 1930's and 40's, jazz was the most popular music in America. It was a music from the streets, played by drug pushers, pimps, and other seedy types. It was banned in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and formed the fabric of popular music we still draw from today. Count Basie epitomized this life - a middle school droput, he caught a boat to Harlem in his teens and began playing with various burlesque and vaudeville shows before he reached his 20's. His big band would go on to become legendary, and 'The Count' would have one of the longest and most successful careers of any big band leader.
In the mid-50's, though big band swing was already pushed out by bebop and cool jazz, Basie still enjoyed great popularity. Never one to shun new musical trends, 1958's The Atomic Mr. Basie (originally released as E=MC2) shocked listeners who expected a 'traditional' Basie record. Arranged by the incomparable Neal Hefti, it combined elements of the most modern jazz of the time with Basie's signature tight-knit swinging sound, showing that the big band was far from obsolete in the world of jazz.
"They’re the swinginest band there ever was. They swing ya into bad health.”
- Ella Fitzgerald, on the Count Basie Orchestra
The Atomic Mr. Basie is a monument of big band jazz, and led to continued popularity for Basie and his band. Nearly this same band is featured in the video belowing, showing Basie's signature hit "April in Paris". Any fan of swing owes it to themselves to pick up a copy of this record.
With these 9 albums, hopefully you'll start to see what kind of jazz you like, and will inspire you to seek out new albums and broaden your horizons. Stay tuned for a 'Next 9' albums list, getting deeper into the world of avant-garde and modern jazz, coming soon!