If I’ve seen it once I’ve seen it a hundred times. Someone just getting into jazz ventures online looking for some music to start with, and is instantly inundated with about 500 different choices. Everyone has their own ideas about the best places to start a jazz music collection, and it can get overwhelming pretty quickly. I know because I was one of those neophytes.
So as a public service to all you new jazz lovers out there, here’s one man’s list of recordings that are essential for any new jazz collection. This is not an attempt to chronicle the best jazz records ever. Rather, it showcases some of the more popular movements and artists in the genre, and should serve as a good starting point for further exploration.
#10. Louis Armstrong — The Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings, Vol. 1
To start a jazz collection with any artist other than Satchmo would be foolishness. This volume contains 20 essential selections from 1925-26, when Armstrong and his Hot Five (Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Hardin on piano/vocals, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo) were essentially forming the basic vocabulary jazz has used in the nearly 100 years since.
I know that this style and sound (usually referred to as Traditional Jazz) is not for everyone, but it’s critical to hear where the music started in order to appreciate where it went.
And hey, you never know, you may love it for more than its prime historical value.
#9. Dizzy Gillespie — Groovin’ High
Getting this particular release (Savoy, 2000) isn’t so important as getting most of the songs — which have appeared on probably a few dozen compilations — on it is. That’s because they are basically to the bebop movement what the U.S. Constitution is to American government.
As World War II raged, a seismic shift was occurring in the jazz world. A younger generation of musicians, led in part by trumpeter extraordinaire Dizzy Gillespie, were no longer interested in playing sweet dance music for docile crowds. They wanted to explore the limits of jazz, no matter where it took them.
Gillespie brought a band that included the legendary Charlie Parker into the studio in February and May 1945 and cut some of the most exciting music heard to date. Songs like “Groovin’ High,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Hot House,” and “Dizzy Atmosphere” officially heralded the bebop wave and established the blueprint for jazz since then. It also signaled the passing of the torch from Louis Armstrong to Gillespie as jazz’s greatest trumpeter.
Even now, more than a half century after its recording, this music remains vibrant, fresh, and exciting.
#8. Miles Davis — Kind of Blue
Any list that doesn’t include Kind of Blue as essential listening is worthless and can be instantly disregarded. Hell, I could make this #1-10 and still have a good list. There’s a reason this album is the best-selling jazz LP ever. It’s pretty much flawless in terms of composition, production, and performance. Even the few flubbed notes that made it through seem to be there for a good reason.
I must warn you about one thing, however. If you end up falling in love with this album as I and countless other millions have, you will search in vain for another that matches Kind of Blue‘s sound and overall feel. And while many have come close, but none has ever matched it. I see people asking variations of “What other albums sound just like Kind of Blue?” all the time, and the answer is that there aren’t any.
#7. Bill Evans — The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard 1961
Like hockey, jazz is best enjoyed in person. But since watching the late piano legend Bill Evans is no longer an option, this set may be the next best thing. It captures Evans with the short-lived trio — whom many consider his finest — of Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian performing several sets at New York’s fabled Village Vanguard jazz club in June 1961.
Two classic live albums resulted from those recordings — Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby — and while they are both excellent LPs, this collection from 2005 flows much more nicely and provides a more true representation of the performances. Evans is in fantastic form, naturally, playing with his rare combination of grace and artistry.
#6. The Dave Brubeck Quartet — Time Out
1959 was a damn good year for jazz. Not only was Kind of Blue released then, but so was Time Out. I will simply say of the late Dave Brubeck and this album that it was one of the foundational works in my early exploration of jazz. Forget the impressive musical prowess that Brubeck and his three bandmates boasted — the compositions themselves are just great.
Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” is of course one of the legendary songs in the jazz canon, but only slightly less famous and no less deserving of acclaim is Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” With its inventive mixture of 9/8 and 4/4 swing time, as well as traditional Turkish melodies, it’s almost progressive in nature.
By the time this album was released, jazz had already transitioned from America’s foremost popular dance music to a more cerebral enterprise. Time Out essentially helped to cement and complete that transition. This is music to soothe your mind more than shake your ass, and it’s some of the best ever produced for that.
#5. Thelonious Monk — Brilliant Corners
How to describe Monk and his music? I’m afraid I’m simply not enough of a writer for that, so I can only say that he was the single most unique jazz musician I’ve ever heard. When you hear the music on this album, your brain might resist at first. It simply doesn’t seem like his piano playing and his compositions should work. But in your soul (whether or not you believe in such a thing), it just feels right.
I don’t think there ever was a man whose music so accurately reflected his personality — because to be sure, Monk had his fair share of problems over his turbulent life, the last decade of which was spent completely out of the public eye. Never mind the bold masterstroke that is this album’s title track; even on sweet ballads like “Pannonica,” the whole thing sounds just a bit unhinged and likely to fall apart at any minute. But somehow Monk keeps it all together and it’s a thing of beauty.
#4. Wes Montgomery — The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery
There may have been more successful or influential guitarists in jazz, but for my money there have never been any as distinctive as Wes Montgomery. Before his late-career transformation into a slightly bland interpreter of contemporary pop hits, the Indianapolis-born Montgomery was born into a musical family (his brothers Buddy and Monk each being very good jazz musicians in their own right).
This album, his sixth as a group leader in three years, is a masterclass in jazz guitar. Making liberal use of block chords and his trademark playing technique — Montgomery didn’t use a pick, but rather the fleshy part of his right thumb to achieve his warm, slightly muted sound — produced one of the most remarkable and memorable sounds in jazz.
To top it all off, the performances and song selections from The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery are impeccable. The album opens with a fiery rendition of Sonny Rollins’s outstanding tune, “Airegin,” before moving into the sizzling, sauntering “D-Natural Blues.” At times hushed and gentle, and at others tastefully forceful, Montgomery leads the quartet of Tommy Flanagan (piano), Percy Heath (bass), and Albert Heath (drums) through eight magical tracks.
#3. The Mahavishnu Orchestra — The Inner Mounting Flame
Jazz fusion gets a bad rap, some of it rightly deserved. But in its early years, the mix of rock instrumentation and songwriting structure with jazz melodies and improvisational technique was a potent one. The door that Miles Davis helped open in the late ’60s was blown off its hinges thanks to groups like the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report.
The Inner Mounting Flame is the first release from John McLaughlin’s group, and it’s absolutely stacked. McLaughlin is a guitar genius of the highest order, while Rick Laird on bass and Billy Cobham on drums don’t just lay a solid foundation of rhythm, they pulse and throb with an almost orgasmic quality. To say nothing of course about the formidable contributions of keyboardist Jan Hammer (he of Miami Vice fame) and violinist Jerry Goodman.
The group is as powerful as any hard rock band of the era when they flex their muscles on tracks like the searing “Meeting of the Spirits,” but floats like a gentle spring breeze on others like “A Lotus on Irish Streams.” Fantastic stuff.
#2. Charles Mingus — Mingus Ah Um
I could probably pick ten albums from 1959 alone to populate this list, but I suppose three is enough. But whereas the Miles and Brubeck albums are largely cool and measured, this is a more raucous affair altogether. From the rowdy Gospel inflections of “Better Git It in Your Soul” to the caustic, politicized “Fables of Faubus,” this is Charles Mingus at the peak of his powers.
While Mingus recorded more ambitious and perhaps fully realized works in his all-too-brief career, Mingus Ah Um is the most fun and accessible. It also contains one of the great jazz ballads ever recorded in “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a tribute to the late, great saxophonist Lester Young. I want someone to play something at my funeral the way John Handy plays his sax solo during this song.
This is probably not the first album on this list you should start with, especially if you’re brand new to jazz. But once you’ve gotten warmed up, by all means dive right in.
#1. Robert Glasper — Double Booked
I chose this not because it’s my favorite Robert Glasper album, or even because I think it’s his best. No, I picked 2009’s Double Booked because it represents both where jazz is right now and where it could go. Glasper has been one of the brightest young stars on the jazz scene for the better part of the last decade, and it’s been fascinating to watch his progression. His early albums, while melodically complex and impeccably performed, were a little more tied to the past.
On his 2007 disc In My Element, Glasper hinted at the exciting new directions he wanted to take his music in — where jazz informed the compositions and laid their foundation but where the music could go into any style or genre he pleased. That vision seems to be coming much closer to fruition with his latest album, Black Radio. But it’s on Double Booked where Glasper consciously shows you the transition point.
The first half of the album is performed by the Robert Glasper Trio, and should be structurally recognizable to modern jazz fans. The back half is performed by the Robert Glasper Experiment and deftly fuses jazz, R&B, soul, and funk into a sound that’s fresh and innovative and yet familiar. Had an artist with lesser talent or maturity attempted this move it would’ve bombed horribly. Glasper pulls it off with seeming ease, and thus seems to be setting the stage not just for his growth as an artist but for jazz’s growth as a genre.