Jazz is the music of philosophers, of music theory savants, of mystical and singular musicians. It’s syncopations so laid back they threaten to fall over backwards and tangy chromatic runs that float like a pad of butter in a hot pan. It’s America. It’s smoky rooms. It’s passion and years of practice and improvisational art rolled into one. It’s also intimidating as hell for newcomers.
Once you get the snappy attire and a good pack of cigarettes, you’ve still got to address this fact: for a genre that’s been around about 100 years, jazz has an insanely dense catalog of great music ranging from big-band swing to fusion to bebop to Dixieland. There’s no better way to learn than diving in — it’ll become quickly apparent what moves you. The following ten albums should get you started. They represent a broad range of styles and eras in jazz without getting too technical or crazy. This is just the beginning. Read up, get out and listen to live music in order to cultivate your passion. But first, start your collection off right.
The Essentials, Humbly
Coltrane’s second solo album is damn timeless. Though in the era’s style of “hard bop”, it showcases the beginnings of Trane’s innovative harmonies and cord cycles.
The Atomic Mr. Basie – Count Basie and his Orchestra, 1958
The Count swings so hard it’s a wonder he didn’t fall backwards off his piano stool and break his neck. Listen to “Splanky” and let the lackadaisical cool of the blasted chorus melt your ears — then enjoy the rest.
Kind of Blue – Miles Davis, 1959
Davis, Coltrane, Adderly and Evans teamed up to create perhaps the best-selling jazz album of all time: it went quadruple platinum. Among a veritable sea of cool jazzers, Davis reigns as a tenured professor of hip with his smoldering modal jazz.
Time Out – Dave Brubeck, 1959
You may not know what it is, but you’ll immediately understand the 9/8 time signature after listening to the first notes of the album’s first tune, “Blue Rondo à la Turk”. The extremely popular album showcases plenty of funky time signatures and catchy melodies.
Sunday at the Village Vanguard – Bill Evans Trio, 1961
This live album is filled with complex trio work: stirring base lines from Scott LaFaro overlaid with lofty piano work from Evans and excellent interplay from drummer Paul Motian. It’s considered one of the best live jazz albums of all time.
The Great Summit: the Master Takes – Duke Ellington & Louis Armstrong, 1961 (released 2001)
Duke’s perfect touch on the ivories and Satchmo’s fun and boisterous blowing (and gravelly voice) are the perfect combination on a range of swing classics.
Maiden Voyage – Herbie Hancock, 1965
Hancock’s magic touch for creating jazz standards was alive and well, even at the ripe old age of 24. Melodic and moody, the album is utterly successful at its conceptual goal: creating an oceanic atmosphere.
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! – Cannonball Adderly, 1966
Cannonball Adderly’s hard-blowin’ sax backed by a funky band including a Wurlitzer electric piano was plenty enough to get a rowdy crowd goin’ and launched the title track to just outside of the top ten on the Billboard charts. The whole album is an exuberant jam.
Think of One – Wynton Marsalis, 1983
A return to classic jazz fundamentals is the hallmark of Marsalis’s Grammy-winning album. Listen for Marsalis’s incredible tone, which, along with his overal chops as a trumpeter, place him solidly among the best in jazz, ever.
Lingua Franca – Peter Epstein, 2005
Epstein’s trio features a flowing fusion of world sound and post-bop jazz — a great alternative to the classics.
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