I wrote this up a year or so ago for a friend who wanted to know what jazz albums I would suggest for someone who doesn’t know jazz but wants to get started with it.
The jazz I know and love is all late fifties to early sixties. So this is a list from that era only. This isn’t a complete list. This is the albums I consider must-haves from the era, but there are, certainly, many others that I’ve missed. I’m still discovering artists I don’t know.
First – the album I consider to be possibly the best album ever made, in any genre, by any artist. “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis. No collection should be without it. If you get it and like it, there’s a fantastic book by Ashley Kahn that disects the album – what lead up to it, who’s on it, how it was recorded, and then track-by-track notes that open up some of the songs in an incredibly vivid way. I read it with the album, on head-phones, went though the tracks over and over as I was reading the descriptions. It’s fascinating, but only if one already has explored the album.
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
The first major “modal jazz” milestone. Simpler songs, fewer chords, based on an exploration of many voicings within a chord rather than many chords. features the best side band of the era, these same guys without Miles show up on many of the era’s best albums. John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers. It’s a who’s who of the era, right there on one album.
I’m not really a huge Miles Davis fan overall; I can take some of his work, leave others. But this one defines a time, a place, a music scene, and a new genre all in one album. It is certainly the peak of Davis’ carreer, and is widely regarded as one of the most important jazz albums ever made.
If I had to pick one favorite album in the universe, this would be it.
Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd – Jazz Samba
This is the definitive “bossa nova” record. It’s later than the rest of this list, 1963 I think. A lot of the bossa nova later was vocal, which I don’t care for, but one is pure. Jazz idioms with a Brazilian feel, it’s a silky, sultry album. It takes you to a tropical place to drunk rum and dance with beautiful tan wonen. Getz is playing sax at the hight of his prowess, with a tone no other sax player I’ve ever heard can match. This is another must have.
Art Pepper – Meets the Rhythm Section
Art Pepper is an alto sax player; the rhythm section here is the above mentioned band from “Kind of Blue”, sans John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Cannonball. Pepper was a serious junkie most of his life, spent a lot of time too fucked up to play or in jail. This album, he was coming off a very bad using phase. The session was a one-shot deal, and they didn’t tell him about it until the day he had to show up. His sax was in disrepair, his reed cracked. He basically showed up, taped up his reed as best he could, and then played the session of his life. It’s the best rhythm section of the era playing at peak, and a man who is pouring his pain and fear and love out, un-filtered, though his alto sax. It’s one of my favorite albums, and was even before I knew the story behind it.
Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um.
Mingus must be in any serious jazz collection. I’m not an expert, and he had many phases, some more experimental, some less. This is the one people generally agree is the place to start. It’s hard to describe, but listen to the first track way up loud and you can hear Mingus shouting as he plays throughout the song. If this grabs you, there’s a lot more to buy of Mingus.
John Coltrane – Giant Steps
Coltrane is another artist with distinct phases. He is, put simply,the best sax player who ever lived. Some people may argue about that, but most sax players won’t. I divide his work between free-jazz
(post 1960) and he rest, up through about 1959. That may not be the exact date but it’s a start. I don’t like his free jazz as much as his earlier work, but it’s technically spectacular. This album was recorded about the same time as “Kind of BLue”. Every single track on it is spectacular, I listen to this one a lot.
Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus
Anyone less great than sonny rollins, this album title would seem obnoxiously self-congratulatory. With Sonny, it’s simply the truth. With Coltrane, he’s on my list of best ever players. He’s more playful than Coltrane, and in the early phases a little more experimental, and a little more raw. I like every album he made in this period, and he’s the only one on this list I’ve ever seen live; he played a 20 minute sax solo that was one of the best musical passages I’ve ever heard live. This album is my favorite, but he’s got a half-dozen almost as good.
Dave Brubek – Time Out
I’ve got mixed feelings about Brubeck. Sometimes he’s a little cold and clever, a little refined for me. This album, however, is a marvel. Brubeck decided to experiment with odd time signatures and built a whole album around that. You’ve certainly heard “Take Five” and probably “Blue Rondo a la Turk”, they’re standards. I don’t generally listen to any other Brubeck albums, but I listen to this one often.
Bill Evans Trio – Sunday at the Village Vanguard (and others)
It’s hard to pick one album here. There are really three, two of them a single session split into two albums, the other a later session.
Bill Evans was one of two piano players on “Kind of Blue”. He’s really the man who (IMO) did the most to explore Modal Jazz. All his albums are piano trios, just piano/bass/drums; which is sort of the distilled purity of jazz, as a power trio is the essence of rock (guitar/bass/drums). Evans is the most lyrical piano player I can think of; he also has a history of hiring some unbelievably good bass players. As with most of these guys, he was also a very serious junky and may well have been fucked up as hell when these albums were made.
The must-have pair is “Sunday at the village vanguard” and “Waltz for Debby”. This was one live date at the Vanguard in NY; but the bass player, Scott LaFaro, died just a day or so after this gig in a car accident. He was an amazing player, and very young. So the set was split into the tracks that strongly featured him (Sunday at the Village Vanguard, released as a memorial to LaFaro), and the rest of the set a little later as “Waltz for Debby”. “Vanguard” is the stronger album, but they really should be one album, not two.
The other leader from Evans is “Half Moon Bay”. It’s a later album, early 1960′s, and it was recorded live at a club in Half Moon Bay, california. IT features some of the best bass playing I can think of on a jazz album (Eddie Gomez), but it’s beautiful, lyrical. It’s well recorded, and the local location is somehow evocative. Evans was in his worst junkie phase at this point, yet playing incredibly well. I can’t imagine not owning all three, but start with “Vanguard” as the one essential.
Cannonball Adderley – Somethin’ Else
This is another one where it’s hard to pick one album. This is around the same time, and again with the same players – as “Kind of Blue”. The other album is “Cannonball Adderly in Chicago”. I argue with my friend Ken, who’s a sax player, about who’s better, Cannonball or Pepper. He likes Cannonball, and I have to agree, Cannonball is the better technical player. But I like the pain in Pepper’s playing. That aside, Cannonball is maybe the best Alto player I know of, and this again is the best band of the era, at their peak. Pick either album, Ken likes the Chicago one, I go with “Something Else”, maybe just because I had it first.
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – A night at Birdland A Night at Birdland, Vol. 1 and http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005MIZ9/qid=1112158485/sr=2-2/ref=pd_ka_b_2_2/103-2600568-5651036
I can barely pick one here. These guys were such a huge and influential band, and Blakey is such an influential drummer, that I can’t leave them out. But I don’t know which to pick. I pick Birdland again, because it’s the first one I bought, and because it’s a good introduction. There may be better albums, but this is a start. The Jazz Messengers are the quintissential “hard bop” band, the phase after be-bop when the bands got smaller and tighter, and played harder and lounder and faster. Blakey played in a lot of the be-bop bands (like with Dizzy Gillespie and guys like him), but then went of and formed his own band to try something harder.
There are many others. Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Clifford Brown. Thelonius Monk, who is in fact maybe a more important figure than anyone else here but Miles Davis, though I’ve only begin to scratch his surface. A dozen others. So the above list is where I would start, of the artists I know. This collection is a great view of the jazz of the late 50′s, and also a great view of my personal taste in jazz, which runs to melodic and compositional, with accomplished playing, but not overlay arranged. These are not the only albums I love, but these are the ones I listen to most often.