List of Must-Have Jazz Vinyl Records for Your Collection
No other genre can parallel the immense breadth of jazz. Jazz evolved throughout the 1900s, from big bands to swing, bebop, modal, avante-garde, fusion, and more. Today, it continues growing in exciting new directions.
Because of this, listeners hoping to get into jazz are faced with a sharp learning curve. Maybe you’ve heard some big names, like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But Miles and Trane both have dozens of albums, each. How are you supposed to know how to pick one to start with?
Even experienced listeners of jazz sometimes struggle keeping track of all the different masters. Each artist and genre signifies a different moment in jazz’s rich, turbulent history.
Whether you’re a new listener or an aficionado, I’ve put together this list of the top 50 must-have jazz LP records to set the record straight. Whether you’re just getting into jazz, or you’re trying to find the last missing pieces to your collection, read on to discover some of the best jazz records ever made.
50. Kamasi Washington – The Epic (2015)
Why Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is Essential Jazz Vinyl
Kamasi, one of the leading jazz saxophonists today, attempts to redefine and remake jazz for a modern audience on this record. He draws influence from all the old greats, including Coltrane, Rollins, and James Brown’s funky sideman Maceo Parker. The Epic contains a huge palette of sounds spanning nearly 3 hours, living up to its title as Kamasi walks listeners through a jazz voyage of exquisite grandiosity.
The fact that this album is the most recent one on this list makes it hard to place, so I’ve put it here first. While The Epic has already put a fiery stamp on modern jazz’s direction, time will tell if it stands up to the old classics in the decades to come. Either way, I recommend you check it out – it’s downright epic.
49. Count Basie – The Complete Atomic Basie (1957)
Why Count Basie’s The Complete Atomic Basie is a Must-Have Jazz Record
Count Basie’s big band pulls out all of the stops on Atomic Basie. The album’s cover shows you the mushroom cloud that you’ll be left with after hearing the utter flamboyance, dynamism, and powerful swings that Basie leads them through. Yet you’ll also hear some compositions showcasing a dissonant minimalism from Basie. You may have heard the album’s (and Basie’s) most famous track, “Kid From The Red Bank,” paying homage to Basie’s New Jersey hometown.
48. Thelonious Monk – Genius Of Modern Music Vols. 1 & 2 (1951 and 1956)
Why Thelonious Monk’s Genius Of Modern Music Vols. 1 & 2 is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
It would be hard to pick between both halves of these superb releases. Thelonious Monk, a piano player, was way ahead of his time. Unfortunately, this meant that his contemporaries couldn’t fully understand and appreciate the harmonic vocabulary and asymmetrical melodies that he employed until much later. Dubbed “The High Priest Of Bop,” Monk was an idiosyncratic prophet that moved the entire genre forward. His unique sound can be heard loud and clear on both volumes of Genius Of Modern Music.
47. Grant Green – Idle Moments (1963)
Why Grant Green’s Idle Moments is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
A groundbreaking guitar jazzman, Grant Green put together a legendary sextet with Joe Henderson (sax), Duke Pearson (keys), Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphone), and more to create this smooth, idyllic record. Green was never a very flashy player, trying to baffle everyone with his chops. On Idle Moments’ mellow improvisations, Green sits back and complements everyone beautifully, leading the music through mellow, meditative territories. But as “Jean De Fleur” – a fast swing tune – shows, he’s got the chops, of course.
46. Ella Fitzgerald – Ella In Berlin: Mack The Knife (1960)
Why Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella In Berlin: Mack The Knife is Essential Jazz Vinyl
While performing in Berlin, Ella Fitzgerald and the band gave a stab at “Mack The Knife,” a new song that wasn’t in their songbook at the time. Ella stumbles a bit and forgets the words. She begins improvising, even making joking lyrics about how they’re botching the song. But even without the right words, she nails the notes. Her voice cuts through the record, sharper than ever, and she even won a Grammy for the performance. So here’s proof that it’s okay to forget the lyrics sometimes – as long as you make it sound good, you’re golden.
45. Bud Powell – The Amazing Bud Powell (Vol. 1) (1952)
Why Bud Powell’s The Amazing Bud Powell (Vol. 1) is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
A friend of Monk’s, Bud Powell was another amazing piano player (as this album correctly asserts) from the bebop years. The Amazing Bud Powell compiles some of Bud’s best recordings from 1949-1950, which he released as his first album to gain some traction in the scene. The album features interesting Afro-Cuban flavors, and a daring break from conventional jazz piano, shaking up all the rules. He transformed the pioneering styles of Charlie Parker (sax) and Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet) onto his piano to create novel melodic and rhythmic ideas, ushering in the hard bop of the 1950s.
44. The Mahavishnu Orchestra With John McLaughlin – The Inner Mounting Flame (1971)
Why The Mahavishnu Orchestra With John McLaughlin’s The Inner Mounting Flame is Essential for Record Collections
Beginning with Bitches Brew, the 70s saw some fascinatingly innovative jazz-rock hybrids. Bitches Brew guitarist John McLaughlin formed The Mahavishnu Orchestra to continue the trend, and the band began composing bizarre, intense, and challenging compositions fusing heavy, hard rock with jazz. The Inner Mounting Flame pushed the limits of fusion to a new level, combining scorching guitar and violin lines with thumping beats in unusual time signatures. The album is wild and intense, and still sounds as original today as it did in the 70s.
43. Benny Goodman – At Carnegie Hall (1950)
Why Benny Goodman’s At Carnegie Hall is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
Goodman, a clarinet player and bandleader from jazz’s big band years, had the honor of bringing jazz to a major music hall for the first time ever in January 1938. He cautiously prepared for the show, believing that conservative critics might be harsh on the new music in the hall. The band played through some new material along with a history of jazz, performing ragtime and Dixieland hits. Perhaps as a result of overpreparation, the band was truly on fire and put on an excellent show. It confirmed Benny’s nickname – the King of Swing – and was well-received by contemporary critics, to the King’s relief.
42. Weather Report – Heavy Weather (1977)
Why Weather Report’s Heavy Weather is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
Fusion groups like Weather Report added to the funky, jazz-rock fiasco of the 70s. Heavy Weather was their eighth and most noteworthy album, featuring legendary fretless bass player Jaco Pastorius. It’s got a classic fusion feel, and you may recognize the album’s biggest hit “Birdland,” which is still popular today. If you’re curious about jazz-rock, Heavy Weather is a great place to start.
41. John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk – At Carnegie Hall (1957)
Why John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk’s At Carnegie Hall is Essential for Record Collections
This live recording was originally thought to be lost, until (thank goodness) they finally found the tape sitting around the Library of Congress in 2005. Coltrane joined Monk’s piano trio for this performance after he had been fired from Miles Davis’ band. When they came together for one night only at Carnegie Hall in 1957, all the artists were at the peak of their creativity, creating something magic in this legendary concert.
40. Jimmy Smith – Back At The Chicken Shack (1963)
Why Jimmy Smith’s Back At The Chicken Shack is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
Before Jimmy came around to shred its keys, the Hammond organ hadn’t reached its full potential and position in the jazz scene. Smith turned that all around with this record, showing how it’s done to all the aspiring organ players out there. He lays down bluesy, funky, home-grown vibes that are shakingly contagious, all while staying within the characteristic mood and feel of all the jazz greats.
39. Billie Holiday – Lady In Satin (1958)
Why Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin is Essential for Record Collections
One of the greatest vocalists in jazz history, Billie Holiday made a name for herself in the 30s and 40s. But by 1958, years of addiction and turmoil from her extremely complicated life had worn down her voice. This created an emotive power on her final records which can most intensely be heard on Lady In Satin, a record where Billie sings through ballads from The Great American Songbook. While her voice is not what it once was, her performance takes on a new power – it no longer needs to be perfect. Instead, it is so full of feeling and resolution that it could make anyone cry. Backed by an unlimited budget and a 40-piece orchestra, it was her last incredible record. She died a year later.
38. Count Basie And His Orchestra – April In Paris (1957)
Why Count Basie And His Orchestra’s April In Paris is Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
The aristocratic big band leader, like his duke contemporary, kept his jazz orchestra alive during the 50s. Smaller ensembles had become popular and would eventually replace them, but big bands still had their moments, like this album recorded in (ahem) New York in 1955 and 1956. Many critics have called April In Paris Count Basie’s best recorded moment, showing his adaptation to the bebop styles of the time while maintaining his flamboyant swagger. It’s one of the best, most classic examples of the exciting big band jazz that Basie was known for.
37. Horace Silver – Song For My Father (1965)
Why Horace Silver’s Song For My Father is Essential for Record Collections
Horace Silver, a keys player that innovated the two-horn frontline in his post-bop small-groups, put together this album in 1965. The double horns come together to make catchy motifs and melodies that are hard to shake from your head. Later, Steely Dan borrowed some of Silver’s melodies in the title track for their song “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” See if you can hear them next time you spin it!
36. John Coltrane – My Favorite Things (1961)
Why John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things is Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
When it came to melodic improvisation and composition, few pushed the envelope as far as Coltrane, who was known for his fast navigation of intense technical lines through one mode after another. On My Favorite Things, he shows off his chops on soprano sax, a less-commonly used cousin of tenor and alto saxophones. The album’s title track is, of course, based off the iconic track from The Sound Of Music, which Coltrane takes for a wild, uptempo ride with Eastern overtones. One of Coltrane’s more popular and accessible albums, he can be heard rocking out over the popular hit.
35. Louis Armstrong – Best Of The Hot 5s And 7s (released 2013)
Why Louis Armstrong’s Best Of The Hot 5s And 7s is Essential for Record Collections
Louis – also known as Satchmo – defined the “Jazz Age” as writer F. Scott Fitzgerald called it, in the second half of the 1920s. Satch’s trumpet playing and vocals were both iconic and revolutionary, transforming traditional music into a more comprehensive, creative art form. In 1925, he formed the Hot Five Band, and in 1927, he recombined it into the Hot Seven Band. Louis recorded some of his greatest hits with the groups, transforming him into a global sensation almost overnight. Released nearly 100 years later, this compilation album captures this fantastic period from one of jazz’s finest innovators.
34. Charlie Christian – The Genius Of The Electric Guitar (released 1987)
Why Charlie Christian’s The Genius Of The Electric Guitar is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
One of jazz’s first guitar greats, Charlie Christian hit the scene during the big band years in the 30s, with his best recordings captured on this compilation album. His solos used interesting melodic and harmonic concepts to anticipate the later popular bebop style, and his creative approach to the instrument inspired countless other jazz guitarists including Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, and George Benson. Sadly, Christian died young, at the age of 25, from tuberculosis. Nonetheless, his mark on jazz guitar can still be heard and felt today.
33. Erroll Garner – Concert By The Sea (1955)
Why Erroll Garner’s Concert By The Sea is Essential Jazz Vinyl
Garner, an impressively virtuous piano player and the composer of the standard “Misty,” played this show in Carmel, California, in 1955. Originally, the performance was meant to be a simple, unofficial recording for a local armed forces radio station, but when Garner’s manager heard the recordings, he was enthralled. He brought the tapes to Columbia Records, encouraging them to distribute and sell it. They accepted his offer, and by 1958, it had reached an impressive $1 million in sales. The recording is just as breathtaking, original, and captivating now as it was then, and it is a great picture of one of jazz’s piano geniuses.
32. Duke Ellington And Coleman Hawkins – Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (1963)
Why Duke Ellington And Coleman Hawkins’s Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins is an Essential Jazz Album
Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins had talked about playing together as early as the 40s, but for various reasons, their jam session never came to fruition. Not until 1963, that is. Duke was 64 years old, and several decades into his career, when he finally came together with the virtuoso tenor sax player. To highlight Hawkins, Duke selected a handful of his stars to form a smaller ensemble, rather than his traditional big band. The group’s playing is fantastic, and is a joyful meeting of jazz masters.
31. Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters (1973)
Why Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters is a Must-Have Jazz Record
Another Bitches Brew player, Herbie Hancock, continued fusion innovation in the 70s as well. Instead of mixing jazz with hard rock, Herbie combined jazz with funk and electro styles, utilizing electronic instruments like the clavinet and different synthesizers. Inspired by Sly Stone (see the track “Sly”) and James Brown, Herbie’s funk fusion is insanely catchy, and while it clearly has jazz’s melodic and harmonic characteristics, the album is simultaneously accessible and groundbreaking. Head Hunters rose to #1 on the US jazz charts and turned Herbie into a fusion and funk superstar.
30. Albert Ayler – Spiritual Unity (1964)
Why Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity is Essential for Record Collections
Following Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come in 1959, which defined free jazz and the avant garde, Albert Ayler established his voice in the genre. Spiritual Unity was his first significant album and shook the world with its intense, visceral sounds. One of the most challenging jazz albums to listen to, Ayler pushes harmonic and melodic boundaries to make them tense, pungent, and downright scary at times. Still, his performance is inspired, creative, and unique, and the otherworldly portrait that he paints still sounds incredibly vivid today.
29. Charlie Parker – Complete Savoy And Dial Studio Recordings (released 2000)
Why Charlie Parker’s Complete Savoy And Dial Studio Recordings is a Must-Have Jazz Album
One of the first great saxophone players, Charlie Parker was one of the main innovators who contributed to the creation of bebop. This compilation captures some of his best recordings for the Savoy and Dial record labels during the 1940s, when he was pushing speeds and harmonic limits to transform jazz into one of its most characteristic styles. Bebop transitioned jazz from being dance music into a bona fide art form, and the compilation captures the earliest years of bebop. These are also some of Parker’s final recordings before addiction started getting in the way of his music.
28. Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners (1956)
Why Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners is Essential for Record Collections
Brilliant Corners is considered by many to be the quintessential Monk album. It features the angular melodies, bizarre harmonic dissonances, and catchy swing that defined his sound. Idiosyncratic, misunderstood, and underappreciated by his contemporaries, Monk’s impressive innovation can be heard loud and clear on Brilliant Corners. The record also features colossal Sonny Rollins on tenor sax, who expertly handles Monk’s unusual progressions and changes.
27. Chet Baker – Chet (1959)
Why Chet Baker’s Chet is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
A few years into Chet Baker’s career, he was still known as a vocalist as much as a trumpet player. On Chet, he turned this reputation around, playing only instrumentals. The album is subtitled The Lyrical Trumpet Of Chet Baker, and as he plays through several ballads in different bebop and cool jazz feels, he masterfully wields the horn. Backed by Miles Davis’ rhythm section, Chet lays down some epic tracks that firmly established him as one of the best trumpet players around. He went on to become a public star of the West Coast cool jazz movement (even though he was from Oklahoma).
26. Charles Mingus – The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (1963)
Why Charles Mingus’s The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady is Essential for Record Collections
Charles Mingus, an essential bass player in any ensemble, was known for his emotive, powerful compositions and arrangements. On this album, you can hear some of his finest work, playing with an 11-piece band through dramatic arrangements by Bob Hammer. The album uses extensive overdubbing – which was unpopular at the time – to gather the full strength of its sound. Mingus combines jazz, blues, and gospel to put together what he called “ethnic folk-dance music.” The album clearly drew some inspiration from Duke Ellington, combining the Duke’s best and biggest feelings with Mingus’ mercurial individualism.
Before we get into the top 25 must-have jazz albums on vinyl, it’s important to note that these LPs are all fantastic in their own right. For such a diverse genre, it’s hard to compare all the different subtypes and hybrids objectively. There is a strong matter of personal preference.
That said, here are my picks for the top 25 must-have jazz albums for your vinyl collection. Explore these masterpieces to dive deeper into the genre, or if you know what you like already – fusion, hard bop, cool jazz, or avant garde, for example – be sure to pick up one of our top picks.
25. Wes Montgomery – The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery (1960)
Why Wes Montgomery’s The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
Jazz in the 1950s was dominated by horn players and the occasional keys prophet, with only a few guitarists making a name for themselves. Nonetheless, Wes was able to burst onto the scene in the second half of the decade. He didn’t know how to read music, nor did he care. Wes’ creative, playful improv uses horn-like melodies made up one-note-at-a-time. He also pioneered using block chords (thanks, Thelonious!) and unison octaves on guitar.
Wes Montgomery is one of jazz’s greatest guitar players, and many consider this incredible record to be his best. It includes unique compositions, some of which later became standards, including “Four On Six” and “West Coast Blues.”
24. Miles Davis – Birth Of The Cool (released 1956)
Why Miles Davis’s Birth Of Cool is Essential for Record Collections
Is Miles Davis the coolest jazz player who ever lived? I’ll leave that question to you. While he had some success playing backup in the mid-40s, Miles didn’t really become the Miles that we know until later. It all can be traced back to this record, where you can hear Miles break off from tradition and contemporary jazz for the first time. The arrangements are by Gil Evans, who worked with Miles throughout the 50s, and the album compiles recordings from three sessions in 1949 and 1950 with Miles’ nonet group. Instead of sticking with the wicked-fast bebop tempos of the era, he slows and cools things down, pouring his soul into each track. It’s an intensely cool record, and is one of the best recordings of Miles’ early sound.
23. Keith Jarrett – The Köln Concert (1975)
Why Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert is a Must-Have Jazz Album
Throughout the 70s and beyond, Jarrett took what he’d learned playing with Art Blakey and Miles Davis to the stage as a solo pianist. On the night of his most famous concert in Cologne, Germany, fate nearly conspired against him as a long drive, back pain, fatigue, and an unsatisfactory piano made performing a drag. After originally refusing to play, Jarrett calmed himself down and walked onstage to perform over an hour of arguably the greatest solo piano improvisation ever. The tension that had built before the show came pouring out of him in beautiful, intense music. The record is downright transcendent, and is the most sold solo-piano record ever.
22. John Coltrane – Blue Train (1958)
Why John Coltrane’s Blue Train is Essential for Vinyl Collections
After Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet broke up in 1957, largely due to Coltrane’s heroin addiction, the sax legend was sent spinning for several months, trying to find his way. He joined Thelonious Monk’s quartet for a time, and recorded Blue Train on the side. It was Coltrane’s first album as the session leader, featuring many of his own compositions.
Trane recorded Blue Train right after he cut his heroin addiction, and it’s widely regarded as his first great album. He recorded the album for the Blue Note label, even though he was still technically signed to Prestige with Monk. The sextet, many members of which came from Miles Davis band, plays through fantastic improv. Trane’s compositions hadn’t branched out into crazy music theory territory just yet, but you can still hear John’s classic approach to the instrument throughout the record.
21. Oliver Nelson – The Blues And The Abstract Truth (1961)
WhyOliver Nelson’s The Blues And The Abstract Truth is Essential for Record Collections
Nelson, a fantastic sax player and arranger, put together a group of stars to back him up on this album, which is considered his best. He combines with Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy, Breddie Hubbard, Paul Chambers, and Roy Haynes to play through unique, interesting arrangements. Nelson composed all the songs, and the album represents one of his first deep dives into the arranger role. The biggest hit from the album is “Stolen Moments,” which became a widely-played jazz standard.
20. Clifford Brown And Max Roach – Clifford Brown And Max Roach (1954)
Why Clifford Brown And Max Roach is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
If you haven’t heard of Clifford Brown, it certainly isn’t for lack of talent. He was one of jazz’s most promising trumpet stars, devastatingly killed in a car accident in 1956 at just 25 years old. In his few years of recordings, none can outshine his epic performance alongside legendary drummer Max Roach. The two formed a quintet with Richie Powell on keys (Bud Powell’s brother, who died in the same car accident as Brown), Harold Land on tenor sax, and George Morrow on bass. The album is revered by some critics as some of the best, most heartfelt bebop ever recorded. It is the quintet’s best record from its bittersweet two years together.
19. Louis Armstrong – Satchmo At Symphony Hall (1951)
Why Louis Armstrong’s Satchmo At Symphony Hall is Essential for Record Collections
Satchmo is rightfully one of the best-known jazz artists ever, noted for his compositions, vocals, and trumpet playing. In this 1947 concert in Boston, Satch brought his New Orleans style jazz with a 7-piece band. It’s one of his best concerts, with Louis’ traditional jazz blazing through the years of growing bebop. Pick up this record for a great taste of Satch’s iconic sound after decades of refining and experimenting.
18. Bill Evans Trio – Waltz For Debby (1962)
Why Bill Evans Trio’s Waltz For Debby is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
Few jazz pianists are as immediately recognizable as Bill Evans, whose gentle, sensitive approach to the instrument is perfection. Evans had always been interested in classical music as much as jazz, and always sought to combine the emotions and styles of both. He pioneered the piano trio ensemble, one of which can be heard on this record. Evans meets with Scott LaFaro on bass and drummer Paul Motian. The three can be heard in a pensive, nearly telepathic state of utterly relaxed flow.
The tracks on Waltz For Debby are taken from the same performance as another notable Evans record – Sunday At The Village Vanguard. Tragically, LaFaro was killed in a car accident just ten days after the legendary performance. It would be many months before Evans started performing with a trio again.
17. Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers – Moanin’ (1958)
Why is Art Blakey’s Moanin’ Essential for Record Collections
Art Blakey is one of jazz’s best swing drummers, and he could give a catchy feel to even the most chaotic and bizarre improvisations. His group, The Jazz Messengers, was sometimes called “The Hard Bop Academy” because of all the incredible bop artists that learned through its ranks. Moanin’ is widely considered the best album from the Academy. Blakey’s tracks anticipate the era of soul jazz that was soon to follow. The title track became an instant hit, with Blakey whacking away and doing a tremendous job swinging the catchy blues with his drums.
16. Billie Holiday – Billie Holiday Sings (1952)
Why Billie Holiday Sings is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
Billie’s first LP recording features her tremendously sad voice. After years of drug addiction and abusive relationships, her voice had grown darker. Some say that you can even hear an inherent sadness, but that it reflects an emotional honesty and vulnerability. Her gentle, wavering ballads are incredibly intense and evocative, shining through the darkness on this classic album.
15. The Quintet – Jazz At Massey Hall (1953)
Why The Quintet’s Jazz At Massey Hall is Essential for Record Collections
The Quintet came together for one night only, performing a show in Toronto in May 1953. The supergroup consisted of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach (what a lineup!). The one-off show was actually the final recording that Parker and Gillespie recorded together. The group performs through several standards on the record, which was once called the greatest jazz recording ever. Ironically, Mingus’ lines were barely audible on the original recording. He and Roach came together in the studio to overdub them before the record was released. The original recording (without the overdubs) can still be heard on the 2002 reissue, Complete Jazz At Massey Hall.
14. Duke Ellington – Ellington At Newport (1956)
Why Ellington At Newport is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
The story behind the Duke’s Newport concert is almost as great as the music itself. Ellington, a pioneer of the big band years, was immensely popular in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. But by 1956, big band jazz had fallen out of popularity, quickly getting replaced by small group bebop.
When Duke’s band showed up at the Newport Jazz Festival, they weren’t even signed to a record label. Perhaps this gave them extra freedom for exploration and innovation, and the band pulled out all the stops, playing some of their biggest hits. On “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” Duke is said to have told tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves to play as long as he wanted. The resulting 27-chorus tenor solo is a must-hear for anyone who likes jazz. The rest of the show is just as energetic, and some critics have called it the greatest performance of Ellington’s entire six-decade career! The crowd just couldn’t get enough, with several encores and one of the biggest ovations in the festival’s history.
13. The Thelonious Monk Quartet – Monk’s Dream (1963)
Why is The Thelonious Monk Quartet: Monk’s Dream Essential for Record Collections
If you want to hear some classic Monk, this is the record to buy. It features Thelonious Monk’s best quartet with John Ore, Frank Dunlop, and Charles Rouse, after they had been performing together for a few years. The quartet comes together beautifully, with each member perfectly complementing the others. Monk can be heard giving tons of space to his bandmates, who build off it wonderfully. Monk’s characteristic idiosyncratic style can be heard throughout the LP.
12. Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil (1965)
Why Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
During the beginning of his career, Shorter was overshadowed by John Coltrane. But with Speak No Evil, Wayne found his voice as both a composer and a sax virtuoso, casting aside that shadow forever. He combines with Elvin Jones, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Freddie Hubbard to create an incredibly influential record. He mixes styles of hard bop and modal jazz with short, punchy phrases to innovate in his own unique mood. Speak No Evil is one of the most underrated jazz albums, and its influence can still be felt today.
11. Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage (1964)
Why is Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage Essential for Record Collections
Herbie Hancock would later become famous for his contagious fusion, funk, and electro playing. But on his early albums, the keyboard player was striking acoustic pianos in more traditional jazz ensembles. Still, his characteristic, playful chord voicings and catchy melodies shine through on Maiden Voyage, which many listeners consider to be Herbie’s best record. The album has an oceanic theme, with each track progressing a little further along its journey across the ocean. The tracks are spacious, cool, and beautiful – a much lighter sound that was uncharacteristic of the mid-60s. “Dolphin Dance” is a catchy, medium-tempo swing that remains a fan-favorite even after Hancock’s rise to funk superstardom.
10. John Coltrane – Giant Steps (1959)
Why John Coltrane’s Giant Steps is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
That’s one small step for John Coltrane, one giant step for jazz music everywhere. On Giant Steps, Coltrane breaks far from the traditional bop framework. Instead, you can start hearing his personal style on the album, with notes flying at you with lightning speed, covering all sorts of vertical lines and arpeggios. Giant Steps was the first album where you hear Coltrane being what he later became known for, and it’s the first album of entirely original tracks. Some say that Giant Steps is what every saxophonist has always been chasing. Besides his ferocious melodic intensity, Trane’s more spiritual side can be heard developing on the album too, with softer tracks like “Naima.” He would go on to create even more personal records in the 60s, and it all started with a few Giant Steps on this album.
9. Dave Brubeck – Time Out (1959)
Why Dave Brubeck’s Time Out is Essential for Record Collections
Dave Brubeck went on an expansive tour throughout Eurasia in the 1950s, and immediately became inspired by the music he heard. Almost all contemporary American jazz music was in 4/4 time signature, or occasionally 3/4. But when he got to Turkey, he heard a folk song in 9/8, and immediately fell in love with the unconventional meter. He still recalled it once he returned home, infected by its feel.
On Time Out, Brubeck and his quartet navigate all sorts of bizarre time signatures, masterfully working them into catchy songs. Whether it’s “Blue Rondo á la Turk” in 9/8, “Pick Up Sticks” in 6/4, or the famous “Take Five” in 5/4, all the tracks on the album explore interestingly-timed feels that were extremely groundbreaking at the time. In fact, it was the first jazz album (and “Take Five” was the first single) ever to sell over 1 million copies.
Brubeck’s label, Columbia, only agreed to let him record Time Out if he would also record a more “normal” album, too. So Take Five was recorded and released alongside Gone With The Wind, an LP paying tribute to the songs of the American South. Gone With The Wind never quite rose to fame or popularity, fading with the breeze, whereas Time Out was an instant showstopper that shook the scene. Funny how that one worked out.
8. Cannonball Adderley – Somethin’ Else (1958)
Why Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
Shortly after Cannon played on Miles Davis’ Milestones, he led a record of his own. Somethin’ Else is a smooth blues-bop hybrid, with Cannonball leading a quintet through several standards and the Miles-penned title track. The record swings wonderfully, with Art Blakey adding his masterful grooves on drums. It’s one of the only times you’ll ever hear Miles Davis play backup to another artist after 1955, and he complements Cannon perfectly. Especially noteworthy is the version of “Autumn Leaves” on the album, which is a must-hear take on the track.
7. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (1970)
Why is Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew Essential for Record Collections
Miles set the paradigm for bebop and cool jazz with his albums in the 1950s, and he shifted the jazz scene’s paradigm again in 1970 when he released Bitches Brew. It was an incredibly strong shift, implementing electronic instruments and more groove-based improvisation, and the overall feel of the album is futuristic still today. Combining traditional jazz sounds with rock and funk, which had become popular during the 60s, Bitches Brew is the classic fusion record that defined the new jazz that dominated the 70s. There are two kinds of jazz albums: those that came before Bitches Brew, and those that came after.
6. Ornette Coleman – The Shape Of Jazz To Come (1959)
Why Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
A tenor sax player in some of the most competitive years for the instrument, Coleman found a niche by fervently innovating jazz in new ways. While Trane and Miles were playing modal jazz, Coleman took everything in a new avant garde direction. The Shape Of Jazz To Come is his quintessential (and by far his best) record, where he dropped the rulebook into a shredder and invented free jazz, a new tradition that became a mainstay and influence in jazz history, especially in the 1960s.
Instead of playing through long, repeated progressions, many of the songs use what’s called “time, no changes” – meaning, besides the head and the head-out, entire sections are improvised with no guiding chord patterns, opening huge doors of possibilities. Coleman placed a firm focus on beautifully phrased improv melodies and theme variations, and even though free jazz isn’t particularly structured, the album still has a catchy swing feel.
Many jazz records were given flashy names, especially during this era. In reality, Coleman wanted to call the album Focus On Sanity (the name of one of the tracks), but his producer insisted on giving it the avante garde and capricious title, The Shape Of Jazz To Come.
5. Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto – Getz/Gilberto (1964)
Why Getz/Gilberto is Essential Jazz Vinyl
Stan Getz, an American sax player, had been given some Brazilian records from a friend in the early 60s. He fell in love with the rhythmic feel of the music, and developed an obsession. Getz became a pioneer of bossa nova, a genre which fused Brazilian samba with jazz to produce a groovy fusion hybrid. In 1964, he teamed up with Brazilian Joao Gilberto to create this masterpiece.
Getz/Gilberto is often credited as having started the bossa nova craze, which soon spread worldwide. The album’s tracks are all fantastically tasty, with great rhythms and catchy melodies.
One of the most famous songs in jazz history appears on the album: “The Girl From Ipanema.” It was sung by Joao’s wife, Astrud, who had never sung professionally before, but who nonetheless put forth a legendary, chilling performance. It launched a well-deserved, fruitful solo career for Astrud.
4. Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um (1959)
Why Mingus Ah Um is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
Charles Mingus earned his reputation on the bass and was also one of the best bandleaders and composers of the 1950s and beyond. On Mingus Ah Um, he composes a series of thematic tracks that evoke different feelings and people, paying homage to his forebears. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is a tribute to saxophone legend Lester Young, who had died just two months before the song was recorded and who used to be famous for his noteworthy hat. “Jelly Roll” is, of course, a tribute to legendary New Orleans jazz pianist and 1920s pioneer Jelly Roll Morton, and “Open Letter To Duke” is an ode to Duke Ellington.
Besides evoking musical legends, Mingus takes a pointed social commentary with “Fables Of Faubus” – a protest against Arkansas governor Orval Faubus who resisted racial integration in schools. He also summons devotional music and preaching with “Better Git It In Your Soul.” Mingus’ creative thematic compositions come together to make one of the greatest, must-hear jazz albums ever recorded.
If you’ve studied Latin, you may recognize the wordplay in this classic album’s title. A masculine-singular noun in Latin ends in the suffix ‘-us,’ while feminine-singular and neutral-singular nouns end in ‘-a’ and ‘-um,’ respectively – hence the name. Some neat wordplay from an iconoclastic jazz great.
3. Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus (1956)
Why Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus is Essential for Record Collections
Sonny Rollins is sometimes overshadowed by his contemporary saxophone legend, John Coltrane. But Sonny developed and expressed a voice like none other on his own records, particularly during the groundbreaking 50s decade. Working through gentle and sometimes humorous swings, Sonny plays his tenor saxophone with a humility and playfulness that is sure to make you smile. He goes off interesting rhythmic themes and draws influence from his heritage, such as his take on the calypso track “St. Thomas,” which was originally a folk song from the island.
You also won’t want to miss his beautiful “Blue 7” thematic blues tune. Rollins improvises several themes throughout the 11-minute song, somehow managing to connect and flow from one to the next in a masterful, moving performance. While Trane pushed music theory to its limits, Rollins has a more playful feel to his improvisations, masterfully flowing through changes of all kinds.
Saxophone Colossus is as great today as it was half a century ago, with a huge legacy in jazz history. It is a mainstay in any serious listener’s collection.
2. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (1964)
Why John Coltrane’s Love Supreme is a Must-Have Jazz Vinyl
Our #2 and #1 picks probably won’t surprise you, as they’re widely regarded as the two best jazz albums ever recorded. Nonetheless, I’ll tell you a bit more about what makes them so great.
Trane had a complicated life and a struggle-filled history. After getting fired from Miles Davis’ band, he began to sober up in the late 50s, and soon formed his own small ensembles. Trane began intensely experimenting with modal jazz, pushing melodies and music theory to their absolute limit. I would argue that Coltrane did this to a greater degree than any other jazz musician since, and he did it beautifully, too. By 1964, Trane had gone through a spiritual awakening and a newfound connection with the divine. He expressed this through his devotional album, A Love Supreme, which many would consider to be his greatest masterpiece.
A Love Supreme is broken into four tracks, recorded one day at a quiet studio in New Jersey – “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” The four parts reflect Trane’s own spiritual journey, from a struggle for purity to an expression of gratitude. John believed his (and all) musical talent came from a higher power, if only the musician could connect with it. The album’s songs flare between turbulent chaos and melodic connection, constantly chasing and catching glimpses of that divine power.
The liner notes to the LP include a poem by Coltrane, expressing his devotion and gratitude to God. The album’s final track, “Psalm,” is said to be a musical narration of the poem, as performed on saxophone. In other words, the song is a recital of the poem, but on sax instead of verbally. Can you hear what I mean?
A Love Supreme is a must-hear for any listener of jazz, new or old. Like all the greatest jazz records, it goes beyond the music to create something purely transcendent and divine. In Coltrane’s search for a higher power, his sax can be heard infused with a full-hearted intensity on A Love Supreme that is unparalleled in any other work.
1. Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue ( 1959)
Why Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue is Essential for Any Record Collection
Widely regarded as the best jazz album ever, and still today the highest-selling jazz album, Kind Of Blue claims to fame put it at the top of this, and most, lists.
What is it about Kind Of Blue that makes it so iconic?
In a sentence: Kind Of Blue captures the peak creativity of jazz masters, each on their own instrument, as they come together to create something far beyond the sum of its exquisite parts.
It’s the classic Miles Davis album, featuring Bill Evans on keys, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums, plus Wynton Kelly on keys for “Freddie Freeloader.” Miles gave each musician a set of scales that he believed fit their playing styles and personalities, leading them through a set of freedom-filled modal experiments grounded in personal identity and masterful voice. Needless to say, it all comes together perfectly.
Earlier in the 50s, Miles had been playing a lot in the hard bop style that was popular at the time, but Kind Of Blue takes a more relaxed, contemplative feel. Each track on the album is ultra-cool, as we know and love Miles for, from “So What” – one of the most famous jazz songs ever – to the blues standard “Freddie Freeloader” and the smooth Evans composition “Blue In Green.”
Kind Of Blue is probably the sound most new listeners will think of when they hear the word “jazz,” and it captures the essential feel and flavor of the genre that persists still today. Though the tones, and even the styles, have changed, Kind Of Blue captures that which underlies all of it. It is without a doubt a masterpiece, and rightfully secures its spot at #1 on our must-have jazz LPs list. The only reason Kind Of Blue wouldn’t be in your collection is if you’re trying to make an anti-popularity statement, only confirming its legendary status. For those new to jazz: start here.
What Essential Jazz Vinyl is in Your Collection?
I hope you enjoyed this journey through decades of jazz history and the top 50 must-have jazz vinyl albums list with me. What do you think? Are there any albums that should be on this list that were left out? Should some albums be higher? Can you give me a good reason why Kind of Blue should not be at the top of this, and every, jazz list?! We’d love to hear from you – leave a comment below!