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Top jazz records of all time Print E-mail

Thursday, 05 December 2013 00:00

Written by Kallie Szczepanski

For almost 100 years, musicians have been creating and recording jazz music. With such a wealth of albums to choose from, it's difficult to pick the all-time best. Nevertheless, here are ten albums that are fun to listen to, have influenced other musicians, and mark some of the important moments in the evolution of jazz, America's music.  

1. "Take the A Train" by Duke Ellington (original release, 1941). Duke Ellington is a larger-than-life figure in the development of jazz, and this album shows why. Here the composer/pianist/conductor presents some of his greatest songs, such as "Mood Indigo," "How High the Moon," and the swinging title track. "Take the A Train" is truly one of the most important recordings of the Big Band Era.

2. "Birth of the Cool" by Miles Davis (1950). This album, featuring outstanding talent like Gerry Mulligan on bari sax and Max Roach on the drums, marks the beginning of a new type of jazz, the "cool school." This restrained form came to dominate jazz, particularly on the West Coast, for years afterward. Pieces like "Move" and "Jeru" defined the new sound of jazz, making this a must-have album for any jazz collector. (Bonus for French horn players such as myself; this album features three horn soloists, including the legendary Gunther Schuller.)

3. "Lady in Satin" by Billie Holiday (1958). This recording was made relatively late in Lady Day's career, and the ravages of hard living are evident in her voice. The broken-down vocal quality, rather than detracting from her performance, actually makes Billie Holiday's exquisite musical styling and heart-wrenching lyrics all the more effective. She is backed up here by the Ray Ellis band in full swirl.

4. "Time Out" by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959). At its original release, this album was panned by the critics for its experimental time signatures. The pieces are mostly in waltz time, but also 5/4 on "Take Five" and 9/8. "Time Out" includes "Blue Rondo a la Turk," and "Everybody's Jumpin'" as well as the Brubeck standard "Take Five," and has come to be considered a jazz classic despite its initial rejection by the jazz community.

5. "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis (1959). This may be the best-selling jazz album of all time; even people who don't particularly like jazz often own "Kind of Blue." The bebop style was beginning to collapse under its own intricacy at this time; tired of the increasingly baroque (and boring) path that bebop was taking, Davis pared it down into a new style called "modal jazz." The result was one of the most popular and influential recordings of all time, including such classic tracks as "Freddie Freeloader" and "Flamenco Sketches."

6. "Mingus Ah Um" by Charles Mingus (1959). Bass master Charles Mingus leads his band on a wild, rollicking ride on this recording; each track creates an entirely new mood, like a sound portrait of bipolar disorder. Warning- Be prepared to dance, then cry, then dance some more!

7. "Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin" by Ella Fitzgerald (1960). This Grammy Award-winning recording is my all-time favorite, because it was the first jazz album I ever listened to as a young child. This live performance includes Ella's unforgettable improvisational scatting on the lyrics to the title track; she couldn't remember the real words! "Ella in Berlin" showcases the supreme vocal mastery and absolute joy of singing that propelled the First Lady of Song.

8. "Empyrean Isles" by Herbie Hancock (1964). "Empyrean Isles" is a sketch-book of songs for cornet and rhythm section, free-wheeling and supple. It skips across the surfaces of different styles: modal, funk, free jazz, and "changes," mastering each but never getting tied down to any one of them. Pianist Hancock is joined by Freddie Hubbard on cornet, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams at the drums in some of his most-loved compositions, "Cantaloupe Island" and "One Finger Snap."

9. "The Magic City" by Sun Ra (1965). Sun Ra is one of the more eccentric, audacious, and colorful figures in the history of jazz. He was a visionary spiritualist and intellectual, who held fans at arm's length with wildly fictional versions of his own biography and beliefs. "The Magic City" is a sprawling, eerie vision performed in free jazz; the entire album includes only four pieces. Prepare to be taken on an interstellar flight of fancy by Sun Ra and his band.

10. "A Love Supreme" by John Coltrane (1965). Another album that includes just four pieces, "A Love Supreme" tops many critics' lists of the best jazz albums of all time. In it, Coltrane takes us on his own personal journey of redemption, baring his soul while amazing the listener with his sheer unrivaled technical brilliance. It also marks the transition in his playing between his early hard bop style, and later free jazz recordings. This album belongs in the collection of any serious music-lover.


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