Oh jazz, you magnificent and beautiful genre. You’re having a bit of a cool-kid comeback, aren’t you, with all those young, hip cats toying with your sounds and messing with your traditions. Good, I say, because you’re a genre that’s incredibly unique and, as a result, seemingly difficult to get into for some. We’ve all been there. “Jazz? Nah, I don’t listen to that unless I’m at the dentist or in an elevator.” Fuck Kenny G and his majestic curls. Jazz deserves more than being relegated to uncomfortable situations. It deserves to be consumed by anyone and everyone willing to open their ears and feel what often isn’t being said but played.
That’s where this list can help. As a jazz lover myself, but nothing close to what I’d call a proper aficionado, I reached out to my close friend and gifted jazz musician, Ryan Kowal, to help compile this list and share his insight. Dude is a seriously talented composer, vibraphonist, drummer, pianist, etc., and you should check out his music on his website. And you should listen to these albums. If not all of them, at least one or two. Jazz is more than filler noise used to drown out the anxiety that comes when you’re praying to the dental gods for no cavities. It’s also more than a genre for uptight folks who’d sooner tell you why you should listen to one artist over another.
Let’s cut the bullshit, embrace the genre, and just listen to some of the best jazz albums ever recorded.
While I personally fell in love with John Coltrane’s music through Plays The Blues and Blue Train (my two favorites of his, fight me), A Love Supreme is undeniably the man’s masterpiece (though I’d argue he has a handful). It’s the prototype for spiritual jazz, a subgenre that touches on exactly what you’d think with that name: spirituality. However, there’s nothing overtly religious or preachy here, merely a man expressing his faith through movements, chants, and downright gorgeous musicianship. To listen to this album is to be instantly blessed by some of the most beautiful music ever composed. A Love Supreme is one of those infallible records that everyone should hear and grow to appreciate, no matter your musical preference. You may not find god after listening to it, but you will find Coltrane, ya dig?
Ryan Kowal: As a jazz musician, playing and recording versions of other’s songs and albums is tradition. Within this tradition there are a few songs and albums that are off limits for this practice because of the impact and scope of the original. A Love Supreme is on the top of that list.
Another absolute monster and master of the genre, Miles Davis has a discography you could study for years. But it’s impossible to overlook the sweeping brilliance of Kind of Blue as both a rite of passage and an easily digestible entry point for newcomers. And that’s mostly because everything on here sounds so tightly composed and performed, which makes sense when you look at Davis’ band. Dude had two of the greatest sax players ever in his corner—Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley—in addition to pianist Bill Evans, who co-wrote two tracks on Kind of Blue and earned his own spot a little later on this list. With such powerhouses on his side, Davis conjured the best out of his squad while leading one of the most important pieces of American music ever created, regardless of genre.
RK: This may be the most popular jazz album of all time. It deserves that spot, because the playing, composition, feel, and atmosphere make it one of the most focused, deliberate, and intelligent pieces of art in history.
As soon as the title track opens the album, you know you’re in for something different with Return to Forever. It’s like a slow walk into the afterlife, calm and gorgeous, before eventually giving way to rich, textured layers of sound. Chick Corea’s music and keyboard wizardry, which I heard around the time I was introduced to Coltrane, has always struck me as fully enveloping. As a result, it cries out not only for a proper audio setup but perhaps a quiet evening and top-notch headphones. Not only that, but being segueing from epic closer “Sometime Ago - La Fiesta” right back into “Return to Forever” is truly stunning. The layers breathing through each and every track are worthy of hours of exploration, especially when singer Flora Purim steals the show throughout the flourishes of “What Game Shall We Play Today.”
RK: The first element that sticks out to me is the way that percussionist Airto Moreira applies unconventional patterns to the drumset. If that doesn’t hook you; the soloing, amazing songwriting, and beautiful Brazilian vocalist Flora Purim will.
The oldest album on this list (it dropped in 1954), Chet Baker Sings is probably the most accessible, too. Oh, and it’s definitely the coolest. Dude’s swagger was on another level, as was his effortless approach to the trumpet and the mic. This is actually his debut as a vocalist following a number of records focused on his talents with his brass instrument of choice. There’s still plenty of trumpet on here, but the then-mid-20s artist puts his super-smooth and light vocals at the forefront, delivering classic turns of equally classic standards including “My Funny Valentine,” “Like Someone in Love,” and “There Will Never Be Another You.” Snap your fingers, grab some red wine or tea, and dim the lights. There, now you’re ready for Chet Baker Sings.
RK: Chet’s singing and trumpet playing make you feel warm inside. His feel and tone are unparalleled. Cocktail parties be warned, Mr. Baker is setting the mood.
Iron Man, one of many posthumous Eric Dolphy compilations (he died at age 36), was my proper introduction into this particular jazz giant. And while I wouldn’t steer anyone away for grabbing a copy of it, you’d be wiser to snag Out to Lunch! first. Similar to several other albums on this list, this record seamlessly combines the difficult with the simple, allowing ears of all kinds to take it in, digest it, and grow to love what they’re hearing. There’s something to seemingly straightforward playing and compositions that makes them so endearing, not because they’re instantly engaging but because there are so many layers. Consider Richard Davis’ horror movie-ready bass on “Hat and Beard,” Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone madness on the title track, and the WTF moments of all-out weirdness on “Straight Up and Down.”
RK: This is on my list of best albums of all time, not only in the jazz idiom. Dolphy’s compositions, solo forms, and instrumentation are the perfect balance of straight-ahead jazz with some out-there tendencies (hence the name).
Anthony Braxton - The Montreaux/Berlin Concerts
Alright, y’all, let’s get a little weird. You’re about nine minutes into “Z Wbn D38” before bam! everyone swings into the mix with Braxton’s squawking sax leading the assault. This live recording from 1975 and ‘76 isn’t exactly for the faint of heart, making it one you should definitely consider if you’re down to dive into something more avant-garde. But just because the playing on here gets wild doesn’t mean you can’t sit with it nor enjoy it; quite the opposite actually. There’s so much going on throughout these recordings that you’d be hard-pressed to understand what’s happening after five listens, never mind the first. There are some artists whose music is best heard in a live setting, and Braxton is definitely one of ‘em. This is some transcendent playing (the freakouts on “84 Kelvin - G”? Come on!), and you’d do well to venture into Braxton’s territory.
RK: Anthony Braxton and band were in top form when these concerts were recorded. The mixture of modern classical with jazz, coupled with a new notation and rules about how to play music, make these concerts a must listen to all musicophiles.
Wayne Shorter - Speak No Evil
Speak No Evil is another one of those supergroup-esque recordings from jazz’s mid-1960s golden era. With the almighty Wayne Shorter and his sax steering the ship, we hear Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, and Elvin Jones at the same damn time. This is a murderer’s row of players, a quintet of giants, all absolutely killing it. And the thing is, it all sounds so natural and, as I’ve said several times in this article, effortless that newcomers won’t feel burdened down by abstract ideas or experimentation. Speak No Evil is a timeless classic because even as it pushed the boundaries of jazz, it did so without pretension or fluff, just equally stunning compositions and playing (the ballad “Infant Eyes,” especially). If you want to hear some real smart-guy shit on this album, peep Murray Horwitz’s take.
RK: Wayne Shorter is one of the greatest composers to come out of the jazz genre. This album features some of his most well-known and interesting compositions. His songs are deceptively hard to perform, but the musicians on this recording bring them to life, seemingly effortlessly.
Given that Bill Evans is both a pianist and the bandleader in this scenario, his work on the keys clearly takes precedence. He’s also only joined by two other players, drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro, who supply the foundation for Evans to show off his immense talent. And sure enough, he has plenty of opportunities to shine on this three-disc live collection recorded at the historic Village Vanguard in New York. But this is more about how he, Motian, and LaFaro gel so seamlessly, whether they’re delivering dreamy takes on standards like “My Foolish Heart” or tearing through Miles Davis covers (“Solar” and “Milestones”). Those elements help to make this collection so palatable and easy to listen to, which of course helps when you’re committing to this much music in one sitting.
RK: Bill Evans changed the way a piano trio operated. The drums and bass had equal say in terms of melody, phrasing, and form. This trio is one of the best ever recorded, primarily because they play as one instrument.
To appreciate and understand Thelonious Monk’s playing and compositions, you don’t need to look any further than Brilliant Corners. He puts it all out there on these five songs, from his stubbornness on the opener/title track (it was pieced together from over two dozen takes) to his outright playfulness (he added the celesta to ballad “Pannonica” after stumbling across it in the studio). And it’s really “Pannonica” that’s the most immediately gripping, thanks to Monk’s addition of the dreamy celesta and Sonny Rollins’ simply lovely sax work. The slow-moving track captures Monk’s genius with a hint of youthful wonder, and it makes more difficult tunes (like the aforementioned opener) a bit easier to grasp. The same goes for “Bemsha Swing,” which is perfection and pure ear candy. If “Pannonica” somehow doesn’t do it for you—though I truly believe it will—listen to “Bemsha Swing” with a side of coffee. Oh, and that “Hat and Beard” joint by Dolphy I shouted out earlier? It was dedicated to Monk and his love of hats.
RK: Monk’s angular piano and complex compositions make this album a classic. His style is instantly recognizable and is both pleasant and an assault to the ear all at once. His music is still influencing modern styles of jazz more than 30 years after his death.
The Shape of Jazz to Come is deceptive in name. By that, I mean its title will likely leave you feeling like, “Holy shit, this must be one difficult album to listen to.” And while that can be true at times, it’s also extremely palatable to anyone ready to season their ears with songs that changed the way jazz was composed. You know, hence the album name, which points to how the genre would be shifted and toyed with over the coming years. To call Ornette Coleman a pioneer almost feels too easy, though that’s exactly what he was—even up until his passing in 2015. And to think he released this in 1959! While I suggest listening to it all the way through, queue up “Peace” if you need a taster. It splits the difference between out-there mayhem and low-key beauty, especially those last 90 seconds. Play it now and you’ll get it. You’ll also have a talking point in any conversation about Refused if, you know, you have conversations about them.
RK: Anyone looking to get into jazz needs to listen to Ornette Coleman. His approach to form in music changed the course of music history. Before Coleman, most songs were based on chords and forms, which he did away with. The melody was the central focus and everything else could be shifted.