Of course what I really mean is ‘these are my favorites’. Two rules: 1. no greatest hits compilations, and 2. a limit of only one choice per artist – otherwise you might see a list containing John Coltrane and Miles Davis only.
My list is below. Let’s begin with three other lists of “best” jazz albums.
Best Jazz Albums: Essential Albums You Need To Hear
This was the most authoritative of the three marginally worthwhile lists I found. Eighty selections, their top five are here:
1: Miles Davis: Kind Of Blue (Columbia)
2: John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (Impulse!)
3: Dave Brubeck Quartet: Time Out (Columbia)
4: Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um (Columbia)
5: Ornette Coleman: The Shape Of Jazz To Come (Atlantic)
Rolling Stone’s Best Jazz Albums of All Time
A strange list. In Rolling Stone’s world, Norah Jones, the Buena Vista Social Club, and Frank Zappa are all jazz artists. Out of a list of 57 total selections Norah Jones gets 4 slots, Frank Zappa gets 6, and the Buena Vista Social Club gets 2. Two of the Rolling Stone choices are unanimous selections – they appear on all three lists: Miles Davis’ recordings ‘Bitches Brew’ and ‘Kind of Blue’.
Here is the Rolling Stone top five:
1. Miles Davis – ‘Round About Midnight
2. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
3. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
4. Ray Charles – My Kind of Jazz
5. John Coltrane – Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album
Top 25 Jazz Albums of All Time
Hmmm…23 of the 25 also show up in the first list above. One of their two unique personal choices was ‘Thelonious Monk At Carnegie Hall – Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane’. I’ll buy that one; but the other one was “A Boy Named Charlie Brown – Vince Guaraldi Trio”. Really? That’s shallow.
Here’s their top five:
1. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
2. A Love Supreme, John Coltrane
3. Time Out, Dave Brubeck
4. Ellington at Newport, Duke Ellington
5. Jazz At Massey Hall – The Quintet
You decide. Here’s my top ten, in no particular order:
1. Billie Holliday ‘Stay With Me’
By consensus Billie Holliday is the greatest jazz singer of all time. She had a long career, stretching from the early thirties through her death in 1959. Miles Davis is quoted saying he prefers the Billie Holiday of the fifties: “She’s become much more mature….. She still has control, probably more control now than then.” Released in 1958.
2. ‘Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley’
This is one of the first jazz albums I ever bought. I was bewitched by it from the first listening; and it stays with me today as a model of sophistication, fun, and great melody. The real mystery to me is why Nancy Wilson didn’t do more jazz recordings. Looking at her catalog, it seems to me this is the only one; the rest are all mainstream pop albums that were common in the early 60s. You won’t see this album on any of “best” lists, but allmusic.com says: “Given the play list and the outstanding artists performing it, why any serious jazz collection would be without this classic album is difficult to comprehend.” Released in 1962.
3. ‘Johnny Hartman John Coltrane’
I don’t think there’s any other singer that sounds even vaguely like Johnny Hartman. This album is probably strong medicine for anyone with a 21st century sensibility. They’ll gag at the saccharine quality, but this is deep stuff. Johnny Hartman is a caricature of a certain model of male sophistication, joined in this session with the greatest jazz saxophone player of all time. Jazzfuel.com calls it “one of the classic jazz ballad albums of all time”. Released in 1963.
4. Charlie Haden ‘Haunted Heart’
An eccentric choice, I don’t think it will appear in anyone else’s list of top recordings. I don’t know LA or Hollywood at all, but this breathes Humphrey Bogart and Raymond Chandler. Charlie Haden evokes the spirit of Hollywood circa 1930-1940. Alternatively, get ‘Always Say Goodbye’ also by Charlie Haden. Beautiful and strange. Released in 1992.
5. Miles Davis ‘Miles Smiles’
This is the second album recorded by the Miles Davis Quintet, featuring Miles Davis with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. Most other top jazz lists point to ‘Kind of Blue’, but this is my favorite. Allaboutjazz.com says “this is a delicately great album, both unusual and tender in its art.” Allmusic.com says “This is music that demands attention, never taking predictable paths or easy choices … utterly brilliant … They’re playing for each other, pushing and prodding each other in an effort to discover new territory. As such, this crackles with vitality, sounding fresh decades after its release.” Released in 1967. Alternatively, see the 8 CD compilation ‘Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965’.
6. Duke Ellington ‘Far East Suite’
I love Duke Ellington’s earlier stuff, especially the small group recordings and the Blanton-Webster band, but this is my Duke Ellington pick. I can only have one. The album was inspired by a world tour Ellington and his band made in 1963. Billy Strayhorn gets the composer credit, the album was released in 1967 shortly after Strayhorn’s death.
7. Bill Evans ‘Waltz for Debby’
Pianist Bill Evans recorded and played with both Miles Davis and Chet Baker, and led and recorded with his own groups. According to udiscovermusic.com he is “Widely considered to be one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, Evans’ use of harmony and his inventive and impressionistic interpretation of the jazz repertoire has few peers.” This album was recorded live at The Village Vanguard. Jazzfuel.com calls the recording “introspective and thoughtful”. Yes, and beautiful. I love live recordings from small clubs. This album also appears on the udiscovermusic.com list, cited above. Released in 1962.
8. McCoy Tyner ‘The Real McCoy’
Incredibly, McCoy Tyner does not appears on any of the top jazz recording lists I looked at. McCoy Tyner recorded extensively with John Coltrane and had a long solo career. He left John Coltrane’s band in 1965, this album was released in 1967. On this album McCoy Tyner is teamed with Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones.
9. John Coltrane ‘Afro Blue Impressions’
This is a live concert recording from 1963, released in 1977. It’s got it all, the classic lineup of Coltrane with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones, performing at shows in Berlin and Stockholm. Thom Jurek wrote in a review on allmusic.com: “Afro Blue Impressions is the sound of one of the greatest — albeit short-lived — quartets in jazz history completely coming into its own in concert.”
10. Herbie Hancock ‘Maiden Voyage’
Released in 1966. Quoting from a user review on allmusic.com: “One of the most sublime albums of all time, “Maiden Voyage” represents not only the pinnacle of Herbie Hancock’s late 60s acoustic work, but quite possibly that of his entire career. ” According to udoscovermusic.com “Eminently accessible yet with an ear for what was cutting edge at the time, Maiden Voyage is the jewel in Hancock’s Blue Note crown”. This album appears on both the udiscovermusic.com and thejazzresource.com lists, cited above.
The ones that got away
I deliberately avoided listing greatest hits compilations because it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, and because they’re artistically tainted. If you like greatest hits albums, you can’t miss with this one: “The Best of Miles Davis & John Coltrane (1955-1960)”. Otherwise, these are two singers I love, and they are both otherwise inaccessible, so greatest hits compilations are advised:
Ivie Anderson ‘An Introduction To Ivie Anderson: Her Best Recordings 1932-1942’
Ivie Anderson (1904 – 1949) was the best singer the Duke Ellington band ever had. If you’re not familiar with her see some of the many YouTube videos of her with the Ellington band.
Lee Wiley ‘Time on My Hands’
Allmusic.com says Lee Wiley (1908 – 1975) was “one of the few white vocalists with more respect in the jazz community than the popular one”. She has a husky voice and a very nice understated sense of rhythm; for example on my favorites “How Long Has This Been Going On?”, and “Let’s Fly Away”.
The Bottom Line
There’s no accounting for taste!