10 Jazz Albums to Listen to Before You Die

Categories: all that jazz
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Because there are multiple decades of jazz, it's almost impossible to pick the top 10 albums of all time; the hip cats with their canes and cool shades will throw their used saxophone reeds in my direction and call me a young whippersnapper.  The debate is so polemic that I might as well write about the Top 10 abortion clinics.  But so many people out there, young or even a bit older, are curious about jazz, and they're not exactly sure where to start.  So, this list will highlight the top 10 jazz albums you must listen to before you die.  It's kind of like a jazz bucket list that ensures that you used your time on this Earth to hear some of the masterpieces of a true American music.  I'll be mostly in the 50s and 60s range, but will occasionally branch out.  So, here we go. 




10. Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come

This album title, when it came out in 1959, was the equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing to the fences or Muhammad Ali proclaiming he was the greatest.  It was an album that said, you hear this sound, you hear what I'm laying down, everything is about to change. Ornette Coleman went from playing the sax to the trumpet, and he received scorn from Miles Davis who publicly questioned Coleman's sanity and technical ability.  And because the album is often credited as being the anchor to avant-garde jazz albums, this album might just sound a bit strange to the newbie's ear.  But Coleman was trying to move away from tradition, shattering conventional ideas of harmony and axing the piano, to create a new dimension of sound.  Give it a shot -- free of expectations.




9. Sonny Rollins, The Bridge

When you put on this album, take a tumbler of whiskey and imagine you're staring out at New York City.  After a sabbatical from music, Sonny Rollins returned triumphantly in 1962 with The Bridge.  The title track, "The Bridge," was named after The Williamsburg Bridge in New York City, which connects Manhattan to Brooklyn, and Rollins used to head down to the bridge to practice.  He's a sax player who wanted to be his own man, an individual.  This album is accessible to the novice.   




8. Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters

Herbie Hancock helped bring the synthesizer and the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano to mass appeal.  And this 1973 album was influenced by Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone.  Even if you don't like jazz but you love funk and soul, then this album is for you.  At one point, Head Hunters was the best selling jazz album of all time.  Be warned though, there is experimentation happening here, but the funky drums will keep you driving forward throughout the whole album.  





7. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis

Imagine it's a Friday morning, and you have the day off.  It's you and your significant other. You have no where to go, and it's raining (such a rare oddity here).  Well, this is the album you need to be playing to create that perfect atmosphere -- an album with so much space, soaring trumpet solos, and a duet so unique and soulful even a jazz newbie can't ignore it's grip on their heartstrings.  you'll swear that you were just baptized.  It's a 1956 album dripping with nostalgia.  Plus, the band features Oscar Peterson (piano) and Buddy "Freaking" Rich (drums). Before you bite the bullet, well, you need to listen to an album with such a dreamy atmosphere to ensure, at least once, you feel romantic and drenched in "Moonlight in Vermont."  




6. Miles Davis, Bitches Brew

Now, I'm not saying that you have to like this album.  But it's an album you just have to listen to before you die; it's kind of like looking at Abstract Expressionism or listening to Morton Feldman -- it just might not jive with you.  Bitches Brew was released in 1970.  The first time I heard this album, I thought it was a joke.  In fact, I was kind of pissed.  Where was the melody?  Where was the catchy rhythm?  Well, it's so shocking the first time you hear the album, even today, that it forces you to question what jazz and music can be.  It makes you think about structure and limitations of our current music.  The prison of the human ear.  Ah, enough of that.  Just listen to the album.  Chaos and cacophony defined. 




5. The Thelonious Monk Quartet, Monk's Dream

Probably one of the hippest figures in jazz, Thelonious Monk was a genius who was able to see notes on the piano that didn't even exist in Western music.  Here's what I mean: when he would sit down on the piano, he would strike two half notes (notes next to each other that sound awful when played together) to simulate the imaginary notes between the two piano keys.  He was so out there and amazing, and Monk's Dream (1963) is just an example, an imprint of strange and beautiful blaps and boops that were being electrified in his mind.  Monk's Dream was about color; it's a visual experience as much as an auditory one.  Listen to the album and just let it take over. 




4. The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out

This 1959 album was the soundtrack for parties in New York City and the staple in any bachelor pad.  Without this album juicing the sophisticated and artsy minds of New Yorkers and beatniks alike, many of us probably wouldn't have been born.  At the time, it was considered an artsy piece, but today, the deviation from standard time and the hip swing might just feel traditional.  Even if you've never intentionally heard this album, a song like "Take Five" has been so omnipotent in our culture -- movies, television, and (sadly) malls -- that you'll instantly recognize this classic.  It's an album that screams Donald Draper and nightcaps.  Check it out and find yourself whisked away to another time and place.  




3. Charles Mingus, Ah Um

Charles Mingus is the godfather of the upright bass, and in 1959, he put out Ah Um, which many consider to be a masterpiece, and it cemented Mingus as a legendary composer.  He combined elements of gospel and blues.  The opening track, "Better Get It Into Your Soul," is not just a ruckus jubilation; it's a command -- the driving brass, the dixie-land rapture and the voice calling out in joy -- to stop doing whatever it is that you're doing in your life and take into your heart and body this music.  Ah Um is a roller coaster ride through fast and slow tempos, cacophony and perfect harmony, and a touch of madness.  



2. John Coltrane, Blue Train

John Coltrane is clearly one of the leaders of the jazz identity.  If you think about the course of hip hop, then can you really imagine groups like Tribe Called Quest or even someone like Tupac without a cultural and musical prophet like Coltrane?  Of course, A Love Supreme is an incredible album, but Blue Train just has so much life and color that it's impossible to ignore  before you kick the bucket.  Recorded back in 1957 on Blue Note, Blue Train was Coltrane's favorite album.  And if you haven't heard it, then it will surely be one of yours soon, too. 


1. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

I can still remember the first time I heard this album.  I was 17, and I was driving my Subaru Legacy Wagon in the rain.  I drove the car to my grandparent's house, and I put on the album.  It was only about a five-minute drive, but I ended parked outside of their house, the windshield wipers swatting away rain -- the album blaring.  I sat in the driveway until the album ended, and, well, music was never the same for me.  It's a composition, released in 1959, that is often considered the definitive jazz album.  Honestly, there are some jazz purists who probably would die if they found out our generation was unfamiliar with this album.  Just listen to who was featured on this album: Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb.  If you're about to go sky diving, and you're not sure if you're going to survive, then play this album on the car ride over to the airport. Kind of Blue is an album many critics try and define why it is so great, but everything you need to know comes across when you hit play.  Let's not try to put it into words.  It might be something unsayable.  

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62 comments
brianhickam
brianhickam

Sonny Sharrock "ASK THE AGES" is also a gem.

bdennis2756
bdennis2756

"Headhunters" should not be on this list.  There are much better albums (Like "Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section."  It is light years beyond Headhunters).  Don't get me wrong, Herbie is one of the best and one of few masters who are still breathing, but this is not a great album.

 

fighto
fighto

@recborg I like the social playlists that you collaborate on with friends.

paulnshapiro
paulnshapiro

Slowly making my way through all of these albums at work and loving them!

schneiderdavid73
schneiderdavid73

It'd be silly to fault the choices here but I'd take "Thelonius Monk – Live at the Five Spot" over anything the man ever recorded in the studio.

OC Weekly
OC Weekly

Adam: Actually, web editor Taylor Hamby runs this, and she does a GREAT job!

Steve Ramirez
Steve Ramirez

I'm not defending Skrillex. I don't listen to his stuff, but really?

Adam Kreutzer
Adam Kreutzer

My post was in no way an endorsement of Skrillex. It just seems like the person running OC Weekly's FB account barely graduated high school.

Adam Kreutzer
Adam Kreutzer

Can you guys get a new Social Networking Intern? This person is terrible.

semaj_leinad
semaj_leinad

Hello people, there is no right or wrong here. Just one person's opinion.

OCWeekly
OCWeekly

@caleb_lund Gracias for RT!

CulturaFonds
CulturaFonds

@SweetCharlie tough one. Blue note doet compilaties met de tien beste van beroemdheden zoals Carice van Houten, zag je dit? #jazz

henrycherry
henrycherry

Who doesn't love a list that includes Armstrong and Ornette Coleman? I mean whatever your different choices may be, this list has legs, man. Mingus, Davis, Coltrane. All here. Sure Duke and Prez and Hawkins and the Yardbird miss out, but the important thing is their influence is felt. 

anahatamusic
anahatamusic

As I said these are all good albums but not necessarily the 10 best. They are what are popular all time faves. peyoteplayer, if you have hate in mind  it's all yours. Quite a few of the comments below also expressed differences. ie; 'why no Charlie Parker. Still, this is a great listening opportunity. Is Haterade your organization? Why would you venture to say my message is sponsered by Haterade?. I've never heard of it. Personally I love Jazz, play jazz piano in the clubs for the last 40 years. No Keith Jarret, no Bill Evans, no Chick Corea but what is there is excellent.

anahatamusic
anahatamusic

good albums but not the 10 best by any means. Only one white guy. No Bill Evans. Kind of a band wagon popular collection no contemporaries Short sighted and all oldies.

NoamSane
NoamSane

Interesting read, thank you. I would add Grant Green's "Quartets" released just a few years back, but dating from around 1960, as a primer on jazz guitar.

 

...but please get out your dictionary and note the difference between the words "Jive" and "Jibe."

seulbzzaj
seulbzzaj

No Charlie Parker, Lester Young, or any of Louis Armstrong's major recordings? Crazy.

elliottsharp
elliottsharp

@ArsNovaWorkshop BLACK ARK, UNIT STRUCTURES, OM, LOVE IS EVERYWHERE, NATION TIME, ECHO, LIVE AT PANAFRICAN FEST, MACHINE GUN, LIVE EVIL, etc

shit_thunder
shit_thunder

@nicklucchesi @OCWeeklyMusic The writer did a good job connecting the albums to atmosphere. Good read.

CriscoMatt
CriscoMatt

@CataldoAndrew I think good! are you trying to get your hands on these albums?

donberryman
donberryman

Great albums. but if I were to pick only one Coltrane album. maybe go with "Coltrane s Sound",  "Ole", of "Giant Steps"

swenglishdrake
swenglishdrake

@Reklamaren Mate, I am no connoisseur. Thanks for tip will check them out. Im currently overhauling my Spotify account : )

rae_snakeeye
rae_snakeeye

@MagnieShearer too much to do before we die. Listen to records and expect scotland to win. #nochance

SweetCharlie
SweetCharlie

@CulturaFonds Nog niet gezien maar nu je het zegt zal ik het zeker doen :)

nicklucchesi
nicklucchesi

@shit_thunder are you going to Gateway to the West fest? i'll be back there for a few days this weekend.

MagnieShearer
MagnieShearer

@rae_snakeeye Yea! No chance of surviving long enough for Scotland to qualify for anything, so resorted to just 10 LP's instead ... :)

anahatamusic
anahatamusic

 @peyoteplayers Saying that they are the ten albums you have to hear before you die is kinda like saying they are the 10 best. Probably few can agree on a 10 best. What you have done is misquoted me and attempted to put words in my mouth. Shoot first, aim later. You must be a Republican.

shit_thunder
shit_thunder

@nicklucchesi No. I don't think I know any of the bands playing. I don't think I've been to a hardcore show in well over a year.

nicklucchesi
nicklucchesi

@shit_thunder it's an addiction for me. I will be there

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