In 1998, I bought a used CD of a 1979 Sonny Rollins LP, and it became my doorway to being a lover of the music called jazz. My father once commented that I wasn’t supposed to like jazz—and the wonder of this comment was that it was a compliment. He meant that he was surprised and impressed that someone who grew up with and loved pop music and couldn’t read or play music would become a devoted listener and collector of jazz. Here is a list of jazz recordings that have moved me considerably with some short notes on why. Some hard-to-categorize albums are included because of their kinship with jazz in terms of design and creativity. Albums are in no particular order. Both orchestral jazz and later developments in the music will be included in Part 2. Most of the selections are LP’s and original CD’s, but there are rare instances of multi-album sets.
1st Set – Jazz Modern and Classic:
1. Moanin’ (1958, Blue Note) – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
If you like your jazz in the form of the blues, this is a perfect album. It is a standard jazz quintet (piano, bass, and drums plus trumpet and tenor saxophone) manned by geniuses at every position. I recently shared this album with a guy who was a big fan of Stevie Wonder, Yes, and prog rock in general. After he listened to it, he said, “Wow, great music—where can I get more like it?” My reply was that it was a little bit like asking where you can get more of Abbey Road by the Beatles. Along with Art’s vibrant drumming style, the brilliance of this album emerges in the original compositions by pianist Bobby Timmons and the band’s then musical director and tenor saxophonist Benny Golson. On the piano, Timmons plays dense, almost gothic-sounding blues chords in his solos while Golson’s melodies and structures constantly surprise and excite. The Philadelphia-born Lee Morgan at the young age of 20 here, supplies some of the most spine-tingling and riveting trumpet solos I’ve ever heard. Ready for great music? Give Moanin’ a listen. It’s incredibly rich and original.
2. Live at the Pershing: But Not for Me (1958, Chess) – Ahmad Jamal
Over the course of his sixty-plus year (and still going) career, Jamal has consistently gravitated to the classic trio format, and his command of the piano is second to none. This album is a superb illustration of pitch-perfect wittiness, invention and stellar rhythm delivered live at the Pershing Club in Chicago. The eight-minute rendition of Poinciana on this record was edited and successfully charted as an R&B hit—and with good reason. Jamal’s performance of the closing track, “What’s New,” is reflective and surprisingly ominous in the final bars. The keynote achievement of this music is that it is innovative but very accessible.
3. Sonny Side Up (1957, Verve) – John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie with Sonny Stitt & Sonny Rollins
This album is a knockout presentation of the vibrancy and musicality that is possible when great jazz musicians get together. Dizzy provides a vocal on the opening tune and then his trumpet and the dueling tenor saxophones of the two Sonnies get all fired up from there. The Eternal Triangle is a 14-minute high energy jazz battle between Stitt and Rollins. After Hours is the greatest blues I’ve ever heard – Ray Bryant’s extended piano intro really sets things up and then Diz can be heard on the perimeter verbally stoking and tweaking his two saxophonists as these two champions heat things up. This is beautiful, proud Black American music of a perfect vintage and superb craftsmanship.
4. Concert by the Sea (1955, Columbia) – Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner is best known as the author of the jazz standard “Misty,” and this live concert recorded in Carmel, California is one of his most dynamic and complete recordings. The opener, “I’ll Remember April,” is quite simply a staggering display of piano wizardry. On the keys, Garner uses trills, staccato riffs, light twinklings, and then produces expansive, driving sections that sweep the listeners into his world. The audio on this recording is not very good, and Erroll’s famous background humming and vocalizing can be heard throughout the album—hilarious in its own way and somehow unmistakably authentic. The trio’s rendition of the standard “Autumn Leaves” is particularly rich in melody, pomp and sentiment. Like Duke Ellington, Erroll Garner was one of those uncommon musical talents who also comes across as being very centered, joyful, and lacking in egotism—and this comes through in the spontaneous one-liner that ends the album. Pure Brilliance.
5. Mosaic (1961, Blue Note) – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
This version of the Jazz Messengers is a sextet that retains only drummer Blakey and bassist Jymie Merritt from the earlier Moanin’ session. This recording introduces the piano of Cedar Walton, the tenor saxophone of Wayne Shorter, the trombone of Curtis Fuller, and the trumpet of one Freddie Hubbard. All of the compositions are new ones contributed by the group members, and the tunes have a searching, intense quality to them. The most beautiful might be Wayne Shorter’s “Children of the Night,” but all of them resonate. Art unleashes a galvanizing drum solo on the title track, and Jymie Merritt’s bass hums perfectly on Freddie Hubbard’s closer “Crisis”—which appropriately sounds like something emergent is happening. As it turned out that was quite true; these new messengers and their communications had unmistakably arrived.
6. The Cannonball Adderley Quintet Plus (1961, Riverside)
There’s something of a soul music crossover here on this album along with its genuine straight-ahead jazz pedigree. After all, when you cover Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t” and the Charlie Parker associated “Star Eyes” this well, you are firmly in jazz territory. But there’s something else going on too. Cannon’s alto sax solos are fluid and gorgeous as can be, but the vibraphones of Victor Feldman give the music an ethereal quality that complements the night-time, street scene imagery conjured by these tunes. Feldman’s brilliant tune “Lisa” is perfectly designed and expertly played by the group—check and mate. How did that one not become a giant hit and a jazz standard? The opener “Arriving Soon” is also quite a scene-setter, and the whole session is a gem of the post-bop era.
7. What’s New (1962, Bluebird/RCA) – Sonny Rollins
While Saxophone Colossus and The Bridge are often at the top of many lists of great jazz recordings and/or superior Rollins recordings (and rightfully so), I want to call attention to this one because of Sonny’s melodic improvisation in the context of island rhythms and Brazilian stylings. Three of the album’s five tracks feature Jim Hall’s electric guitar, and his brilliance as both a soloist and an accompanist is on full display in the Bossa Nova-oriented tunes. On “Jungoso” and “Bluesongo” Sonny performs in primal duets with percussionist Candido on congas. Sonny’s tenor saxophone sounds authoritative and endlessly creative, and this piano-less group answers the album title’s question with great skill and spirit.
8. Kind of Blue (1959, Columbia) – Miles Davis
Miles Davis is a fairly provocative figure in terms of his personality and history. Putting that aside for a moment, this recording is the best-selling jazz album of all time with good reason. Miles’s compositions are timeless, and the group is positively top-notch. John Coltrane is full of ideas on “All Blues,” and Cannonball Adderley plays with gorgeous lyricism on both takes of “Flamenco Sketches.” Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly shine on piano, while Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers anchor the flawless rhythm section. It would be disingenuous not to include this in any list of highly listenable jazz recordings.
9. Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (1962, Impulse)
Two all-time jazz masters play (for the first and only time) in an octet grouping culled from Duke’s orchestra. Hawkins’s tenor saxophone has its characteristic deep, rich sound, and he sounds perfect on this set of Ellington originals. One of the highlights is the “Self-Portrait of the Bean,” which was written especially as a vehicle for Hawk. Ray Nance switches over to violin to great effect for a few tunes, and this includes the beautiful, almost hypnotic rendition of Ellington’s “Solitude.”
10. The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960, Riverside)
With Tommy Flanagan at the piano in this quartet, Wes Montgomery presents a superior set of takes on a mix of standards and his own originals. This album is one of the most accessible on my list. “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” is very pretty and gentle while “D-Natural Blues” lives right up to its name—perfectly poised, melodic and at home in the idiom. “Mr. Walker” might be my favorite track with its sense of mid-tempo drive and attitude. This is a superb look at authentic jazz in the small group outing that published Wes’s greatness on the electric guitar. He would become known as “The Thumb”!
2nd Set – Voices in Jazz
11. Ella Fitzgerald In Budapest (Recorded in 1970, Pablo)
This live concert recording was not released until 1999, and as a fan of Ella’s singing beyond the bebop years, I find this to be my favorite album of hers. Tommy Flanagan plays piano, and Ella provides her uniquely energetic interpretations of the songs of Duke Ellington, Burt Bacharach and even Blood, Sweat & Tears. She has such a strong sense of humor and presence along with her vocal gifts, and we are lucky to have this great road show documenting her in peak form.
12. Sassy Swings the Tivoli (1963, Mercury) – Sarah Vaughan
This gold standard recording was created at the Tivoli Garden in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is a double-album (now a double CD) that was produced by the famous Quincy Jones, and it’s loaded with emotion, poise, and rich vocal artistry. Sarah sings a wealth of standards, including memorable renditions of songs from West Side Story and more overtly jazz-oriented material such as “Lover Man.” In the song “Misty,” pianist Kirk Stuart sings a duet with Vaughan in what turns out to be a sensitive yet almost vaudevillian performance in its showmanship. A great recording, just before the ‘60s became the turbulent decade we now remember it to be.
13. The Hottest New Group in Jazz (Recorded 1960-1962, Columbia) – Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross
Vocalese is the art of creating lyrics and vocals based on original jazz compositions and solos. This innovation went beyond mere scat-singing to honor great instrumentalists and explore new angles and layers in classic works of jazz. One of the best early practitioners of vocalese was the awesomely stage-named King Pleasure, and there was also the amazing Eddie Jefferson, who wrote lyrics to Coleman Hawkins’s famous improvisation of the standard “Body and Soul.” This group Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross are vocalese musicians who brought this technique into a feature presentation mode. This Hottest New Group CD is actually a compilation of 3 complete albums titled after their first one for Columbia. Jon Hendricks and his cohorts are in particularly superb form in their takes on the Ellington songbook. Annie Ross is hilariously cheeky on “Rocks in My Bed,” and the whole group shines on “Main Stem.” On “What Am I Here for?” the group waxes with humor and philosophical depth in a compact three minutes. This is frenetic, but well-coordinated vocalization built on decades of classic jazz.
14. Wild is the Wind (1965, Philips) – Nina Simone [reissued in a two-album CD w/ High Priestess of Soul]
From the spare beauty of the album cover to the unusual and striking set of songs herein, This Wild is a remarkable set. The title track is a ferociously romantic portrait as it is sung by Simone, and her original “Four Women” is one of the most haunting and socially conscious African-American ballads since Billie Holiday’s phenomenal “Strange Fruit.” Some of these tunes have a pop-symphonic structure while others are squarely in the jazz genre, but there’s no point to being a purist when Nina Simone is singing—whatever she wants to sing is OK with me.
15. Bop for Miles (Recorded 1990 & 1999, High Note) – Mark Murphy
On Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual television program in the 1960s, Mel Torme once said of Mark Murphy, “I think he’s an interesting singer, but I don’t think he’s a jazz singer.” Fifty years later, I would submit that he is both interesting AND an accomplished jazz singer. Murphy loves to scat, writes very canny lyrics, and possesses a rich vocal timbre. He also has a gift for infusing poetic storytelling and spoken word into his performances. On this tribute to Miles Davis, Murphy concludes the album with a heartfelt original song for the great trumpeter. The highlight for me is the up-tempo take of “Autumn Leaves” with an unbelievably beautiful and riveting piano solo by Peter Mihelich. An uncommon recording and a worthy tribute to Davis.
16. The Great Summit (Recorded 1961, Roulette) – Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington
The 17 songs that comprise these recordings paired the piano and written repertoire of the great Duke Ellington with Jazz’s one-man orchestra Louis Armstrong. The backing band is primarily Satchmo’s band members of the time, and they tackle the classics of the Ellington songbook with poise and humor. Apparently Duke Ellington also wrote “The Beautiful American” and the closing tune “Azalea” especially for this session, and Louis gives them all the care that these brilliant originals merit. A great album to hear Louis and a delightful glimpse at Ellington playing piano in a smaller than usual grouping for him.
17. Getz/Gilberto (1963, Verve) – Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto with Antonio Carlos Jobim
This recording is best known for “The Girl from Ipanema” with Astrud Gilberto’s vocal, but there is a lot of great music here along with that iconic single. Every track is rich in melody, and “Corcovado” in particular is truly arresting in its beauty. The acoustics and arrangements sound crystal clear as usual on Verve’s Master Edition reissue of the album, and its capture of the Best Album Grammy award for 1964 is completely justified.
18. Two Men with the Blues (2008, Blue Note/Angel) – Wynton Marsalis & Willie Nelson
These two men speak the language of music, and they are very much at home in the same dialect on this legitimately bluesy and swinging set of takes. Some tracks are recorded live, and all of them sound naturally and instinctively executed. Willie takes the majority of vocals, but Wynton chimes in on the hilarious “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.” Many classics are given stellar treatment here, including a poetic “Stardust” and a reading of “Down by the Riverside.” The one tune that makes me wince a bit at the lyrical content is “Ain’t nobody’s business” with its self-centered misogyny, but in some ways it’s a logical fit in a collaboration that is certainly no white-wash of musical history.
19. Encounter (1976, Milestone) – Flora Purim
Joining with fantastic instrumentalists like sax wizard Joe Henderson and pianist McCoy Tyner, the adventurous jazz-fusion singer Flora Purim delivers a diverse set of brilliant tracks here. Chick Corea’s “Windows” is given a superb reading as the opener, and from there the set alternates between energetic wordless vocals and gently put lyrics by Flora. An unusual collection of songs delivered by expert musicians.
20. John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963, Impulse)
This recording is one of my absolute favorite Coltrane recordings because of the consideration that he shows while in no way limiting the creativity and sincerity of his approach on the tenor saxophone. Johnny Hartman has a very rich, old-fashioned sounding voice that is perfectly suited to the classic tunes interpreted here. The Coltrane quartet is in exquisite form, and you can really hear Jimmy Garrison’s bass humming gracefully and propelling things along. “Autumn Serenade” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” really come together on this standout vocal/instrumental session.