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What are the most famous jazz albums of all time?

With more than 100 years of brilliant jazz music now readily available – any more coming each week – figuring out what to listen to is no easy task!

In this article we’ve highlighted 10 essential jazz albums which every jazz fan needs to know.

Of course, there are many (many!) more which we could have included, but we hope you’ll agree these 10 are a great place to start…

10. Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook

This 1957 studio album was part of Fitzgerald’s “Song Book” series of albums. Of all the albums in the series, it is the only one in which the composer also features as a performer. This album was also the first time that Fitzgerald recorded with Ellington.

The album features many moments in which Fitzgerald gets the opportunity to exhibit her skills at scat singing, and her performance saw her win a Grammy Award for ‘Best Jazz Performance’ – at the 1st ever Annual Grammy Awards no less!

9. Wes Montgomery: Smokin’ at the Half Note

This 1965 album was performed by Wes Montgomery and the Wynton Kelly Trio. The album is the result of a live recording at the Half Note Club in New York City in June, and a studio recording at Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey, September of the same year (1965). 

The album features Montgomery’s brilliant guitar skills with the same rhythm section that backed Miles Davis in 1959-1963: Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. 

The album is most notable for helping to establish “Unit 7” and “Four on Six” as jazz standards.

8. Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters

Herbie Hancock got his big break as part of Miles Davis’ band in 1963 as part of his Second Great Quintet. 

Despite a busy schedule recording on masterpieces such as E.S.P and Miles Smiles, Hancock was able to record prolifically during the 1960s primarily for the Blue Note label, where he can be heard on many records as both a leader and a sideman. 

However, the album that helped him to infiltrate audiences of all musical styles came with his biggest hit in 1973, when he formed the group Head Hunters. 

The band’s eponymous album features Hancock extensively using synthesisers and fusing elements of multiple genres, including funk,  groove, and R&B. The album went on to sell over a million copies

The album is notable for its earthy sound, and one track, “Watermelon Man”, resonated with audiences in particular. Regardless of musical taste, many music fans seem to know the song, a rare feat for a jazz song.

7. Charlie Parker: Charlie Parker With Strings

As a pioneer of bebop music, Charlie Parker was enamored with classical music, taking an interest in Stravinsky, Brahms, and Bartok to name a few of his favourites. Since his beginnings, he strived to record with an orchestra. 

In 1949, Parker reached his goal, recording Charlie Parker with Strings, in front of a string section, oboist Mitch Miller, a harp, and the classic piano-bass-drums jazz rhythm section.

As a soloist, ‘Bird’ stands out brightly above the ensemble on a variety of standards that were arranged by Jimmy Carroll.

Shortly after this Charlie Parker album found commercial success, there was a second recording (that was also included on this Master Takes edition) made the next year.

The alto solo, filled with double-time, takes charge of the opening track, “Just Friends”, and is a particular highlight. The song continues to be transcribed by jazz students to this day, struck by awe at Parker’s playing. 

6. Cannonball Adderley: Somethin’ Else

There are many reasons jazz fans are drawn to the genre, and its feel-good, soulful qualities are some of them. It’s for this reason that it would be amiss if this list (and any ‘best of’ list, for that matter) did not include alto saxophone great Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.

Adderley is most commonly heard as a sideman on Miles Davis records, but this album not only showcases Adderley’s ebullient playing, but his skills as a bandleader and ringleader.

Hank Jones (piano), bassist Sam Jones and the hugely influential Art Blakey (drums) join Adderley for this album, which is especially memorable for featuring a rare appearance from Miles himself as a sideman.

At the end of “One for Daddy-O”, Miles Davis asks the now-famous question to the producer: “Is that what you wanted, Alfred?

5. John Coltrane: Giant Steps

The modal jazz revolution dominated jazz in the late 1950s, and John Coltrane was at the centre of it, joining Miles Davis as they moved away from traditional chord functions and towards more static, harmonic landscapes. 

However, on the heels of this revolution, the tenor/soprano saxophonist was devising his own, contrasting harmonic evolution. 

This evolution can be heard in its fully-formed state on the 1959 Atlantic release Giant Steps album. It’s memorable for its fast-changing tonalities as well as the irregular chord sequence which is now known as ‘Coltrane Changes’.

Almost a rite of passage for students, as well as a treat for jazz fans, the title track is often studied by jazz musicians around the world. One particular tune to listen out for is the beautiful ballad “Naima”, which is reportedly Coltrain’s favourite of his own compositions, as well as being a wholesome dedication to his first wife.

4. Billie Holiday: Lady In Satin

Billie Holiday’s years of drug addiction had taken their toll by 1958, destroying the top of her vocal range and diminishing her distinctive voice.

However, although “Lady In Satin” may not contain her strongest technical vocals, Holiday’s performance is packed with an intensity of feeling, which was no doubt inspired by her complicated life. 

As a newly-signed artist on Columbia Records, this album was her most expensively produced record, making use of a 40-piece orchestra that was arranged by Ray Ellis, who was initially considered a rather odd choice.

Although many listeners lean toward her classic 1930s recordings often with the likes of Teddy Wilson and Lester Young, this album of beautiful jazz ballads showcases an entirely different level of emotional depth and power.

In fact, the knowledge that she would die the year after this album’s release (at just 44 years old) makes “Lady In Satin” all the more hauntingly beautiful. 

3. Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus

A highly-original jazz improvisers, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins showed his capabilities multiple times across the mid-late 1950s with records such as:

  • “The Sound of Sonny”
  • “Way Out West”
  • “Tenor Madness”
  • “Newk’s Time”
  • “Freedom Suite”.

But none of these standout albums can top 1956’s “Saxophone Colossus”, which is likely Rollins’ most famous album. 

“St. Thomas” is Rollins’ most recognisable song and was based on a Caribbean children’s song that his mother used to sing to him.

“St. Thomas” and “Blue 7” (a blues tune with an off-the-cuff melody that was written at the studio by Rollins), are great examples of the highly rhythmic, clever and thematic development that characterises Rollins’ improvisational style.

This jazz album is essential listen for fans of every style of jazz

2. Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um

Charles Mingus was a bassist, bandleader, and composer that was notoriously a fiery character, as well as a truly unique musician. 

His approach contained something Ellingonian: his music was very thematic, he led bands of devoted disciples, and he wrote tunes that deliberately evoked particular people or moods.

One of many classic jazz albums from 1959, “Mingus Ah Um” was Mingus’ first album under Columbia Records and contains many musical tributes. It is perhaps the best album of Mingus’ for showcasing the true spirit of his writing, playing, and influence. 

The touching “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was a tribute to the tenor saxophone player Lester Young, who died shortly before the song was recorded, whilst “Jelly Roll” is in reference to the New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton, and Mingus even pays homage to Ellington with “Open Letter to Duke”.

On the other hand, “Better Git It In Your Soul” is reminiscent of the devotional and preaching style of church music, while “Fables of Faubus” strikes out in protest at Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus, an opponent of racial integration. 

1. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue

Widely regarded as the best jazz album of all time, as well as one of Miles Davis’ finest works, Kind of Blue is a studio album recorded in 1959 at the Columbia 30th Street Studio in New York City. It was released later that year.

For the album, Davis led a sextet that featured John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (saxophones), Bill Evans (piano), Jimmy Cobb (drummer), and Paul Chambers (bass). Wynton Kelly appeared on one track in place of Evans, “Freddie Freeloader”. 

The album went on to immediate critical acclaim, further launching the careers of Davis and Coltrane in particular, and has gone on to become a legendary album.

So that’s it – our 10! 

Let us know what you think and what your own personal top 10 of jazz would look like!

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