Starting a jazz collection is easy, but how can you bring diversity to the mix? Jazz music has evolved since its birth and is still progressing today, this triggered the development of various styles and subgenres. I am calling out ten jazz records that are both essential and diverse. We’ll explore milestones in swing, bop, hard bop, modal jazz, avant-garde jazz, Ethio-jazz, soul-jazz, and afrobeat.
Satchmo At Symphony Hall – Louis Armstrong (Decca, 1951)
To start this list, I call out one of the finest Louis Armstrong recordings. Louis Armstrong had, without doubt, a major impact on the development of New Orleans-style jazz music. He joined several celebrated bands, including Kid Ory’s group and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz. There Armstrong grew as a musician that innovated the genre. Later in his career, he would close the book on traditional New Orleans Jazz and became a prominent figure during the swing era.
Satchmo At Symphony Hall, live recorded in 1947, captured one of his most memorable performances. It was an entertaining evening full of highlights such as one of Armstrong’s earliest hits ‘(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue, and the jazz standard On the Sunny Side of the Street. The recording was issued on Decca Records and released to the public on April 30, 1951.
The Cooker – Lee Morgan (Blue Note, 1958)
Trumpeter Lee Morgan was only 19 years old when he led the recording of his Blue Note original album titled The Cooker. The album is a demonstration of Morgan’s early bop-oriented influence and contains improvisation that communicates to the listener. He is playing with a kind of youthful enthusiasm and spontaneity.
Morgan plays exceptionally well for his age. When comparing this album to his previous work, we can notice the speedy development of his skills as a musician and bandleader. Lee Morgan will soon grow to become one of the greatest hard bop trumpeters in jazz history. He would be listed next to other trumpet legends like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.
Somethin’ Else – Cannonball Adderley (Blue Note, 1958)
Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else is a well-known and celebrated jazz classic. It is also one of the few albums featuring trumpeter Miles Davis as a sideman. Adderley was a member of Miles Davis’ sextet at the time the album was recorded so, both musicians understood each other. The album is an interplay between Adderley and Davis. Some tracks are perfectly synchronized call-and-response interactions between the trumpet and alto sax, showcasing their relation to the music and each other.
Looking further down the list of personnel displayed on the album’s cover, we got more big names from the scene: Hank Jones on the piano, Sam Jones on the base, and Art Blakey behind the drums. The track list is as impressive as the list of personnel. All songs seem to be selected carefully, including the opening track, the celebrated jazz standard Autumn Leaves, composed by Joseph Kosma.
Kind of Blue – Miles Davis (Columbia, 1959)
Kind of Blue, by the acclaimed trumpeter Miles Davis, is considered the greatest jazz record of all time by many critics. It’s Miles Davis’s masterpiece, based on a modal approach and sophisticated improvisation rather than using conventional chord changes commonly done in bebop and hard bop style.
Miles Davis invited saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wyn Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. The sextet explored various possibilities of the modal jazz framework. The album got not only rated as the greatest jazz record of all time, today it is still considered one of the most significant musical achievements of the twentieth century.
Giant Steps – John Coltrane (Atlantic, 1960)
In 1954, Coltrane joined The Miles Davis Quintet where he was encouraged to think more harmonically. This was an important milestone in the yet-to-be-written composition of Giant Steps as he was introduced to new possibilities in chord progressions. After a drug addiction that caused him to leave Davis’ band, he started rehearsing with the celebrated Thelonious Monk. This not only helped him recover from his addiction, but it also helped him develop artistically.
Fully recovered and evolved, Coltrane rejoined Miles Davis’ quintet in 1958. The following year, they recorded Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, an album that is claimed to be the most important album in jazz history. Giant Steps was recorded less than a month after the sessions for Kind of Blue. Giant Steps – consisting entirely out of Coltrane’s original compositions – was released in 1960, and despite being a perfect contrast to Kind of Blue, it became a mighty equal. Coltrane masters the skills to compose and record an album that innovated jazz harmonically and rhythmically.
Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse!, 1963)
World-renowned jazz pianist and composer Duke Ellington regularly partnered with other acclaimed jazz musicians during the early sixties. John Coltrane was no exception. In 1962, the pianist and the tenor saxophonist recorded the self-titled album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. The recording got released in 1963 and would become the most successful collaboration Duke Ellington undertook during the early sixties. It’s a display of two jazz musicians from a different generation who, despite having a divergent background and relationship with music, communicate politely.
The recording was an opportunity for Duke Ellington to play with a quartet rather than with his usual big band arrangement. Ellington invited drummer Sam Woodyard and double-bassist Aaron Bell, who were both members of his orchestra in 1962, to support this studio session. John Coltrane invited two members of his Classic Quartet, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison.
Out To Lunch! – Eric Dolphy (Blue Note, 1964)
The year nineteen sixty-four was revolutionary when it comes to jazz records. Coltrane recorded his most acclaimed work, A Love Supreme, which got released the following year. Lee Morgan released The Sidewinder, Blue Note‘s best-selling record ever. And saxophonist Wayne Shorter completed his fifth studio album JuJu. Many other state-of-the-art albums got released and, Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch! was no exception. This avant-garde jazz masterpiece got described as “a vital alternative to the melodic cliches and rhythmical orthodoxy of the hard-bop mainstream (A.B. Spellman).”
Dolphy’s unique compositional style is present throughout the album. He juggles with the theory behind jazz harmony by using unusual wide intervals. Dolphy explains that he is trying to incorporate what he hears: “I hear other resolutions on the basic harmonic patterns, and I try to use them.”
Mulatu Of Ethiopia – Mulatu Astatke (Worthy Records, 1972)
Ethiopian jazz musician and composer Mulatu Astatke had one important goal. He got inspired by jazz music and wanted to promote and actively use Ethiopian music in his jazz compositions. “The Nigerian and Ghanaian people living in London, they were very active in promoting it [their local music] so, I decided to start working more on our Ethiopian music.” he said, referring to his time in London during the 1950s. And so he did. Mulatu Astatke focused on fusing the Ethiopian 5 note scales against the 12 note scales of jazz. He created a different sound without losing the subtlety of both genres. The new sound got documented as Ethio-jazz, and Mulatu Astatke was its father.
Mulatu Astatke is the inventor of Ethio-jazz. The album Mulatu Of Ethiopia, recorded and released in 1972, is a well-documented proof of that. As a multi-instrumentalist, focussing mainly on percussion and the vibraphone, he brings moody rhythmical patterns influenced by jazz, funk, Latin and African music.
Afro Blue – Dee Dee Bridgewater (Trio Records, 1974)
Dee Dee Bridgewater, born Denise Garrett (1950), is an award-winning singer-songwriter with a career encompassing jazz, soul, and disco. Her debut studio album Afro Blue is a timeless soul-jazz masterpiece that highlights her exceptional vocal abilities. The album features a song collection compiled from various music genres. Most songs are arranged by jazz trumpeter and Dee Dee’s husband, Cecil Bridgewater.
The album features various acclaimed jazz songs such as Horace Silver’s Love Vibrations (1970), Little B’s Poem by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson (1965), and of course, the title track Afro Blue, a jazz standard by Mongo Santamaria (1956).
The Source – Tony Allen (Blue Note, 2017)
Tony Allen’s 2017 mini-album release A Tribute To Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers was a unique opportunity to marry his afrobeat rhythms with Art Blakey’s hard bop influences. It also served as a forerunner for his full-length Blue Note debut The Source in which he further explores the relationship between African music and western jazz.
The long-time Fela Kuti drummer found inspiration in Art Blakey’s work. Fusing his afrobeat past with jazz gave him a chance to document his interpretations as a self-thought drummer. In The Source, Tony Allen continues to return to his jazz roots. This time, he explores a wider web of jazz influences. The album includes eleven tracks composed and arranged by Tony Allen and saxophonist Yann Jankielewicz.
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