10 Essential and Diverse Jazz Records to Start Your Collection

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 BlueGiant 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 SidewinderBlue 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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Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Debut Album: Afro Blue

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 vocalist was only 23 years old when she recorded the album in Tokyo. The album got released in 1974 on the Japanese label Trio Records (PA-7095). It got reissued a couple of times on different labels and exclusively in Japan, which made it a long sought-after item for record collectors. In 2020, the record label Mr Bongo partnered with Trio Records and released the album on vinyl in the United Kingdom on June 19. 

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 Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria originally recorded Afro Blue in 1959 and, the song became the first jazz standard built upon the African 3:2 cross-rhythm called hemiola. The composition got released on Santamaria’s album Mongo (Fantasy, 1959). The recording, however, is instrumental and lyrics were added later that year.

Songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. is the creative hand behind the lyrics you hear in Dee Dee Bridgewater’s version. The lyrics were added to Mongo Santamaria’s original and got initially recorded by Abbey Lincoln, who released the song including lyrics, on her fourth studio album titled Abbey Is Blue.

Apart from Dee Dee Bridgewater and Abbey Lincoln, various other musicians recorded and released the song. Among them, Cal Tjader (who recorded with Mongo Santamaria), Robert Glasper and Erykah Badu (who bring a contemporary version with altered lyrics), and Roberta Flack (who using Coltrane’s arrangement of the songs).

John Coltrane performed his arrangement of Afro Blue in 1963 together with Elvin Jones (drums), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and McCoy Tyner (piano) at the Birdland jazz club in New York. This is the same quartet with whom he recorded the albums CrescentA Love Supreme, and Blue World the following year. The song recording got released on the album Live At Birdland (Impulse Records, 1964).

Here are videos of live recordings of Afro Blue by Mongo Santamaria and John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet. Dee Dee Bridgewater’s full album is available for stream via YouTube.

Mongo Santamaria – Afro Blue
John Contrane – Afro Blue
Dee Dee Bridgewater – Afro Blue – Full Album

Youthful Enthusiasm: The Cooker by Lee Morgan

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 the greatest hard bop trumpeter in jazz history. He would be listed next to other trumpet legends like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.

Bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie was also his mentor. He hired the 18-year-old Lee Morgan to replace Joe Gordon in his big band. Morgan’s solo work was spotlighted during the many live performances of A Night In Tunisia, a Gillespie original and signature of bebop. The Cooker opens with this song, and his solo for this album is claimed to be the best recording of Morgan’s career.

Aside from performing with Dizzy Gillespie, Morgan also recorded in the studio during that time. He recorded several albums with jazz icons Hank Mobley and John Coltrane. His most notable work is the recording of Coltrane’s Blue Train in 1957 (Blue Note 1577), which got recorded in the same studio, and only 2 weeks before Morgan recorded The Cooker.

In 1958, Gillespie’s band split, and Morgan joined Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers where he continued to develop his talents, now mainly as a composer. He brought a new potential to the band as they returned to Blue Note and released the jazz standard Moanin’ (composed by Bobby Timmons).

The Cooker got recorded in the Van Gelder Studio on September 29, 1957. It was the fifth Blue Note recording of the young trumpeter as a leader. He got the support from bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, who he knew from the Blue Train recordings two weeks earlier. Pepper Adams joins on the baritone saxophone, and Bobby Timmons sits behind the piano during this vigorous recording session.

The album (BLP 1578) got released in March the following year. It features five tracks including A Night In Tunisia (D. Gillespie), Heavy Dipper (L. Morgan), Just One Of Those Things (C. Porter), Lover Man (R. Ramirez), and New-Ma (L. Morgan).

In April 2020 the album got reissued as part of the Blue Note Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series (Blue Note 81578). An initiative from Blue Note Records President Don Was. It’s a reissue series of all-analog vinyl records mastered from the original master tapes.

Jazz Album Cover Designs That Inspire – Part 2

Once again, I dove into my collections in search of inspiring designs. Here are five more record sleeves that tell a story.

Mulatu Of Ethiopia – Mulatu Astatke

1972 / Worthy Records 1020 / photo uncredited / Matt Thame (design)

The Father of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke, brings a fantastic arrangement of Ethiopian fine tone scale mixed with Afro-American soul and jazz. The album is called Mulatu Of Ethiopia.

The cover photo and design remain uncredited but it’s a true eye-catcher. It features the title, a photograph of Mulatu Astatke posing in front of his vibraphone, and in the bottom left corner the logo of his sponsor, Ethiopian Airlines.

The copy I own is a reissue that I purchased at a concert in Prague. The outside design is identical to the original but inside the album, we find additional photography including a picture of a much older Mulatu Astatke holding his original record from 1972.

Chris Dave And The Drumhedz

2018 / Blue Note B002705401 / c. BARR @n8tivalien (artwork)

Blue Note Records describes this album as a place without genre, where elements of funk, soul, gospel, hip-hop, and jazz mix until they’re an indistinguishable surging mass of solid groove.

The artwork was created by creative artist c. BARR.

People Of The Sun – Marcus Strickland Twi-Life

2018 / Blue Note B002898301 / Stan Squirewell (artwork) / Leon Williams (photo)

This is saxophonist Marcus Strickland’s second studio album for Blue Note Records but, this is the first time he released his work on vinyl. People Of The Sun is a contemporary jazz album influenced by hip-hop and modern r&b.

You can see that they wanted to do something special for his first vinyl release. For the artwork, they hired the painter Stan Squirewell. Squirewell’s work is described as multilayered and explores identity and heritage. The photo is from the Brooklyn based photographer Leon Williams.

Gling-GlóBjörk Guðmundsdóttir & tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar

1990 / Smekkleysa SM 27 / Óskar Jónasson (artwork)

I’m not sure if I can pronounce the name of this band correctly but, this is a jazz album with the 24 years old Björk on vocals. Several songs are covers of jazz standards but sung in Icelandic. The music is as charming as the left-field pop she would later record.

 The artwork is from the Icelandic film director and screenwriter Óskar Jónasson who was Björk’s boyfriend at the time.

The copy in my collection is a reissue on One Little Indian. The album was repressed on a 45 rpm double-12-inch vinyl to improve the sound quality and several songs were added. The sleeve design was kept the same and the tracklist was not revised. On the reissue sleeve you still see only 2 sides while in reality, we have 4. Be aware to play the reissue at 45rpm! There is no indication on the sleeve nor on the label about this.

A Love Supreme – John Coltrane

1965 / Impulse! A-77 / George Grey (design) / Bob Thiele (photo) / Victor Kalin (sketch)

An album that needs no introduction. Coltrane called this album his gift to God.

This gatefold sleeve features the same picture of Coltrane on the back as on the front. The picture was taken by record producer Bob Thiele who was at the time the head of the Impulse! record company. When folding open the record sleeve, a sketch of Trane playing the saxophone appears. The sketch was made by artist Victor Kalin who is best known for his illustrations for magazines, paperback books, and record albums. He, for example, also illustrated the albums: Rockin’ In Rhythm by Duke Ellington (DL 79247), Mingus Plays Piano by Charles Mingus (A-60), and again Coltrane for the album Expression (AS-9120).

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Hugh Masekela and Tony Allen – Rejoice, Here Comes Tony

Would there be afrobeat without Tony Allen? Tony Allen’s beats and rhythms were, to say it modest, genre-defining. He will always be remembered as the pioneer and co-founder of afrobeat. He was a curious musician and left his mark on various collaborative projects that would shift and blend music genres.

Tony Allen passed away in April 2020, one month after the master drummer released the collaborative work Rejoice. For this project, the Nigerian drummer worked together with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Hugh Masekela, who had a major influence on jazz in South Africa, would add melodies to the drum beats of Tony Allen. The two met in the seventies thanks to their associations with Fela Kuti (Africa ’70).

In the decades to come, they talked about making an album together. In 2010, producer Nick Gold took the opportunity and recorded the encounter. The recording remained unfinished and was stored in the archives. With Hugh Masekela’s passing in 2018, Tony Allen and Nick Gold continued working on the original tapes during the summer of 2019. They finished the recording at the same studio where the original sessions took place, the Livingston Recording Studios in London.

‘Rejoice’ can be seen as the long overdue confluence of two mighty African musical rivers – a union of two free-flowing souls for whom borders, whether physical or stylistic, are things to pass through or ignore completely.

According to Allen, the album deals in “a kind of south African-Nigerian swing-jazz afrobeat stew.”

World Circuit – text featuring on the album’s cover

Robbers, Thugs And Muggers (O’Galajani), the opening song of the album, starts with a vocal intro by Hugh Masekela. Fifteen seconds in, Tony Allen sets the rhythm on the drums and after finishing the vocal intro, Hugh Masekela picks up the drums with melodies on his flugelhorn. The opening track defines the rest of the album, a unique fusion of afrobeat and jazz where drum beats, vocals, and trumpet melodies are fundamental elements.

Tony Allen & Hugh Masekela – The Story of Rejoice (World Circuit Records)

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Jazz Album Cover Designs That Inspire – Part 1

My record collection is growing every day and what attracts me to purchasing an album apart from the music is the sleeve design. For this article, I dove into my collection and hand-picked my favorite jazz covers.

Giant Steps – John Coltrane

1960 / Atlantic 1311 / Marvin Israel (design) / Lee Friedlander (photo)

The red text and frame on the album are so distinctive that you immediately recognize it as Coltrane’s Giant Steps. The photo itself, taken by Lee Friedlander, is an upwards close-up of John Coltrane doing what he does best.

Marvin Israel, the artist behind it, knew how to frame it. These are the words of famous photographer Robert Frank in the documentary Who is Marvin Israel (Doon Arbus). The documentary brings to light the life and work of the artist. Marvin Israel worked as a freelance art director for Atlantic Records from 1957 to 1963 so, Giant Steps is far from the only sleeve design he did. He painted several abstracts of famous jazz musicians such as Charlie Mingus (Atlantic 1416) and Milt Jackson (Atlantic 1417), and he designed the cover for the albums: Joe Turner Sings Kansas City Jazz (Atlantic 1234), Charles Mingus’ The Clown (Atlantic 1260), and Ornette Coleman’ The Shape of Jazz To Come (Atlantic 1317).

Afro Blue – Dee Dee Bridgewater

1974 / Trio Records PA 7095 / Katsuji Abe (design & photo)

If you’re a fan of 70’s soul-jazz, there is a big chance you have this record sitting on your shelf at home. Afro Blue, the debut album from Dee Dee Bridgewater, is not only one of my favorite albums for listening to, but also the artwork inspires curiosity. This is how I got familiar with the album, I spotted the cover, got curious, and bought it.

The cover design and photography on the backside are credited to the Japanese photographer Katsuji Abe. Abe was a designer for Trio Records and Whynot Records during the 1970s. He also published several books including 50 Jazz Greats From Heaven (1995).

The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady – Charles Mingus

1963 / Impulse! AS-35 / Joe Lebow (design) / Bob Ghiraldini (photo)

This powerful release from Charles Mingus, where he takes on the role of composer and band-leader, consists of a single continuous composition that is written as a ballet. The record is among the most acclaimed jazz records of the 20th century thanks to Mingus’ perfectionism and ability to improvise.

The sleeve design is from the American designer Joe Lebow who worked for different record companies during his career. He used the photography of Bob Ghiraldini who was specialized in photographs of jazz musicians. The cover features Charles Mingus in front of a white wall and above him, you read his name, the title, and the words: “From the poem: Touch my beloved’s thought while her world’s affluence crumbles at my feet

Love Matters! – Jowee Omicil

2018 / Jazz Village ‎33570118.19 / Yannick Le Vaillant (artwork) / Renaud Monfourny & Sylvain Cherkaoui

For this album, Haitian-Canadian Jazz musician, Jowee Omicil, impressed us with this gatefold cover design. It gives you a direct impression of the music you can expect. The photographs include a lot of light and color, which is in contrast with his previous album, Let’s Bash! (Jazz Village 33570120.21)

The artwork is by the graphic designer Yannick Le Vaillant, who is a true master when it comes to sleeve designs. The photography used for the artwork is credited to two artists. The first is the French photographer Renaud Monfourny, who captures the cultural scene with his portraits of musicians, actors, and writers. The second is the French photojournalist Sylvain Cherkaoui.

Miles Ahead – Miles Davis

1957 / Columbia 1041 / uncredited

Miles Davis released his second collaboration with Gil Evans in 1957. The original release of this record features a photograph of a white woman and child aboard a sailboat. Miles Davis was dissatisfied with this choice and complained to Columbia Records‘ executive producer George Avakian. No clear reasoning was given to him but in the early 1960s, a picture of Miles Davis was used on the cover (although reissues with the original cover are still being released).

Displaying a white woman on African American album covers was done quite frequently during the 1950s and 1960s. This was done with the sole purpose to easily reach and sell to the white audience as they thought it was a more attractive display. Other examples of this are the soul records Otis Blue from Otis Redding and Arthur Conley’s album Sweet Soul Music. I prefer the cover featuring Miles Davis. It gives a stronger indication of what he does and who he is. The original cover is playing with the title, Miles Ahead, but does not reveal what to expect.

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