The 100 greatest jazz recordings
Recorded jazz is still under a century old, but in a little over nine decades an enormous quantity of music has amassed. To absorb and assess even a substantial proportion of it requires a lifetime of listening. What follows is a strictly chronological roll-call of acknowledged jazz masterpieces, together with – it is hoped – some outstanding performances that will be less familiar even to a dedicated fan.
It’s worth noting that early jazz, and a great deal of the classic middle period, too, is now out of copyright and sometimes available in a bewildering variety of permutations.
1. King Oliver: King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band: The Complete Set (1923-24) Retrieval
Listen through the dim and distant acoustic sound – the first great series of jazz recordings – and you will encounter the intricate and joyous sound of New Orleans at its absolute peak.
2. Bessie Smith: Complete Recordings (Frog Vols 1-8 1923-33)
Bessie Smith’s recording of the Twenties – accompanied by such musicians as Louis Armstrong, James P Johnson and the sweet-toned trumpeter Joe Smith – have a matchless stateliness of delivery and monumental vocal strength.
3. Bix Beiderbecke: Bix & Tram (JSP 1926-29)
Beiderbecke was the doomed Scott Fitzgerald of music. But before the whisky killed him, he introduced a new mood into jazz – romantic, wistful – on these performances with the saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer.
4. Jelly Roll Morton: Volumes 1-5 (JSP 1926-1930)
Jelly Roll was a pool-shark, hustler and pimp, but also the finest pianist to come out of New Orleans and the first great composer/arranger in jazz, above all in these recordings.
5. Johnny Dodds: Definitive Dodds (Retrieval 1926-7)
Skirling and insistent in the upper register, plumy and fluid in the lower, Dodds’s clarinet was among the most compelling voices to emerge from New Orleans.
6. Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Columbia 1925-9)
The Old Testament of jazz in which the youthful Louis Armstrong emerges like a prophet, filled with power and glorious eloquence. His example influenced almost all of 20th-century popular music.
7. Fletcher Henderson: Tidal Wave (GPR 1930)
With performances such as Down South Camp Meetin’ (included on this), Henderson’s band led the way to the big era. He also employed some of the best soloists in New York, Coleman Hawkins among them.
8. Duke Ellington: Masterpieces 1926-1949 (Proper Box 25)
It’s impossible to choose from the cornucopia of magnificent explorations of mood and tone-colour that Duke recorded between the late Twenties and the mid-Forties. This compilation has many of the best.
9. Spike Hughes & Benny Carter: 1933 (Retrieval)
The British arranger produced some of the most beguiling arrangements of the early swing era, performed in New York with magnificent solos from Carter, Coleman Hawkins, and the trombonist Dicky Wells.
10. Count Basie: The Original American Decca Recordings (MCA 1937-39)
Basie’s big band had a propulsive beat, a cluster of great soloists and the easy grace of a much smaller group. Seven decades later, this music still sounds fresh minted.
11. Billie Holiday & Lester Young: A Musical Romance (Columbia 1937-57)
Holiday’s voice and Young’s saxophone made a wonderfully compatible musical couple, both wry, tender, vulnerable and beautiful. This compilation contains some of their most delightful encounters, plus one poignant reunion.
12. Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli: Swing from Paris (ASV 1935-39)
Reinhardt’s Roma guitar and Grappelli’s lilting violin both draw on European musical traditions, but fuse with American jazz in a combination that is propulsive, filled with joie de vivre and is just irresistible.
13. Benny Goodman: At Carnegie Hall 1938 (Columbia 1938)
This renowned concert marked the arrival of big-band jazz as the major form in popular music. It also includes a spontaneous masterpiece in the piano improvisation by Jess Stacy on Sing, Sing, Sing.
14. Fats Waller: The Best of Fats Waller (RCA 1929-42)
Waller was a master pianist in the driving Harlem style known as 'stride’, but he was also a great spirit: carefree, insouciant and Falstaffian.
15. Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra: 1938-9 (Classics)
Hampton, the first vibes virtuoso, was the leader on some of the most infectiously high-spirited small-group jazz recordings of the swing era featuring various star soloists.
16. Coleman Hawkins: Body and Soul: The Complete Victor Recordings 1939-56 (RCA)
Hawkins was the first to make great jazz on the tenor saxophone and the first master of the romantic ballad, never more opulently than in his 1939 performance of Body and Soul.
17. Sidney Bechet: Jazz Classics Vols 1 & 2 (1939-51)
Bechet, a clarinettist and soprano saxophonist, had, to a greater extent than any other performer, that mixture of arrogance, elation and power known as the 'rooster crow’.
18. Jelly Roll Morton: The Library of Congress Recordings (Rounder 1938)
Jelly Roll’s reminiscences, spoken, sung and played into a microphone are a unique autobiography in sound – colourful, outrageous, boastful, beautiful and a piece of Americana to rank with Huckleberry Finn.
19. Lester Young: The Lester Young Story (Proper Box 1939-49)
The tenor saxophonist brought a new sensibility into big-band swing – in short, he invented musical cool. His early recordings, mostly on here, remain extraordinarily fresh.
20. Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar (Sony Legacy 1939-41)
Christian had a tantalisingly brief career during which he effectively introduced a new instrument – the electric guitar – into jazz and a distinctive style, punchy and declamatory. Every note he played was memorable.
21. Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings (1944-48)
Parker transformed jazz, fundamentally and for good, both harmonically and rhythmically. His music flew fast as thought and with a buttonholing urgency. The essence of his achievement is here.
22. Louis Armstrong: Complete New York Town Hall and Boston Symphony Hall Concerts (1947)
Satchmo fronts a band – with Jack Teagarden on trombone, Sid Catlett drums – that deserves the name All-Stars. Everyone’s on magnificent form; Armstrong himself is sublime.
23. Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music Vols I & 2 (Blue Note, 1947-52)
On these early sessions Monk gives the impression of reinventing music, slightly different from the way it was before; each piece is tart, compressed and a bit startling.
24. Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (1948-50)
Bebop was fast and hot. For this nine-piece ensemble Davis and his collaborators – including Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan – came up with a new sound: mellow, light and floating.
25. Bud Powell: The Amazing Bud Powell Vols I & 2 (1949-51)
More audibly driven by demons than any pianist in jazz, Powell’s music was fast, intense and sometimes, in the words of one title, Un Poco Loco.
26. Gerry Mulligan: The Best of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker (Pacific Jazz 1952-57)
The avuncular-sounding baritone saxophonist teamed up with the lyrical trumpeter, Chet Baker, and a piano-less rhythm section of just bass and drums. The result: a novel laid-back informality in jazz.
27. Ella Fitzgerald: Pure Ella (1950-54)
Ella’s voice was at a peak of creamy perfection when she made these sides with only the dulcet piano accompaniment of Ellis Larkins: a superb recital of American popular song.
28. Sarah Vaughan: Complete Recordings with Clifford Brown (Lone Hill 1954)
With an opera-singer’s range and a sophisticated harmonic sense, Vaughan was the vocalist in post-war jazz. She could sound mannered, but not here.
29. Al Haig: One Day Session (Fresh Sound 1954)
Haig was the most stylishly fastidious of bebop pianists, his touch a thing of beauty. He and his trio glide through these standards as if floating on air.
30. Errol Garner: Concert by the Sea (Columbia 1955)
Self-taught and unable to read music, Garner came up with a style that was all his own, seeming sometimes to strum the piano like a gigantic guitar: jovial and hugely entertaining.
31. Big Joe Turner: Boss of the Blues (1955)
A giant of a man, with an enormous cavernous voice, Turner is on majestic form for this session, which becomes a summation of the musical tradition of his native town, Kansas City.
32. The Jazz Messengers: At the Café Bohemia Vols I & 2 (1955)
Drummer Art Blakey led the Messengers, a sort of elite academy of modern jazz, through many incarnations – none more impressive than this early quintet version, stretching out at a New York club.
33. Clifford Brown/Max Roach: At Basin Street (Emarcy 1956)
Brown’s sound on trumpet was glowing and golden, his delivery majestic. This captures the quintet he co-led with drummer Max Roach on fabulous form, shortly before Brown’s early death.
34. Thelonious Monk: Brilliant Corners (Riverside 1956)
Brilliant indeed, but also disconcerting, the title piece begins with a series of juddering gear-changes in tempo like nothing else in music. These are Monk’s most accomplished small band performances.
35. Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus (Prestige 1956)
Blue Seven, a long, reflective track, has long been acclaimed as a masterpiece, in which not a note of Rollins’s tenor solo could be altered. The rest of the session is almost as good.
36. Serge Chaloff: Blue Serge (1956)
Chaloff, whose family came from Russia, brings a Slavic soulfulness to the baritone saxophone. This, recorded shortly before his early death, is his richest, most poignant and mature recording.
37. Lester Young: Jazz Giants ’56 (Verve, 1956)
This summit conference of mainstream jazz soloists contains the wistful, melancholy late Lester Young, and Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge and Vic Dickenson all playing at their mellow, relaxed maturity.
38. Art Tatum: The Solo Masterpieces (Pablo 1953-56)
Tatum was the most extraordinary keyboard virtuoso in jazz. There are seven CDs of these solo performances, all equally marvellous: the effect is rich, even florid, but completely satisfying.
39. Art Tatum & Ben Webster: The Album (originally Verve, 1956)
Tatum could have been an overwhelming accompanist. But the relaxed approach and huge tone of Webster’s tenor saxophone, a warm fog of sound, was the ideal foil for his ornate piano.
40. Art Pepper: Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (Contemporary 1957)
The alto saxophonist had never played with the rest of the band and was strung-out to boot. But the cool, inventive result couldn’t have been improved by weeks of rehearsal.
41. Count Basie: The Atomic Mr Basie (1957)
That title, and the mushroom cloud on the cover, may be in dubious taste, but this truly is explosive. Big band jazz never had more punch and power.
42. Sonny Rollins: Way Out West (1957)
Rollins’s tough-tenor saxophone has a sardonic wit. Here, accompanied by just bass and drums, he performs improbable cowboy tunes such as Wagon Wheels with deadpan humour and inventive brilliance.
43. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong: Ella and Louis (Verve, 1957)
Armstrong plays some trumpet, but essentially this is a duet between two great singers – Ella supremely poised and mellifluous, Louis with a voice like a dredger.
44. Billie Holiday: Songs for Distingué Lovers (Verve, 1957)
With time her voice faded, but Holiday’s ability to infuse wry and tender emotional power into a lyric just grew and grew. This session finds her at her interpretive peak.
45. Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster (Verve 1957)
Here two great tenor saxophonists – Hawkins with a stronger, darker sound; Webster smoother and airier – contrast like black coffee and cappuccino. It’s not a contest but a rich combination.
46. Art Farmer: A Portrait of Art (1958)
Farmer was, with Chet Baker and Miles Davis, one of the cool and mellow school of trumpeters. This unpretentious quartet set of ballads and blues is tender, intimate and flawless.
47. Cannonball Adderley: Somethin’ Else (Blue Note 1958)
Though issued under Adderley’s name, this contains some of Miles Davis’s greatest playing, especially on a ravishing version of Autumn Leaves. Cannonball and Hank Jones on piano perform with impeccable elegance.
48. Bill Evans: Everybody Digs Bill Evans (Riverside 1958)
Evans introduced something of the feeling and delicacy of classical piano music into the jazz tradition. This – alternatively lyrical and driving, Debussy plus bebop – is his first great recording.
49. Jimmy Rushing: Little Jimmy and the Big Brass (1958)
Rushing’s baritone had a melancholy undertow and a bluesy burr, but overall the effect is exuberant as he breezes along with a superb big band roaring behind him.
50. Pee Wee Russell: Swing with Pee Wee (Prestige 1958)
Blown by Pee Wee, a true musical individualist, the clarinet seemed to change its musical character, by turns becoming squawky, rasping, whispery and guttural. On balance, this is his finest moment.
51. Dave Brubeck: Time Out (Columbia 1959)
Take Five is too well-known for its own good, but this collection of elegant experiments with unusual time signatures remains delightful, above all for the airy beauty of Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone.
52. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (1959)
A perfect album, in which an unbeatable group – including John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans – sustain a wonderful mood – hip, enigmatic – and launch a novel musical idiom: modal jazz.
53. Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges: Back to Back (1959)
Hodges, the most rhapsodic of alto saxophonists, worked with Ellington for decades. This catches them on relaxed but incisive form, in the company of a few compatible musicians and a handful of blues.
54. John Coltrane: Giant Steps (1959)
This is the recording on which Coltrane emerged as a performer of mesmerising authority and – on several of these pieces – dizzying speed of execution. He was to transform jazz completely.
55. Charles Mingus: Blues and Roots (Atlantic 1959)
The bassist and composer brings the newest kind of jazz – bebop verging on free jazz – together with some of the oldest, including gospel and Jelly Roll Morton – a splendidly turbulent blend.
56. Hank Mobley: Soul Station (1960)
There are tenor saxophone plus rhythm sessions without number, but not many as flawlessly conceived and executed as this impeccable late bop session: relaxed but not a note out of place.
57. Bob Brookmeyer: The Blues Hot and Cold (1960)
The trombone was a neglected instrument in post-war jazz, but not when Brookmeyer was around. On this – rasping, sighing, gentle, sardonic – he’s the perfect tough guy of jazz.
58. Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic 1959-1960)
Coleman had a sound as piercing as a cry and was indifferent to the rules of conventional harmony. This was the shape of free jazz to come.
59. Gil Evans: Out of the Cool (1960)
After Ellington, Evans was the master arranger of large jazz ensembles, adding a fresh range of atmospheric, pastel tone-colours to the repertoire.
60. John Coltrane: My Favourite Things (Atlantic 1960)
Forget Julie Andrews, Coltrane – playing soprano saxophone – transformed the cute little tune from The Sound of Music into a mystical mantra. It seems to carry on to infinity. The Sixties start here.
61. Bill Evans: Waltz for Debbie (Riverside 1961)
Evans not only devised a new mode for jazz piano, he also revolutionised his trio by setting his bassist Scott LeFaro free from timekeeping. This catches them, live, at a peak.
62 Benny Carter: Further Definitions (Impulse! 1961)
An elegantly poised soloist on alto-saxophone, Carter was also the most stylish of arrangers for reeds. Here he leads a saxophone ensemble through some of the most glorious performances of his long career.
63. Stan Getz: Focus (Verve 1961)
Jazz with strings albums almost never work, but this one really does. The arranger, Eddie Sauter, borrows the title track from Bartok, Roy Haynes’s drums are urgent, Getz’s tenor soars.
64. Oliver Nelson: The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse! 1961)
There’s a wonderful band on this – Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans and the imperious Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. It is Nelson’s writing and arranging, however, that give it such style and unity.
65. Joe Henderson: Page One (Blue Note 1963)
A delightful Latin infusion runs through much of the music on this session by Henderson and Kenny Dorham, one of the most outstanding – and underrated – trumpet/tenor teams in jazz.
66. Stan Getz: Getz/Gilberto (Verve 1963)
Mixing jazz and bossa nova became a craze and later a cliché. This meeting between Getz and Astrud and João Gilberto, however, remains irresistible: an early tour de force of world music.
67. Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder (Blue Note 1963)
This trumpet and tenor quintet session is that rare thing, a popular jazz hit. Endless attempts were made to imitate the infectious funkiness of the title track, but none quite succeeded.
68. Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse!, 1963)
Raging, sighing, languorous, furious – this tumultuous six-part composition expresses all the contradictory emotions swirling inside Mingus’s head (and comes with a commentary by his psychiatrist).
69. Horace Silver: Song For My Father (Blue Note 1964)
The title track has a liltingly attractive theme with a Latin feel, an insistent beat – and a brilliant storming tenor solo from Joe Henderson that really makes it classic.
70. Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil (1964)
A master saxophonist, Shorter is also one of the most distinctive composers in jazz. His zenith came in the mid Sixties, most compellingly here in company with Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard.
71. Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage (Blue Note 1964)
A marvellous blend of composition, improvisation and overall mood. Hancock’s piano, Tony Williams’s drumming and the ensemble seem to grow turbulent then calm, like the sea.
72. Eric Dolphy: Out to Lunch (Blue Note 1964)
With the extraterrestrial chiming of Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes – and Dolphy’s own fearless flights to the limits of conventional harmony on flute, alto saxophone and bass clarinet – this seems like jazz from outer space.
73. John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (1965)
Coltrane is the only jazz musician to have a church founded in his honour and this extraordinary record explains why. Passionate, intense and prayer-like, this is modern jazz as spiritual revelation.
74. Duke Ellington: Far East Suite (RCA 1966)
These majestic musical vignettes of Asian lands are a peak in the work of Ellington and his composing partner, Billy Strayhorn. No big band jazz is richer or more audacious.
75. Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968)
Corea brought a new abstraction to jazz piano. With its title derived from the I Ching, this adventurous piano trio session is of its time, but contains the essence of his music.
76. Miles Davis: In a Silent Way (Columbia 1969)
Having already initiated two new developments – cool and modal jazz – with this exercise in hip impressionism, Davis entered a twilit, twinkling world of electric sounds and inaugurated the era of jazz-rock.
77. Modern Jazz Quartet: Last Concert (1974)
The elegant MJQ had been playing dulcet chamber jazz together for two decades before this highly charged performance, as smoothly meshed as a Rolls-Royce.
78. Keith Jarrett: The Köln Concert (ECM 1975)
In this epic performance – alternatively funky, lyrical, churchy and rocking – Jarrett extends solo piano improvisation up to, and beyond, the length of a Beethoven piano sonata.
79. Jim Hall: Concierto (1975)
This version of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez – with Hall on guitar, plus Chet Baker and Paul Desmond – is more persuasive than Miles Davis’s (and the rest of the album is better still).
80. Count Basie/Zoot Sims: Basie and Zoot (Pablo 1975)
Basie was a supreme musical minimalist, making one perfectly placed note do the work of 10. This pairing with Zoot Sims on tenor saxophone produces jazz at its most infectiously enjoyable.
81. Joe Venuti and Earl Hines: Hot Sonatas (Chiaroscuro 1975)
Two cantankerous old men – Hines the inventor of Thirties jazz piano, Venuti a violinist from the Al Capone era – join up to play an crazy anarchic, swing. No avant-garde ever sounded wilder.
82. Weather Report: Black Market (Columbia 1976)
By taking the impressionist strand in Sixties jazz, and adding electric sounds and rock beats, Weather Report hit on a formula that returned jazz to mass popularity – and with considerable charm.
83. Jimmy Rowles/Ray Brown: As Good as it Gets (1977)
Jimmy Rowles, who accompanied Billie Holiday and taught Marilyn Monroe how to sing, had an impish wit at the piano keyboard – beautifully underpinned here by Ray Brown’s bass.
84. Kenny Davern: The Hot Three (1979)
The finest jazz clarinettist of the late 20th century, Davern performs with just piano and drums to make New Orleans revivalist jazz so imaginative and accomplished it turns into something fresh and new.
85. Tommy Flanagan: Super Session (Enja 1980)
Flanagan was always a delightfully thoughtful performer. What makes this trio special is the combination of his piano with the volcanic energy of Elvin Jones at the drums.
86. Joe Pass & JJ Johnson: We’ll Be Together Again (Pablo 1983)
An unaccompanied duet between guitar and trombone might seem an uninviting prospect. This, though, is a delightfully inventive affair, bringing out the best in both musicians: creative, witty and unexpected.
87. Warne Marsh: Star Highs (Criss Cross 1982)
Marsh’s sound on tenor saxophone was so cool it sometimes verged on being refrigerated. That impassivity, however, sometimes concealed a musical imagination of tremendous scope. This is an overlooked gem.
88. Chet Baker: Blues for a Reason (Criss Cross 1984)
Drug abuse caused terrible damage to Baker’s health and appearance. His trumpet playing, though, grew ever more expressive. This late meeting with the tenor-player Warne Marsh is a neglected masterpiece.
89. Dick Wellstood: Live at the Sticky Wicket (Arbors 1986)
A one-man history of jazz piano, Wellstood sweeps through the repertoire from ragtime to Coltrane on this – wisecracking all the while – at a little club in New England. Utterly engaging.
90. Scott Hamilton, Jake Hanna & Dave McKenna: Major League (Concord Jazz 1986)
This unorthodox little trio just sizzles along, Hamilton’s tenor saxophone propelled by Hanna on drums and McKenna’s pile-driving piano. As exhilarating a recording as latter-day jazz has produced.
91. Hank Jones: Upon Reflection (1993)
The pianist Hank Jones and drummer Elvin play the music of their late brother, Thad, with results both elegant and elegiac. A moving joint effort by a great jazz family.
92. Cassandra Wilson: Blue Light ’Til Dawn (Blue Note 1993)
Wilson explores a dark, brooding, almost spectral mood. Her version of Robert Johnson’s Hell Hound on My Trail is enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck.
93. McCoy Tyner and Bobby Hutcherson: Manhattan Moods (Verve, 1993)
Tyner’s swelling, extravagant piano can sometimes seem over-rich, but here it provides a sumptuous counterpoint to Hutcherson’s sparking vibes. Deliriously romantic stuff.
94. Wynton Marsalis: Blood on the Fields (Columbia, 1994)
Marsalis has continued the tradition of Armstrong and Ellington into the 21st century. This mighty, if flawed, jazz oratorio – a panorama of Afro-American history – is his most ambitious work.
95. Ruby Braff & Ellis Larkins: Calling Berlin Vol I & 2 (Arbors, 1994)
Larkins was the most dulcet and feather-light of pianists, Braff a unique trumpeter/cornetist. They made many beautiful duet recordings over the years, none more so than these, the last.
96. Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau & Charlie Haden: Alone Together (Blue Note 1996)
Three generations – septuagenarian saxophonist Konitz, middle-aged bassist Haden and twentysomething Mehldau – revisit a series of standards in wonderfully quirky fashion. You feel there’s plenty more mileage in this idiom still.
97. Brad Mehldau: The Art of the Trio (1997)
Undeterred by all the great jazz piano players who came before, Mehldau has brought the idiom to a level of complexity and seriousness comparable with classical music, never more so than here.
98. Warren Vaché/Bill Charlap: 2gether (2000)
Chamber jazz of the highest order, at times so hushed that Vaché’s cornet sometimes seems to be murmuring in our ear, at others the interplay with Charlap on piano is brisk and vivacious.
99. Joe Lovano and Hank Jones: Live at Dizzy’s (2006)
Lovano’s tenor saxophone – warm, fuzzy and eloquent – is a superlative foil for Hank Jones, well into his eighties, but still delectably poised and precise at the piano.
100. Marty Grosz and the Hot Winds: The Classic Sessions (2009)
A band of improbable instruments, including the bass saxophone and echo cornet, performs forgotten music of the Twenties and Thirties. The result is irresistibly euphoric: proof that jazz remains full of life.