Louis Armstrong – Hot Fives & Sevens (1925-1930) (JSP)
The earliest entry on our list sees Louis Armstrong make the first proper steps towards what jazz could be. Already a respected musician by this point, the Hot Fives would represent Armstrong’s first foray into the spotlight as he led his first band towards greatness.
Mostly recorded in Chicago, these lo-fi recordings feature classics such as ‘Heebie Jeebies’, ‘West End Blues’ and ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’ where it feels as though you can hear Satchmo growing in confidence throughout the years as he journeys from the original Hot Five to the Hot Seven and back to a new and improved five-piece.
Armstrong was jazz’s first true superstar, and on Hot Fives & Sevens he is at his outright best, dwarfing those around him as his legendary saxophone and gruff scat take the listener on a voyage back to an era long forgotten. (LISTEN)
Duke Ellington – Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (1940-1942) (Bluebird / RCA)
The Blanton-Webster Band recordings are undoubtedly the golden years of Duke Ellington – there is nothing that can compare to the wall of sound that the Washington-born star manages to make with his piano and accompanying Dixieland-infused band.
As the name suggests, this is a collaborative effort; Jimmy Blanton’s reinventing of the double bass saw swing become the modus operandi for traditional jazz in the ’40s and ’50s (it would be the last recordings he made due to his death aged 23 in 1943) while ‘Chelsea Bridge’ sees Ben Webster take the spotlight to glorious effects.
This is only the first in a long line of Ellington masterpieces, but it is The Blanton-Webster Band recordings which serve as a lasting classic for the Duke, making this a must-listen for any fan of jazz. This is a recording which can grab you by the scruff of your neck and throw you onto the dancefloor like no other. So don’t sit back – get up and enjoy! (LISTEN)
Charlie Parker – The Complete Savoy And Dial Studio Recordings (1944-1948)
While the ’50s may be the time when jazz was at its peak, it wouldn’t have been able to get there if it wasn’t for the influence of the bird. On these seminal recordings, you can literally hear the birth of bebop making this a must-listen album.
This record is full of intrinsic pleasures; Charlie Parker’s alto-sax is on full display throughout every single recording, showing the genius at his vulnerable best. There are mixtures of guitars, pianos, sax, trumpets… everything you could ever want.
The smoothness of the record means it can be easy to forget just how controversial this was; the record moved away from the traditional swing origins of jazz and pushed it on to a style which focused on smaller scale progressions (as heard on the likes of Cool Blues) and detailed solos. Charlie Parker is a legend of the music industry and these recordings are Parker at his best – if you’re looking for a Charlie Parker entrance point, or just a bebop entrance point, then you can do worse than to start here. (LISTEN)
Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners (1957) (Riverside)
The beginning of the revolution, Brilliant Corners represented the first in a series of great jazz albums to be released at the end of the ‘50s. Recorded over three days, this is another example of hardbop that is just awesome to listen to. The record, Thelonious Monk’s tenth, but his first under the Riverside label to feature his own recordings is a testament to his superb songwriting ability.
Monk had long been heralded as one of the premier piano players among jazz circles, but his music was always deemed too challenging for the average listener. That was all to change with Brilliant Corners as Monk’s percussion-driven sound finally took centre stage; the gargantuan title-track is notorious for having 12 cuts thrown into the mix, such is its complexity, while the drumming on ‘Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are’ is sumptuous.
Uncompromising, elegant and outright fun, Brilliant Corners not only represents the growing change towards hardbop, it’s also a record which puts the emphasis on one the best jazz pianists of all time – simply put: it’s brilliant. (LISTEN)
John Coltrane – Blue Train (1958) (Blue Note)
Recorded for the legendary label ‘Blue Note’ label, Coltrane makes his first of many masterpieces as his brilliant ensemble (including Lee Morgan, Philly Jones and Curtis Fuller) find their full swing in this masterful blend of hardbop and swing.
The brass arrangements, which regularly sees the triple-pronged horn section fighting for the limelight, created a game-changing level of noise which has struggled to be matched today. The drumming of Jones on ‘Locomotion’ is simply dazzling as the entire track threatens to fall of the rails, but is always kept steady by the superb core rhythms he provides.
Blue Train is an album indebted to Charlie Parker before him, but it’s more than that, representing a look into the future as Coltrane made a sound which can be heard around the world today. Every track on here is a classic, and with such an enigmatic leader and group surrounding him, is that even a surprise? (LISTEN)
Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue (1959) (Columbia)
Simply put, this is the essential jazz album. The genre may be celebrating 100 years of existence, but 48 of those years have been in celebration of Kind Of Blue. Recorded in the spring of 1959, Miles Davis single-handedly changed the style of jazz to come – and not for the first time.
Moving away from the popular bebop style which Davis deemed to be too restrictive (band-members for the recording of the record include John Coltrane on tenor-saxophone and Bill Evans on piano) and saw Davis popularise modal jazz, after previous record Milestones dipped its toe in the water, and thus the sound of ’60s jazz was born.
Tracks like ‘Freddie Freeloader’ focus on the groove and allow for meditation before moving onto the next idea -whether it be the twinkling keys or the slow, drone like trumpet everything is allowed to sink into the listener’s DNA. While the vivacious ‘All Blues’, features alluring saxophones and sumptuous drumming, all the while remaining true to the sound of the blues. Every track offers something different, yet there is a wonderful sense of identity to the record. If you’re only going to listen to one album on this list, make it Kind Of Blue. (LISTEN)
Ornette Coleman – The Shape Of Jazz To Come (1959) (Atlantic)
While Kind Of Blue was gaining all of the headlines, we had another genre-defining release on our hands just two months later. The Shape Of Jazz To Come is perhaps the aptest titling of an album ever, as Ornette Coleman’s debut on Atlantic saw him move towards an avant-garde sound that established him as one of the true pioneers of jazz.
Much like Gerry Mulligan before Coleman, the record removes all piano and guitars leaving the album without a core melody to revolve around, much to the despair of many of his peers. The result is utter brilliance, with the record portraying a freedom almost unheard of today; trumpeter Don Cherry and Coleman find melodies where most wouldn’t dare to venture, thus creating a sprawling triumph of a record. ‘Lonely Woman’ is perhaps the most important song in free-jazz history. If you like your jazz unrestricted and free-flowing, The Shape Of Jazz To Come is the album for you. (LISTEN)
The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out (1959) (Columbia)
What a year 1959 was. If the jazz world hadn’t been changed enough by the releases from Coleman and Davis, Brubeck and his accomplices would make sure that by the end of 1959, the world of jazz would be changed forever.
Time Out is the sound of Manhattan in the ’60s, the ultimate bachelor drinking whisky-on-the-rocks album. Its smooth transitions between solos make this one of the easiest records to listen to of all time, so much so that it’s beauty can be easily missed. Brubeck’s refusal of the traditional 4/4 time signature sees many unique sounds formed throughout and, though record label Columbia thought it would flop, Time Out blossomed through word of mouth.
This is a record full of life and colour, tracks like ‘Blue Rondo á la Turk’ is in 9/8, while ‘Everybody’s Jumpin’ and ‘Pick Up Sticks’ sees the group record in 6/4. Every beat on the record is important and not a second goes by where the group aren’t showing off their dazzling arrangements, but it is on ‘Take Five’ where the band made its name; originally intended as a drum solo, the little forays by sax are a welcome intrusion, and while the track was never designed to be released (Columbia reluctantly released the track one year after its recording), when it eventually was it confirmed Brubeck as a staple in the world of jazz. (LISTEN)
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (1970) (Columbia)
1959 had been a big year for jazz, with modal, free-jazz and cool-jazz sub-genres be born as the ‘50s wound down. Those sounds would largely soundtrack the ‘60s, but as the jazz world began to tire and flag in the face of the pop music revolution, it was left to Miles Davis to reinvent the wheel once more as the ‘70s began with Bitches Brew.
The record is a sprawling reinvention of jazz as Davis dabbles into the world of rock with more electric guitars, more drums, more bass, more everything! Bitches Brew regularly sees two bassists (one electric and one double) and three drummers go head-to-head to create a behemoth of a rhythm section which had never been seen before and, arguably, won’t be heard again.
Furthermore, the album’s seven tracks clock in at a total 95 minutes, providing Davis with the very biggest of canvases on which to work. Tracks like ‘Pharaoh’s Dance’ and ‘Miles Runs The Voodoo Down’ are brilliant examples of building a huge sound, just to destroy it in its final moments, with all but one track clocking in at below ten minutes. Bitches Brew is a challenge, but its seismic influence on not only jazz but rock as well makes it a piece of essential music appreciation. (LISTEN)
Kamasi Washington – The Epic (2015) (Brainfeeder)
You want proof that jazz is alive and well today? Then look no further than Kamasi Washington’s 2015 debut album The Epic. Combining gospel and soul with all elements of jazz, the record serves as a love letter to the history of the genre. You can hear the free-form keys from Coltrane’s work, the smooth bass of Blanton and the infused sounds of Davis, but The Epic a record with a strong identity which sets it apart from all of its contemporaries.
Recorded just after Washington wowed the world on the decade-defining To Pimp A Butterfly, The Epic is just that; nearly three hours in length, but not a second wasted. It’s intense at times (just listen to the free-form ‘Askin’), it’s smooth (‘The Magnificent 7’ and ‘Claire De Lune’), it’s perfect.
The Epic was the right album for the right time, a perfect introduction to jazz and all that has come before it, as well as being truly phenomenal in its own right. If you’re sat reading this, thinking jazz isn’t cool, this album shows you that it is. Released on Flying Lotus’ record label Brainfeeder, featuring bass from Thundercat and receiving loud approval from Kendrick Lamar, The Epic is the best jazz album this side of the millennium. (LISTEN)
So what did you think? Do you agree with our list of the 10 most important jazz records ever? Let us know below. You can follow us on Twitter @StudentPlaylist and you can follow John @JohnTindale1996.
Tags: Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck Quartet, Duke Ellington, feature, Jazz, John Coltrane, John Tindale, Kamasi Washington, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk
Reading Music Journalism at Huddersfield University, I have a passion for all things musical. I pride myself on being open minded in music genres and have a love of writing to match. The coolest cat on The Student Playlist, I also support Hartlepool United and am an avid pro-wrestling fan.
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