Ten Jazz Albums to Listen to Before You Die

Categories: Commentary

Because there are multiple decades of jazz, it's almost impossible to pick the top 10 albums of all time; the hip cats with their canes and cool shades will throw their used saxophone reeds in my direction and call me a young whippersnapper. The debate is so polemic that I might as well write about the top 10 abortion clinics. But so many people out there, young or even a bit older, are curious about jazz, and they're not exactly sure where to start. So, this list will highlight albums you must listen to before you die.

10. Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come
This album title, when it came out in 1959, was the equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing to the fences or Muhammad Ali proclaiming he was the greatest. It was an album that said, you hear this sound, you hear what I'm laying down, everything is about to change. Fort Worth's Ornette Coleman went from playing the sax to the trumpet, and he received scorn from Miles Davis, who publicly questioned Coleman's sanity and technical ability. And because the album is often credited as being the anchor to avant-garde jazz albums, it might just sound a bit strange to the newbie's ear. But Coleman was trying to move away from tradition, shattering conventional ideas of harmony and axing the piano, to create a new dimension of sound.

9. Sonny Rollins, The Bridge
When you put on this album, take a tumbler of whiskey and imagine you're staring out at New York City. After a sabbatical from music, Sonny Rollins returned triumphantly in 1962 with The Bridge. The title track was named after The Williamsburg Bridge in New York City, which connects Manhattan to Brooklyn, and Rollins used to head down to the bridge to practice. He's a sax player who wanted to be his own man, an individual. This album is accessible to the novice.

8. Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters
Herbie Hancock helped bring the synthesizer and the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano to mass appeal. And this 1973 album was influenced by Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone. Even if you don't like jazz but you love funk and soul, then this album is for you. At one point, Head Hunters was the best-selling jazz album of all time. Be warned, though, there is experimentation happening here, but the funky drums will keep you driving forward throughout the whole album.

7. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis
Imagine it's a Friday morning, and you have the day off. It's you and your significant other. You have nowhere to go, and it's raining. Well, this is the album you need to be playing to create that perfect atmosphere -- an album with so much space, soaring trumpet solos and a duet so unique and soulful even a jazz newbie can't ignore its grip on their heartstrings. It's a 1956 album dripping with nostalgia. Plus, the band features Oscar Peterson (piano) and Buddy "Freaking" Rich (drums).

6. Miles Davis, Bitches Brew
Now, I'm not saying that you have to like this album, but it's an album you have to listen to before you die. It's kind of like looking at Abstract Expressionism or listening to Morton Feldman -- it just might not jive with you. Bitches Brew was released in 1970. The first time I heard this album, I thought it was a joke. In fact, I was kind of pissed. Where was the melody? Where was the catchy rhythm? Well, it's so shocking the first time you hear the album, even today, that it forces you to question what jazz and music can be. It makes you think about structure and limitations of our current music. The prison of the human ear. Ah, enough of that. Just listen to the album. Chaos and cacophony defined.

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great list - but what about jazz guitar?


grant green -  #1 green street

john scofield - a go go

anything by django



Jazz at Massey Hall, by The Quintet (Chalie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Max Roach).

Kyla Bussey
Kyla Bussey

Hmmm, a good all-around list but some of the selections seem more from a Google search than a experienced jazz fan, perhaps just a matter of taste. But glad to see it covered, nonetheless! I'd add some newer selections, some guitar jazz like Al DiMeola & Pat Metheny, but that's just me.

Ambelleina Warwillow
Ambelleina Warwillow

I got worried for a minute there as I scrolled from number 10 down...then I saw KoB at number 1. Yes. So yes.


John Coltrane - "A Love Supreme"


Any jazz list without this album is incomplete.

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