Lovers of jazz all have their favorites, but a certain number of classic albums keep topping critics’ and listeners’ lists through the decades. Here is a round-up of only 10 of the most diverse, sonically rich, and technically distinguished albums ever to come out of this most American of art forms.
You’ll likely have others you want to add, but chances are you won’t be able to dispute the originality and inherent greatness of each of the albums below.
John Coltrane - A Love Supreme
Coltrane’s artistry and passion on this consistent No. 1 critics’ choice is legendary. Recorded in 1964 and issued by Impulse! Records, A Love Supreme has earned numerous plaudits as a “perfect” jazz recording.
Arranged in four parts—"Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm"—the intellectually adventurous composition features the soaring, meditative playing of Coltrane’s sax set against his “Classic Quartet” line-up of master musicians. The result is jazz as a spiritual exploration, a focused devotion that Coltrane wrote in part as a way of thanking God for delivering him from addiction.
Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
This landmark album vies with Coltrane’s at the top of many critical lists. Issued by Columbia in 1959, its melancholy, atmospheric lyricism is complemented by Davis’ decision to employ a consistent modality that brings out the character of each instrument and musician.
Notably, Cannonball Adderley’s alto sax engages in fiery exchanges with Davis’ agile trumpet-playing, and Bill Evans’ light, dreamy piano juxtaposes beautifully with the voice of Davis’ trumpet. People who don’t even know much about jazz often include Kind of Blue in their music collections, and it continues to outsell new jazz recordings worldwide.
Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come
Coleman’s 1959 Atlantic Records album represents a high point of the alto saxophonist’s art. While Davis' and Coltrane’s albums have produced a more obviously enduring influence, Coleman’s work has also engrained itself in the jazz lexicon. It displays the early influences he drew from Texas R&B, and offers a musical statement stunning in its clarity and brightness, as well as in its deep jazz rhythms.
Chick Corea - Return to Forever
This 1972 jazz fusion release on the ECM label kicked Corea’s electric piano wizardry into high gear. It also represents an advance in his musical expressiveness, as his Latin-inflected vocabulary infuses the entire work. The long piece that concludes the album, "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta," continues as a major influence in the genre.
Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook
Recorded with the Buddy Bregman Orchestra and pressed in 1956 on the Verve label, this is one of the eight studio album “songbooks” of standards that Fitzgerald recorded. The pairing of Fitzgerald’s warm tones and flexible range with the greatest American popular composer of the century continues to serve as a major repository of definitive recordings.
Charles Mingus - Mingus Ah Um
This 1959 Columbia release gives us Mingus on bass in one of the defining moments of his career. As a bandleader, Mingus gathered loyal musicians together to interpret his tightly themed, evocative stylings. This album also gives us his tributes to legendary colleagues who had passed away, including Charlie Parker with “Birdcalls” and Lester Young with “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.”
Bud Powell - The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 1
The “Charlie Parker of Piano” shows what he can do on this sumptuous bebop 1952 Blue Note release. The album centers on Powell’s piano trio work and incorporates additional tracks featuring other greats like trumpeter Sonny Rollins. It’s also notable for bringing Afro-Cuban rhythms to the forefront of the jazz world through Powell’s composition “Un Poco Loco.”
Cannonball Adderley - Somethin’ Else
Blue Note issued Somethin’ Else in 1959, and it notably includes Miles Davis as a sideman for the standard “Autumn Leaves” and the great “One for Daddy-O.” The work effortlessly blends Adderley’s classic effervescent style with the emerging forms of modernism.
Duke Ellington - Ellington at Newport
The 1956 Columbia release gives us Ellington at his best as a pianist and bandleader in the live album format. He considered his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival a kind of musical rebirth, since the mid-50s saw the loss of influence of the big bands. Audiences went wild over the band’s performance of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the festival, particularly for Paul Gonsalves’ tenor sax solo.
Billie Holiday - Lady in Satin
Holiday’s instrument was her voice, and by the end of her life, its mythic power had diminished, while its fragility still held the essence of her talent. This album, produced in 1958 on the Columbia label, was her own personal favorite among her recordings. It was also the next-to-last album she recorded before her death, at age 44, the following year.
On Lady in Satin, she performs with a wistful edginess that barely conceals a torrent of emotion. Accompanied by Ray Ellis and a 40-piece orchestra, Holiday’s raspy voice--the reminder of her battle with addiction—lovingly interprets standards like “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and the especially poignant “I’m a Fool to Want You.”