10 Best Jazz Albums of All Time
Jazz is unlike any other genre. It’s arguably more polarizing than most, but once you understand why jazz-lovers love it, you’ll be changed for life.
Listening to a jazz record is like being taken on a journey, with the musicians as your guide. Sometimes you know exactly where the journey’s headed, but most of the time your guide takes you through tons of twists and turns you never expected, leaving you pleasantly surprised when you get back home.
Here are our top 10 best jazz albums of all time. These are our opinions, so don’t take it as stone-cold fact, but we think you’d be hard-pressed to argue with any of these making it into the list.
Although the biggest jazz boom we’d see came in the late 50s and 60s, Duke Ellington was in the game long before that. He had been making classic swing jazz since the 30s, so when all the new kids were switching things up and innovating, the question was, “Can Duke keep up?”
Ellington at Newport was a resounding yes to that question. Performed live at the Newport Jazz Festival, Ellington confirmed that he was still at the top of his game despite all the new kids joining in. He played both new songs and classics at the show, but the record only included 5 tracks upon release.
These days, you can find an updated release with the full live performance, as well as recorded tracks from a few days after, but that performance will go down in history as one of the all-time greats.
Herbie Hancock has made more classic albums than what most people have in albums altogether. His skill on piano is nearly unmatched, and he plays with such heart and soul that it’s impossible not to acknowledge his greatness.
Maiden Voyage is arguably his best. “Dolphin Dance” and the title track have become standards of the genre, joining the list of songs that any group of jazz musicians can start jamming to.
Some would argue for Head Hunters as his best, a fusion of funk, rock, and jazz, but Maiden Voyage is Hancock at his most pure, and that’s why we included it on this list.
If you had to choose one jazz musician to bring back because we lost them a little too early, Eric Dolphy would top most people’s lists. He passed away at the young age of 36 due to a complication with his diabetes, but he left us with some of the best free jazz the world has ever seen.
Out To Lunch! was Dolphy’s Blue Note debut. He had made a name for himself as a flute player, saxophonist, and clarinet player by playing alongside the likes of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane.
On this record, Dolphy plays the conductor, coordinating a group of top-notch musicians (Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis, and Tony Williams) and guiding them through the improvisation process. The result is a masterpiece in improvised jazz and an excellent final bout for a career ended too short.
This wasn’t Ornette Coleman’s first effort. Early in his career, he made two records (Something Else!!!! and Tomorrow Is The Question) for Contemporary, a California label run by Lester Koenig. These records were just fine, but something changed when Coleman made the switch to Atlantic Records in 1959.
The Shape of Jazz to Come may sound like a brag or a hyperbole, and in some ways it is. Coleman didn’t have the same influence as guys like Coltrane or Davis, but he did have his own influences.
Coleman’s focus was on bright melodies and gruff, blues-inspired vocals. Coleman didn’t make “smooth jazz.” It was rough, dirty, and beautiful all at the same time. This record is by far his best example of that.
Charles Mingus is one of the more interesting characters to grace the jazz scene, and Mingus Ah Um marked a huge milestone in his incredible career. This record was the first that Mingus would record at Columbia Records, and was his greatest work.
Accompanied by Jimmy Knepper, John Handy, Booker Ervin, and others, Mingus crafted a distinctive sound, mixing elements of bop, gospel, and blues to create something all his own.
The album is both intensely personal and political at the same time. Tracks like “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” pay tribute to the late saxophonist Lester Young, while “Fables Of Faubus” directly goes after the Arkansas Governor at the time, Orval Faubus.
Regardless of what draws you into the record, the music is one-of-a-kind and something you don’t want to miss.
If we aren’t careful, half of this list could get taken up by John Coltrane. His music has influenced and impacted generations of jazz musicians and enthusiasts alike, but some pieces just stand above the rest.
Few songs have had the level of influence of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” The record as a whole is just as loved as any of Coltrane’s other pieces, but the title track is in a league of its own.
The cyclical chord pattern of the track has become a staple of jazz students’ practice routines everywhere. The “Coltrane Changes,” as they’re called, are a constant presence at jazz jam sessions, too.
In addition to that track’s far-reaching influence, the rest of the record is incredible, as well. It just had a 60th-anniversary re-release in 2019, so people can continue loving and listening to this masterpiece for years to come.
Julian “Cannonball” Adderley is a top-notch saxophonist, leading the field during his time, and this record is arguably his best work. Featuring Miles Davis in a unique supporting role, this record is one of the Blue Note greats.
The small ensemble of Adderley, Davis, and others including the great Art Blakely on drums, created some amazing music on this LP. Anyone who is serious about their jazz collection needs to pick this up. It’s an absolute classic.
Bill Evans is one of the greatest pianists to ever grace the jazz landscape. Alongside Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, the trio’s Sunday at Village Vanguard left a mark on Jazz history as one of the best live albums ever recorded.
The three were all playing at their absolute best that June Sunday—the last record LaFaro would record before his death two weeks later. You can hear the three of them just having a great time, bouncing musical ideas off of each other throughout the record.
It’s a great piece that, time and time again, impresses and delights those who hear it.
Coming in second on this list is a record that kickstarted a new kind of jazz. John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” was one of the first jazz records to have the hyper-spiritual focus that it did. You can really feel Coltrane wrestling with the deep, spiritual elements of his soul.
This is not the type of album that you listen to in the background at a coffee shop. From the first note to the last, this record grips you, inviting you into the depths of Coltrane and company’s inner workings.
Coltrane had plenty of records before and after this one, but something stands out looking back at A Love Supreme. Whether it’s the emotional intensity of his playing, the concept, or the pure talent on display here, this record goes down in history as one of the absolute greats.
Sometimes we judge a “best album” by the music itself. Other times, we look at sales numbers. In the case of Kind of Blue, the album’s greatness transcends personal taste and sales.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find any “best jazz albums” list without this one at the top. Miles Davis stands atop the landscape as a legend of the genre, and this record is one of the biggest reasons why.
Davis broke the mold, opting for a more relaxed style that would pave the way for an entire subgenre of modal jazz. Many have argued that this album is the most influential in the history of jazz. Dozens of artists that came after would model themselves after Davis’ smooth, laid-back grooves on this record.
John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley lent their saxophone talents, while Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly played keys. Combine that with Paul Chambers on bass and the legendary Jimmy Cobb on drums, and you have a level of talent that you don’t often see on one album.
This album’s influence stretches even into some of today’s best jazz records. It marked a moment in jazz history that has yet to be repeated since, and that’s why it holds our #1 spot for best jazz albums of all time.