An introductory modern jazz album collection
People who are new to jazz often ask my advice as to where to start. The following list is a compromise between my favorite modern jazz recordings, the modern jazz recordings generally regarded as most significant by musicians and scholars, and the modern jazz recordings that I think are most likely to appeal to a beginning listener. To help develop your the ability to fully understand and enjoy modern jazz, I recommend listening to these albums in chronological order, becoming intimately familiar with each before proceeding to the next. Depending on your level of interest and motivation, you might also consider purchasing (or borrowing from your library) an excellent jazz appreciation textbook, Jazz Styles by Mark Gridley.
Dizzy Gillespie, “Shaw ’Nuff” (1945-47)
Thelonious Monk, “Thelonious Monk Trio” (1952-54)
Modern jazz began with the musical innovations of saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Thelonious Monk. Parker and Gillespie created a complex improvisational vocabulary called "bebop" that raised the musical and instrumental standards expected of jazz musicians. Monk, a musical iconoclast with a deceptively primitive instrumental technique and improvisational style, was the greatest composer of modern jazz. “Groovin’ High” features Parker and Gillespie at their creative peak in the very first modern jazz recordings ever issued. The Thelonious Monk Trio features Monk's earliest and best renditions of several of his most famous compositions.
Sonny Rollins was arguably the greatest saxophonist and improviser of the 1950s hard bop era. Saxophone Colossus is Rollins’ most famous and musically accessible recording.
Miles Davis, “Milestones” (1958)
Miles Davis, “Porgy & Bess” (1958)
From the late 1940s through the early 1970s, Miles Davis was the most innovative and influential trumpeter and bandleader in jazz.
In 1958 he produced two of his best recordings. Milestones features the most illustrious group of the hard bop era, the Miles Davis sextet that included the astonishing saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly. Porgy & Bess features innovative big band arrangements by Gil Evans that are masterfully tailored to support Davis' lyrical improvisational style. Together these may be the best small group and big band jazz recordings of the 1950s.
Bassist and composer Charles Mingus was a master at synthesizing disparate musical influences and seamlessly integrating solo and group improvisations into written arrangements that created interesting and challenging music for both his sidemen and his listeners. "Mingus Ah Um” is probably his best recording.
The Bill Evans trio of 1961 created a musical revolution by breaking down traditional instrumental roles and increasing the degree of musical interaction between soloists and accompanists. Despite its radical nature, however, this is some of the most delicate and lyrical jazz ever recorded, with definitive jazz versions of several standard ballads.
Stan Getz, “Getz/Gilberto” (1963)
The music on this popular and influential album is a wonderful synthesis of jazz improvisation with Brazilian bossa nova music.
John Coltrane, who died in 1967, has been the most influential saxophonist in jazz since the 1960s. A Love Supreme features his enormously influential quartet at their artistic peak, and is his best selling album. The third track, Pursuance, may be the most intense and impassioned jazz performance ever recorded.
Miles Davis, “Miles Smiles” (1966)
Miles Davis’ second great quintet combined five of the greatest jazz musicians in history into an extremely creative group that synthesized and extended the most valuable innovations in jazz during the 1960s, while adding to them many important innovations of their own. This album is like a still photograph of a rapidly evolving art form taken during its most fertile period.
This album is all but worshiped among many contemporary jazz musicians. It represents the state of the art of the jazz piano trio at the tail end of modern jazz's evolution.