Jazz is more than a musical genre. It’s an entire universe of sound. From its inception in early 20th-century New Orleans, jazz shifted in form and complexity, making it a tough nut to crack for some listeners. Bebop, post-bop, hard bop, cool jazz, soul jazz, free jazz, third stream, and fusion – where to begin?
Below are 15 jazz albums that exemplify different periods and subgenres in jazz while remaining relatively accessible to non-aficionados. Think of each jazz album as a gateway to a certain style or artist – an invitation to enter a world and hopefully emerge wanting more.
Each jazz album is a recognized classic by a major jazz figure, with a few recent releases included for listeners looking to update their collections. In most cases, these jazz albums contain links with other musical genres, establishing various bridges between jazz and other forms.
Each jazz album pick is currently available for digital streaming on major platforms (Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, etc.). Most are available on compact disc, and all but the Pharoah Sanders and John Scofield jazz albums have been reissued on 180-gram vinyl (source: Discogs). The jazz albums are presented chronologically by year of original release.
Louis Armstrong – Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (Columbia, 1954)
It made total sense for “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy to get a refresher at the hands of jazz legend Louis Armstrong. Handy was the first composer and bandleader to popularize the blues in the early decades of the 20th century. Meanwhile, Armstrong had taken jazz from the club scene of New Orleans to America’s concert halls and gramophones. Both men’s rise to fame coincided with the advent of 78-rpm discs, which were fast becoming obsolete by the early 1950s as vinyl took over.
Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy improves the fidelity of such Handy standards as “Memphis Blues”, “St. Louis Blues”, and “Loveless Love”. Armstrong’s gravelly voice and iconic trumpet solos highlight the poignancy and humor in the material, with able support from trombonist Trummy Young, clarinetist Barney Bigard, and singer Velma Middleton.
Chet Baker – Chet Baker Sings (Pacific Jazz, 1954)
A foremost trumpeter in the West Coast scene of the early 1950s, Chet Baker helped launch the cool jazz movement as a member of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. A less technically proficient singer, Baker’s voice nonetheless brought uncanny intimacy to Chet Baker Sings, winning him fans outside the realm of jazz.
Baker’s chilled-out renditions of “That Old Feeling”, “Time After Time”, “My Buddy”, and “My Funny Valentine” are the perfect soundtrack for hazy evenings in your lounge of choice. Baker’s trumpet solos provide sparse accompaniment backed by a Russ Freeman-led piano trio. The original eight-song mini-LP was expanded into a full-length jazz album in 1956 and on subsequent reissues.
Billie Holiday – Lady Sings the Blues (Clef/ Verve, 1956)
Even as chronic substance abuse took a toll on her voice, Billie Holiday remained a singer able to bend notes and weave melodies as surely as any jazz soloist. Lady Sings the Blues is the fourth of ten LPs Billie Holiday recorded during a creative burst in the final years of her life. Revisiting some of her earlier classics, Holiday exudes empathy and weary wisdom in renditions of “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child”, and “Love Me or Leave Me”. Newer songs, including her own co-written “Lady Sings the Blues”, complement the older material.
Accompaniment by either a sextet or septet provides musical settings sparser than on some of Holiday’s more orchestrated recordings. Her blues-infused jazz style has influenced countless singers, from Nina Simone to Amy Winehouse.
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)
There are plenty of reasons why Kind of Blue belongs in the collection of anyone with the merest interest in jazz. The jazz album presents Miles Davis at his lyrical best, a jazz answer to Debussy’s adage that space between the notes matters as much as the notes themselves. The Davis quintet includes John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on double bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
On “Blue in Green”, the band become a sextet with the addition of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax. Largely improvised around simple modal motifs, “So What”, “Freddie Freeloader”, and “All Blues” have an immediately accessible feel – catchy without being simplistic and never far from the blues. Easily found on CD and vinyl, Kind of Blue is the ultimate gateway to jazz itself.
Miles Davis – Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960)
After the modal triumph of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis joined Toronto-born arranger Gil Evans to explore a hybrid jazz form the composer Gunther Schuller termed “third stream” – a conceptual marriage between jazz and classical music. Building on previous Davis collaborations, including Porgy and Bess (1959), Evans transcribed Concierto de Aranjuez (1939) by the modern Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo, turning its second movement into the first act of Sketches of Spain. The rest of the set features Manuel de Falla’s “Will ‘O the Wisp”, along with Evans compositions derived from folk sources in the archives of Alan Lomax.
Davis’ sparse phrasing and cracked tone on trumpet and flugelhorn have a forlorn quality against Evans’ orchestrations, accented by an understated rhythm section. For all its conceptual fervor, Sketches of Spain is an emotive, accessible jazz album perfect for late-night contemplation.
John Coltrane – My Favorite Things (Atlantic, 1961)
John Coltrane was musically on fire during the first half of the 1960s. After leaving the Davis Quintet, Coltrane signed with Atlantic for his hard bop tour-de-force Giant Steps in 1960. That jazz album epitomizes the “sheets of sound” DownBeat critic Ira Gitler observed in Coltrane’s playing a few years earlier. My Favorite Things (1961) cooled the fires, highlighting the more lyrical side of Coltrane’s playing. Miles’s gift of a soprano saxophone gave Trane a new voice to alternate with the brassier tenor.
The 14-minute title track brings hard bop textures to Hammerstein and Rodgers’s theme from The Sound of Music. Show tunes by Cole Porter and Ira and George Gershwin supplement the jazz album, each finding new life under Coltrane’s immaculate conceptions. Pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Steve Davis, and drummer Elvin Jones complete Coltrane’s legendary quartet, soon to reach its creative epitome with 1965’s A Love Supreme.
Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder (Blue Note, 1964)
Trumpeter Lee Morgan was still a teenager when he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in the 1950s. Stints with John Coltrane, Jimmy Smith, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers made Morgan a hard bop sensation as his bold, freewheeling solos distinguished him from the more lyrical Miles Davis.
In the 1960s, Morgan led his own band on a series of recordings whose debt to R&B anticipated the soul jazz movement. The Sidewinder remains the most famous of these, a rollicking groove-laden jazz set in which Morgan ties his remarkable virtuosity to prominent hooks and infectious rhythms. The title track, with its infectious boogaloo beat, became a surprise pop hit in 1964, a peak of Morgan’s career before his tragic murder in 1972.
Nina Simone – Wild Is the Wind (Philips, 1966)
Although she blends blues, gospel, soul, and traditional pop into a unique style, Nina Simone sings and plays like a jazz musician. This set of first-rate outtakes explores a wide range of emotions stemming from Simone’s personal experiences and commitment to civil rights.
The jazz album begins with an upbeat “I Love Your Lovin’ Ways” followed by the searing “Four Women”, Simone’s self-penned narrative of Black women’s lives amid racism and sexism. “Break Down and Let It All Out” is an emotional catharsis of the heart. “Lilac Wine” is a quieter torch ballad – the inspiration for a later version by Jeff Buckley. “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” transforms an American folk tune into another passionate testimonial of Black identity. Like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday before her, Nina Simone forged a personal blues from the songs she wrote or made her own.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1973)
Rock, metal, and prog fans getting into jazz often gravitate toward the heavier style of John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. As an ominous gong and McLaughlin’s phased guitar announce Birds of Fire’s dramatic opening, prog fans may recognize affinities with the likes of Gentle Giant and King Crimson.
McLaughlin (who started his career in the Graham Bond Organization with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce) leads the charge on one of jazz-rock’s most successful fusions. Drummer Billy Cobham, an influence on Bill Bruford and Tool’s Danny Carey, adds jazz texture to thunderous improvisations. Jerry Goodman’s electric violin and Jan Hammer’s keyboards add nuance as producer Ken Scott (The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck) pushes the meters into the red. For all its renowned bluster, Birds of Fire is dynamic and even meditative during the gorgeous “Thousand Island Park” and slow-burning closer “Resolution”.
Gil Evans – The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix (RCA, 1974)
Jazz interpretations of rock music sometimes lose the raw power of the source material by attempting to “tame” rock’s particular energy. Happily, there is nothing tame about Gil Evans’ jazz interpretations of the music of Jimi Hendrix. The Canadian arranger paid tribute to the late Hendrix (four years after the guitarist’s tragic death) with orchestrated arrangements filled with plenty of fire.
Jazz renditions of “Crosstown Traffic” and “Little Wing” will be instantly familiar to any Hendrix fan. But the jazz album finds its own unique rhythm on some of the lesser-known numbers, including “Angel”, “Up from the Skies”, and “Gypsy Eyes”. Guitarists John Abercrombie and Ryo Kawasaki bring a touch of fuzzed-up psychedelia to Evans’ charts, adding grit without simply trying to copy Hendrix’s incomparable style and technique.
John Scofield – Blue Matter (Gramavision, 1987)
Guitarist John Scofield has recorded music of such sonic diversity it can be difficult to know where to start. Like Pat Metheny, a fellow Berklee College of Music alumnus, Scofield’s restless expansion of the boundaries of jazz has taken him through calm and turbulent waters. The guitarist’s combination of jazz technique and rock attitude has won him acclaim in both genres.
Although critics often cite 1985’s Still Warm as a pinnacle of Scofield’s 1980s work, follow-up Blue Matter deepens the funk with the help of former Parliament-Funkadelic drummer Dennis Chambers. Tunes like “Trim” and “So You Say” explore hard groove territory while “Heaven Hill” has a bluesier feel. The 1980s production values can feel a little dated. If that bothers you, go for Scofield’s recent work on Uncle John’s Band (ECM, 2023), where he leads a jazz trio interpreting classics by Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Neil Young.
Pharoah Sanders – Message from Home (Verve, 1996)
Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders spent much of his long career developing “spiritual jazz”, first explored in his late 1960s work with John Coltrane and on jazz albums like Karma (1969). Sanders’ work in the 1990s reflected concerns for Black identity and its cultural ties to Africa.
Message from Home blends jazz with Western dance and African Afrobeat in a brew seasoned by producer Bill Laswell. The opening track, “Our Roots (Began in Africa)”, is dancefloor soul with a jazzy heart. The more exploratory “Nozipho” features Sanders’ trademark overblowing on transcendent soloing. “Ocean Song” is a quieter piece evoking sea breezes on African shores. “Kumba” features Gambian griot Foday Musa Suso, who sings and plays the kora (an African stringed instrument rare in American jazz). A love letter to Sanders’ African roots, Message to Home is a worldly delight – a jazz album much in need of a vinyl reissue.
Medeski, Martin & Wood – Combustication (Blue Note, 1998)
Keyboardist John Medeski, bassist Chris Wood, and drummer Billy Martin began in New York City in the early 1990s, combining jazz with elements of funk, hip-hop, and experimental rock. The trio’s crossover appeal won fans in the jam band scene as they toured with rock’s merry pranksters, Phish.
Combustication, Medeski, Martin & Wood’s first jazz album for the Blue Note label, adds turntablist DJ Logic for a bit of acid house and found-sound mystique. Sounding at times like 1960s soul jazz revivalists, other times like the house band in a cool 1990s club, Medeski, Martin & Wood funk it up on “Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho”, bring the avant groove on “Whatever Happened to Gus”, and find gospel inflections in Sly Stone’s “Everyday People”. If you like this set, check out John Scofield’s A Go Go, the guitarist’s collaboration with Medeski, Martin & Wood in 1998.
Brad Mehldau – Your Mother Should Know (Nonesuch, 2023)
Pianist Brad Mehldau spent the 1990s among a new generation of jazz performers, bringing innovations to a traditional foundation. His Gen-X upbringing made him conversant with rock and modern folk as renditions of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”, Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)”, and Nick Drake’s “River Man” appeared in his prolific catalogue.
Recorded live in 2020, Your Mother Should Know presents a cycle of solo piano pieces based on deep cuts in the Beatles catalogue. Mehldau treats “I Am the Walrus”, “Your Mother Should Know”, and “Baby’s in Black” with a jazzman’s keen eye for harmonic potential, while his boogie-woogie rendition of “I Saw Her Standing There” adds a bit of fun. Mehldau concludes the set with his take on David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”, finding musical affinities between the Fab Four and the future Ziggy.
Jaimie Branch – Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die (World War) (International Anthem, 2023)
Before her tragic death by overdose in 2022, Jaimie Branch created vital music – jazz with a punk spirit. Born in Huntingdon, New York, the trumpeter worked in Chicago and studied in Baltimore before arriving in Brooklyn. Exposure to both the jazz and underground rock scenes led to a contract with International Anthem. After three jazz albums – all entitled from variations on the phrase “Fly or Die”, also the name of her quartet – Branch began work on her magnum opus in 2022.
Surprises abound, from the cosmic fantasia of “Aurora Rising”/ “Borealis Dancing” to the street jam vibe of “Burning Grey”. A radical cover of the Meat Puppets’ “Coming Down” (as “The Mountain”, sung by bassist Jason Ajemian) gives the alt-rock chestnut an Appalachian feel. Branch’s trumpet and occasional vocals unify the set, a fine example of modern jazz in a diverse historical and global context.