The 100 Jazz Albums That Shook The World

Article Index



Keith Jarrett - The Köln Concert - ECM
Jarrett (p). Rec. 1975

Jarrett burst onto the international jazz scene as part of the ground-breaking Charles Lloyd Quartet of the latter 1960s, moved on to running his own trio, briefly joined in with the Miles Davis electronic voodoo soups of the early 1970s, then retreated to acoustic music and a re-examination of what he was attempting to achieve in his music. This led to something of a temporary eclipse in his profile in the first half of the 1970s, although his creativity continued to diversify and deepen. An adept at solo recitals (his Facing You for ECM in 1970 was a strong harbinger), he began a series of in-concert recitals for Manfred Eicher’s label that attracted acclaim and increasing public interest, but no-one was prepared for what happened to The Köln Concert when it appeared. A long series of intensely rhythmical improvisations that became hypnotic and endlessly repeatable on turntables throughout the world, the album became a runaway bestseller by word of mouth, rapidly escaping the confines of the jazz listeners’ community and spreading into the living rooms of people who never ever listened to, let alone owned, another jazz album. This remains the case with Jarrett and with the record, which is not only a jazz turning-point in its own right but one of the biggest-selling discs in the genre. (KS)

‘I remember thinking there’s no place I’d rather be than sitting at the piano’
– Keith Jarrett on The Köln Concert, (Jazzwise 3 June 1997)

Miles Davis - Bitches Brew - Columbia
Miles Davis (t), Wayne Shorter (ss), Bennie Maupin (b cl), Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea (el p), John McLaughlin (g), Dave Holland (b), Harvey Brooks (el b), Lenny White, Jack DeJohnette (d), Don Alias (perc) and Jumma Santos (shaker). Rec. 1969

From whatever perspective you choose to view the 1960s – from the Cuba Missile Crisis to the rise of the counter culture movement, the student riots in Paris in May 1968 to the growing anti-Vietnam protests across the USA, the advent of the pill to the rise of rock music – established values were being openly questioned, upturned and in general shaken up. So in a decade when the leitmotif was change, it’s arguable that Bitches Brew was the album that shook the music world up most. After all, combining jazz and rock? Yes, there had been albums before Bitches Brew that did just that, but Miles Davis’ position in the jazz world sanctioned the union between two seemingly opposed bedfellows. With Bitches Brew the jazz-rock message was handed down from the mount on tablets of stone. From the title track with Davis, Shorter and Maupin emerging from the matrix of the mix before being swallowed up by this swirling electrical brew, to ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ with the trumpeter on the heels of Hendrix, the sound of jazz was changed forever. (SN)

‘The night I got Bitches Brew I couldn’t sleep’
– guitarist Terje Rypdal (Jazzwise 94, Feb 2006)

Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)

Charlie Parker - Bird: The Complete Original Master Takes. The Savoy Recordings - Savoy Jazz
Parker (as, ts), Miles Davis (t), Dizzy Gillespie, Argonne Thornton, Clyde Hart, Bud Powell, John Lewis, Duke Jordan (p), Tiny Grimes (g, v), Curley Russell, Tommy Potter (b), Harold West and Max Roach (d) plus others. Rec. 1945-48

Parker, of course, made his most innovatory music on record prior to the invention of the LP, so every collection of his brilliant music from the 1940s is a latter-day compilation of the original 78rpm singles. Early vinyl attempts to collate his best material were haphazard at best, especially from the original Savoy company, so it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that things got in any way organised and proper chronological reissues were successfully brought to market. These days, you can buy the complete Parker Savoys and Dials in a lavish multiple CD set, but you get all the breakdown, alternative takes and other bits and pieces, making it a trial for all but the committed Parker enthusiast. For those who want to know and shiver to the thrills of encountering earth-moving genius for the first time, master takes only, then this 2-CD set from the 1980s is the best entry point: you get Parker’s own approved performance, you get just the Savoys and you get superior remastering across just two CDs rather than five or six. Undiluted precedent-breaking music from Parker, aided and abetted by the best and most sympathetic colleagues of the day. (KS)

Feature Charlie Parker – Bird Lives!

Charles Mingus - Mingus Ah Um  - Columbia
Mingus (b), Jimmy Knepper/Willie Dennis (tb), John Handy (as, ts), Shafi Hadi (as), Booker Ervin (ts), Horace Parlan (p) and Dannie Richmond (d).
Rec. 1959

Just as with the Monk at number six, this classic album also represented a career breakthrough. Recorded not long after his Blues And Roots, but Atlantic deliberately held that back for over a year because the bassist had signed his first contract with Columbia, the major whose distribution, especially to the white audience, was much more powerful. Ah Um’s release came in the same year as his first evening appearance at the Newport Festival and the start of his record-breaking residency with Eric Dolphy.

The present album, however, was a studio venture with a specially constituted group familiar with Mingus’ working quintets. Ervin’s contributions, for instance, ‘Fables Of Faubus’‚ and the gospelised opener ‘Better Git It In Your Soul’, are a definition of “hot”, while Knepper on the deliberately old-fashioned ‘Jelly Roll’‚ makes it satirical and serious at the same time. Similar things apply to ‘Bird Calls’‚ and ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, where Handy pays oblique homage to Parker and Lester Young respectively but don’t ignore the crucial reactions of the crisply recorded Richmond. Novice producer Teo Macero’s tight editing allowed for more tunes and more user-friendly presentation than on Blues And Roots. (BP)

‘It was a precursor to the whole thing that opened up in the 60s’
– drummer John Marshall on Mingus Ah Um (Jazzwise 80, October 2004)

Review: Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um (50th Anniversary Edition) ★

Thelonious Monk - Brilliant Corners -Riverside
Monk (p, celeste), Ernie Henry (as), Sonny Rollins (ts), Oscar Pettiford/Paul Chambers (b), Max Roach (d) and Clark Terry (t). Rec. 1956

Recording of Brilliant Corners began 50 years ago next month, making an impact hard to imagine these days. The first new Monk album to receive more than a guarded welcome in the press, the praise was entirely justified. Unlike his first two Riverside releases, respectively of Ellington standards and a bunch of other jazz standards, this was nearly all Monk’s own tunes and three of the four were new, none more so than the extraordinary title-track which gave so much trouble to the all-star cast who’d never seen it before. Rollins and Roach, currently making a success of the newly Clifford Brown-less Roach quintet, had worked for Monk before but both were seriously challenged by his material here. The less well-known Ernie Henry was in the pianist’s regular quartet and a post-Parker deviant comparable to Jackie McLean, while Pettiford was a pioneer bopper beloved of Monk except when they disagreed. Using the bubbly Clark Terry and Paul Chambers on a subsequent session was a stroke of genius, as was the unaccompanied piano track. And the whole thing was released just as Monk began his historic group with Coltrane. (BP)

Feature Thelonious Monk: Essential Recordings: Essential Recordings

Sonny Rollins - Saxophone Colossus - Prestige
Rollins (ts), Tommy Flanagan (p), Doug Watkins (b) and Max Roach (d). Rec. 1956

Was Sonny Rollins ready in 1956? Was he ready! Apart from this masterpiece, he also lead from the front on Plus 4, an album featuring the Brown/Roach Quintet of the day in all but name, plus Tenor Madness (the title track featuring a head-on with Coltrane) and the exquisite Plays For Bird. But Saxophone Colossus towers above them all, not only because it concentrates on a quartet setting allowing undiluted access to the creative process of Sonny at his most inspired, but because it is one of those happy coincidences where all elements came off equally well, including the use of unusual repertoire and inspired originals. Rollins himself was clearly inspired enough by such material as ‘St Thomas’ and ‘The Moritat’ from Threepenny Opera to still be playing them in concert 50 years later. Nevertheless, it is tempting to call these original recordings definitive, if only because they do in fact define the essence of Rollins’ approach to improvisation, wringing every nuance and variation he can from the theme and its associated melodic and rhythmic patterns. The blues ‘Blue 7’ was famously dissected for such methodology by Gunther Schuller back at the time of Saxophone Colossus’ initial release but that failed to stop Rollins from another two years of super-human saxophone playing before his dramatic retirement in 1959. This is still the biggest-selling jazz album of all time in Japan. (KS)

‘You know he would have made this music whether he had an album deal or not. He had to make it’
– Saxophonist Alan Barnes on Saxophone Colossus (Jazzwise 78, August 2004)

Review: Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus ★★★★★

Bill Evans Trio - Sunday At The Village Vanguard - Riverside
Evans (p), Scott LaFaro (b) and Paul Motian (d). Rec. 1961

None of the three men that made this music one fine June day in 1961 had any inkling of the impact it would have down the years: on listening to the playbacks LaFaro did mention to Evans that he thought they’d got pretty close to optimum performance, but that was about it. Two weeks or so later LaFaro was dead and Evans left with the ashes of his first great group. This album became Evans’ own personal choice of what he thought best represented the trio through the spectrum of LaFaro’s prodigiously gifted bass playing. The pianist obviously had great discernment because thousands of people have concurred with him since, naming this not only their favourite Evans album but the one that changed their lives (and in some cases, their careers). Why? Not only were the three trio members individually at their peaks on that particular Village Vanguard Sunday, but they interacted with quietly fierce invention as never before, certainly not on record. Equal partners, they sustained a musical dialogue on selection after selection that has rarely been equalled within the earshot of a professional microphone, with the astonishingly inventive LaFaro perhaps meriting the sobriquet of senior partner at times, so dominant can he be. This is hardly to downgrade Evans’ own contributions, all of which retain their depth and freshness today. The various CD versions of this set come in all manner of configurations, many with as much as five bonus tracks. Original is best, however, and you will not be disappointed by a CD containing the bare LP track line-up. (KS)

‘Without wanting to get all mystical, it’s almost a spiritual event’
– bassist Jeff Clyne on Sunday At The Village Vanguard (Jazzwise 95, March 2006)

Feature: Ten Life-Changing Jazz Piano Trio Recordings

Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz To Come - Atlantic
Coleman (as), Don Cherry (t), Charlie Haden (b), Billy Higgins (d). Rec. 1959

I don’t know what it was about Ornette that led record company executives to go for the overkill on the album names, but by the time Atlantic released this, the altoist’s debut on the label, he’d already had albums on Contemporary called Something Else!!!! and Tomorrow Is The Question. Anyway, few observers of the day were bothered by the hyperbole, more by the claim that Ornette had any musical worth whatsoever. Of course it was a complete red herring, because although Ornette did have a profound influence on subsequent jazz developments, it was an oblique one compared with that of Coltrane’s or Eric Dolphy’s or Miles Davis’. What this album did in fact contain and represent was a completely different and fresh set of musical signposts within the jazz vernacular, both in terms of the stunningly bright melodic patterns Ornette crystallised in his vibrant and beautiful compositions and in his off-the-wall improvisatory approach. He also brought back to jazz that rough, keening wail and constant pitch variations of the most basic blues and folk music. Later we all learned that he’d cut his musical teeth on tenor in Texas R&B bands and it all made sense: at the time it sounded as if Attila the Hun had been resurrected at the Five Spot and in Atlantic’s recording studios and was in no mood to do deals. Ornette never did, either,  bless him. (KS)

Review: Ornette Coleman – Original Album Series ★

John Coltrane - A Love Supreme - Impulse!
Coltrane (ts, v), McCoy Tyner (p), Jimmy Garrison (b) and Elvin Jones (d). Rec. 1964

No matter how many times you approach this album it’s always greater than the sum of whatever parts you compile. Yes, it’s perfect, yes, it’s ambitious, yes it crosses over far from the usual jazz conceptions, yes it is couched as a suite of meditations-in-kind that give it a formal design way beyond 99 per cent of jazz albums. Yes, Coltrane plays like a man inspired by something more than the job immediately to hand, as do the other three musicians involved, and yes the themes are unremittingly sober. But that only scratches the surface of this album’s achievement. You can’t lay it at the door of Coltrane’s aspirations, because good intentions often lead to artistic disasters in music as well as every other aesthetic discipline, but it is possible that his own complete commitment to his testimony of spiritual re-birth happily coincided with a day in the studio where he was truly touched to open his soul through the medium of his saxophone, for his playing on this record is almost terrifyingly open, intense and soul-shattering, even when he is simply stating a theme.

This is a very powerful part of the album’s pull, as is the tautness of each selection’s form, and it must also account for the hold it has sustained magically over listeners who otherwise venture rarely into any form of jazz, including the progressive rock fans of the late 60s and onwards. Within jazz itself, the album ensured that the music could no longer be considered a social or cultural also-ran, the spiritual and humanistic concerns that made up its inspiration demanding that it be treated in the same way as the master creations of the art-music of any culture. Nothing could be the same again. It still isn’t.(KS)
Also available as a 2-CD edition with the second disc recorded live in France.

‘He put all his musical ideas into one album but overriding all that was the sheer emotional beauty of what Trane did’
– Alto saxophonist Peter King on A Love Supreme
(Jazzwise 75, May 2004)

Review: John Coltrane – A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters ★


Miles Davis - Kind of Blue - Columbia
Miles Davis (t), John Coltrane (ts), Cannonball Adderley (as), Wynton Kelly (p), Bill Evans (p), Paul Chambers (b) and Jimmy Cobb (d). Rec. 1959

Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, explains why Kind of Blue tops the list.

How does one properly gauge impact? There’s no smouldering crater in the case of Kind of Blue, Miles’ melancholy, modal-jazz masterwork. The 1959 disc didn’t arrive with a thunderous clap, yet four decades later, at the end of the millennium, there it was at the top of any and all “best of”
lists, nudging aside so many rock, pop and hip-hop recordings.

Today, there it is on Hollywood soundtracks, an incontestable signifier of hip. There it is near the sales till, still moving up to 5,000 copies a week worldwide, outselling most contemporary jazz recordings. And there it sits in at least five million CD collections. Often it’s the one jazz title owned by a metal head or a classical enthusiast, not just the jazz-focused.

But perhaps Kind of Blue is better measured by the sum of the constituent parts. Five tunes, exceedingly simple in construction, exceptionally deep in evocative power, played by seven post-bop masters, all in their prime. A once-in-a-lifetime line up that makes the term “all-star” seem inadequate: trumpeter Davis, plus sax men John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb.

Certainly, Kind of Blue must be measured by musical influence. Ask any number of influential music-makers who have been around, such as Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, and the like, they all agree. At a time when the music had “gotten thick” as Miles said, Kind of Blue distilled modern jazz into a cool and detached essence.

The motivation behind going “modal” in the 1950s jazz world was to break from established harmonic patterns (melodic, too) and make way for fresh, extended improvisation. Miles was remarkably successful in marrying musical opposites: 20th century classical concepts such as harmonic simplicity, exotic scales and African rhythms all in a relaxed, swinging groove.

Kind of Blue became the improviser’s bible upon its release in late 1959. For one of its joint creators – John Coltrane – it pointed the way forward: he led much of the jazz world into the 1960s after his modal lessons with Miles. At Coltrane’s side pianist McCoy Tyner adapted Bill Evans’ innovation of quartal harmony, the use of fourths on ‘So What’, to legendary results.

At the close of the 60s, the modal idea became the foundation of fusion jazz. It proved the same for a number of rock groups, such as the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead and Santana, that used the electric guitar as the solo instrument of choice, and set the standard for generations of jam-oriented bands to follow.

“I think the implications of Kind of Blue we now feel everywhere, but it wasn’t as deep as they became over time,” says saxophonist Dave Liebman. “Name me some music where you don’t hear echoes of it,” Herbie Hancock challenges.

“I hear it everywhere – it becomes hard to separate the modality that exists in rock ’n’ roll, some of it could be directly from Kind of Blue.”

Write a book with as narrow a focus as one jazz album (let’s say Kind of Blue) and, trust me, one ends up thinking and rethinking the subject years after publication. My theories on why that particular Miles album maintains its hold on the top of various charts never seem to settle comfortably on one explanation. I feel the ranking of a musical masterpiece is one that should be open to constant rethink, even if the status remains the same in the end. Yet, especially in the mainstream press, the music chosen for those “best this” and “most that” lists simply falls in line with a long-established view with no question and little explanation.

For this reason and for others, I’m not a fan of top 10 lists. Or of 20, 100, or any number that would place one recording before another. Musical value and appreciation is far too subjective a thing to be ordered neatly on a linear scale. One-dimensional exercises such as list-making seem especially un-hip and unrevealing when it comes to jazz, the most porous and democratic of musics, open to all influences, granting all styles equal value and importance. At least in my view.

Of the many ideas I gathered for my book on Kind of Blue, there is one quote in particular that comes to mind whenever the subject of relative value arises.

“If you like Kind of Blue, turn it over, look who plays on it,” says keyboardist Ben Sidran. “If you particularly like the piano, go buy a Bill Evans record, buy a Wynton Kelly record. If you like the alto playing, buy a Cannonball Adderley record. That one record – it’s not even six degrees of separation – is maybe two degrees of separation from every great jazz record.”

My own introduction to Kind of Blue took place in 1976, a time when my teenage ears were filled with post-Woodstock rock, and the first bursts of punk. Springsteen was a recent discovery as was Bob Marley. One day a mate whose musical taste I trusted implicitly yanked a worn copy of Miles’ LP out of my father’s collection – which I avoided as a matter of principle and teenage independence. Holding it out to me, he declared it a classic. I looked at it anew and came to enjoy its mood-setting atmosphere. I also came to realise how narrowly I had been casting for new sounds. I had been standing on the shore of a vast ocean of musical possibilities, yet fishing in one small inlet.

I didn’t fully realise it then, but Kind of Blue helped me see the vastness before me and rejoice in its expanse. I’ve been sailing the waters, listening and learning, ever since.

If those 5,000 per week sales figures are any indication, I’m not alone. As a measure of impact – I can think of nothing more significant than the music that first unmoors one from preconceptions and the need to stay in one place. For this alone, for serving for so many as a portal to an entire world of creative music, I agree that Kind of Blue continues to earn its status as a number one.

Feature: Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

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