We’ve all been new to the world of vinyl at some point. Some of us jumped into record collecting because we long for a more profound experience than streaming and earbuds. Some because we believe vinyl is indeed the superior format. And some because of the pop culture shift of vinyl being cool.
This list will focus on a genre that is incredibly difficult to dive into alone. It’s also a genre we feel a tiny bit of pressure to include in our collections. We’re talking about Jazz. Yes, the genre that can be rigidly debated amongst real authorities while still being completely amorphous.
Take it from me. I hold a degree that includes the words “Jazz Studies” and have successfully performed songs like “Donna Lee” and “Gibraltar” publicly. Even I fear the heady jazz debate! However, we’ll ease you in here with some albums best suited for the beginning collector. And hey, if you are a grizzled vinyl vet, you might still find a couple of LPs to add to your stash.
While not everyone will agree that the following records deserve a place in the canon or on your record shelves, this list of records in the jazz genre is mostly driven by Discogs’ database and record collection data. There’s also a touch of subjectivity based on cultural impact and a nod to some recent recordings that are both accessible and incredible. Those parameters will keep our primer clear of “Kind Of Blue” and “A Love Supreme.” They certainly are fantastic records, but someone has probably told you to snag them at some point, right?
The reason you want “Saxophone Colossus” in your collection is “Blue 7,” the 11-minute journey of improvisation that inspired an article titled “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation.” In a nutshell: The theme (aka the head) and solos are entirely improvised with Rollins managing several different motivic variations, developing them throughout the tune, then somehow unifying them along the way. It’s majestic. It’s magical. It’s like hearing the eighth wonder of the world.
On either side of this record is greatness. A month before “Somethin” Else,” Cannonball debuted on Miles Davis” “Milestones.” Shortly after this recording, Miles heads off to record “Kind Of Blue.” You feel that history in “Somethin” Else,” but what will pull you in is Cannonball’s incredibly smooth blues/bop hybrid virtuosity. He blows through solos so effortlessly and freely, it’s as if his feet never touch the ground. I should also point out you’re getting the most incredible version of “Autumn Leaves” in recording history.
John Coltrane – Giant Steps (1959)
Five years before “A Love Supreme,” John Coltrane pushed the boundaries of bop almost beyond recognition with “Giant Steps.” The notes come flying at you with ferocity on the title track and “Countdown,” but you can hear the more spiritual side rising in Trane with tunes like “Naima.” If you want to hear what every saxophonist is chasing — it’s on this record.
“Monk’s Dream” is a masterpiece of jazz symbiosis. While Monk is one of the all-time greats, you should start your journey here because of John Ore, Frank Dunlop, and Charles Rouse. Monk’s most powerful quartet recorded “Monk’s Dream” after years of performances, and you’ll hear it in the dialogue throughout. Monk’s instinct is space, and his players take advantage of every opportunity to live in those areas.
Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” made little impact upon its release in 1965, even though most will say this is Shorter’s finest release as a performer and composer. “Speak No Evil” shed Shorter of his Coltrane shadow, even as he performed as a member of Miles Davis’ second quintet. With Elvin Jones, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Freddie Hubbard along for the ride, Shorter found his voice as a composer and saxophonist. Many place this among Blue Note’s most greatest releases.
“Maiden Voyage” is beautiful. It’s accessible, it’s moving, and it’s unmistakably Hancock’s best. Transformed by his time with Miles Davis, his compositions on “Maiden Voyage” take deep breaths of air and space. While the solos and overall performances are incredible, this isn’t a record indicative of 1965. It’s incredibly chill amongst the firestorm of technical prowess in this period of jazz.
“Birdland,” the first track from Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather,” is bizarre. It was incredibly commercial for an instrumental track; to the point that it saturated high school marching bands and jazz bands for easily a decade. What’s important here is Joe Zawinul relinquishing the spotlight to Jaco Pastorius as a composer. There’s a lot to unpack on “Heavy Weather,” and there is plenty of space to do so. Within the “jazz rock” movement of the “70s, this the place to dive into the genre. Tread lightly around the rest it though…and around the “70s synths.
Kamasi Washington – The Epic (2015)
Kamasi Washington is a living, breathing, colossal force emerging from the primordial influences of Coltrane, Rollins, and Parker. Maceo Parker, that is. In the words of Patrick Jarenwattananon of NPR, “The Epic” is “execut[ing] ideas with such bigness, and such a wide color palette, and a mission to remake the word “jazz” in the image of [Kamasi’s] generation. That’s the feat here. You wouldn’t be wrong to call that ambition epic.” Jazz might be saved by this generation with Washington leading the charge, and with his good friend Thundercat by his side.
Yussef Kamaal – Black Focus (2016)
“Black Focus” is the evolution of the genre. Yes, it is jazz, but it’s also a cross-pollination of genre and culture. This is the internet generation reaching back to an nearly-lost art form, making it relevant and exciting for a new generation. Keyboardist Kamaal Williams and drummer Yussef Dayes are a duo steeped in rhythmic improvisation and atmospheric bliss. The grooves are organic, the melodies transcend jazz segregation, and the vibe is like no other record I’ve heard. A must-have, even if you’ve never considered yourself interested in the genre Yussef and Kamaal call home.