Albums to get you into jazz

Listen to one of the American genres with some quintessential albums

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LAUREN PETTIT

There's more to this genre than elevator music.

ADAM HUREAU, Evergreen columnist

It is said that jazz is the United States’ only original art form. It is a music born from struggle and full of complexity, nuance and expression.

However, it can be hard to start listening, as there are thousands of artists and albums out there and many are not necessarily super accessible. So, for your convenience, here are 10 of, in my opinion, the best jazz albums ever recorded for those unfamiliar with the genre. They are a great jumping-off point for anyone who wants to start listening to America’s music. 

You can find all of these albums on Spotify or any streaming service you might use.

Miles Davis – “Kind of Blue”

This might be the quintessential jazz album. Every track on this record is great, from the simplicity of “So What” to the beautiful ballad “Blue in Green.” Miles is arguably at his best here, backed up by some of the finest musicians of the era. This one’s definitely worth your time. 

Dave Brubeck Quartet – “Time Out”

Another classic album. The album’s most famous track is “Take Five,” but the other tracks are equally good, if not better. I think “Blue Rondo a la Turk” is the strongest on this album, showcasing the quartet as they seemingly switch from 9/8 time to 4/4 swing and back again. The quartet, made up of Dave Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on alto sax, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums, has such a great cohesive sound that defined the cool jazz era. 

John Coltrane – “Blue Train”

The tenor saxophonist John Coltrane recorded so many great albums it’s hard to pick just one, but “Blue Train” is great for the beginning jazz listener. This album has one of the best lineups of all time and every musician here is at the top of their game (the trumpet player, Lee Morgan, was just 19 when he recorded this). Each one of Coltrane’s solos is incredible and brimming with expression, and if you listen to his later (sometimes less accessible) music, it’s fascinating to hear his evolution as a player from here. 

Sonny Rollins – “Saxophone Colossus”

This is one of the best saxophone albums out there. Sonny Rollins (who is still alive) is often considered one of the best saxophonists of all time and is revered for his unique style of playing. This album, arguably his best work, presents his distinct sound through five great tunes. The album’s first track, the calypso-influenced “St. Thomas,” is Rollins’ most famous song and is a great introduction to him. 

Pat Metheny Group – “Still Life (Talking)”

The other albums I have included on this list are considered some of the best of all time. Pat Metheny, however, does not always get included on other “best of” lists, but I think his contributions to jazz are unique. From Metheny’s distinctive guitar tone to his sprawling, intricate compositions, his music brings something entirely original to the table. For the beginning jazz listener, Metheny’s music is very accessible. I’d definitely recommend it for anyone interested in the genre. 

Ella Fitzgerald – “Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin”

Vocal jazz sometimes seems like it’s separate from instrumental jazz, but it really shouldn’t be. Ella Fitzgerald is not just one of the greatest jazz vocalists, she is one of the greatest vocalists of all time. This live album contains some of her best performances, such as her rendition of “Mack the Knife,” where she forgot the words but lost no time making up her own verse on the spot. Full of classic jazz “standards” for which Ella was famous, this is a great addition to any jazz listener’s list and a great gateway into the world of vocal jazz.

Count Basie Orchestra – “The Atomic Mr. Basie”

You need to listen to big band music to fully understand jazz, and this album is one of the best. It’s hard to beat a band that is as together and that swings as hard as Basie’s. This album is full of terrific arrangements that display the talent of Basie’s band. From the straight-ahead “Splanky” to the dizzying “Whirlybird,” each track on the album has something hip to offer. Definitely recommended listening. 

Charlie Parker – “Charlie Parker with Strings”

Charlie Parker is one of the greatest names in jazz history. The alto saxophonist revolutionized jazz improvisation and helped invent the subgenre of bebop. Almost every jazz musician out there has probably been influenced by Charlie Parker in some way. While his music can seem esoteric to the beginning listener, this album showcases his impeccable talent while staying perfectly accessible. 

Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderly – “Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderly” 

This album has it all. From great vocal work by Nancy Wilson to Cannonball’s grace and tasteful solos on the alto saxophone, any jazz listener should add this to their collection. The album contains a wide range of tracks, from ballads to instrumental standards. Check out this album for some of the best vocal/instrumental pairings. 

Stan Getz and João Gilberto – “Getz/Gilberto”

This one is pretty different from the others on this list. “Getz/Gilberto” brought Brazilian Bossa Nova music to the United States and cemented it as an invaluable part of jazz’s development. The album’s most famous track, “The Girl from Ipanema,” has taken on an unfortunate reputation as elevator music, but the original recording on this album is beautiful and definitely worth listening to. Gilberto’s vocals and Getz’s saxophone complement each other so well on this album and make it an absolute classic.