The Most Famous Jazz Albums of All Time (Best-Sellers In Jazz)

Whilst the topic of best jazz albums of all time may be deeply personal, there are a core of releases which can reasonably be labelled as some of the most famous given their critical acclaim, exceptional sales figures and awareness amongst even non-jazz fans.

So here’s our pick of 10 famous jazz albums which should be in every listeners record collection…

Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

One of the most iconic, influential and best loved jazz albums of all time. ‘Kind of Blue’ catches Miles Davis at the height of his powers and rising fame and captures in the studio his sextet working on the concept of modal improvisation.

The band comprised three of the giants of the music, Miles himself, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, and Bill Evans on piano. Like Miles, Coltrane and Evans would go on to lead their own groups that would change the course of jazz.

‘Kind Of Blue’ is one of those albums that has had appeal to audiences who do not consider themselves jazz fans, but the music has an air of gentleness and lyricism that is immediately attractive, as well as the incredible solos of some of the greatest improvisers in jazz.

John Coltrane – Giant Steps

While he had several recordings under his belt already this is widely regarded as Coltrane’s first major artistic statement.

The album is made up of entirely original compositions by the saxophonist, and nearly all of them have become staple tunes in the jazz repertoire. Coltrane had been working on his sheets of sound technique (as named by critic Ira Gitler), and his fascination with chords. Many of Trane’s compositions had chord progressions that changed very quickly.

This fed into the saxophonist’s improvisations where he would stack up chords on top of each other and it would often sound as if he was trying to play every permutation possible within a chord before moving onto the next.

The album is famous for the notoriously difficult to play title track, which has become something of a test piece for aspiring jazz musicians, along with the beautiful ballad, ‘Naima’, and the equally lovely ‘Syeeda’s Song Flute’.

The first masterpiece before the stellar achievements of his Classic Quartet three years later, and perhaps the most accessible, this catches the saxophonist at a crucial time of his development.

Dave Brubeck – Time Out

A timeless classic that for all its innovations and experimentation with unusual time signatures is an enduring favourite with jazz fans and the casual listener alike. Like many albums, there is often one particular track that catches the ear and takes on a life of its own. In this case that track is ‘Take Five’.

Written by saxophonist Paul Desmond, the intention was for it to be a feature for the band’s drummer Joe Morello, and his superb drum solo in the played in 5/4 time. With the insistent piano motif stated by Brubeck and Desmond’s delicate alto playing, and the irresistibly catchy tune it became an unexpected hit.

The album taken as a whole is full of such melodies.

Clever use of unusual time signatures may have fascinated fellow musicians, but the way in which they were played by the Quartet ensured that the album has become one of the best loved and most famous jazz albums of all time.

Oscar Peterson – Night Train

A virtuoso pianist, Oscar Peterson was at home in many styles of jazz. As well as leading his own band (usually a trio) he was also a superb accompanist and was regular member of Jazz At The Philharmonic, a touring cast of musicians assembled by impresario Norman Granz.

Peterson’s style at the keyboard would encompass the entire history of jazz piano from ragtime and stride to swing and bebop, all delivered in a manner that satisfy the aficionado but also appealed to a wider audience.

‘Night Train’ was recorded with his regular trio of bassist Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen on drums and programmed with a repertoire that incorporated compositions by Duke Ellington, ‘I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good) and ‘C Jam Blues’ alongside ‘Moten Swing’ by Count Basie and the bebop number ‘Bag’s Groove’ by vibraphonist, Milt Jackson.

All delivered with Peterson’s innate sense of swing, this made ‘Night Train’ another unexpected jazz hit, and has never been out of print since its release in 1963.

Bill Evans – Waltz For Debby

Bill Evans always came across as a quiet, studious and unassuming man. His music could sometimes come across the same. However, like the man, scratch beneath the surface to reveal something altogether deeper and profound.

The pianist’s contribution to the Miles Davis Sextet and especially the album ‘Kind Of Blue’ is immeasurable, and this spacious yet intense less is more style of playing would characterise Evans’s style for the rest of life.

Deeply interested in European classical music, the influence could be detected in his work.

His voicings at the keyboard would often be sparse yet seem to fill the space it occupied with light. There was also enough room left for his colleagues to add their voices, and so both bass and drums in Evan’s trio contributed on an equal level.

This three way communication has never been more clearly stated on the two albums recorded live at the Village Vanguard with bassist, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian at the drums. Playing mostly standards, the set issued as ‘Waltz For Debby’ contains familiar tunes played in a way that is totally fresh and original.

The empathy and sense of discovery among the three musicians is incredible, yet there is never a wasted or superfluous note. The degree of communication and anticipation has rarely, if ever, been surpassed. There is no sense of self indulgence with all the trio at the service of the music created in moment; music of great delicacy and lyricism.

A further recording was issued as ‘Sunday At The Village Vanguard’ and is equally as fine. 

Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus

The pre-eminent saxophonist of his generation, and one of the finest improvisers in jazz, Walter Theodore ‘Sonny’ Rollins spent his career as the foremost tenor player since Charlie Parker yet was consumed by self-doubt.

Recorded in June 1956 and released the following year, ‘Saxophone Colossus’ was Rollins sixth studio album and has remained one of his most popular and influential recordings.

The album contains three compositions by Rollins and the first recording of his calypso-inspired ‘St Thomas’ along with ‘Blue Seven’. So revered was the soloing that the composer and jazz musician Gunther Schuller wrote an article titled ‘Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation’ that analysed the saxophonist’s sense of melodic and motivic development.

The album has stood the test of time as one of the best jazz albums of the 1950’s, and through Rollins dynamic playing, sound and sense of melody has remained an example of sophisticated and detailed improvisations that never lose sight of the audience for who they were created.

Duke Ellington – Ellington at Newport

The 1950’s were not a good time for big bands, and even Ellington was finding times lean Small group jazz was dominating the scene, and hard bop the music of the decade. Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were the big name bands of the day, and the popularity of the big band seemed on the wane.

That was until the Newport Jazz Festival of 1956, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s barn storming performance that is said to be the catalyst that reignited Ellington’s career.

The first half of the concert was given a lukewarm reception with the new pieces written as part of a suite by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn falling a little flat. Turning to a tried and tested piece from 1938, albeit with a twist, Duke called for ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue’.

Ellington had been working on a way of interspersing an improvised interval to separate the two parts, and assigned the task to his tenor player, Paul Gonsalves. As ‘Diminuendo In Blue’ came to a close, Gonsalves began his solo. Taking Duke’s instruction to play for as long he wished, the saxophonist took this literally blowing an astonishing 27 choruses.

This immediately grabbed the audience’s attention with many getting up to dance, and by the end of the piece creating a near riot. The rest of the concert went down to rapturous applause. Fortunately, Columbia Records were there to record the event and Ellington’s fortunes immediately took an upward turn as the popularity of the band was greatly enhanced by this historic performance.

Errol Garner – Concert By The Sea

Just another gig, this performance by the Errol Garner Trio was never considered for greatness and not even officially recorded for release.

From a concert given on 19th September 1955 at Carmel-by-the-Sea in California, a young engineer from Armed Forces Radio Network and was spotted with a tape recorder. Capturing the music for his own enjoyment. The recording was acquired by the pianist’s manager Martha Glaser.

Taking the tape to Columbia Records, producer George Avakian who was keen to release it.

It is not a great recording, but it is a great performance and is the one that launched Garner’s career as one of the major piano stylists of the day.

The recording levels are not particularly good, and the piano is out of tune. However, the musicians did not know it was being recorded, and Garner was just happy to play irrespective of the state of the piano, and this joy in the music is clear for all to hear.

With his sophisticated sense of swing and time, Garner’s right hand improvisations often lagging a little behind the beat are impeccable. Complimented by his comping with the left hand, firmly on the beat, this created a marvellous tension that was relieved when after a quickening of the right hand he would catch up with the beat.

The album was a resounding success, and from its release in 1955, just three years later it had racked over a million dollars in sales, almost unheard of for a jazz record, and is still selling well more than 65 years after it was recorded.

Louis Armstrong – Hot Fives and Hot Sevens

The recordings may sound archaic to ears brought up on stereo sound and digital technology, but the music sounds as fresh, vivacious, and vital as ever.

The early recordings of Louis Armstrong as leader of his own band documents one of the greatest soloists in jazz. His rhythmic drive and phrasing were unheard of before, and he set the precedent for the soloist in modern jazz.

New Orleans and early jazz may have been a collective music, but Armstrong dominated whichever band he was playing in.

Unsure of his own abilities, his wife Lil Armstrong, nee Hardin and his pianist had no such doubts, Armstrong was persuaded by Lil to push himself forward, and the magnificent series of recordings made between 1925 and 1930 stand as possibly the greatest small group recordings in jazz.

If Louis Armstrong had never recorded again after 1930 then he woud still have been guaranteed his place in the jazz hall of fame.

There have been countless reissues of this music over the years, and if budget allows the set to buy is either the Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings 5CD set on Columbia/Legacy or the 4 disc reissue by JSP Records.

Both are remastered to the highest standard and give a chronological account of these essential. If these admittedly costly box sets are out of reach, then any of the single albums available are indispensable listening.

Sarah Vaughan – With Clifford Brown

This is as near perfect an album of jazz instrumentalist meets vocalist as it is possible to get. Recorded in December 1954 it captures both Vaughan and Brown at the height of their powers.

Vaughan’s ability to scat and use her voice as instrument, along with her timing and mastery of the lyric is breath-taking and Brown’s maturity for one so young, and instinctive grasp of what is required make the album a classic.

Vaughan herself, has gone on record as saying that this is one her favourite albums.

This would be the only time that Sarah and Brownie would get together in the recording studio, but rather than lament that they would not collaborate again we be grateful for the recording that they have left behind.

Accompanying Vaughan along with rhythm section, is a slightly unusual frontline of trumpet, tenor saxophonist Paul Quinchette and flautist, Herbie Mann.

Mann would come in for considerable criticism upon the initial release of the album, but the passing of time reveals this to be rather unjust.

The real stars of the album of course are Vaughan and Brown. Sarah is quite simply majestic while Brown’s open trumpet sings as brightly as the vocalist, and with a mute he is a perfect foil for Sarah, as performances on ‘It’s Crazy’ and ‘Lullaby In Birdland’ testify.

Thanks for reading!

Looking for more?

Check out all our jazz history articles via the Jazz Valley homepage.

Leave a Comment