Because jazz often has more space in the music than a lot of rock, hip hop or electronica, it’s easier to get closer to the real thing in your home audio system, especially in terms of sonic scale.
Here are 10 of the very best jazz albums you need to hear (and own) on vinyl. Double-check the alignment on your cartridge to maximize your enjoyment.
This is essentially the Sgt. Pepper of jazz. Many have called Kind of Blue “one of the best albums of all time,” and because it has a more modal, melodic style than other records by the legendary trumpeter — in fact, most jazz records, period — it’s more approachable, making it one of the best ways to get into jazz. But the longer you listen, the more complexity you can absorb. There are a number of great vinyl pressings available, so you can’t go wrong with any of them. Besides, by the time you’re done, you’ll probably own several different copies!
Huge as Kind of Blue is, it might be argued that this is a close second in terms of both playing and accessibility. The opening bars of “St. Thomas” are just as inviting as the beginning of KoB to be sure, and if nothing else, this is a record that you should have as a bookend. Rollins’ sax sound is huge here, and when the incomparable Hal Roach takes front and center for a drum solo, you’ll feel as if you’ve been pushed back in your seat. A true joy on vinyl, this is 39 minutes of non-stop excitement with an infectious groove that will have you dancing around the house.
Another masterpiece on a par with Kind of Blue, this offering by legendary saxophonist John Coltrane is a four-part suite full of highs, lows and innovation. It was Coltrane’s biggest selling record, and is considered by many to be one of the best jazz albums of all time, yet remains incredibly accessible. Fun fact: Coltrane recorded this entire album in a single day at producer Rudy Van Gelder’s home studio. Wow. Just wow.
This album completes what could be considered the basic building blocks of jazz. Within a genre so full of innovation and diversity, these first four records alone will expose you to a wide range of musical thinking. Because Mingus is primarily a bass player, Ah Um is full of textural complexity, and includes the classic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which has become a jazz standard that’s been covered by everyone from Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Joni Mitchell to Jeff Beck. With so many subtleties and rapid mood changes, this is one piece of vinyl that will give your system a workout in a way that is sure to surprise and delight.
Like so many other jazz greats, guitarist Pat Metheny’s first two records with the Pat Metheny Group followed a more traditional groove before branching out with Offramp, establishing him as a more abstract and experimental composer. Whether you pick this up as an original ECM pressing, or the current remastered version, this record begs to be played from start to finish on vinyl. Metheny’s playing is simple, sparse and deliberate here … and he still includes the track “Are You Going With Me?” in nearly every live performance. If you only have one PMG record in your collection, this is the one to have.
Volumes have been written about how The Köln Concert almost didn’t happen, yet it turned out to be one of jazz’s more happy accidents. This masterpiece of textural improvisation is a joy to listen to, recorded with so much ambience that it’ll really show off your Hi-Fi system to its fullest. The sound that Jarrett achieves from the tattered Bosendorfer piano that he was forced to play here only underscores his genius. And the opening of “Part 1” might have you wondering if a young George Winston wasn’t in the audience taking notes.
Some may be quick to write John Klemmer off as “smooth jazz,” yet growing up in Chicago’s jazz scene, Klemmer had the chops to make serious music. While not as commercially successful as some of his other albums, Barefoot Ballet features Klemmer’s groundbreaking work using echo effects on his sax, creating a texture that would often be imitated but never duplicated. The space, melody and complexity presented on this album makes for a true classic.
This piece of vinyl is a bit obscure, but worth tracking down if you can find a copy. Originally produced in 1976 by East Wind Records, it’s a direct-to-disk recording of Joe Sample (on keyboards), Ray Brown (on bass) and Shelly Manne (on drums) performing a handful of jazz standards. Because of the D2D process, they went straight from recording session to the cutting lathe, having to get each side of the album right on the first take. The clarity and dynamics of this record are stunning, and will really show off what your system can do.
After playing with Chick Corea’s Return to Forever for a few years, this was the 22-year old guitarist’s first solo album. Al DiMeola would go on to release a prodigious catalog of work, but this deeply complex record showcases his early genius, both as a player and a composer — and, as a bonus, he’s backed up by Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius on bass, along with a very young Lenny White on drums. The early CBS/Sony pressings are somewhat lackluster, so seek out a Japanese import if you can find one.
I can’t think of a better way to end this list than with Bitches’ Brew — probably the most controversial and influential work of Davis’ long career. In stark contrast to the easy groove of Kind of Blue, Brew is difficult listening hour, and a cornerstone of jazz fusion. The musicians on this record don’t just play, they attack their instruments in a way that’s never been done before, or since. It’s an incredibly spacious sonic exercise, and one that will put your system to the test, whether listening on speakers or headphones. (If you choose the latter, keep the volume down on the first pass, as this album is really dynamic!) As with all Miles Davis’ records, there are a wide range of pressings to choose from.
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