Jazz is arguably more polarizing than most, but jazz albums could transform listeners for life once they understand it.
Listening to a jazz record is like being taken on a journey, with the musicians as your guide. With so many thousands of unique records in jazz history, maybe a definitive list of ‘best albums’ is not feasible.
However, a cluster of albums has come to be viewed as essential jazz records: records that every jazz enthusiast knows – or must know, has influenced and gained critical acclaim from other musicians.
This article started to highlight the best albums of all time, but there were just too many excellent records missing.
Hence, here are the top 10 best jazz albums of all time.
“Kind of Blue” is still the best-selling jazz album, fifty years since its release. And Kind of Blue sold over 4 million records, and the record continues to sell 5,000 copies every week on average.
John Coltrane’s Giant Steps is recognized as one of the most significant challenges in jazz, with a whopping 286 bpm and an ultra-demanding chord sequence.
Cash For Records is delighted if customers wish to sell their jazz vinyl record collection. Cash For Records buys and sells Jazz 33s, 45s, and 78s for cash.
Based on how it was created and its lack of digital components, vinyl sound offers a unique atmosphere that is exceptionally similar to listening to live music.
10. Eric Dolphy – Out to Lunch!
Jazz multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy’s 1964 album Out to Lunch, Symbolizes a pinnacle moment in 1960s avant-garde jazz.
Out To Lunch, produced just four months before Dolphy’s tragic death, is one of the most challenging recordings in the Blue Note library.
Dolphy’s compositions are far out, with jaggedly written lines, various theme elements, and dissonance to outperform the band.
The opening “Hat and Beard,” a tribute to Thelonious Monk, has a military-like rhythmic pattern, with a choppy walking bass line accompanying a technical melody.
Following the phrase, Dolphy immediately leaps in with his bass clarinet and blows a solo, complete with serrated, stuttering runs and weird accidental notes, which sets the whole tone and feel for the rest of the album.
Out to Lunch! was chosen as part of the Penguin Guide to Jazz’s advised “Core Collection” and awarded it a “crown,” commenting, “If it is a masterwork, then it is not so much a flawed as a little tentative masterpiece.”
In his AllMusic essay “Free Jazz: A Subjective History,” Chris Kelsey named the album one of the 20 Essential Free Jazz Albums.
- “Hat and Beard.”
- “Something Sweet, Something Tender.”
- “Out to Lunch.”
- “Straight Up and Down.”
9. Bill Evans – Sunday at Village Vanguard
Sunday at the Village Vanguard is a live album by Bill Evans and his trio, including Evans, drummer Paul Motian, and bassist Scott LaFaro. The CD was often recognized as one of the best live jazz albums in 1961.
The recordings for Sunday at the Village Vanguard were recorded on June 25, 1961, at the Village Vanguard in New York City.
Sunday at the Village Vanguard was the Bill Evans Trio’s final appearance with bassist Scott LaFaro, who died in a car accident eleven days just after recording.
Thom Jurek, a music journalist for AllMusic, said of the album: “This trio still is widely regarded as his best, especially to the symbiotic chemistry of its members.
Riverside released The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961, a professionally remastered three-CD box set in 2005 that contained practically all of the material from the whole day’s recording at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961.
- “Gloria’s Step”
- “My Man’s Gone Now”
- “Alice in Wonderland”
- “All of You.”
- “Jade Visions”
8. Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um
Mingus Ah Um is an album by Charles Mingus released by Columbia Records in October 1959. It was his first album for Columbia Records.
Mingus developed a distinct sound with the help of John Handy, Jimmy Knepper, Booker Ervin, and several others, fusing gospel, pop, and blues influences to create something uniquely his own. At the same time, the record is intensely personal and political.
Tracks like “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” pay homage to Lester Young, whereas “Fables Of Faubus” explicitly targets Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus.
In 2013, the record was honored in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Mingus Ah Um was chosen by the Library of Congress as one of fifty recordings to be inducted into the National Recording Registry. In 2020, Rolling Stone listed the album as number 380 on their Top 500 Albums of All Time.
- “Better Git It in Your Soul”
- “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”
- “Boogie Stop Shuffle”
- “Self-Portrait in Three Colors”
- “Open Letter to Duke”
- “Bird Calls”
- “Fables of Faubus”
- “Pussy Cat Dues”
- “Jelly Roll”
7. Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage
Maiden Voyage is a jazz album led by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock that Rudy Van Gelder produced for Blue Note Records on March 17, 1965
Hancock is accompanied by tenor saxophonist George Coleman, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams.
Many of the song titles are related to marine ecology or the sea, and the artists expand on the theme through their use of space.
Herbie Hancock has created more classic records than most individuals have in total. His talent on the piano is practically unrivaled, and he performs with such passion and emotion that it’s impossible not to admire him.
Maiden Voyage is his most famous work. “Dolphin Dance” and the opening track have become jazz classics, entering the list of tracks to which any band of jazz players can begin jamming. Hancock refers to “Dolphin Dance,” inspired primarily by Count Basie’s “Shiney Stockings.”
In 1999, the album received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
- “Maiden Voyage”
- “The Eye of the Hurricane”
- “Little One”
- “Survival of the Fittest”
- “Dolphin Dance”
6. John Coltrane – Giant Steps
Giant Steps is John Coltrane’s fifth studio album, released by Atlantic Records in February 1960. The album is recognized as among the most impactful jazz albums.
Most of its songs become standard practice material for jazz saxophonists. It was one of fifty recordings chosen by the Library of Congress in 2004 to be placed in the National Recording Registry. It was certified gold in 2018 after selling 500,000 copies.
There are two tracks, “Naima” and “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” named after Coltrane’s wife and daughter. The third, “Mr. P.C.,” is an abbreviation for bassist Paul Chambers, who recorded on the album. The fourth, “Cousin Mary,” is named after Coltrane’s younger cousin, Mary Lyerly.
The Giant Steps chord sequence comprises a different series of chords that establish the critical center a major third apart. It has quickly become a favorite among jazz students’ practice routines.
- “Giant Steps”
- “Cousin Mary”
- “Syeeda’s Song Flute”
- “Mr. P.C.”
5. Duke Ellington – Ellington at Newport
Ellington at Newport is a live album by Duke Ellington and his orchestra from their 1956 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, which resurrected Ellington’s sagging career.
George Wein, a jazz promoter, calls the 1956 concert “the biggest display of Ellington’s period; it represented just about everything jazz was and could be.”
It is in the book 1001 Albums You Should Hear Before You Die.
According to jazz journalist Scott Yanow, Ellington’s performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival created a sensation that propelled the remainder of his career.
Following the Ellington Orchestra’s debut at the festival, the first release was partially replicated in the studio.
Two years later, Ellington issued a follow-up CD recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. He performed both new and old songs at the event, but the album only had five tracks when it was released.
- “Festival Junction”
- “Blues to Be There”
- “Newport Up”
- “Jeep’s Blues”
- “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”
4. Cannonball Adderley – Somethin’ Else
Somethin’ Else is a jazz album recorded and released in 1958 by alto sax player Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on the Blue Note label.
The album was produced while Adderley was a member of Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet, and it is one of the few recordings Davis released as a sideman after 1955. Miles Davis appears on the session in one of his few Blue Note sessions.
Somethin’ Else was chosen as part of the Penguin Guide to Jazz’s proposed “Core Collection.”
“Autumn Leaves” remained in Davis’s book, while “Love for Sale” was played by the Davis Sextet two months later.
Adderley’s brother Nat wrote the twelve-bar blues “One for Daddy-O” for Chicago radio DJ Holmes “Daddy-O” Dayle.
- “Autumn Leaves”
- “Love for Sale”
- “Somethin’ Else”
- “One for Daddy-O”
- “Dancing in the Dark”
3. Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come
Ornette Coleman’s third album is titled The Shape of Jazz to Come. The album’s recording session was held on May 22, 1959.
It was his first album for Atlantic Records, released in 1959, and featured bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Billy Higgins, and trumpeter Don Cherry.
Although Coleman had hoped to name the album Focus on Sanity after the fourth song, Atlantic producer Nesuhi Ertegun offered the final title, believing that it would give listeners “an idea about the particularity of the LP.”
Coleman emphasized bright melodies and rough, blues-influenced vocals. Coleman did not produce “smooth jazz.” It was harsh, dirty, and exquisite all at once. The Shape of Jazz to Come is his most precise illustration of it.
The album was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2012. The album was named one of the 500 best albums by Rolling Stone.
It was named one of the 20 essential free jazz albums by AllMusic. In 2015, the album was honored in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
- “Lonely Woman”
- “Focus on Sanity”
2. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (Impulse!)
American jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme was recorded at Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey on December 9, 1964. Impulse! Records released A Love Supreme in January 1965.
He directed a quartet that included pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones. It is primarily regarded as Coltrane’s masterpiece and was one of his best-selling CDs.
It had sold approximately 500,000 copies by 1970, significantly exceeding Coltrane’s average sales of 30,000; however, it never peaked on the Billboard 200.
A Love Supreme is a four-part suite divided into four sections: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” On all parts, Coltrane plays tenor saxophone.
A Love Supreme was classified as modal Jazz, avant-garde Jazz, Free Jazz, hard bop, and post-bop by Rockdelux.
“A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane was one of the first jazz albums to have a hyper-spiritual focus, with his soul’s profound, spiritual qualities showing in music.
Coltrane had a slew of hits albums before this, but something strikes out about A Love Supreme.
Whether it’s the dynamic depth of his performance, the idea, or the sheer brilliance on exhibit throughout, this record will be one of the all-time greats.
- Part 1: “Acknowledgement”
- Part 2: “Resolution”
- Part 3: “Pursuance”
- Part 4: “Psalm”
1. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
Kind of Blue is an album from the American jazz trumpeter, songwriter, and bandleader Miles Davis.
It was produced on March 2, and April 22, 1959, and Columbia Records released it on August 17, 1959.
Davis led a sextet that included pianist Bill Evans, drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers, saxophonists Cannonball Adderley, and new band pianist Wynton Kelly replacing Evans. On one piece, “Freddie Freeloader.”
Davis moved away from his early hard bop sound to favor more musical modal exploration, as he had previously done on his album Milestones.
Kind of Blue is solely based on mode, departing from Davis’ former hard bop jazz approach with its complicated chord structure and improvisation.
In his solo career, Coltrane developed this modal approach. Many critics consider Kind of Blue the best jazz album of all time, Davis’ masterwork, and one of the best albums.
Its impact on music, spanning jazz, rock, and classical, has caused writers to name it one of the most influential albums ever recorded.
The album was chosen as one of fifty recordings to be placed in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2002. It was named number 12 on the Rolling Stone publication’s list of the 500 best albums in 2003.
- “So What”
- Freddie Freeloader”
- “Blue in Green”
- “All Blues”
- “Flamenco Sketches”
Putting out a list of the top jazz albums is a near-impossible process with such a wide range of styles to pick among – and no shortages of performers who have contributed multiple essential pieces to the evolution of jazz.
It’s easy to see how a small group of artists, or subgenres, might easily dominate the list.
These are our views, so don’t take them as solid facts, but we believe you’d be hard-pressed to disagree with most of these getting selected.