©2001 by Chuck Braman
People who are new to jazz often ask my advice as to where to start. The following list is a compromise between my favorite modern jazz recordings, the modern jazz recordings generally regarded as most significant by musicians and scholars, and the modern jazz recordings that I think are most likely to appeal to a beginning listener. To help develop your the ability to fully understand and enjoy modern jazz, I recommend listening to these albums in chronological order, becoming intimately familiar with each before proceeding to the next. Depending on your level of interest and motivation, you might also consider purchasing (or borrowing from your library) an excellent jazz appreciation textbook, Jazz Styles by Mark Gridley.
Modern jazz began with the musical innovations of saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Thelonious Monk. Parker and Gillespie created a complex improvisational vocabulary called "bebop" that raised the musical and instrumental standards expected of jazz musicians. Monk, a musical iconoclast with a deceptively primitive instrumental technique and improvisational style, was the greatest composer of modern jazz. "Groovin' High" features Parker and Gillespie at their creative peak in the very first modern jazz recordings ever issued. The Thelonious Monk Trio features Monk's earliest and best renditions of several of his most famous compositions.
Sonny Rollins was arguably the greatest saxophonist and improviser of the 1950s hard bop era. Saxophone Colossus is Rollins’ most famous and musically accessible recording.
From the late 1940s through the early 1970s, Miles Davis was the most innovative and influential trumpeter and bandleader in jazz.
In 1958 he produced two of his best recordings. Milestones features the most illustrious group of the hard bop era, the Miles Davis sextet that included the astonishing saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly. Porgy & Bess features innovative big band arrangements by Gil Evans that are masterfully tailored to support Davis' lyrical improvisational style. Together these may be the best small group and big band jazz recordings of the 1950s.
Bassist and composer Charles Mingus was a master at synthesizing disparate musical influences and seamlessly integrating solo and group improvisations into written arrangements that created interesting and challenging music for both his sidemen and his listeners. "Mingus Ah Um" is probably his best recording.
The Bill Evans trio of 1961 created a musical revolution by breaking down traditional instrumental roles and increasing the degree of musical interaction between soloists and accompanists. Despite its radical nature, however, this is some of the most delicate and lyrical jazz ever recorded, with definitive jazz versions of several standard ballads.
The music on this popular and influential album is a wonderful synthesis of jazz improvisation with Brazilian bossa nova music.
John Coltrane, who died in 1967, has been the most influential saxophonist in jazz since the 1960s. A Love Supreme features his enormously influential quartet at their artistic peak, and is his best selling album. The third track, Pursuance, may be the most intense and impassioned jazz performance ever recorded.
Miles Davis’ second great quintet combined five of the greatest jazz musicians in history into an extremely creative group that synthesized and extended the most valuable innovations in jazz during the 1960s, while adding to them many important innovations of their own. This album is like a still photograph of a rapidly evolving art form taken during its most fertile period.
This album is all but worshiped among many contemporary jazz musicians. It represents the state of the art of the jazz piano trio at the tail end of modern jazz's evolution.
As for my personal preferences, they include Miles Davis and John Coltrane as improvisers/bandleaders, and Paul Motian, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, and 1960s-era Tony Williams as drummers (I'm a drummer myself). Among my personal favorite jazz recordings are Miles Davis, "The Complete Columbia Studio Sessions, 1965-68" (6-album set), and "Live-Evil," available in complete form as Live At The Cellar Door (in addition to nearly every other recording that Davis made between 1949 and 1975); John Coltrane, "The Classic Quartet" (8-album set); Chick Corea, "Now He Sings, Now He Sobs"; Keith Jarrett, "Life Between the Exit Signs"; and Bill Evans "Sunday at the Village Vanguard," and "Waltz for Debby." (Incidentally, another good strategy for becoming familiar with modern jazz is to collect Miles Davis' almost uniformly excellent 1949-1975 recordings in chronological sequence, since Davis' groups were at the forefront of modern jazz's evolution and included nearly all of the era's greatest musicians as sidemen, and also because Davis himself was an improviser who was extremely melodic and easily intelligible.)
In addition to jazz, I love much of the music from Brazil. My favorite generation of Brazilian musicians came to prominence during the 1960s and 1970s, immediately following the Bossa Nova era. The genre they pioneered, called "MPB" (for "música popular brasileira"), draws on all of Brazil's rich musical traditions, as well as American jazz and popular music. The best MPB music makes most modern American popular music pale by comparison. It has the melodic and harmonic sophistication of the very best tin pan alley compositions combined with equally sophisticated Afro-Brazilian rhythms, all in the service of a uniquely beautiful aesthetic that projects both melancholy and joy.
Here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order, one for each of my favorite artists: Joyce, "Gafieira Moderna"; Simone, "Vol. 2-Brazilian Collection"; Gal Costa, "Miha D'Agua Do Meu Canto "; Milton Nascimento, "Geraes"; Ivan Lins, "Anjo de mim"; Gilberto Gil, "Quanta"; Chico Buarque, "As Cidades"; Marisa Monte, "Mais"; Caetano Veloso, "Livro"; Djavan, "Flor de Lis"; Maria Bethania, "Canto Do Paté"; Hermento Pascoal, "So Nao Toca Quem Nao Quer"; Egberto Gismonte, "Água & Vinho." A good resource for learning more about Brazilian music is the book "The Brazilian Sound," as well as The Brazilian Sound web site.
(For modern American pop, for which no one needs any advice or recommendations, some of my personal favorites include music by The Beatles, Sly Stone, Rufus, Steely Dan, James Taylor, and The Police.)