Your First Three Jazz Albums
So, you think you like jazz well enough and dig it, but don’t understand it well enough to build even a basic collection? You’re not alone. We’ve all been there. And have no fear, VCH is here.*
The internet is lousy with Top 10 and Top 100 lists of jazz albums, which can actually be great resources. But what if you don’t even know enough about jazz to intelligently navigate those lists, to recognize the names of the artists or the albums they’re talking about?
Even if you can’t tell west coast jazz from be bop, or cool from modal, we’re sure you know what you like. Which probably isn’t the really far out there, later stuff—yet.
So we’ll start you off with some all-time classics you can’t miss with—accessible and newbie friendly and not too way out there. (Bitches Brew, we’re looking at you.)
#1 — Miles Davis — Kind of Blue
This is quite possibly the greatest jazz album of all time. Even if you’re not an aficionado, you can hear the exquisite soulfulness and improvisational genius present throughout this tasty recording.
Miles preferred to keep it loose and free and only gave the musicians a general idea of what he had in mind: he gave them sketches of scales and melody lines on which to improvise and then…he expected them to rise to the occasion.
Considering the band included guys like tenor sax player John Coltrane, it’s not too surprising they nailed it—and in just two days—on March 2 and April 22, 1959.
Bonus vintage cool points:
The first song on the second side of the album, “All Blues,” is what world weary Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan, played by Clint Eastwood, comes home to and unwinds with In The Line of Fire, after a very, very long day at work.
Eastwood is a lifelong jazz fan and a fairly mean amateur jazz pianist in his own right. The Miles tribute was no accident, and fits perfectly with the mood of the scene.
#2 — John Coltrane —Blue Train
This album blows me away every time I listen to it. I’m listening to it now. When I started VCH, I said we would occasionally talk about things that aren’t just the best places to buy a cool briefcase or wristwatch or pea coat, important as those things are.
I said occasionally we’d actually talk about things that matter, like art and jazz; even said we’d eventually get around to discussing the greatest Coltrane album. Hint: we would put Blue Train right up there with his best.
This was only ‘Trane’s second solo album, but oh what an album. Some would suggest you should start with Giant Steps from a year later, but they’re wrong. This is the one to get first. It’s amazing.
The title track is incredible and so is “Moment’s Notice” that closes out the first side. I could listen to side one over and over again, and have often done just that.
What is so great about this album? It’s classic hard bop style, (look it up, it’s interesting), but informed by ‘Trane’s previous work with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. The early modal jazz of Miles had definitely influenced Coltrane, and his progression into more experimental forms of jazz would begin right after Blue Train.
But, arguably, he was never better than he was here. Different doesn’t make it better.
#3 —Wild Card — Live On the Edge, Buy Something Vintage
March into your favorite vintage vinyl shop. Peruse the jazz stacks. Find something that looks interesting—maybe there’s an album with a name you recognize like Count Basie or Oscar Peterson or Stan Getz. Often it’s one of their names paired with somebody else you’ve never heard of before. That’s okay.
If the shopkeeper will let you try before you buy (many will, if they’re cool), give it a listen. If not, and the price is still reasonable, throw a few bucks at it and give it a shot. Take it home. If you like it, great. If not, it’s a small price to pay to find out what you don’t like.
One of my best learning experiences was Two of the Few, or Oscar Peterson meets Milt Jackson. Now, I love Oscar’s witty, bright, and always pleasing piano work. What I didn’t bargain for was “Bones” Jackson’s equally choice vibraphone playing. It’s an acquired taste, for sure. (And one I am still trying to acquire.) But for eight bucks, I found out what I am not so crazy about.
Live and learn.
Another vintage buy turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.
I bought a cheap copy of Frank Rosalino’s Thinking About You, a live album from 1976 he recorded in Toronto. It’s a great album by a wonderful, now forgotten trombone player (who yes, had a very tragic end). But it’s beautiful music and a great “mood album” to unwind to, after work, say. Frank Horrigan probably has a copy.
I would never have heard of it had I not decided to risk five dollars at the vintage vinyl shop.
Be a true vintage cool hunter. Get out there and rescue a cool, old jazz record. You’ll be glad you did.
* One of our good lawyer friends, who also happens to be a writer, suggested we put this modest disclaimer somewhere in the piece. I elected to put it at the end.
“Here at VCH HQ, we must ‘fess up and say that yes, we were once in a high school jazz band, and yes, we played a pretty mean horn back in the day, and yes, we love jazz, man. But we are not music experts or even truly hardcore jazz heads. The preceding suggestions are merely what the author, an informed but not expert witness, would recommend to someone new to the purely original American art form known as jazz.”