Everything sounds better on vinyl, and that’s especially true of jazz music.
In this article we look at the all-time best jazz records on vinyl.
This list covers some of the most influential and best instrumental jazz albums from bebop, to modal jazz, to spiritual jazz, to bossa-nova, to avant-garde, and beyond. Each one of these are iconic jazz records that you no music lover should be without.
Let’s dive in and discover the best jazz vinyl records of all time.
20. Bitches Brew – Miles Davis (1970)
Mile Davis essential jazz fusion album Bitches Brew was his highest-charting album, and sees the jazz pioneer blending electronic instruments and elements of rock and psychedelia into his sound.
The experimental and lengthy album opens with two extended tracks – ‘Pharaoh’s Dance’ (20:04) and ‘Bitches Brew’ (26:59). The second half is similarly long with four of its five tracks extended over ten minutes.
The record has a strong percussive feel with a ludicrously overweight rhythm section – two drummers, a percussionist, up to three electric pianos, and both an electric bass and a double bass.
The avant-garde record was controversial in the jazz community at the time of its release, with purists arguing that it was not recognisable as jazz. However, the record sparked interest in jazz amongst a new, broader audience, at a time when the genre seemed to be dying out.
Time has seen the innovative record not just accepted, but celebrated amongst jazz music lovers. An essential jazz album to own on vinyl.
19. The Köln Concert – Keith Jarrett (1975)
The Köln Concert is a live, solo piano album by Keith Jarrett that became the best-selling solo jazz album of all time, selling over four million units. The recording from the Opera House in Cologne, Germany, helped to see Jarrett become regarded as the foremost jazz pianist in the world.
The record is entirely improvised, with Jarrett often playing rapid melodies over a couple of sparse chords, and staying in one mood for long periods at a time.
Strangely, the concert itself was surrounded with difficulties. Jarrett was wearing a brace at the time of playing in order to support problems with his back, and due to an administrative mixup, the piano he performed on was substandard in tone. This did not stop Jarrett from offering an iconic performance.
The popularity of the recording led to demand to transcribe it and produce sheet music. Jarrett initially resisted pressure, as the piece was by nature an improvisation – spontaneous, and not possible to reproduce in its truest sense.
18. Somethin’ Else – Cannonball Adderley (1958)
Cannonball Adderley is sometimes thought of as the sideman of Mile Davis. However, Adderley’s 1958 album Somethin’ Else sees the alto saxophonist take centre stage.
The band on the record comprises Miles Davis as ‘sideman’ on the trumpet, Hank Jones on piano, Sam Jones on bass, and Art Blakey on drums. The record traverses several moods, from the mellow and subdued ‘Autumn Leaves’ to the boppier title track.
Although the record is released in Adderley’s name, it does have a strong ‘Miles Davis’ feel to it, with Davis appearing on every track, and the title track even being composed by Davis. The fifth track, ‘One for Daddy-O’ is composed by Cannonball’s younger brother, trumpeter Nat Adderley.
The record is listed as part of the ‘core collection’ in The Penguin Guide to Jazz, indicative of the album’s place in the jazz music canon.
17. Return to Forever – Chick Corea (1972)
Chick Corea’s 1972 album Return to Forever is one of the all-time definitive jazz fusion records. Featuring Corea on the Fender Rhodes piano, and Stanley Clarke on electric bass, it was the artist’s first ‘electric’ jazz album.
Accompanying the legendary duo of Corea and Clarke, the album has Flora Purim on vocals and percussion, Joe Farrell on flute and sax, and Airto Moreira on drums.
The four-song album was a reasonable commercial success in its time, reaching number eight on the Billboard Jazz Albums chart. However, history has revealed it to be an outstanding record amongst the jazz fusion sub-genre.
The record has an airy and atmospheric feel, which stands in contrast to more abrasive, rock-influenced jazz fusion albums such as Mile Davis’ Bitches Brew. The flutes and percussion give the album an almost bossa nova-esque feel at times.
A beautiful jazz album to enjoy on vinyl.
16. Out To Lunch! – Eric Dolphy (1964)
Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch! is one of the essential avant-garde jazz albums of all time. Featuring multiinstrumentalist Dolphy on bass clarinet, alto sax, and flute, the record is almost definitely the wildest recording on this list.
Alongside Dolphy, the record features Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Bobby Hutcherson on vibraphone, Richard Davis on bass, and Tony Williams on drums.
A masterclass in avant-garde jazz, the record experiments wildly with melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture.
Much like the great proponent of free jazz, Ornette Coleman, and his album The Shape of Jazz to Come, this watershed record opened up new possibilities for the genre. Dolphy died not long after the release of the album in 1964, aged 36.
An essential record in the history of jazz that is best enjoyed on vinyl.
15. Night Train – Oscar Peterson Trio (1963)
The Oscar Peterson Trio’s Night Train is an understated gem of a record. While the album has not achieved the same general public recognition as some other albums on this list, it is well-known amongst jazz aficionados as one of the great jazz piano albums.
Featuring Oscar Peterson on piano, Ray Brown on double bass, and Ed Thigpen on drums, the record is one of the few on this list that features no brass.
The record mostly comprises Peterson’s arrangements of popular jazz songs by the likes of Duke Ellington and others, featuring only one Peterson original.
A wonderful and eminently listenable jazz piano classic that belongs in any decent jazz vinyl collection.
14. Monk’s Dream – Thelonious Monk (1963)
The legendary Thelonious Monk is one of the greatest and most influential jazz pianists of all time. The title of his 1951 album Genius of Modern Music is no understatement – the man was a genius, and one of the great jazz composers of all time.
Monk’s Dream is undeniably one of the great artist’s signature albums. A key figure in the development of bebop, Monk’s Dream features elements of bop, post-bop and avant-garde. The record brilliantly showcases Monk’s distinctive piano style with its angular and percussive feel.
Alongside Monk, the eight-track album features the talents of Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, John Ore on bass, and Frankie Dunlop on drums.
If you’re looking to own some Monk on vinyl, you might understandably find it hard to choose just one record from his discography. That being said, you can’t go far wrong with the classic Monk’s Dream.
13. Saxophone Colossus – Sonny Rollins (1957)
Saxophone Colossus is the sixth album of Sonny Rollins, and is generally considered as his greatest contribution to jazz music. The five track album is one of the finest examples of hard-bop, and shows Rollins in full force on the tenor saxophone.
Featuring Tommy Flanagan on piano, Doug Watkins on bass, and Max Roach on drums, the record is beautifully recorded and has a vivid ‘live’’ feel to it, which feels all the more real on vinyl.
The album’s final track ‘Blue 7’ is a largely improvised twelve bar blues track which many consider to be Rollins’ greatest recorded performance. The seminal track showcases what has come to be known as ‘thematic improvisation’ which involves referencing, paraphrasing, and improvising on an original theme.
12. Head Hunters – Herbie Hancock (1973)
The legendary pianist and keyboardist Herbie Hancock has a huge legacy, and his jazz-funk album ‘Head Hunters’ is arguably his most influential. A true audiophile record, this is one of those albums that just needs to be listened to on vinyl.
Hancock is a seminal figure within jazz music, with earlier albums such as his 1965 Maiden Voyage considered amongst the most important modal jazz records of the era. ‘Head Hunters’ saw the artist move in a distinctively new direction, with a strong funk influence.
The four-track album, which opens with the fifteen minute jazz-funk odyssey ‘Chameleon,’ sees Hancock abandon the piano in favour of a Rhodes piano, a clavinet, and synthesisers.
The record also features the skills of Bennie Maupin on saxophones and woodwind, Paul Jackson on bass, Harvey Mason on drums, and Bill Summers on percussion.
An essential jazz fusion album which just sounds so much better on vinyl.
11. Getz/Gilberto – Stan Getz and João Gilberto (1964)
Widely regarded as one of the best bossa nova albums of all time, ‘Getz/Gilberto’ is a collaboration between Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto and American saxophonist Stan Getz.
The intercontinental collaboration was vital in helping to spread Brazilian jazz in the United States and worldwide. The record sold a million units worldwide, and as well as picking up the coveted Album of the Year Grammy award.
The record features several bossa nova classics penned by Antônio Carlos Jobim including ‘Desafinido,’ ‘Só Danço Samba,’ and the iconic ‘The Girl from Ipanema.’
The record is a fantastic introduction to the suave and sophisticated sounds of Brazilian bossa nova. Of course, like all of the records on this list, this great jazz album sounds best on vinyl.
10. Speak No Evil – Wayne Shorter (1966)
A modal jazz/post-bop masterclass, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil is the saxophonist’s definitive record.
Shorter was hugely respected as a saxophonist, and in his career played with Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Weather Report. However, Speak No Evil stands as testament to Shorter’s compositional abilities, with each of the album’s six fantastic tunes all composed by him.
Featuring Shorter on tenor sax, along with legends Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums, the record is well-loved amongst jazz fans, and considered among the essential modal jazz albums.
9. Giant Steps – John Coltrane (1960)
One of the all time essential bop records, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps is a technically brilliant and lyrical record that shows Coltrane at the height of his game.
The seven-track album features Coltrane on tenor sax and Paul Chambers on bass throughout. It brings in three different pianists – Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, and Cedar Walton – and three different drummers – Art Taylor, Jimmy Cobb, and Lex Humphries.
The record showcases Coltrane’s distinctive “sheets of sound” style, with fast-running arpeggios from the lower registers up to the top. Coltrane used the technique to extend and free himself from harmonic constraints typical in earlier bebop.
An all-time classic jazz record that is best enjoyed, as originally intended, on vinyl.
8. Karma – Pharoah Sanders (1969)
Karma is one of the great records of the legendary Pharoah Sanders. A defining record in the sub-genre of spiritual jazz, it is generally regarded as the visionary’s best album.
Featuring Sanders on tenor sax, the album blends together elements of free jazz and avant garde jazz, making rich use of percussion textures, flutes, and vocals. The record comprises just two tracks – ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ (parts one and two), and ‘Colors,’ with the former lasting over thirty minutes.
Karma is a classic audiophile record, with the tranquil, spacious, floating textures, and the gentle rhythm crying out for a great audio setup. It’s truly a record to lose yourself in, perfectly encapsulating the mood of spiritual jazz that Sanders is known for.
A gem of a record and an essential jazz album to own on vinyl.
7. Sunday at the Village Vanguard – Bill Evans Trio (1961)
One of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, Sunday at the Village Vanguard is arguably Bill Evans’ definitive album. A live album, recorded at the Village Vanguard in New York, features Evans on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass, and Paul Motian on drums.
The album was recorded just eleven days before the tragic death of Scott LaFaro in a traffic accident. LaFaro’s death rocked Evans, who did not play piano for many months after the event.
Both Evans himself and many critics since have noted the synchronicity in the trio’s group performances.
The record is regarded by many as one of the best live jazz recordings of all time. Listen on vinyl to get the most of that glorious, warm feel that takes you right back to 60s New York.
6. Sketches of Spain – Miles Davis (1960)
The legendary Sketches of Spain is amongst Miles Davis’ greatest albums. The record showcases a spellbinding blend of classical and jazz music, and benefits from the input of the great composer and arranger Gil Evans – a frequent collaborator of Davis.
The record begins with an arrangement of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Spanish guitar concerto ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ – a sixteen minute piece that in some respects provides the core of the album.
The following pieces progress the classical-influenced Spanish theme, including arrangements of traditional Spanish songs ‘The Pan Piper’ and ‘Saeta.’
The album features a twenty-seven piece jazz orchestra, mostly comprising brass and woodwind, as well as featuring Davis’ regular collaborators Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
5. Mingus Ah Um – Charles Mingus (1959)
The essential Charles Mingus album Mingus Ah Um is routinely ranked amongst the greatest jazz albums of all time, so it certainly worth hearing in its full glory on vinyl.
The charismatic Mingus is one of the few jazz legends who can be considered a master of two instruments – both bass and piano. The record features Mingus on bass on all tracks, also making an appearance on piano on ‘Pedal Point Blues’ on the extended edition of the record.
Aside from Mingus, the record features the talents of John Handy, Booker Ervin, and Shafi Hadi on sax, Willie Dennis and Jimmy Knepper on trombone, Horace Parlan on piano, and Dannie Richmond on drums.
In terms of style, the record is generally considered post-bop, bearing the influence of bop, modal jazz, and free jazz.
A number of the album’s tracks are tributes to other jazz greats – Lester Young (‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’), Jelly Roll Morton (‘Jelly Roll’), and Duke Ellington (‘Open Letter to Duke’).
4. The Shape of Jazz to Come – Ornette Coleman (1959)
The seminal Shape of Jazz to Come is Ornette Coleman’s most enduring work, and an essential album to own on vinyl. Widely regarded as the leading pioneer of free jazz, this record is arguably the defining free jazz album.
Coleman’s wild, improvisational, avant-garde style saw him divide early audiences, with some critics branding him as a fraud. Time would come to reveal Coleman as a visionary artist who had a profound impact on the jazz genre.
The six-track album features Coleman on alto sax, Don Cherry on cornet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums.
The perfect introduction to Coleman’s discography, The Shape of Jazz to Come is regularly listed amongst the best jazz albums of all time for good reason. If there is a single free jazz that you are going to own on vinyl, this should probably be the one.
The album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015. A gem of avant-garde jazz that any jazz fan ought to own on vinyl.
3. Time Out – Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)
Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1959 album Time Out is one of the most-loved jazz albums of all time, featuring one of the most iconic and best-selling jazz singles of all time, ‘Take Five.’
The album sees Brubeck experimenting with unusual time signatures, as the title hints. But the experiment is far from a gimmick – the album is one of the most beautiful examples of cool jazz, and a staple album in the jazz music canon.
The record features Dave Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on alto sax, Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums. My personal highlight on the record is the glistening and lush piano introduction on ‘Strange Meadow Lark.’
The record was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009. Quite frankly, it would be rude not to own this album on vinyl.
2. A Love Supreme – John Coltrane (1965)
This beautiful and unique jazz album is the definitive album of the legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.
Recorded in a single session on 9 December 1964, the record features Coltrane on tenor sax, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on double bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.
As well as being widely regarded as one of the best jazz albums of all time, A Love Supreme is the definitive spiritual jazz album.
The album’s four tracks comprise a ‘suite’ based around a simple four-note theme, and the record’s sound encompasses elements of modal jazz, free jazz, and hard-bop.
As the album’s liner notes make clear, the record is intended by Coltrane as a tribute to God, and the record is rich with metaphor and meaning. Without a doubt, it is one of the essential best jazz albums to own on vinyl.
1. Kind of Blue – Miles Davis (1959)
If you are going to own just one jazz album on vinyl, let this record be the one. Miles Davis’ 1959 masterpiece Kind of Blue is widely regarded as the best jazz album of all time.
A stunning collection of five tracks, the album demonstrates the glorious harmony of modal jazz, with a restrained listenability that gestures towards the emergence of cool jazz. The album is the crowning glory of the legendary jazz trumpeter’s celebrated discography.
As well as Davis’ flawlessly beautiful trumpet, the LP showcases the talents of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on saxophone, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on double bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
The iconic compositions, the flawless solos, and the dazzling synchronicity of the great musicians on the record gives rise to a stirring and timeless record that gives and gives with every listen.
No record collection should be without this essential jazz vinyl, that is truly one of the greatest albums of all time.
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