Are you an avid jazz fan who has just got your first record player and wants to know precisely which jazz vinyls would be the best to buy first? Are you the owner of a fine record player who wants to get into jazz by listening to it on wax just as it would have been back in those original eras of the music?
Then look no further, for today I will be offering up some of my favorite jazz records for you to flick through with the guarantee that they all sound fine as hell when spinning beneath a needle.
- In a Silent Way – Miles Davis
- The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady – Charles Mingus
- Astigmatic – Krzysztof Komeda
- Your Queen is a Reptile – Sons of Kemet
- The Nubians of Plutonia – Sun Ra
- The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording – John Coltrane
- Out to Lunch! – Eric Dolphy
1. In a Silent Way – Miles Davis
Though this list is highly redolent of my personal best records on vinyl, this classic fusion of jazz and rock music is still one of the top 100 most valuable vinyl records in terms of how music has metamorphosed in the 20th century.
Before Miles went on to create some of the best funk albums crossed over with jazz and jazz fusion in the early 70s, after his fabled ‘cool’ period, he was in a chrysalis rapidly changing form with every note.
As jazz vinyls go, this one is essential if there is a desire to see a world class act and jazz great in this inbetween stage of transformation between the more traditional jazz music that he was famed for playing and the new electric sound that he would become synonymous with pioneering, much to the chagrin of the jazz world at the time.
This inbetween is reflected in the music, which is aptly described by critic Philip Freeman, stating the music is neither jazz nor rock, but rather the sound of ‘Miles Davis and [producer] Teo Macero feeling their way down an unlit hall at three in the morning. It was the soundtrack to all the whispered conversations every creative artist has, all the time, with that doubting, taunting voice that lives in the back of your head, the one asking all the unanswerable questions.’
Though some are still riled up by this bold step forth into uncharted territory, it is still one of my favorite jazz albums (if you can even call it that), and arguably one of the best jazz albums for jazz history, for there are so many jazz records that would undoubtedly not exist were it not for the existence of In a Silent Way.
2. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady – Charles Mingus
And here we have another of the greatest jazz albums that cross streams with other styles to create something wholly its own. I have never heard anything quite like this, where jazz is so freely in conversation with impressionistic classical music, and with such devastating effects in the vein of free jazz.
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This record is far from being in a piano trio format, featuring an 11 piece band of jazz musicians:
Charles Mingus (double bass, piano), Jerome Richardson (soprano and baritone saxophone, flute), Charlie Mariano (alto saxophone), Dick Hafer (tenor saxophone, flute), Rolf Ericson (trumpet), Richard Williams (trumpet), Quentin Jackson (trombone), Don Butterfield (tuba, contrabass trombone), Jaki Byard (piano), Jay Berliner (classical guitar), and Dannie Richmond (drums).
It is for this reason that the album, alongside typical labels of avant garde jazz and the like, is also believed to be a progenitor and key player in the argument for the existence of experimental big band, throwing elements of African music and Spanish classical themes into the already excitable broth of Jazz and Classical.
You can be sure at the hands of the oft irritable Mingus – who, along with his psychotherapist, provides the intangible and opaque liner notes – that no jazz musician present is going to leave without having done his part to realize his dream.
3. Astigmatic – Krzysztof Komeda
Continuing in a vaguely related vein, we have this offering from Krzysztof Komeda, oft considered to be one of the best European jazz albums of all time, especially if we are talking about avant garde jazz.
Throughout the three tracks arrayed here, a painting is produced not of a mere thing or landscape frozen by the lens but rather of an evolving and shape shifting beast that is genuinely alive.
The way the title track especially progresses and gathers steam and then loses it is more redolent of a being than a piece of music. There is such an organic and inimitable relationship between all of the musicians arrayed here, such a signature mystery and an enigmatic air, all of which serves to put Poland firmly on the map for jazz musicians the world over.
4. Your Queen is a Reptile – Sons of Kemet
It does not take long to realize quite how antiquated the list here arrayed is, how many in this jazz collection are from years of yore, and though their influence is still keenly felt by many modern jazz musicians, the legendary musicians on these older recordings might not have so direct an effect on musical proceedings these days.
This is one of the reasons why I have chosen to include this album, though not least because it is one of my favorite jazz albums of this modern period or any other period.
Like the other additions to this list, this is not your average jazz album in terms of the styles and the tunes included within the bounds of the gatefolds. The instrumentation of saxophone, tuba, and drums is broadly jazz inflected, though there are so many more elements at play, all of which seek to exhibit the influence of the plethora of other styles that have gone on to influence jazz and western music in the last century or so.
The second track ‘My Queen is Mamie Phipps Clark’, for example, features noted drum and bass producer and dub toaster Congo Natty making just about any noise sound cool through a rippling succession of delay decays. The track ‘My Queen is Nanny of the Maroons’, too, features a dub bassline throughout courtesy of the swollen tuba featured throughout all these tracks.
The overall message – that the British people’s unquestioned reverence for a reptilian queen ought at least to be questioned and that there is no reason why any black people or people of color should consider her so important when, courtesy of the track list, there are a whole bunch of other strong and vital matriarchs whom oppressors have clearly tried to forget – is executed to perfection through the smorgasbord of varied styles coming together as one.
5. The Nubians of Plutonia – Sun Ra
The closest thing this list has to a traditional jazz record still finds an album that is oozing with desire to move in each direction all at once, all drenched in a nebulous ambiance of the past as viewed from the future as the present.
There is a profound influence of exotica on this album, too, and this can be easily seen in the sheer amount of percussionists present within the band. Almost every member of the band that is not already playing drums or percussion will be called upon at some point during the run time to play a piece of percussion instead of their first instrument.
The song that first got me into the album ‘The Lady with the Golden Stockings’ is an exemplary example of the album as a whole, featuring lolloping drums and percussion that are ever varied from anything in the jazz mainstream and take center stage at several points instead of merely acting as accompaniment or backing.
There are several moments where the drums overspill ahead of themselves which only goes to exhibit just how exotic and untamed the terrain below the listener’s feet is when Sun Ra is at the helm imagining worlds upon worlds away from the world around us.
6. The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording – John Coltrane
This is by no means the greatest jazz concert, and yet there is something so singular in the recording quality of it and its documentation that it seems necessary to include it here even if only one person among all of you listens to it and enjoys it.
It is doubtful whether this was even intended for public consumption or whether it was simply meant to be a document of a performance event for personal use.
A great admirer and financial supporter of the work Babatunde Olatunji in New York City in attempting to offer affordable cultural classes to adults and children, Coltrane proposed putting on a concert in the Olatunji Center of African Culture. What you hear here is a record of the first performance on the evening of April 23rd 1966.
Though this is not actually the final concert of John Coltrane (but rather the penultimate concert), the intensity of the performance as fed through the lens of the low audio fidelity paint a desperate picture of a pioneer who might not have known in mind that they were already dying, but who might have spiritually already been preparing for the worst, even if the record player sounds distorted.
For an artist with such a singular vision of music as the unifying force between all people of all cultures and faiths, this makes complete sense, and here we see this force exhibited in all its potency and fury one last time before the eternal sleep.
7. Out to Lunch! – Eric Dolphy
A close friend to John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy was sketched to walk in Coltrane’s footsteps. They worked alongside each other at a crucial point in Coltrane’s development, appearing in a seminal series of recorded concerts at the Village Vanguard in New York, during the 1960 period of the classic quartet.
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Eric Dolphy went his own way, featuring in the band of Charles Mingus, before starting his own band, though his path was stopped tragically short when he died of a diabetic coma at the age of 36 after having been misdiagnosed as a junkie for being a black jazz musician despite himself being a teetotaller who did not smoke nor take drugs.
Still, as his headstone in Los Angeles says, ‘He Lives In His Music.’
This is one of Dolphy’s final solo efforts (his only Blue Note album as a leader) and exhibits everything that makes me keen on him. As jazz multi instrumentalists go, Dolphy was one of the best, considerably altering the vocabulary of the bass clarinet, the flute, alto saxophone, and even clarinet and piccolo on occasion (the former two not even really being considered as jazz solo instruments before him).
On this album, his relative mastery over the former three instruments is exhibited in spades on this album which at every turn also seeks to act as exemplar to his bop and bebop stylings as fed through the cartoonish avant garde, resulting in compositions like ‘Hat and Beard’ which render in a very real way the sheer musicality of its name sake Thelonious Monk, who Dolphy thought was musical ‘even if he’s just walking around.’
So, there you have it!
Hopefully at least one of these classic albums has taken your fancy and that you are ready and willing to go out and purchase them or at least do some more research.
The parallel history of jazz music and American social history is no joke, and you can very often see some of the biggest moments reflected even in the song titles or album concepts of some of the best jazz records on vinyl.
If nothing else, jazz is an apposite lens through which to view the last hundred years of social history, in America and beyond.
Even now that jazz has become the music of a so called sophisticated social elite, it can still be so telling of social dynamics; where before it was simply popular music that people danced to at the club, it has now transcended this, since its immediate revolutionary power has largely been sterilized.
FAQs Jazz Vinyls
Are jazz vinyl records worth anything?
This will very much depend on which vinyl records are being discussed. You will see no end of mainstream and easy listening jazz records in second hand stores that probably will not fetch very much at auction; even Kind of Blue, despite being such a classic album, will scarcely fetch much unless it is an original pressing, simply because it is the biggest selling jazz album of all time. If, however, you have an original of a more choice album on your hands then, depending on the wear and tear, you could have yourself a considerable amount of money on your hands.
What is the best selling jazz record of all time?
This accolade easily goes to the album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. Recorded by Davis alongside his band (big shots Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb) in 1959, they were already one of the biggest bands in jazz at that time, though nothing could have prepared them for just how successful and influential this album would become. Many believe that, alongside his 1970 album Bitches Brew, this is the distillation of Davis’ art as a whole, capturing the quintessential of what made him so great as well as the methods he used to capture the magic of the immediate moment over the premeditated.