Jazz has been experiencing a resurgence. While many have loyally followed the genre for decades, a younger audience is also embracing this eclectic, expressive music.
Regardless of which group you fall into (or if you’re somewhere in between), spending time with the best jazz albums of all time is never a mistake. It can help you learn about the history of the genre and experience its evolution first hand. At times, it means opening yourself up to a moving experience, committing your attention to a wild and varied journey through the music.
But what makes a great jazz album? And which ones are the best? Here’s a look at what you need to know.
What Makes a Best Jazz Album of All Time?
If you asked any jazz fan for their top jazz albums of all time, you’d likely get a different list. The trick is, taste is somewhat subjective. Plus, listening to every album ever created is essentially impossible, so nearly every listener has gaps in their knowledge, whether they like to admit it or not.
But, for the purposes of this list, the goal was to focus on releases by leading musicians who made groundbreaking contributions to the genre. In part, this means looking at both enjoyability and the album’s significance. Plus, there’s a sprinkling of personal opinion, as being entirely subjective would be an incredibly tall ask for something like jazz.
If you are wondering which jazz albums are almost universally worth a listen, here are five of the best jazz albums ever created.
5 Best Jazz Albums of All Time
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
When it comes to a timeless classic, it’s hard to beat Kind of Blue from quintessential jazz musician Miles Davis. While the album turned 60 in 2019, it’s as engaging today as it was when it first released. Along with Miles, the album features the musical stylings of other jazz greats, including Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane. Throughout, the vibe is relaxed but intriguing, making it ideal for anyone who wants to enjoy an album that really marked a historical moment in the genres’ history.
John Coltrane: A Love Supreme
Speaking of John Coltrane, A Love Supreme is often considered the origin of the spiritual jazz subgenre. It’s still considered a profoundly influential album, using jazz to explore concepts it had yet to tap in such a meaningful way. The music plays out like a journey, taking the listener along for an unexpected ride. At points, the emotional peaks are practically overwhelming in their intensity, but also fully satisfying. Many listeners may feel wholly spent at the end, but would typically agree that the exhaustion is well worth it.
Chick Corea: Return to Forever
Featuring a rich and highly textured sound, Return to Forever is another album that is as much about the journey as it is the destination. There’s an almost opulence to much of the experience, with the music swirling around like mental syrup. Every track is an enveloping adventure, making it a worthwhile listen for any jazz fan.
Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um
Featuring a mix of energetic songs and soothing ballads, Mingus Ah Um is as unpredictable as its fiery-tempered creator was often said to be. Plus, with the addition of “Fables of Faubus,” the album has a degree of political edginess, allowing listeners to reflect on a time when racial tensions and school integration were at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Plus, it’s a solid reflection of Charles’s unique style, making it a worthwhile addition to have in any jazz aficionados’ collection or playlist.
Cannonball Adderley: Somethin’ Else
Along with being one of the best small group ensemble jazz albums ever recorded, Somethin’ Else is considered by many to be Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s strongest outing. The alto saxophonist is accompanied by the likes of Miles Davis (a rare instance where he took a sideman role) as well as Art Blakey, Hank Jones, and Sam Jones.
Tips for Listening to These Amazing Jazz Albums
While you can technically listen to jazz anywhere, if you want to fully experience what these albums offer, it doesn’t hurt to take some extra steps. For example, finding a quiet space to play the music that provides strong acoustics can be wise. Otherwise, you might want to opt for high-quality headphones, ensuring you can hear every nuance as it strolls by.
If you have the opportunity, consider snagging vinyl copies of the albums above. Many consider the musical experience far superior, even if it isn’t always the most convenient format to use. But that isn’t technically necessary, as many find that digital is a suitable substitute.
Above all, make sure you strive to create your ideal experience. Jazz is often about meaning moved, surprised, and inspired, so consider what your perfect experience looks like and work to craft it. That way, it’s the best approach for you, and that is really what matters.