Jazz has never had a reputation for being accessible. Often called, “musician’s music” with its extended sections of improvisation, flurries of complex rhythms, and heady compositions, it’s no wonder the genre often alienates listeners. On top of that, many think of jazz as a schmaltzy elevator soundtrack, as result of the commercialized and pervasive “smooth jazz” genre. And yet, in the right stuff, the jazz listener can find remnants of a beloved pop melody, their favorite funk feel, the authenticity of a country, the rhythmic energy of rock n’ roll. Listening to jazz can be a mind-expanding experience for anyone, if they give the genre’s idiosyncrasies a chance, and take the time to find what really resonates with them.
Born in New Orleans in the early 20th Century, amongst the intersection of folk music, blues, church music, ragtime, traditional African drumming, military marching bands, and many other styles, jazz has far-reaching roots. So too, jazz itself encompasses so much its discography can be a little overwhelming. In an effort to make the genre a little more approachable, here are 10 jazz albums for people who don’t like jazz.
1. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz album in history, and a quintessential example of jazz at its best. Recorded in 1959, the album brings together seven legends in their primes—trumpeter Miles Davis, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, both Bill Evans and Wynton Kelley on piano, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb.
With only a few of Davis’ rough compositional sketches to go off of, the group jumped into the studio and churned out this album, utterly brilliant in its ability to straddle the line between envelope-pushing and sing-able melodies. Kind of Blue is many people’s first experience with jazz and is thankfully a perfect representation of what jazz can be at it’s pinnacle. For that reason, and many more, it had to top this list.
2. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Ella&Louie
Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong is among one of the most widely known characters in jazz, a seminal figure who was hugely influential in bringing New Orleans’ jazz sound into popular consciousness. Ella Fitzgerald, too, is a foundational vocalist of early jazz, known especially for her ability to “scat” or improvise vocally.
Ironically, these two could not have more different vocal qualities, yet Ella’s flawless purity is bolstered by the levity of Armstrong’s throaty growl, and vice versa. Add the palpable friendship between Armstrong and Fitzgerald and you’re in for exceptionally fun listen. Additionally, this album highlights the standards of jazz repertoire, many of which are derived from classic musicals of the day, making the songs as lyrically entertaining as the pair is charming. Hence, if you like musicals, odds are you’ll like this album!
3. Chick Corea, Light as a Feather
Chick Corea and band Return to Forever are classic in Latin or fusion jazz. For a jazz newbie, 1972’s Light as a Feather offers lots to sink your teeth into with the pure, airy vocal quality of Flora Purim, and the pervasive influence of rock n’ roll and Latin music.
Chick Corea’s percussive electric piano and Airto Moreiro on drums give the album delicious momentum, while Joe Farrell’s airy horn lines float on top adding interest, and Purim’s vocals add story and relatable vulnerability. The album also contains Corea’s most popular fusion composition, “Spain,” which is as complex as it is fun to sing and clap along to.
4. Bill Evans Trio, At The Village Vanguard
For piano jazz, there really isn’t anyone more technically proficient than Bill Evans (who you might recall was also one of the pianists on Kind of Blue. An accomplished classical musician who loved composers like Debussy, Ravel and Chopin, Evans brings astonishing agility, a honey-sweet touch, and the use of pianistic impressionism to his jazz approach. The effect is sublime.
At The Village Vanguard and the other albums from this era with Scott Lafaro on bass, captures Evans in his prime and showcase the magic between within this trio. This album also contains a rendition of one of his most famous compositions, “Waltz for Debby,” a beautiful piece Evans wrote for his niece, and “Porgy (I loves you, Porgy)” from the Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess.
5. Esperanza Spalding, Esperanza
In modern jazz, Esperanza Spalding is a rising star and for good reason. Bassist-vocalist Spalding is a 31-year old with four studio albums to her name, and multiple performances for President Obama under her belt. She is on this list for more than the recognition she’s garnered, though: Esperanza’s music has pop appeal, melding the songwriting style of Joni Mitchell with the tenants of improvisational music.
Esperanza was Spalding’s 2008 debut, the closest to a sampler of Spalding’s diverse tastes and abilities that you can get. This album combines original compositions, reimagined takes on standards, vocal as well as all-instrumental numbers. There’s a little something for anyone on this album.
6. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
This addition might seem out of nowhere for a jazz list, but 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a genius, thought-provoking introduction to jazz and the extremes of its definition. Esperanza Spalding once described Lamar to me as, “Charlie Parker reincarnate,” irrevocably connecting the genius be-bop creator with the modern hip-hop king. And she isn’t wrong. To Pimp a Butterfly is meticulous in its craft, with layers upon layers of improvisation collaged together—the socially-conscious rap of Lamar and production from greats like Dr. Dre is enhanced, transposed, and inverted by collaboration with the modern jazz musicians on the album like Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Thundercat. To Pimp A Butterfly is as much a jazz album as it is hip-hop, but it comes in that neat popular music package. In that way, it’s sort of a jazz sneak attack, with a unique power to open people’s ears and hearts to new sounds.
7. Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters
If you like soul, funk, and R&B, you’ll probably identify with _Head Hunters. With funky-conception and an in-the-pocket groove, Herbie Hancock’s 1973 album makes you want to dance, sing, and put “Chameleon” on repeat.
Hancock, a legendary keyboardist who recorded his first album at 22, was one of Blue Note’s most prized artists in the ‘60s and played in Miles Davis’s quartet from 1963-68. Head Hunters signifies a turning point in his career from more straight-ahead cool jazz to more jazz-funk. Herbie Hancock is still putting out records to this day (54 years after the release of his first album) and Head Hunters is one of Hancock’s best, with a downright nasty tune that hooks you and won’t let turn the stereo off.
8. Duke Ellington Orchestra, 16 Most Requested Songs
Duke Ellington is a founding father in jazz and swing, and his compositions and style of arranging have persisted as the references for up and coming big bands. Ellington’s orchestra was tight and energetic, with a rhythm section perfected groove by playing regularly for the swing dancers at The Cotton Club. The compositions they played, like “Take The A Train,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” are still performed to this day, and yearly, “Essentially Ellington,” a highly competitive high school big band competition, is held in New York City.
With a career that spanned over 50 years as a composer and bandleader, Ellington and writing partner Billy Strayhorn wrote dozens of classic songs that continue to nurture future generations of jazz musicians. This album 16 Most Requested Songs highlights Ellington’s best.
9. Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
The legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, with his abrasive, honky tenor tone, is a hard to sell for many people, even some die-hard jazz heads. But, pair him with the sultry croon of Johnny Hartman and suddenly, everything is right in the world. With Coltrane, Hartman is the yang to a yin.
Coltrane’s mastery of improvisation is never more obvious than on this album, as he tastefully fills in the space between Hartman’s soothing vocals. The best part of the album is how obviously it is a conversation between the two, how they both push and challenge each other into striking some sort of musical bargain. The dynamic between the two is fascinating, and this album’s version of Coltrane’s “Lush Life” with Zara Larsson’s lyrics is one of the best ever recorded.
10. Bill Frisell, All We Are Saying…
In this tribute to John Lennon, modern guitarist Bill Frisell covers many of the classic Lennon songs in his own inventive style. Beloved Beatles songs like “In My Life” are transformed into sparse, angular pieces, all the while with that same Lennon soul that is so well loved. Country music fans may be especially enraptured by All We Are Saying…, as the album features fiddler Jenny Scheinman and steel guitarist Greg Leisz, who add a bit of twang into the fray. On All We Are Saying… Frisell and his band bring their improvisational eyes to these essentials of the pop music canon, honoring the songs as much as they reinventing them. All we are saying is give it a chance!