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Fifteen Great Recordings

June 2024
3min read

For seventy-five years a procession of timeless jazz moments has been captured on disk. Here are some of the very best.

1. “Dippermouth Blues” (1923)

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, R 001). The Creole Jazz Band sides, of which “Dippermouth” is the most famous, constitute the first important black jazz recordings. New Orleans jazz was a thoroughly settled idiom, and Oliver a primeval piece of the true cross. In these acoustic, toylike ensembles, however, you can hear the sound of Louis Armstrong demanding to be born.

2. “Tight Like This” (1928)

Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines (Columbia Jazz Masterpieces/Louis Armstrong, Vol. 4 CK 45142). Every great artist creates an occasional microcosm of every strength he possesses and by extension implies everything else he will ever play. Here Armstrong gives jazz a dramatist’s sense of emotional pacing. From a brooding stillness he stirs tentatively, takes hold, and climbs toward a cathartic release of operatic grandeur.

3. “The Blue Room” (1932)

Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra ( Basie Beginnings , RCA/Bluebird 97682-RB). By 1932 Duke Ellington had moved big-band jazz well on its way to expressive artistry, but in the meanest winter of the Great Depression, it reached a kind of critical mass with Bennie Moten and a band of cold and hungry Kansas City players a thousand miles from home. In “Blue Room” scraps of melody swim on a rising tide of riffs that ultimately swallow up everything in one of the hottest bigband performances ever recorded.

4. “Oh, Lady Be Good” (1936)

Jones-Smith Inc. ( The Essential Count Basie, Vol. 1 , Columbia Jazz Masterpieces CK 40608). Everything you need to know about Count Basie is here: the spacious piano, in which sound and silence are partners; the soft-spoken zephyr of a rhythm section that petted the beat and made it purr; and the saxophonist Lester Young, making the most fully formed record debut in history.

5. “Crazy Rhythm” (1937)

Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter (TK DRG/Swing Records SW 8403 Prestige 7633). The first defining figures of tenor and alto saxophone, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter spent the late thirties in France and England, where they did not go unappreciated by European musicians trying to crack the codes of American jazz. With Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli they made lightning strike on “Crazy Rhythm” and left no doubt that the codes were still safe in American hands.

6. “Heckler’s Hop” (1937)

Roy Eldridge Orchestra ( Little Jazz , Columbia Jazz Masterpieces CK 45275). Like Armstrong, Eldridge knew how to lay the dramatic basis for trumpet high notes. However, unlike Armstrong’s ascents, which were formal and stately, Eldridge’s came unexpectedly, in the midst of dizzying whirlpools. He used them as hand grenades.

7. “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” (1943)

Mel Powell ( Complete Commodore Jazz Recordings, Vol. 1 , Mosaic MR 23 123). One of the lesser-known hot masterpieces of small-band jazz, this is a spine-tingling improvisation of precision virtuosity at its most passionate. Powell commands the piano with a swift, percussive attack that brooks no clutter or frills. And Benny Goodman, recording under the nom-dehorn “Shoeless John Jackson,” plays with a fervent elegance.

8. “Blues” (1944)

Nat Cole, Illinois Jacquet, J. J. Johnson, et al. (Japanese Verve MV 9053-5). A golden moment that was a milestone too: the first recording of a live stage performance intended for commercial record release. The idea was the producer Norman Granz’s. A “documentary study in spontaneity,” he called it. It not only inaugurated Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert tours and built him an empire but expanded the horizons of the recording process forever.

9. “Ko-ko” (1945)

Charlie Parker ( Bird, The Savoy Recordings [Master Takes, 1944–48] ), Savoy ZDS 8801). Parker and Dizzy Gillespie made surprisingly few joint records in their prime years. This one sums up the essentials of bop on the threshold of the age of anxiety, including its ingenious propensity to mount complex pointillist lines on the chassis of old Tin Pan Alley standards, such as—in this case—“Cherokee.”

10. “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” (1956)

Ellington at Newport (Columbia CK 40587). No one expected the staid Duke Ellington to hatch the explosive frenzy that swept Newport like a Texas twister in 1956, least of all Ellington himself—which made the audience response to this blues-based magnum opus chillingly authentic and absolutely spontaneous, not the sort of self-fulfilling high jinks that are a dime a dozen at ritual rock concerts these days. Here is jazz in all its Dionysian fury, superbly recorded.

11. “Honeysuckle Rose” (1957)

Rex Stewart and the Henderson AllStars (Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD44, Jazztone). I passed over Fletcher Henderson early on because, despite many great records of the twenties and thirties, some of his best was saved until last. In 1957, five years after Henderson’s death, the producer George Simon arranged for a dozen Henderson alumni to record some of the most joyous big-band music ever made. Reunions are often problematic. This one was inspired.

12. “Concierto de Aranjuez” (1959)

by Miles Davis ( Sketches of Spain , Columbia Jazz Masterpieces, CK 40578) When the swing era ended, jazz found itself free to pursue ars gratia artis . No one used this freedom more fruitfully or took it in more directions than Miles Davis, who, here with the composer and arranger Gil Evans, ventures into a Spanish classical repertoire with stunning emotional power.

13. “Weary Blues” (1959)

Duke Ellington ( Back to Back , Verve 823-637-2). This excursion into the sensuality of the blues by a one-timeonly group is a one-take wonder that combines the incisive splendor of Ellington the pianist with Johnny Hodges’s alto at its apogee. Harry Edison and Jo Jones provide a countervailing non-Ellington ballast.

14. “Abyss” (1974)

Cecil Taylor ( Silent Tongues , Freedom FCD-41005). Jazz spun into a period of abstract expressionism in the sixties and seventies, producing much work that remains controversial. And none more so than that of the pianist Cecil Taylor, whose music still seems to snarl with the sound of shock—the same shock perhaps that the ODJB had in 1917, except that the ODJB was quickly demystified. Taylor has not been. “Abyss” is a solo piece, intriguingly arranged and rich with the menace of ambiguity, but in its way quite extraordinary.

15. “The World Is Falling Down” (1991)

Abbey Lincoln ( You Gotta Pay the Band , Verve 843-476-2). Singers from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald on have given jazz recording many golden moments. The latest may be this astounding performance by Abbey Lincoln of her own striking composition. Abetted by Clark Terry’s majestic trumpet, this is among the great recent jazz records.

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