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A List of Ten Great Recordings to Start Your Jazz Collection.

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Jazz is perhaps best experienced live, but some recordings are veritable works of art. Below is a list of ten albums that represent important periods in the development of jazz, and whose music is as fresh today as when it was recorded. The list, ordered chronologically by the dates each album was recorded, functions as a mere introduction to classic jazz recordings.

1. Louis Armstrong – 'Complete RCA Victor Recordings' (RCA)

Courtesy of RCA
This compilation is a must have for anyone interested in the origin of jazz. Louis Armstrong’s melodic trumpet improvisations and his scat singing are considered the seeds from which all jazz since has sprouted. This collection consists of crackling renditions of some lesser-known tunes from Armstrong’s repertoire. Each track radiates the joyous spirit and individualism that Armstrong was known for.

2. 'Charlie Parker with Strings: The Master Takes' (Polygram)

Courtesy of Verve
When Charlie Parker, one of the creators of bebop, recorded with a string ensemble, he was criticized for pandering to a popular audience. His music was characterized in part by taking conventions of swing music and pushing them to their extremes; extreme registers, extremely fast tempos, and extreme virtuosity. Unlike swing music, bebop was considered art music, and represented a hip musical subculture. Parker's recording with strings, although perhaps more palatable for a popular audience, doesn't display any sacrifice of craft or musicality. On each of these tracks, Parker's sound is pure and crisp, and his improvisations display the impeccable technique and harmonic knowledge that bebop was famous for.

3. Lee Konitz – 'Subconscious-Lee' (Original Jazz Classics)

Courtesy of Ojc

Lee Konitz made his mark on the jazz world in the late 1940s and 1950s by developing a style of improvisation that contrasted from that of the father of bebop, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Konitz' dry tone, swirling melodies, and rhythmic experimentation are still models for today's musicians. Subconscious-Lee features pianist Lennie Tristano and tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh, two of Konitz' comrades in the development of this style.

4. Art Blakey Quintet - 'A Night at Birdland' (Blue Note)

Courtesy of Blue Note

Art Blakey's music is known for its funky stride and soulful melodies. This live recording, featuring trumpet legend Clifford Brown, is one energy-filled example of Blakey's first ventures into the driving style that would come to be known as hard-bop.

5. John Coltrane – 'Blue Train' (Blue Note)

Courtesy of Blue Note
John Coltrane was said to have practiced up to twenty hours a day, so much that late in his career, it was rumored that by the time he was finished he had already abandoned some techniques he had figured out earlier in the day. His short career (he died at age forty-one) is underscored by constant evolution, shifting from traditional jazz to completely improvised suites. The music from Blue Train marks the pinnacle of his hard-bop stage, before he moved on to more experimental improvisation styles. It also contains tunes that have worked their way into the standard repertoire, including "Moment's Notice," "Lazy Bird," and "Blue Train."

6. Charles Mingus – 'Mingus Ah Um' (Columbia)

Courtesy of Columbia
Each of bassist Charles Mingus' pieces on this album has a specific character, ranging from frenetic to morose to ebullient, so that the compositions almost have a visual nature. Each member of the band plays his part in such a way that it sounds as though he is improvising, giving the music vitality and spirit that is practically unmatched.

7. Miles Davis – 'Kind of Blue' (Columbia)

Courtesy of Columbia
In the liner notes to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, pianist Bill Evans (who plays piano on the album) compares the music to a spontaneous and disciplined form of Japanese visual art. The simplicity and minimalist touch of this landmark recording are perhaps what allow the musicians to paint pristine pictures and achieve such a meditative and contemplative mood. Each member of the group comes from a different musical background, and yet the result is a unified work of beauty that every jazz musician or listener must own.

8. Ornette Coleman - 'The Shape of Jazz to Come' (Atlantic)

Courtesy of Atlantic
Ornette Coleman caused a stir in the late 1950s when he began to play what has come to be known as "free jazz." Hoping to free himself of the restrictions of chord progressions and song structures, he simply played melodies and gestures. Recorded in 1959, The Shape of Jazz to Come is a rather conservative experiment with such concepts, and the average listener may not notice much is different, but Ornette and a multitude of musicians since have used the idea of "free" playing as a springboard into a vast musical realm.

9. Freddie Hubbard – 'Open Sesame' (Blue Note)

Courtesy of Blue Note
Freddie Hubbard's searing lines and juggernaut sound have made him the model after which most trumpet players shape their approaches to the instrument. Soulful and groove-oriented, this early Hubbard recording is the door through which his fiery playing burst into jazz.

10. Bill Evans – 'Sunday at the Village Vanguard' (Original Jazz Classics)

Courtesy of Ojc
Bill Evans and his trio explore a variety of moods on this live recording. Evans' background in classical music is apparent with his lush chords and subtle gestures. Each member of the trio (including Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums) is allowed the same amount of flexibility, so instead of one player being featured while the others accompany, the group breathes and swells as a unit. This freedom, as well as the fluidity of the phrasing, is something that contemporary jazz musicians strive to emulate.
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