10 Albums to Get You Into Jazz
Kamasi Washington has spent the last few years garnering large crowds at the same music festivals as Tame Impala and The Black Keys. This is no small feat for a jazz musician, considering what most people think of when they hear the word “jazz.”
“I’ve had experiences where people say, ‘I hated jazz before I heard you guys!’” Washington once said. “I’m like, ‘You didn’t hate jazz before you heard us, you hated the idea of jazz.’”
That’s really the barrier that separates jazz from other popular music. What do you think of when you think of jazz? Do you think of it playing over the speakers of a fancy, over-expensive restaurant? Do you think of elevators? Do you of the music from Fallout? Maybe Frank Sinatra? Kenny G? Maybe you think of that SpongeBob clip where they acquire a taste for freeform jazz.
And while jazz technically can be all of those things, it’s so much more. Reducing it to those stereotypes is like calling all rock music as heavy metal or all hip-hop as gangsta rap.
So here’s 10 albums (listed alphabetically by artist) that serve as gateways into the genre. This is not meant to be a “Best Jazz Albums of All Time” list nor is it a full representation of what jazz has to offer. This is a list of accessibility and understanding. Let’s begin.
Cannonball Adderley – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!
Listen: Mercy, Mercy, Mercy
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! proves jazz can be soulful, danceable, and above all fun. Rock & roll and Motown dominated the charts in 1966, but the groovy title track managed to peak at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. It didn’t chart that high out of novelty. Its legendary melody has been covered and repurposed time and time again while never losing its emotion. The real star here is Joe Zawinul’s electric piano, which paved the next 50 years of R&B. It’s not just influential in jazz and R&B though, the opening of “Games” may remind you of a certain Led Zeppelin song.
BADBADNOTGOOD – BBNG2
Listen: Flashing Lights
Covers are a huge thing in jazz. Every artist in the genre has their own version of standards like “April in Paris,” “Body and Soul,” “Summertime,” etc. BADBADNOTGOOD takes this principle and thrusts it into the 21st century with renditions of Earl Sweatshirt and My Bloody Valentine songs. This innovation led them to producing a Kendrick Lamar track and to backing Ghostface Killah for an entire album. On recent albums they’ve embraced their Flying Lotus influence, but their second album BBNG2 is the perfect fusion of jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music. You can still get pay what you want for it on their Bandcamp.
Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers – Mosaic
Seven seconds into the album it becomes clear why Art Blakey is revered as one of the best drummers in the genre. Four minutes into the album it becomes clear why Art Blakey is revered as one of the best drummers in any genre. He was the bandleader for The Jazz Messengers, a band with a revolving door of players, most of whom would go on to create great music under their own names. It’s hard to pick just one album from them, but Mosaic remains one of their best and most accessible.
Blood Sweat & Tears – Blood Sweat & Tears
Listen: Smiling Phases
While many have tried, no album has better married classic rock and jazz sensibilities than Blood Sweat & Tears’ self titled album. It’s cool enough to get them a slot at Woodstock and formalist enough for it to win Album of the Year at the Grammys. They did this by covering Motown hits (“You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” the band’s most popular song), contemporary bands (“Smiling Phases”), jazz standards (“God Bless the Child”), and writing a new standard of their own (“Spinning Wheel).” Each of these takes a standard rock song but injects it with jazzy embellishments, strange interludes, and an ever-shifting tempo.
Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd – Jazz Samba
Listen: E Luxo So
While jazz originated in America it can be most interesting combining it with music from around the world. Case in point: Jazz Samba. Taking the Brazilian samba sounds of Antonio Jobim and João Gilberto, Getz and Byrd kicked off a bossa-nova craze in America. It can be written off as “easy-listening” but there’s wonderful interplay here. You can hear everything come into place on opener “Desafinado,” everyone supports each other, even when soloing. It’s a remarkable piece of work that influenced generations afterwards.
Norah Jones – Come Away with Me
Listen: Don't Know Why
Come Away with Me wasn’t supposed to sell 27 million copies. It debuted at #139 on the Billboard 200. But there’s something irresistible about it. There are standards like “The Nearness of You” but Jones has wider influences than that. A Hank Williams tune even pops up on “Cold Cold Heart.” The immortal opener “Don’t Know Why” is ubiquitous at this point — she performed it on Sesame Street for God’s sake — but it’s never felt overplayed. Jones’ quiet but passionate voice sounds somewhere between Billie Holliday and Joni Mitchell. She's had a solid career after this, but nothing’s topped her debut. How could they?
Trombone Shorty – Backatown
Listen: Hurricane Season
There’s a scene in the show Treme where radio DJ Davis (Steve Zahn) plays a demo of Trombone Shorty’s “Hurricane Season” in his car listens to it over and over and over again. It’s easy to understand why. This shit bumps. The New Orleans trumpeter/trombonist/singer packs all his favorite genres into what he calls "SupaFunkRock", and with songs like “Quiet as Kept” and “Where Y’At” the label makes sense. He sings like Lenny Kravitz, so much so that when Kravitz literally shows up on “Something Beautiful” it’s hard to tell them apart. He’s happy to share the spotlight with his band members on guitar-heavy tracks “Suburbia” and “The Cure” and on the flute-laced “On Your Way Down.”
Surreal & The Sound Providers – True Indeed
Listen: Place to Be
Okay, so this is technically a rap album not a jazz album, but jazz-rap is one of the best ways to warm yourself up to the genre at large. Production duo The Sound Providers find great samples and let rapper Surreal go to town. Surreal’s got a great flow and his simple lyrics keep things grounded. It’s not the high-concept, sophisticated jazz rap of To Pimp a Butterfly, but it’s fun and there’s a bounce to it. Listen to this album on a walk and you’ll feel like the coolest person in the world.
If you liked this, check out: Greyboy – Freestylin’; The Sound Providers – An Evening with The Sound Providers
Art Tatum – Piano Starts Here
Listen: Tiger Rag
It doesn’t matter how much your favorite musician practiced or how many awards they’ve won. They will never be as good at anything as Art Tatum is at piano. One listen to “Tiger Rag” and you’ll agree. I mean Ray Charles referred to him as “God.” But this isn’t showmanship for showmanship’s sake. He keeps a level of clarity and melody in all of these songs, particularly “Tea For Two” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Since Tatum was around before the album era, Piano Starts Here is a nice compilation with some of his best and earliest solo material, much of it performed live. So sit back and have your mind blown by the unmatched talent of Tatum’s playing.
Kamasi Washington – The Epic
Listen: Change of the Guard
Saxophonist Kamasi Washington cut his teeth touring with Chaka Khan and Snoop Dogg. His biggest credit before unleashing this behemoth was playing sax and writing the string arrangements on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Many of the session musicians on that album (including Thundercat) join his 10-piece band here alongside a full choir and orchestra. Those elements on a three-hour, three-disc album seem ripe to parody, but Washington somehow avoids all of that and gives us a masterpiece. It’s hard to single out any of the 17 tracks because they all offer something great. There’s the melodic “Leroy and Lanisha,” the fiery “Final Thought” and “Miss Understanding,” the meditative “Seven Prayers,” the bright spring days of “The Rhythm Changes” and “Cherokee,” the emotional ballad “Henrietta Our Hero,” etc. His rendition of Claude Debussey’s “Clair de Lune” might be the most beautiful piece of music this decade has to offer. Washington is in the same realm of John Coltrane and his disciple Pharaoh Sanders. He knows exactly when to play it subtle and when to make his sax scream. This is not jazz you put on in the background.” This is attention-demanding and attention-deserving music that will be a totem in the genre for decades to come.
If you liked this, check out: Pharoah Sanders – Karma; Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
Hopefully these albums will warm you up to the genre. Many of these were the first jazz albums I heard, so maybe they’ll have the same effect on you. At the very least, they should rid you of the notion that jazz is for rich white people taking an elevator to a fancy restaurant before a Kenny G concert.