Here are some essential cuts and a few curve balls.  Anyone with ears can appreciate jazz, you just have to start at a place that makes sense for you.  Try some of these on for size. [click the song title to listen to recording]

john coletrane

John Coltrane: My Favorite Things

It’s long, meditative, melodic, modal and simply perfect.  Coltrane takes a classic melody and turns it around into an expansive jazz tour de force.  If that weren’t enough, McCoy Tyner’s piano part gives it that extra mystical quality. I probably have listened to this over 200 times.  I could listen to it again right now.  I think I will.


Louis Armstrong: Stardust  and Stardust (“oh memory” version)

Even today, decades later, what Armstrong does with his voice and his horn on this standard is downright revolutionary and listenable.  There are two takes of this, and both are gems.  Good enough for Woody Allen to name a movie after.


Gil Evans: Where Flamingos Fly

A great arrangement meets a flawless performance.  I wish more jazz arrangers had his gift.  Soaring and subtle at the same time, this one might appeal to those who like orchestral music.


Billie Holiday: God Bless The Child

It’s really impossible to settle on just one song by Billie Holiday, as she recorded at least 20 of the best jazz vocal takes in the history of music. She wasn’t the most technical of singers.  That’s fine, she proves why technical ability stops most singers from achieving timelessness.  This is one I go back to a lot.  When I can’t think of what to play on Improvisations, this always fits no matter what came before or after it on the playlist.  Her voice became fairly rough later in her life.  To which I say, so what?


Miles DavisSo What

The entire Kind of Blue recording is a must-own release.  I’m not sure of my favorite cut on that classic, but this particular song is simply sublime.


Brad Mehldau: When It Rains

Mehldau shows that you can take all the good things we have learned in the modern age and combine it with true jazz style.  His melodic gifts are many, and his feel is spot on.  And the dude can WRITE.


Charles Mingus: Goodbye Porkpie Hat

A beautiful and achingly sad melody played with such a deep feel that you cannot help but be pulled in from the first mournful notes.  He didn’t let his musicians read off charts so they could play more by feel.  It worked.

black thought

Robert Glasper: Smells Like Teen Spirit   

A young jazz lion embraces and totally reshapes Nirvana.  I don’t know if it’s jazz, per se, but I do know it’s brilliant.


Ella FitzgeraldMiss Otis Regrets

I know her earlier stuff is probably where to find the true magic.  However, every single time I play this song on Improvisations, somebody e-mails raving about it.  ‘Nuff said.


Scott McLemore: Sitting Citizen Zen

You can’t have a respectable list of jazz music without something as wonderful as it is obscure.  Here you go.   Speaking of obscure, I would add as a bonus anything by the Boswell Sisters.


Fats Waller– Everything he recorded

A personal favorite.  The sheer joy in his performance and his hard swinging style keeps me coming back for more…and coming back often.  No matter what kind of mood I am in, Fats Waller music improves it.

For More Beginner Music Guides please see:

Jon Worley’s Top 8 Folk Music Picks

Christopher Scum’s Guide to Punk Rock

© Todd Steed, 2013.








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