Jazz has evolved into an expansive family of genres since the famous 1920s Jazz Age. Founded as an improvisational genre primarily by Black American artists, it’s since been adopted by a plethora of cultures.
The world of jazz can often be intimidating to newcomers. With such a deep history and vast range of artists and styles, where should you begin? The truth is, jazz seeps through a swathe of our favorite genres and artists today. We’ve listed a mix of modern and classic jazz tracks to ease you into the not-so-frightening ocean of jazz.
Two names synonymous with the jazz world are Coltrane and Ellington. The former is regarded as one of the best saxophonists to ever grace the jazz world, while Ellington is revered for his prolific career as a pianist, bandleader and composer. Naturally, when these two icons joined forces on an album, the result was nothing short of sensational. In A Sentimental Mood is the tranquil opening track that sets the tone for the free-flowing pieces that ensue.
If there’s one name on this list that we guarantee you’ve heard, it’s Ella Fitzgerald, the quintessential jazz singer. She is perhaps more frequently known for Summertime and Dream A Little Dream Of Me, but her powerful vocal line over the delicate backline in Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye is simply wonderful. For that reason, we recommend starting here with Ms. Fitzgerald’s take on Cole Porter’s jazz standard. You won’t regret it.
Bonobo is almost an anomaly on this list. While not perhaps an iconic or innovative musician, his skills in production make him shine. His album Black Sands showcases his attention to detail and clear inspiration from jazz forms and improvisation, weaving in modern production techniques for a contemporary listening experience. Animals is a glowing example of this, and if you ever get the opportunity to see him live, do not turn it down – you may be rewarded with an orchestral performance of his jazziest tracks.
Take Five is a jazz staple. It’s 5/4 time signature may be jarring at first but once you ease into it, it’s addictive. As the slow drum beat and piano chords intensify, you can’t help but enjoy the saxophone riff as it returns in the latter half. This track is the exact type of jazz you’ll hear when riding a horse – as Brubeck says himself. Otherwise, it’s ideal for when you’re drinking a flat white in a quirky café.
Yazmin Lacey is one of the many talented artists pushing the London jazz scene forward. Her mesmerising vocal line laid over the top of a mellow beat on Morning Matters is the perfect introduction to the scene and is the epitome of nu-jazz. Whether you’re listening to this on a bright summer’s day or a cosy winter’s night, you’re sure to enjoy it.
Jazz has reached far beyond the realms of the western world. Japanese trumpeter Hiroshi Suzuki proves that with Romance, a calming piece that exhibits the loose and emotional character of jazz. He may not be the pioneer of jazz in Japan but this particular track is a window into the hypnotic world he inhabits.
Latin Americans embraced jazz in their own way. Tito Puente articulated the movement perfectly when he said: “We play jazz with the Latin touch, that's all, you know.” Although his track Oye Como Va could be closely aligned with cha-cha-chá music, it is nonetheless a joyous example of the playful adoption of jazz in Latin America. It went on to feature in the movie Chef and was adapted by Mexican-American rock band Santana to cement its place as a formidable force of Latin touch.
Herbie Hancock has watched jazz evolve and has continuously been part of its evolution. Having played with the iconic Miles Davis and collaborating with modern-day wiz kid Jacob Collier, the Chicago genius has created plenty of memorable hits. Cantaloupe Island features some impressive improv atop a catchy piano riff that you’ll have some trouble getting out of your head.
If you’re wearing your Nuraphone there’s no doubt you’re feeling the strong bass presence complemented by Erykah Badu’s rich, versatile voice on this track. With its wanderlusting piano, Afro Blue reminds us that neo-soul and hip-hop is built on the foundations laid by jazz. Robert Glasper shows us how meaningful melodies can be taken on journeys and resolved blissfully.
If you don’t live in New York, Billie Holiday’s rendition of Vernon Duke’s jazz standard will make you wish you did. Although Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Ahmad Jamal and Bing Crosby had their way with this serene song, Billie Holiday’s is among the most memorable. There is no way you won’t feel captivated by her magical soft-spoken melodies.
It would be wrong to compile a list of jazz hits and not include anything by Miles Davis. The trumpeter, leader and composer is the face of jazz, and is loved for his ability to draw wondrous amounts of emotion from his brass companion. Any song or album from his extensive collection is worth exploring, but Blue in Green is certainly the one to start with. Happy Jazz Day!
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