My personal musical discovery path led me to cherish studio albums over any other form of recorded music. Inside a recording studio, artists have control over every aspect of their music. They are able to work and rework pieces as many times as they feel necessary in order to convey the image they have in their mind. For a good while I disregarded any album that wasn’t the cohesive result of a musician locking himself up in the studio in sake of a portrayal of his mindset at the time. I disregarded bootlegs, compilations, and especially live albums.
Fast forward a couple of years to my jazz phase and you’ll find me looking for bootlegs of the Miles Davis Quintet in Europe, comparing the performance of a given tune to that played by the same musicians a couple of nights later. Jazz-heads won’t let me lie: There’s no better way to experience jazz than live performance. Sure, the sound quality in some venues isn’t as good as that of a million bucks recording studio, and the possibility of post-production is not on the table. However, the improvisatory nature of jazz makes live performance the quintessential way to experience the genre.
There are plenty of influential studio recordings you must listen to when dipping into jazz. Go ahead, put those records on and let them broaden your musical horizons. But if you really want to get a grasp on the genre, listening to live albums will give you a different kind of insight and enjoyment. They will let you take a look inside the performers’ heads, as they feed off the audience and try their best to convey what’s on their mind in a particular night. No second chances, no studio overdubs, just raw emotion and improvisatory genius. The following are some of the finest live jazz albums available on vinyl, and a sort of guide for you to expand your jazz knowledge and record collection.
Not only did pianist Bill Evans start a revolution within his own instrument in jazz, but his trio work redefined the role of the rhythm section in the genre as well. This 1961 performance at New York’s Village Vanguard backed up by drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro is perhaps the high mark of Evans’s career, and also one of the most influential recordings in jazz history. The three musicians showcase an outstanding level of empathy as they engage in a collective improvisation where one instrument signals a way and the rest quickly follow, uplifting the musical idea and adding their own voice in a democratic conversation. Instruments shift roles throughout every performance, with the bass alternating between solid rhythmic foundation, harmonic backdrop and melodic counterpoint playing. LaFaro constantly challenges Evans, throwing curveballs for him to answer through brilliant use of color and harmony at the piano. Distant chatter and glass rattling transports the listener to the intimate setting of this small jazz club, amplifying the heartfelt sensation of the music.
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane: At Carnegie Hall
The recording of this 1957 performance between two of the greatest architects of jazz sat in a vault for decades until it was discovered and released in 2005. Aside from the pure musical value of this record, the discovery of At Carnegie Hall is of enormous historical significance as it captures a turning point in John Coltrane’s career. Trane faces the challenge of adapting his fast arpeggios to Monk’s rich harmonies and unorthodox phrasing, yielding a fast sweeping playing with complex harmonic implications he would further develop into his famed “Sheets of Sound” technique. The beautiful performances in this record touch on a myriad of sentiments as the quartet shifts between sweet, romantic, melancholic, eerie and cheerful playing. Monk’s trademark use of dissonance and pause is perfectly rounded off by the band as they adapt and fill the gaps with polyrhythmic accents and melodic embellishments. It is hard to overstate the historic significance of this passing of the torch album, but don’t let that distract you from the superb quality these performances hold.
This date recorded during Charles Lloyd’s debut season as a leader features an unbeatable group of sidemen. The saxophone and flute player is supported (or should I say challenged) by a young Keith Jarrett on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Cecil McBee on bass. The result of this clash of titans is a performance where all forces seem to push and pull in different directions. Once a dominant voice rises from the collective argument, the rest of the band follows, allowing then for a new instrument to show the next direction the performance will go in. It is no surprise then, that the music found on Forest Flower is always morphing, effortlessly transitioning between mysterious, cerebral, beautiful, sensual, passionate and intense. The band brings elements of Free jazz, Latin and Middle Eastern music together to create a unique form of post bop that would be of enormous influence in the subsequent years.
Few can beat Sonny Rollins when it comes to improvisation. The tenorist may not be the most daring musician, or the most forward-thinking bandleader, but the way he builds and releases tension during his solos has earned him a place in the jazz pantheon. This 1957 performances at the Village Vanguard were some of the first he ever did as a leader, yet A Night at the Village Vanguard ranks as one of the most important albums both in Rollins’s catalogue and the history of the genre as well. Backed up by bass and drums only, the Saxophone Colossus faces the challenge of filling the harmonic duties normally carried out by the piano. The unusual setting serves the band surprisingly well, giving all three instruments enough space to add color, rhythmic and harmonic complexity. Rollins stretches his melodic lines in all directions, detouring from the standard bop melodies into polytonal territories. This record captures some of the most intense performances ever recorded by Sonny Rollins, and some of his most adventurous too.
It’s hard to think of a better dream team in all of jazz history than the one comprised of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Countless historic combos fall short in comparison when it comes to the impact each one of these musicians had on their own instrument and the genre as a whole. Yet, “The Quintet” played together only once; a gig that has since been dubbed by some “The greatest jazz concert ever.” Having these legendary musicians playing side by side sheds light on the individual character and thinking involved in each one’s playing. Throughout a set filled with bebop standards, Parker sounds virtuosic and cerebral, Dizzy plays meditative and passionate, Powell is precise when comping and inventive when soloing, while Mingus and Roach’s complex polyrhythmic patterns shows they were ahead of the curve when it came to bass and drums playing. Jazz at Massey Hall is a fun and enlightening listen that captures some of the greatest musicians to ever play in the bebop subgenre embodying everything the style is about.
The music of Charles Mingus inhabits a narrow line between seemingly opposite worlds. The bassist and composer’s work is deeply rooted in the African tradition, while simultaneously embracing avant-garde elements and classical aesthetics. The clapping, shouting and collective improvisations throughout Mingus at Antibes show ties to African music, while the arrangements and horn harmonies borrow from European impressionist composers. With the help of his band plus a stellar Bud Powell on “I’ll Remember April”, Mingus somehow manages to package all of this lineage in a coherent and unique experience. The structures dictated by Mingus loosen up and adapt to fit the drive and emotion of the soloist in a particular moment. A particularly inspired Eric Dolphy on alto and bass clarinet navigates between the traditional and the Free jazz worlds, adding to the visceral nature of this album.
Duke Ellington: Ellington at Newport
Unlike most of the artists in this list, Duke Ellington wasn’t at his prime when this album was recorded. Jazz orchestras had been replaced by small combos at the forefront of the genre, but at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival the Duke showed he still had it in him, revamping his career in the process. Ellington’s band gives a lesson on jazz history, nodding to New Orleans jazz, Kansas City swing and even some bebop virtuosity. Swinging rhythms and danceable melodies are played with beautiful and lush arrangements, sometimes in unison, others in counterpoint. Instruments drive the music forward by jumping in and out of the tunes, be it as part of an orchestrated arrangement or in improvisatory nature. A fun and exciting listen, Ellington at Newport holds a special place in jazz history, and it should have one in your collection too.
By 1961 John Coltrane had already established himself as a prominent figure in jazz, both for his work as a leader and as a sideman with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. However his November dates at the famed 7th avenue club that same year showed he wasn’t settling anytime soon, he was moving in all directions at once instead. The whole history of his playing can be found here in a nutshell: thunderous hardbop passages, modal playing, eerie spiritual melodies and atonal overblowing are all in this record. Coltrane picks up some of the beautiful textures added by his band to the otherwise static backdrops and brings them up front with his soloing. The intense playing of Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner propels Trane to new territories as he exhausts the ins and outs of even the briefest musical ideas. Such new territories, later immortalized in landmark albums like A Love Supreme and Ascension, have their origin in this phase of John Coltrane’s career, and we’re lucky to have Live at the Village Vanguard to document this point in Trane’s musical and spiritual path.
Miles Davis: Live at the Plugged Nickel
Rarely do audiences have the opportunity to witness musical breakthroughs in the exact moment they happen, and Miles Davis’s performances at Chicago’s Plugged Nickel are some of the only precious exceptions in music history. According to drummer Tony Williams the band decided to play “anti-jazz” without giving their boss any notice, the result of this sabotage being the complete transformation of old compositions from Miles’s catalogue into intense post bop pieces. The trumpeter can be heard hesitating while the whole band challenges him, eventually catching up and beating them at their own game. The musicians are constantly pushing each other throughout this record, deconstructing tunes like “So what” and turning them inside out with fast and elaborate performances. The resulting music midway between melodic hard bop and free jazz mayhem signaled the way for Miles’s studio recordings during the following years, yet many consider the performances in Live at the Plugged Nickel to hold a higher place in jazz history for their raw and straight forward nature.
I’ll be honest: if this list was written tomorrow it would probably include a different Keith Jarret album. Whether it’s supported by one of his two quartets, in solo settings like the infamous Koln Concert, or with his “Standards Trio” as it is the case here, Jarrett’s live performances are always thrilling, making the choice of one among them a very hard task. “Still Live” finds the pianist working with two musicians with whom he developed a symbiotic and almost telepathic relationship. Piano, bass and drums intermingle to create complex structures where every part is essential to the whole. The music flows seamlessly from one idea to the next, borrowing elements everywhere from blues and Latin to classical and minimal music. The intense and passionate performances in this album are always intriguing and unpredictable, as Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette construct a tight musical knot from which no single thread can be discerned.