The 100 Jazz Albums That Shook The World

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Top 100s, don’t you just love ’em. Barely a month goes by without magazines, newspapers or TV programmes pushing yet another poll of the 100 greatest whatever. Jazz, of course, rarely gets a look-in. So, we thought that to celebrate the hundredth issue of your favourite magazine we’d take that perilous step to announce what we think are the 100 Jazz Albums That Shook The World. Not just another “greatest jazz albums” list of favourite recordings and biggest sellers but a fully annotated look at the albums that actually changed jazz, changed lives and brought the music kicking and screaming into the new millennium.

Just to give you some idea of how we drew up the criteria for this list: long-playing vinyl records began to appear in the US at the tail end of the 1940s, first in a 10” format, then by the mid-1950s in what became the standard 12” format that still persists today alongside CDs, which first appeared in the mid-1980s. Albums became an increasingly important way for musicians to communicate with the wider world beyond the smoke and limitations of the night club circuit. With an active critical fraternity already analysing the music’s every move, by the time records such as Saxophone Colossus turned up in 1956, the ability of a record to influence the entire direction of the music came centre stage.

By the 1960s and 70s, things had only intensified on this front, with albums by leading players and breakthrough artists becoming major events, not only for the media feasting on them but for the fans, many who had come to the music from a flourishing progressive rock scene that thrived on such things. After jazz and marketing embraced one another in the 1980s and 90s, this became even more pivotal and inter-related. New waves of scorchingly impressive musicians arrived at the gates to deliver their own challenges as the music moved inexorably beyond its American roots to go truly global.

The majority of these 100 albums appeared originally on vinyl and since then have been reissued on CD, often more than once and in differing configurations, with bonus tracks, special packaging or fattened into deluxe box sets. However, one or two still await their CD debut or are currently deleted on CD. This is why, where possible, original vinyl album artwork is reproduced, identifying the original release label and date of recording so that there is a rock-solid starting point in terms of proper provenance. Where there are variations between vinyl and subsequent CD release – extra tracks, differences in compilation and so on – this is identified at the end of a critic’s overview. In the case of artists whose main body of work was recorded prior to the vinyl era and who are represented by compilations, especially boxed sets, such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, this is again identified in the text itself over the following 16 pages.

The 100 jazz albums that shook the world was conceived and compiled by Jon Newey and Keith Shadwick with contributions from Stuart Nicholson, Brian Priestley, Duncan Heining, Kevin Le Gendre, Charles Alexander, and Tom Barlow.
The 100 In Reverse Order:




Polar Bear - Held On The Tips of Fingers - Babel Sebastian Rochford (d), Pete Wareham, Mark Lockheart (ts), Tom Herbert (b), Leafcutter John (programming) plus Jonny Philips (g), Ingrid Laubrock (ts), Joe Bentley (tb), Emma Smith (v) and Hannah Marshall (c). Rec. 2004-2005

Such was the brilliance of Polar Bear’s Held On The Tips Of Fingers, the band’s second release it almost won the 2005 Mercury Music Prize. Not only the most gifted jazz drummer of his generation, bandleader Sebastian Rochford crafted sublimely original chamber music. A stylistic crossroads where folk, avant-jazz, electronica and raw punk co-existed, Rochford’s music was aptly called “the sound of the future” even though it betrayed a love of Ellington, Monk and, yes, Napalm Death. Held On The Tips… twisted in digital trickery to a frontline of heavyweight tenor saxophonists, dazzling with folksy anthems such as ‘Bear Town’ or the drum ’n’ bass drenched ‘Fluffy’. Groundbreaking, it gave young British jazz bands the guts to label themselves like rock bands and to stretch beyond their comfort zones. (TB)

The Bad Plus - These Are The Vistas - Columbia
Ethan Iverson (p), Reid Anderson (b) and Dave King (d). Rec. 2003

Very few jazz groups today set out to mess with your head. You know, get inside there, push the furniture over, chuck things out of the window and generally make a nuisance of themselves. That’s what’s so refreshing about the Bad Plus. They barge in, do things a jazz piano trio isn’t supposed to do, such as play Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ or Kurt Cobain’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ To get inside these songs, and their own well thought-out originals, they may inflict a bit of grievous bodily harm on the musical structures, but at least they give you a musical experience you won’t forget easily. (SN)

Courtney Pine  - Journey To The Urge Within  - Antilles
Courtney Pine (ts, ss, b-cl), Kevin Robinson (t), Ray Carless (bar s), Orphy Robinson (vb), Julian Joseph (p), Roy Carter (ky), Gary Crosby (b), Mark Mondesir (d), Cleveland Watkiss and Susaye Greene (v). Rec. 1986

Journey to the Urge Within heralded the arrival of Courtney Pine at the head of a new generation of British jazz musicians. A pied piper who led British jazz out of the trough of despond after its brilliant flowering in the 1960s, he was compared to the charismatic Wynton Marsalis in the USA as a spokesman for a new breed of technically accomplished young jazzers. Pine’s music was powerful, intense and in the tradition of the great tenor saxophonists such as Coltrane and Rollins. Figuring in the Top 40, an unprecedented achievement for a British jazz album, it went silver, helping to trigger the 1980s jazz boom. (SN)

Tomasz Stanko  - Soul Of Things  - ECM
Tomasz Stanko (t), Marcin Wasilewski (p), Slawomir Kurkiewicz (b) and Michal Miskiewicz (d). Rec. 20I01

It could have been Stanko masterpieces Litania or Leosia that made this list, but Soul of Things, with a trio of young Polish musicians he mentored since their early teens, is his best selling album for ECM and more than any other brought him to the attention of international audiences. It also contributed to the growing awareness outside Europe, particularly in the United States, that important music was coming out of the old world.  An album of precisely focused moods, fragments of melody are crafted into masterful compositions shaped by the timeless elegance of Stanko’s trumpet and the copacetic playing of his young protégés. (SN)

Medeski, Martin and Wood - Combustication  -Blue Note
John Medeski (ky), Chris Wood (b), Billy Martin (d) and DJ Logic. Rec. 1998

Since the group’s formation in 1992, many welcomed Medeski Martin and Wood as a flight from a largely conservative jazz mainstream while others believed they’d flown the coop entirely. In their own way this Hammond B-3 organ trio of the sort that has been around in jazz for at least 50 years pushed at the boundaries of jazz with rollicking grooves and extended keyboard improvisations. This might be edgy music, but it is body music just the same, try ‘Coconut Boogaloo’ or ‘Sugar Craft’ then see if you can stop popping your fingers. As they reveal here, they delight shaking up mainstream values by going back to the chicken shack, 21st century style. (SN)

Wynton Marsalis  - Black Codes From The Underground  - Columbia
Wynton Marsalis (t), Branford Marsalis (ss, ts), Kenny Kirkland (p), Charnett Moffett (b) and Jeff Watts (d). Rec. 1985

Black Codes marks the time in young Wynton’s career when he moved from being a Blakey/Hancock prodigy and started to stake out his own ground. This first batch of musical territory had already been trampled underfoot by various members of the Miles Davis and John Coltrane ascendancy, including both leaders, but Marsalis brings his own considerable musical personality to bear on the situation and plays with great invention throughout. He would shift from this base in future but this sets out his aesthetic stall nicely. (KS)

Cassandra Wilson - Blue Light ’Til Dawn - Blue Note
Cassandra Wilson (v), Charlie Burham (vn), Brandon Ross, Gib Walton, Chris Whitley (g), Kenny Davis, Lonnie Plaxico (b), Kevin Johnson, Lance Carter, Cyro Baptista and Bill McClellan (d, perc) plus others. Rec. 1993

Female jazz vocals had gone through many false dawns between the late 1960s and the arrival of Cassandra Wilson’s blue light in 1993. Jazz and blues roots have often been vocal starting points for revivals of every type, so it’s appropriate that Wilson, with her burnished alto voice, should reach in that direction to find not only a crossover audience but establish a new consensus alongside the Great American Songbook to underpin her artistic credibility. That she has more or less continued on that path suggests it works for her on every level. It also points the way for those who follow. (KS)

Jan Johanssen  - Jazz Pa Svenska  -Megafon
Jan Johansson (p) and Georg Riedel (b). Rec. 1962-64

A key recording that more than any other defined the Nordic Tone in jazz, a Scandinavian kind of blues that places intensity, tone, space and meaning ahead of virtuosic athleticism. Taking ages old Swedish folk melodies from Svenska Låtar and then interpreting them from a jazz perspective, Johansson’s carefully nuanced sound, the gradation of his touch, the exquisite detail of every note revealed by the meticulous recording quality captured a unique approach to jazz that has become widely influential. Players such as Mike Brecker, Tommy Smith, Jan Garbarek, Esbjörn Svensson, Tord Gustavsen all were to come under the spell of the Nordic Tone. (SN)
Heptagon CD reissue.

Sarah Vaughan - Sarah Vaughan - EmArcy
Sarah Vaughan (v), Clifford Brown (t), Herbie Mann (f), Paul Quinichette (ts), Jimmy Jones (p), Joe Benjamin (b) and Roy Haynes (d). Rec. 1954

Vaughan was a by-word for vocal worship among her peers and musical associates by the late 1940s, but little she recorded before this album consistently showed her true worth to jazz. Nestled in a sympathetic small-group setting, Sassy simply blossoms into an overwhelmingly seductive artist whose complete abandonment to her own idea of line and sound gives the listener a level of ecstatic pleasure delivered only by – well, by Sassy, Ella and Billie, truth be told. She may later have equalled this in other settings, but here the gauntlet was well and truly thrown down. (KS)

Music Improvisation Company - Music Improvisation Company - ECM
Jamie Muir (perc), Hugh Davies (elec), Evan Parker (ss), Derek Bailey (el g) and Christine Jeffrey (v).
Rec. Aug 1970

MIC represents the point of separation between free jazz and free improv. From their perspective, a whole series of trajectories are visible – in Evan Parker’s case the use of live electronics and increasing reliance on soprano leading eventually to the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. It marks a shift away from the creation of powerful, huge sonic edifices or of nature-imitating shapes and textures for a journey, with only a little exaggeration, into the DNA of sound itself. Less concerned with the global or cosmic, MIC explored the micro-universe through the concept of non-idiomatic improvisation. Strange, disturbing yet oddly attractive.(DH)
CD available on Japanese ECM only.

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