To celebrate International Jazz Day, we’ve selected 8 of our favourite audiophile jazz recordings we guarantee sound great on a good pair of speakers or headphones.
Jazz has changed considerably since its inception at the beginning of the 20th century. The world witnessed the rise of the genre from places like New Orleans, Chicago and New York, spearheaded by legendary artists like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and many more.
It’s now enjoying a creative renaissance in the mainstream, as innovative fusions with hip hop, rap and electronic music are showing the world that jazz is currently alive more than ever – and that it still sounds great too. So here’s our specially curated list of some of our favourite audiophile jazz recordings spanning over six epic decades.
1. Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Max Roach – Money Jungle
Captured in just one day in 1962, this legendary jam session unites three undisputed titans of the jazz world, resulting in an album that would go on to influence hundreds of records in its wake. Ellington, Mingus and Roach play with an infectious enthusiasm and weight that texturally transcends their simple arrangement of piano, bass and guitar. But the session wasn’t without its own problems. Mingus left halfway through because of Roach’s apparently irritable drumming style, which explains the tense musical individualism heard throughout the ensemble passages. Who says arguments can’t lead to good things?
Standout track: Money Jungle
2. Alfa Mist – Antiphon
We reviewed this album last year because we thought it sounded so good. Full of deep grooves, the entire record was completed at Pink Bird Studios in London. Recorded on a vintage Cadac A series analogue console, its organic warmth permeates into the album, giving each track a sense of richness and depth. Mist’s keyboard credentials are expressively underpinned by meaty bass, crisp drums and flourishes of trumpet, saxophone, strings and electric guitars. A seriously impressive and honest album.
Standout track: Keep On
3. Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue
A list of audiophile jazz recordings without Miles Davis? Impossible. A beautifully balanced recording packed with improvisation, the call and response passages between Davis, Coltrane and Adderley in the opener sonically shine by themselves, but throughout the rest of the album the trio’s blend is second to none. There is a stunning richness to the sound of Kind Of Blue, which was recorded on three-track tape in 1959. Today, it sounds just as good – a testament to the legacy of arguably one of the most important releases of the 20th century.
Standout track: All Blues
4. Arne Domnerus – Jazz At The Pawnshop
A glass chinks as Arne Domnerus’ unhurried saxophone solo slowly vanishes into thin air. You wouldn’t expect a highly-esteemed audiophile jazz recording like this to be blemished with non-musical sounds, but that’s the beauty of it. With its intimate atmosphere heard from a club in Stockholm, this recording captures the very soul of the genre: raw, nuanced and innovative. Journeying through jazz standards spanning a variety of decades, Domnerus’s 5-piece band embody the excitement and spirit of a genre born nearly 100 years ago from similar performances like these. Nothing changes really.
Standout track: Take Five
5. Wes Montgomery – Smokin’ At The Half Note
Another live album, this time from New York in 1965, but nonetheless great-sounding. Guitarist Wes Montgomery mesmerises in this performance with the Wynton Kelly Trio – Miles Davis’ rhythm section from 1959 to 1963. The mix is detailed, with the instruments of the band given plenty of breathing space. Montgomery’s playing is scintillating in his solos, but also blends beautifully into the rest of the ensemble for the quiet and rhythmic passages. Jimmy Cob’s drum performance deserves a mention too. His characterful playing is wonderfully captured, driving the music forward with palpable purpose, especially during ‘Four On Six’.
Standout track: Four On Six
6. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong – Ella and Louis
A collection of eleven mid-tempo to slow ballads, this album from tuneful twosome Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong is a must-listen jazz record for all audiophiles. With the Oscar Peterson Quartet providing a relaxed musical backdrop throughout, the pair trade vocal pleasantries with sugar-sweet intonation and captivating emotion. The vocals are noticeably higher in the mix than the rest of the accompaniment, which allows the nuances of each voice to be heard with stunning clarity for the most enjoyable listening experience.
Standout track: April In Paris
7. Portico Quartet – Portico Quartet
A key part of the flourishing contemporary UK jazz scene, Portico Quartet offer a fresh blend of electronic, acoustic and ambient undertones to the genre. Aside from the hang (an instrument worth looking up), it’s a normal ensemble comprising of drums, double bass, electronics and saxophone, with the latter acting as a visceral tour guide through the record’s futuristic sound worlds. At its most experimental, the listener will be immersed in the constantly evolving electro-acoustic textures from both live and programmed instruments. It’s this kind of innovation that jazz needs in order to stay relevant for years to come.
Standout track: Rubidium
8. Michael Wollny – Wartburg (Live)
Intricate, dark and progressive, you wouldn’t believe that the engineer only had 1 hour to set up their microphones and soundcheck before the concert. We’re not complaining though, as the results are stunning. Just like Money Jungle, the trio combine to create a sound that goes beyond the confines of the instruments used. At times it’s symphonic, with Wollny’s luscious piano playing complementing his dense compositions. Elsewhere the sound is angular and spiky – as heard in ‘Synonym’ – as the players squeeze every last timbre out of their instruments. Recorded in 2018, this release is a late addition to our favourite audiophile jazz recordings, but a rewarding listen all the same.
Standout track: Synonym
Share your favourite audiophile jazz recordings in the comments section below.