If you’re just not into jazz, I can relate. There’s a ton of it out there—but for me, mostly boring. I don’t like easy-jazz-waiting-room music. I don’t like technically flashy bebop. Most jazz-rock fusion sounds like the worst of both worlds. And abstract experimental jazz makes my brain tired.

But over the years, I’ve stumbled across a handful of vintage jazz albums that changed my mind. 

What makes these different? Mainly, how they make me feel. These instrumental cuts are soulful and moving in a different way than the sub-genres above. And, like freestyle rap, they’re charged with spontaneous, unrehearsed improvisation—something missing from most music today.

Jazz, like rock, includes hundreds of hidden sub-genres, each one totally unique. My recommendations here live in the charmed pocket universe of 1954 to 1963, the midnight before the sixties swept in with the British Invasion, psychedelics, civil rights, and other huge cultural shifts. Like lotus flowers emerging from the muck, the artists below created unforgettable music in the button-down clubs and harsh inequalities of their time.

Five Burnin’ Facts About These Albums. Dig It:

  • All feature well-known artists getting out of their boxes. Many were technically phenomenal “hard-bop” legends who show their vulnerable side here. Yes, they do that on other albums, but these spotlight that heartful zone.
  • These sessions were captured in real time—no overdubs. They’re essentially “live” club performances done in a recording studio (and mostly on the first take). You can hear the players merging into “hive mind” and channeling the improv muse in their solo runs. Studio tracks of any genre are rarely cut this way today.
  • Pristine sound quality achieved over 60 years ago by audio engineering legend Rudy van Gelder. This former optometrist figured out how to use the era’s new reel-to-reel tape decks and tube microphones (grabbed up by American GI’s in Nazi Germany) to convey musical presence, clarity, and emotional punch that exceeds many modern-day digital tracks. One exception: Van Gelder’s golden ears were mysteriously tone-deaf when it came to getting the sound of a piano right. Everything else sounds glorious, so cut him some slack.
  • The pre-1959 albums below were recorded in Rudy’s parents’ living room in the New Jersey suburbs. If you’re an aspiring “bedroom studio” producer—inspiration!
  • They’re all on the Prestige label or its sub-label Moodsville. Blue Note has rightfully earned its place in jazz history, but for some reason Prestige’s founder Bob Weinsock produced so many of the records I love the most.

On to the music:

Bag’s Groove by Milt Jackson (1957) and Miles Davis & the Modern Jazz Giants (1959)

These two releases capture a legendary 1954 gathering of jazz greats who rarely worked together. If you think you know Miles, take a pause: Davis went through many stages—from bebop to modal to jazz-rock fusion—so if you’ve only heard bits of his music, know that he changed styles more often than Radiohead or the Beatles. For me, this mid-50s “First Quintet” period gave us Miles Davis’ most lyrical, heart-wrenching slow ballads and mid-tempo swingers.

But the real wizard here is vibraphonist Milt “Bags” Jackson. For years, I listened to this record half-heartedly until one night, Bags’ vibes just lifted me into low-earth orbit.

If you like this accessible, melody-centric style of Miles, also check out the four legendary albums he cut in two marathon 1956 studio dates: Cookin’, Relaxin’ (my fave), Workin’, and Steamin’. They’re a mix of heartful ballads, walking-tempo strollers, and high-speed meteorites. Why was Miles in such a rush? He was jonesing to end his contract with indie label Prestige and hit the big-time with Columbia.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5x8mW0aUJI

The Soulful Moods of Gene Ammons (1963) and Nice an’ Cool (1963) by Gene “Jug” Ammons

This master of the tenor sax slow burner ballad never got much cred in the hipster jazz magazines of his day, to everyone’s loss. He lived and performed in Chicago, an outsider to NYC—the epicenter of jazz at the time—and would journey to the Big Apple to record.

Here, Jug takes a break from his hard-driving bebop and bouncy calypsos to create a landscape of yearning, love, and hope. Ammons’ style later evolved into the “soul jazz” sound, an O.G. precursor to 1970s funk and R&B. 

If you like these two lost gems, check out Boss Tenor (1960). Gene Ammons records can be hard to find (yep, he was woefully unacknowledged) but well worth the effort.

Rollins Plays for Bird (1957) by Sonny Rollins

The tenor sax legend started his career in the late 40s as one of many Charlie Parker-inspired players. He’s universally praised as one of the most innovative voices in jazz, and across the decades evolved his own singular bouquet of styles.

Many of Rollins’ albums—especially his technically stunning trio recordings—make for edgy and demanding listening. But here he shifts gears. The title track just shines. It’s an epic walking tempo medley of Charlie Parker standards, flowing with a weightless grace from tune to tune. Kenny Dorham on trumpet and Max Roach on skins elevate this sparkling homage to Bird. 

If you like what you hear, also try Movin’ Out (1956) and Sonny’s much-acclaimed LPs Saxophone Colossus (1956) and Tenor Madness (1956).

Tip: Give ‘Em a Few Good Spins…

Like those pair of jeans that your friend convinced you to buy—the ones you eventually fell in love with—sometimes new music takes some time to win you over.

I hope these picks point to something that lifts you up. 

Have you personally stumbled onto a jazz record that’s changed your mind about the genre? Do share them with us in the comments!

NOTE: Yes, these songs are on Youtube, but we implore you not to capitulate to the subquality of such streaming platforms. To hear this music in all its glory, treat yourself to the audio quality and mastery of a bona fide CD or LP in the links. You’ll also help this website, which is 100% supported by those link purchases.

Happy listening!

1 COMMENT

Comments are closed.