20 of the best jazz songs

From John Coltrane to Anita O'Day

First, a warning: there is no Michael Bublé on this list. Or Diana Krall. Or anything that sounds remotely like Kenny G. Jazz was never meant to be the tepid Muzak you have to endure in hotel lobbies and at Christmas parties. Since its birth in the US at the dawn of the 20th century, jazz has been a proudly experimental and energetic style more interested in the new and the next — like these 20 tracks.

John Coltrane – ‘Ascension – Edition 1’

As long and winding as John Coltrane’s career, it can be broadly divided into two eras: before ‘Ascension’ and after it. This 1966 album, which comprises a single, continuous 40-minute track, marked the end of ‘Trane’s bop phase and the beginning of his explorations into the avant-garde. 

Eleven musicians, including a young Pharaoh Sanders and Freddie Hubbard, were given free rein on their parts – no pre-arranged notes, melodies or chords. The result: a record so vital and alive you can’t help but imagine that once the final note had evaporated into the stale studio air, the band would’ve sensed that they had just created history.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong – ‘Summertime’

With about a gazillion versions of George Gershwin’s best-known song around, how do you pick just one? Easy: you choose the one that features two of the giants of jazz at the peak of their powers.

John Coltrane – ‘Acknowledgement’

Considered by many to be Coltrane’s masterpiece, ‘A Love Supreme’ (1965) laid the blueprint for the ‘spiritual jazz’ style that has experienced a revival, notably in London, in recent years. The divine album opener, ‘Acknowledgement’, takes the form of a hymn sung in praise of a higher power, with Coltrane at his most poetic and balletic. Such is the religious undertone here that some critics even reckon the saxman wasn’t chanting ‘A love supreme’ but ‘Allah supreme’. 

Bohren und der Club of Gore – ‘Prowler’

Sludge metal meets film noir meets Gotham City — this contemporary ‘doom jazz’ outfit from Germany craft brooding and nocturnal soundtracks that are all about atmosphere over virtuosity. ‘Prowler’, off 2000’s ‘Midnight City’, is their most accessible tune, but switch over to their 2011 album ‘Beileid’ to hear Mike Patton flex his operatic pipes on a cover of Warlock’s ‘Catch My Heart’.

Albert Ayler – ‘Music is the Healing Force of the Universe’

Think of the title track of the saxman’s final album as the inverse of ‘A Love Supreme’. Where Coltrane relied on discipline and mantras, Ayler’s worship was all catharsis – a call for release rather than restraint. 

Art Ensemble of Chicago – ‘Theme de Yoyo’

Originally written for the soundtrack of the forgotten French New Wave film Les Stances a Sophie, ‘Theme de Yoyo’ went on to become a cult classic — and an ear-pleasingly easy introduction into the free-form Afrojazz that Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell and co. would go on to claim as their own. Special mention goes to Fontella Bass, who sounds at the top of her game on this 1970 cut.

Miles Davis – ‘So What’

Miles Davis may have released dozens of albums in as many styles, but ‘Kind of Blue’ (1959) remains his most accessible and fully fleshed-out work. The opener and stand-out track on the LP begins like a hard bop number, all gangly basslines and blustering horns. Until you notice Bill Evans’ piano chords shifting like sand under the bluesy solos, giving the bandleader himself a run for his voodoo.

Sons of Kemet – ‘My Queen is Harriet Tubman’

Nominated for the 2018 Mercury Prize, the torch-bearers of London’s contemporary jazz scene stir an intoxicating brew of free jazz, punk, Afrobeat and dub. Their politically charged third album, ‘Your Queen is a Reptile’, seethes with the defiance once the preserve of angry, guitar-wielding rockers — even their talons are blunt compared to this.

Nina Simone – ‘Just in Time’

The High Priestess of Soul’s unmistakable voice coils out of the speakers like cigarette smoke: wispy and gossamer, but lingering on until well after the notes fade away. Hang on ’til the end to hear the sheer emotional range and depth that no one – not Ella, not Billie – can match.

Sun Ra – ‘Space is the Place’

This 1973 track wasn’t just the anthem of the Afrofuturist movement – it gave birth to it. Equal parts sci-fi lullaby and protest song, ‘Space is the Place’ reimagined African-Americans as sons of Saturn, seeking an escape from earthly discrimination and a return to the mother planet. And on this 20-minute odyssey, Sun Ra charts a course that swerves from bebop to funk to free jazz. Hop on.

Eric Dolphy – ‘Hat and Beard’

Dedicated to Thelonius Monk, ‘Hat and Beard’ appears on Eric Dolphy’s most critically beloved album ‘Out to Lunch!’ (1964), a sprawling and enigmatic work that crystallised the “fuck you”-spirit of the free jazz scene in the 60s.

Ornette Coleman – ‘Lonely Woman’

In 1959, five years before ‘Out to Lunch!’ was released, Ornette Coleman sowed the seeds of the avant-garde with ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’. It was a landmark record in many ways, a proof of concept that demonstrated how meticulous songwriting wasn’t the only road that led to beauty. Jazz could be – it must be – utterly wild and spontaneous.

Charles Mingus – ‘Better Git it in Your Soul’

Of the many tall tales told about the volatile bassist, the one of him clocking a bandmate so hard that the poor trombonist had difficulty playing his instrument has to be the most horrific. Mingus was uncompromising to the point of cruelty. And it surely didn’t help his band that his compositions, like this one, were as mercurial as his temper.

Dizzy Gillespie – ‘Night in Tunisia’

Written in the early 1940s, ‘Night in Tunisia’ ended up being not only Dizzy Gillespie’s most iconic tune but a bonafide jazz standard. Everyone from Stan Getz to Miles to Charlie Parker put their own spin on this playful, exotic tune that, at the time, defined this flashy new wave of jazz called bebop.

Arve Henriksen – ‘Saraswati’

Over in Scandinavia, the Norwegian label Rune Grammofon has found a niche between ECM’s austerity and Jon Hassell’s Fourth World template. And trumpeter Arve Henriksen, who also plays for the excellent Supersilent collective, is the label’s most prolific member. This track from ‘Places of Worship’ (2013) is emblematic of Henriksen’s approach to jazz, where washes of electronic textures form the canvas for his reedy, shakuhachi-imitating horn.

Miles Davis – ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’

Miles releasing ‘Bitches Brew’ was like Dylan going electric: loathed at first, then accepted by the community and finally embraced as one of the biggest milestones in all of music history. The album, on which this track appears, gleefully threw out most of jazz’s vocabulary, replacing it with the sleaze and bombast of rock and funk.

Duke Ellington – ‘In a Sentimental Mood’

Although Duke Ellington composed this classic in 1935, it’s the 1963 recording with Coltrane that’s considered the definitive version – and the most romantic jazz standard ever put to wax, period.

The Cinematic Orchestra – ‘Flite’

That snappy, syncopated drumbeat — it’s played live on an actual kit, by the way — is the only reason you need to listen to this 2002 track by nu-jazz pioneers The Cinematic Orchestra. Bandleader Jason Swinscoe may have adopted a poppier, more brooding sound on the group’s last few albums, but we’ll never forget this Squarepusher-inspired cut.

Billie Holiday – ‘Strange Fruit’

A psalm for victims of racism in Jim Crow-era America. A protest against the violence and horror that hung over black Americans like a shadow. ‘Strange Fruit’ does what the best art does: hold a mirror up to society to reveal the ugliest truths. Lady Day may not have written the words to this grotesque poem, but the lilting, haunting way her voice caresses the verses has made the song her own.

Sarah Vaughan – ‘Misty’

“I can’t sing a blues… but I can put the blues in whatever I sing,” Sarah Vaughan once said in an interview. Which is exactly what she does to this tune popularised by Johnny Mathis: turn it inside-out and lay bare her emotions for the world to hear.

Words by Iliyas Ong