One of the most iconic record labels in the history of popular music, New York City’s Atlantic Records, founded in 1947 by Ahmet Ertegun, a Turkish diplomat’s son, and Herb Abramson, a Jewish dental student, is largely synonymous with soul and R&B music. That’s because the label introduced the world to some of the biggest names in that genre – everyone from Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to The Drifters, Ruth Brown, Solomon Burke and Donny Hathaway. But what’s sometimes forgotten is that Atlantic was also an important label in the history of jazz music, especially from 1955 onwards, when Ahmet’s older brother, Nesuhi, was hired to run the company’s jazz department. The label was instrumental in launching the careers of several groundbreaking musicians who would shape the course of jazz in the 60s and 70s, among them Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett – all of whose work features in this countdown of the 20 best Atlantic Records jazz albums.
20: Roberta Flack: ‘First Take’ (1969)
Though she became a big soul music star in the 70s, Flack’s debut album, First Take, leaned towards jazz rather than R&B, and featured the North Carolina singer – who was influenced by Nina Simone – supported by acoustic guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, double bassist Ron Carter and drummer Ray Lucas. Highlights range from plaintive gospel hymnals (I Told Jesus) and funked-up counterculture message songs (a strident reading of Gene McDaniels’ Compared To What) to wistful romantic ballads in the shape of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. The latter is a take on the much-covered Ewan MacColl song, and it helped ignite Flack’s career when her haunting interpretation appeared on the soundtrack to Clint Eastwood’s 1971 movie thriller Play Misty For Me.
Must hear: Compared To What
19: Eddie Harris: ‘The Electrifying Eddie Harris’ (1968)
A forward-thinking Chicago-born soul-jazz saxophonist who pioneered electronic wind instruments, Eddie Harris joined Atlantic in 1965 and spent 11 fruitful years with the company. The undoubted pinnacle of his career was The Electrifying Eddie Harris, which rose to No.2 in the US R&B albums chart mainly due to its high-flying hit single, Listen Here, a catchy number welded to an addictive Latin groove, which dented both the US pop and R&B charts. Elsewhere on this contender among the best Atlantic Records jazz albums, Harris demonstrated his versatility by serving up cinematic ballads (Theme In Search Of A Movie), infectious dance cuts (Sham Time) and exploratory modal jazz numbers (Spanish Bull).
Must hear: Listen Here
18: Chris Connor: ‘Chris Connor’ (1956)
Born Mary Loutsenhizer in Kansas City, Chris Connor began her recording career singing with arranger Claude Thornhill’s progressive jazz ensemble in 1949, before making her name as a solo artist at Bethlehem Records in the mid-50s. Blessed with a warm, husky, mellow-toned voice, Connor’s self-titled Atlantic debut album – the first jazz vocal album released by the label – served up a wide selection of jazz standards that ranged from soft, sensuous ballads (Something To Live For) to big-band excursions (You Make Me Feel So Young) and beaty swingers (Almost Like Being In Love). Saxophonist Zoot Sims and The Modern Jazz Quartet’s pianist, John Lewis, were among the supporting musicians.
Must hear: Almost Like Being In Love
17: Herbie Mann: ‘At The Village Gate’ (1962)
Brooklyn-born Mann (a flautist whose real name was Herbert Solomon) was a pivotal figure in popularising Latin American music in the early 60s, including Afro-Cuban styles and Brazilian bossa nova. He was a prolific recording artist for Atlantic Records and, of the 47 albums he recorded for the label between 1960 and 1985, his live 1961 recording, Herbie Mann At The Village Gate, is arguably most deserving of inclusion among the best Atlantic Records jazz albums. Its standout track is the percussion-powered soul-jazz groove Comin’ Home Baby – an infectious number which singer Mel Tormé would later take into the pop charts – closely followed by a soft, dreamy Latin take on George Gershwin’s immortal ballad Summertime.
Must hear: Comin’ Home Baby
16: Les McCann And Eddie Harris: ‘Swiss Movement’ (1970)
A soul-jazz pianist and singer from Lexington, Kentucky, Les McCann joined forces with the enigmatic saxophonist Eddie Harris at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival, in Switzerland, to produce one of the best Atlantic Records jazz albums of all time. McCann had never played with Harris before, and they’d had little time to rehearse together (the pianist can be heard shouting out the chord changes on the opening cut, Compared To What). But, miraculously, the pair were able to combine their talents in such a way as to create a special kind of magic on stage that could never have been replicated in the studio.
Must hear: Cold Duck Time
15: Keith Jarrett: ‘Life Between The Exit Signs’ (1968)
After impressing in the piano chair of the Charles Lloyd Quartet, Keith Jarrett signed to Atlantic’s Vortex imprint in 1967 for this, his debut album, which put him in the studio with musicians who had played with two of his biggest influences: bassist Charlie Haden, who had performed with the free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, and Paul Motian, the former drummer for the lyrical pianist Bill Evans. Jarrett, then 22, connected deeply with the two older musicians, creating a record that transcended its influences and witnessed the young Pennsylvanian pianist sowing the seeds for a unique approach to jazz and improvisation that would fully blossom in the 70s.
Must hear: Lisbon Stomp
14: Billy Cobham: ‘Spectrum’ (1973)
This virtuosic Panama-born drummer, renowned for his mountainous drum kit, co-founded the jazz-rock behemoth Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971, but left two years later to pursue a solo career that began with Spectrum, his self-produced Atlantic debut. Cobham’s sidemen on the project included another Mahavishnu defector, keyboardist Jan Hammer, together with James Gang member and future Deep Purple guitarist Tommy Bolin, who helped Cobham patent a distinctive brand of funk-infused jazz-rock. The music ranged from the album’s Latin-inflected title track to spacey soundscapes (Stratus, much sampled for its bass-driven groove, and a favourite often covered in concert by Prince) and loose-limbed jazz-funk (Red Baron). Easily one of the best Atlantic Records jazz albums, Spectrum topped Billboard’s jazz albums chart in 1973.
Must hear: Stratus
13: Yusef Lateef: ‘The Blue Yusef Lateef’ (1968)
A pioneer of what became known as “world music”, Yusef Lateef was a trailblazing Tennessee-born multi-instrumentalist whose unique approach to jazz defied accepted definitions of what the genre was supposed to be. One of his most ambitious albums, The Blue Yusef Lateef, is a wildly eclectic affair that marries blues and jazz with African and Eastern music, at times resulting in an otherworldly concoction. The music veers from raw rhythm’n’blues (Othelia) and earnest spirituals (Juba Juba) to earthy funk (Back Home), hard bop (Sun Dog), oriental-influenced mood pieces (Moon Cup) and meditative spiritual jazz (Like It Is). A startling smorgasbord of sound.
Must hear: Like It Is
12: Milt Jackson: ‘Bags & Trane’ (1961)
Nicknamed “Bags” after a drinking binge left him with puffy eyes, Modern Jazz Quartet co-founder Milt Jackson was the pre-eminent vibraphonist of the bebop era. He also enjoyed a glittering solo career, and Bags & Trane, a 1959 collaboration with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, was among the finest records he ever made – a shoo-in for inclusion among the best Atlantic Records jazz albums. Impeccably supported by a sterling rhythm section – pianist Hank Jones, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Connie Kay – Jackson and Coltrane serve up an enjoyable cache of hard bop. Highlights include the Jackson-penned title tune, a laidback swinger powered by Chambers’ walking bass; and the sprightlier Three Little Words, on which the vibraphonist holds his own against one of the world’s best jazz saxophonists, turning in a commendable solo packed with melodic invention.
Must hear: Bags & Trane
11: Erroll Garner: ‘The Greatest Garner’ (1956)
Renowned for his flamboyant approach to the piano, which channelled the keyboard wizardry of the great Art Tatum, Pittsburgh-born Erroll Garner was a self-taught musician who played by ear and couldn’t read music. He was, however, a masterful improviser, and his distinctively ornate style, which juxtaposed florid finger work with swinging rhythms, is in full effect on this superb Atlantic compilation consisting of sides he recorded with a trio between 1949 and 1950. A blend of original tunes and inimitable reconfigurations of some of the best jazz songs of the Great American Songbook, The Greatest Garner collection also features Garner’s spin on two impressionistic classical pieces, Maurice Ravel’s Pavane and Claude Debussy’s Rêverie, which he convincingly reconfigures into lush jazz fantasies.
Must hear: Skylark
10: Freddie Hubbard: ‘Backlash’ (1967)
A virtuoso trumpeter from Indianapolis who boasted an incredible tone and technique, Freddie Hubbard served his musical apprenticeship in the ranks of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the early 60s. After remarkable solo stints at the Blue Note and Impulse! labels, he joined Atlantic in 1966, and recorded music which ranged from hard bop to more experimental avant-garde soundscapes. One of the best Atlantic Records jazz albums of the decade, Backlash captured Hubbard mining a deep soul-jazz groove with a band featuring flautist James Spaulding and the noted Latin percussionist Ray Barretto. The album’s centrepiece is Little Sunflower, a gorgeous self-penned number that quickly became regarded as a jazz standard and which Hubbard re-recorded several times in his career.
Must hear: Little Sunflower
9: Charles Lloyd Quartet: ‘Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd At Monterey’ (1967)
This influential Memphis-born saxophonist and flautist, who is still going strong today as an octogenarian, first made his mark in the second half of the 60s while leading a groundbreaking young quartet that included pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette, two innovative musicians who would both go on to forge stellar solo careers. Recorded during a prolific purple patch for Atlantic that produced eight albums in three years, Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd At Monterey captured Lloyd’s quartet wowing listeners at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival with a set that was progressive yet highly accessible; its highlights include the long rhapsodic title track and the playful Jarrett-written Sorcery, on which Lloyd blows mellifluous flute melodies.
Must hear: Forest Flower: Sunrise
8: Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk: ‘Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk’ (1958)
Two of the best jazz musicians in history came together for what ended up being both stars’ only outing for Atlantic. Uniting the North Carolina-born “High Priest Of Bebop”, Thelonious Monk – renowned for his quirky piano-playing style, with its angular melodies and dissonant harmonies – with the powerhouse Pittsburgh drummer whose group, The Jazz Messengers, was dubbed the “Hard Bop Academy”, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk is powered by Blakey’s propulsive drumming, which adds a turbo-charged dimension to the band’s interpretation of five classic Monk tunes, including the propulsive Evidence, In Walked Bud and Rhythm-A-Ning.
Must hear: Blue Monk
7: The Modern Jazz Quartet: ‘Lonely Woman’ (1962)
Distinguished by Milt Jackson’s cool, glistening vibraphone sound, the tuxedo-attired Modern Jazz Quartet were musical pioneers who created what was dubbed “chamber jazz” in the 50s, a refined sonic amalgam that married the language of bebop with the elegance of classical music. The groundbreaking group produced several fine albums during their many years at Atlantic Records, including their magnum opus, Lonely Woman, whose title track is a haunting interpretation of a 1959 tune by the free-jazz iconoclast Ornette Coleman. Elsewhere, the group showed their near-telepathic musical interplay via a series of upbeat swingers (Animal Dance), shimmering ballads (New York 19) and JS Bach-influenced contrapuntal pieces (Fugato) that ensure Lonely Woman’s high standing among the best Atlantic Records jazz albums.
Must hear: Lonely Woman
6: Roland Kirk: ‘The Inflated Tear’ (1968)
A one-man-horn section whose party trick was blowing three saxophones simultaneously, this blind genius from Columbus, Ohio, was a maverick multi-instrumentalist whose outrageous on-stage showmanship often precluded him from being taken seriously by jazz purists. Roland Kirk (known as Rahsaan Roland Kirk from 1970 onwards) produced many fine albums for Atlantic between 1965 and 1976, but The Inflated Tear, which dented the US jazz Top 20, is arguably his finest. Ranging from reflective ballads (Fingers In The Wind) and playful flute-led swing grooves (A Laugh For Rory) to driving modal jazz (Fly By Night) and haunting slow numbers (the title tune, with its eerie horn harmonies), the album provides a stunning showcase for Kirk’s nonpareil talent.
Must hear: The Inflated Tear
5: Duke Ellington: ‘New Orleans Suite’ (1970)
Though he was deep into his twilight years when he recorded this magnificent one-off album for Atlantic, the 71-year-old Duke Ellington proved that his creative powers were far from spent. Specially commissioned for the New Orleans Jazz Festival, New Orleans Suite is a nine-part work consisting of atmospheric tone poems and vivid musical portraits of celebrated New Orleans musicians, among them Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Mahalia Jackson. The suite proved to be a deeply evocative, richly textured one in which Ellington captured the magic and mystique of the fabled Crescent City via elegantly wrought ensemble passages and passionately inventive horn solos. Significantly, New Orleans Suite included the final recordings of the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, a long-serving Ellington sideman who helped shape the band’s distinctive sound, ensuring that this entry among the best Atlantic Records jazz albums also stands as a musical epitaph to a much-missed talent.
Must hear: Second Line
4: John Coltrane: ‘Olé Coltrane’ (1961)
After opening his Atlantic account with the seismic Giant Steps in February 1969, John Coltrane’s final recording session for the label, Olé Coltrane, showed how much the saxophonist had moved away from bebop into the more expansive realm of modal jazz, which was based on scales rather than chords and allowed him greater melodic freedom. In addition to his usual quartet (pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones), the presence of alto saxophonist/flautist Eric Dolphy and rising trumpet star Freddie Hubbard, plus a second bassist, Art Davis, helped provide a larger canvas on which Coltrane sketched ideas that pushed his music forward. The album’s title track is an epic Spanish-themed piece featuring Trane on soprano saxophone, while Dahomey Dance reflects Coltrane’s interest in Africa. The set closes in an understated style with Tyner’s gentle ballad Aisha.
Must hear: Olé Coltrane
3: Ornette Coleman: ‘The Shape Of Jazz To Come’ (1959)
Armed with a plastic alto saxophone, Texas-born Ornette Coleman was a visionary figure who lit the touchpaper to a musical revolution with this prophetically titled album. His Atlantic debut, The Shape Of Jazz To Come proved to be a landmark record that sent shockwaves through the jazz world by birthing what became known as free jazz, a development which liberated jazz musicians from the perceived tyranny of having to adhere to orthodox melodies, chords and structures. One of the most significant releases among the best Atlantic Records jazz albums, its highlights range from the eerie desolation of Lonely Woman to the spontaneously joyful Congeniality; the absence of a pianist allows Coleman and cornet player Don Cherry to roam freely over a subtly shifting rhythmic backdrop created by bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins.
Must hear: Lonely Woman
2: Charles Mingus: ‘Blues & Roots’ (1960)
Blues & Roots was the Arizona-born bassist/composer’s third album for Atlantic, following in the wake of his startling debut for the label, Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956), and its follow-up, The Clown (1957), which was hailed as a masterpiece. Despite the many plaudits sent his way, Mingus’ music was criticised by some for not swinging enough, which prompted the Arizona-born musician to record Blues & Roots as a riposte. Reflecting Mingus’ early musical influences, the album included driving earthy blues numbers (Moanin’) and jubilant gospel-inflected tunes (Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting). Its rich sound is defined by a six-piece horn section, including two trombones and Pepper Adams’ gruff baritone sax.
Must hear: Moanin’
1: John Coltrane: ‘Giant Steps’ (1960)
Topping our list of the best Atlantic Records jazz albums is this masterpiece from John Coltrane, a tenor saxophonist from Philadelphia who’d risen to fame in the Miles Davis Quintet in the late 50s. Prior to joining Atlantic, Coltrane had enjoyed stints as a leader at Blue Note and Prestige, but with this album, his debut for Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson’s company, he helped modern jazz take a quantum leap forward. The first Coltrane album to contain all self-penned compositions, Giant Steps’ highlights range from the beautiful ballad Naima to the hard-swinging Cousin Mary and the infectious Syeeda’s Song Flute. The album’s cornerstone is the memorable title track, a spiralling vortex of cyclical chord changes over which Coltrane blows a whirlwind of notes. On Giant Steps, his first truly iconic release, the “Sheets Of Sound” saxophonist broke through the sound barrier and would leave behind bebop for a new style called modal jazz.
Must hear: Giant Steps
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