The 50 Greatest Blue Note Albums
Blue Note is unquestionably the most iconic jazz label there’s ever been. Here are 50 highlights from the legendary imprint.
Blue Note is unquestionably the most iconic jazz label there’s ever been. But when Alfred Lion started the label in 1939 with a recording of boogie-woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, his intention was simple: To release music that he felt was important. It is a mission that he never wavered from, nor have the Blue Note albums that have followed in his illustrious footsteps. This list of 50 albums is a mere fraction of the LPs that Blue Note has put over the years. Let us know in the comments, below, which ones you think we may have missed.
50. Don Cherry – Complete Communion
Oklahoma-born trumpeter Cherry was 29 when he recorded this groundbreaking album, the first of three long-players for Blue Note. Having appeared in the late 50s and early 60s on significant envelope-pushing LPs by jazz iconoclasts Ornette Coltrane, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, Cherry presented his unique personal musical manifesto on Complete Communion, his debut as a leader. Featuring Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri, bassist Henry Grimes, and drummer Ed Blackwell, the album consists of two extended suites. Cherry and his cohorts improvise – both as individuals and collectively – on several different musical themes that flow into one another in a free and organic way. The musical alchemy they summon is spellbinding.
49. Duke Pearson – Wahoo
Atlanta-born Pearson – a talented multi-instrumentalist who was also a gifted composer, arranger, and producer – recorded a dozen albums for Blue Note between 1958 and 1970 but Wahoo! is generally considered the pinnacle of his work for the label. Leading from the piano, Pearson is accompanied by a stellar three-horn frontline – Donald Byrd, Joe Henderson, and James Spaulding – with bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Mickey Roker proving a formidable rhythm section. The opening cut, “Amanda,” a free-flowing Latin-tinged groove with exquisite horn lines, is one of Pearson’s most enduring compositions. Other highlights include the eastern-flavored “Bedouin,” the delicate “Farewell Machelle” with its glistening piano, and the blues-infused “ESP (Extra Sensory Perception).”
48. Sidney Bechet – Jazz Classics Vol.1 & 2
One of jazz’s first significant saxophone soloists, New Orleans-born Bechet was 42 when he recorded for Blue Note in 1939, the label’s inaugural year. His 78-rpm single, “Summertime” – a beautifully rhapsodic soprano sax-led version of the Gershwin brothers’ tune – brought Blue Note notoriety and helped to establish the company on the jazz map. It and Bechet’s other singles for the label were collected together on two 10″ LPs titled Jazz Classics, which captured the authentic spirit of old-time Dixieland jazz. The album’s highlights include the stomping “Muskrat Ramble” and a lively rendition of W. C. Handy’s antique classic “St. Louis Blues.”
47. Donald Byrd – Black Byrd
One of hard bop’s principal trumpet stars in the late 1950s, Detroit-born Byrd – who led a parallel academic career as a music professor – radically changed musical direction in the late 1960s. Following Miles Davis’ lead on Bitches Brew in 1970, Byrd plugged his music into the mains socket. After a couple of experimental electric albums, he teamed up with producer Larry Mizell and came up with Black Byrd, a smooth, accessible fusion of jazz, soul, pop, rock, and funk flavors. Though jazz purists hated it and claimed Byrd had sold out, the album became Blue Note’s top-selling album of the 70s – it sold a million copies – and took the trumpeter’s music to a new, and much younger, audience. The hip-hop generation has sampled many of its tracks.
46. Horace Silver – Cape Verdean Blues
One of hard bop’s chief architects, Connecticut-born pianist-composer Horace Silver was also a co-founder member of The Jazz Messengers and helped to establish the two-horn frontline (trumpet and saxophone) as the norm in small-group jazz. Silver’s family originated in Cape Verde, a Portuguese-speaking island off north-west Africa, and this, his 13th Blue Note album, paid homage to his ancestral roots. The pianist fronts a quintet featuring rising Philadelphia trumpet star Woody Shaw, and tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, who are augmented on three tracks by trombonist J.J. Johnson. The music ranges from vibrant uptempo material (the title track and pulsating “Nutville”) to mellow mid-tempo grooves (“Pretty Eyes”). But undoubtedly, the album’s most arresting cut is “The African Queen,” a loping atmospheric piece characterized by an infectious descending horn melody, a mind-blowing Joe Henderson solo and Roger Humphries’ turbulent drum fills.
45. Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio
Texas-born Glasper, a rising post-bop piano star influenced by Herbie Hancock, had been with Blue Note seven years when he released the game-changing, genre-blurring Black Radio. Melding jazz with hip-hop, funk, and R&B, Glasper utilized an array of guest contributors to bring his audacious sonic vision to life, including Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway, Ledisi, and Meshell Ndegeocello. The album not only won a Grammy award (for Best R&B Album) but also transformed Glasper into a bonafide jazz crossover star.
44. Freddie Hubbard – Hub Tones
Indianapolis-bred Hubbard set the New York jazz scene on fire with his virtuosic trumpet playing when he moved there aged 20 in 1958. Recorded four years later, Hub-Tones was Hubbard’s fifth Blue Note album. It found him in the company of a quintet that included pianist Herbie Hancock – who was still riding high from the success of his debut platter, Takin’ Off – and saxophonist/flutist, James Spaulding. Though only 24 at the time, Hubbard plays with an astonishing maturity, shining on four original hard bop-style pieces that include the beautiful ballad, “Lament For Booker,” a homage to fellow trumpeter Booker Little, who had died the previous year.
43. Bobby Hutcherson – Dialogue
In a long and fertile first stint with Blue Note that spanned the years 1963-1977, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson recorded 22 albums in a range of different styles. His debut release for Alfred Lion’s label was this adventurous post-bop outing featuring a sextet comprising trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, multi-reed player Sam Rivers, pianist Andrew Hill, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Joe Chambers. Hill and Chambers share the composer credits on the set’s five tunes, which range from intoxicating Latin grooves (“Catta”) to pastel-hued reveries (“Idle While”) and jagged, Thelonious Monk-style blues (“Ghetto Lights”).
42. Cassandra Wilson – Blue Light ’Til Dawn
A smoky-voiced chanteuse from Jackson, Mississippi, Wilson already had eight albums under her belt when she cut this striking debut for Blue Note. Thanks to Craig Street’s sympathetic, uncluttered and ultra-organic production values, Wilson’s voice shines luminously on an eclectic selection of material drawn from the blues, rock, jazz, folk, and R&B repertoires. She puts her indelible stamp on songs as diverse as Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail,” Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow” and Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” recasting them all in her own unique image.
41. Kenny Dorham – Round Midnight at the Café Bohemia
A bebop trumpeter from Texas, Dorham played with Charlie Parker and an early incarnation of The Jazz Messengers before establishing a notable solo career. Considered one of the best live jazz albums ever, Round Midnight at the Café Bohemia was recorded in 1956 in a small New York nightclub. Dorham is backed by a sextet that includes guitarist Kenny Burrell and pianist Bobby Timmons, who were both leading lights of the hard bop movement. The album’s highlights include a percussion-driven rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s exotic bebop staple, “A Night In Tunisia,” and the Latin-inflected “Mexico City,” an uptempo barnstormer where Dorham, Burrell, and Timmons impress with their dazzling virtuosity.
40. Stanley Turrentine and The Three Sounds – Blue Hour
With his smoky tenor saxophone tone, a compelling distillation of blues and gospel elements, Stanley Turrentine rose to become a leading figure of the soul-jazz movement in the early 1960s. On this, his sultry debut for Blue Note, he teamed up with Michigan trio The Three Sounds, led by virtuoso pianist Gene Harris. The mellow nocturnal ambience of Blue Hour is suffused with a languorous, after-hours glow, and its five tracks are defined by the dazzling interplay between Turrentine and Harris.
39. Grant Green – Green Street
St. Louis-born Green approached his guitar as if he was a horn player, eschewing chords for lucid, single-note melodic lines. His “less is more” aesthetic is highlighted on this absorbing trio session with bassist Ben Tucker and drummer Dave Bailey, where Green serves up a blend of soulful original songs and sublimely-rendered standards. His version of Thelonious Monk’s classic ballad “Round About Midnight” exhibits a lean eloquence while the swinging title song and “Grant’s Dimensions” reveals Green’s penchant for the blues.
38. Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau & Charlie Haden – Alone Together
This gem dates from Blue Note’s more recent history. Veterans Konitz (alto sax) and Haden (bass), who both enjoyed storied careers, teamed up with then rising piano star, Mehldau, at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles to create a fresh and inventive approach to some well-worn jazz standards. The material includes classic songs by Cole Porter, Ray Noble, Jerome Kern, and Oscar Hammerstein, which are brilliantly reworked. As well as proving the durability of classic tunes from the Great American Songbook, Alone Together showed how generational differences were no barrier to meaningful musical interaction.
37. Anthony Williams – Lifetime
A precociously-talented drum prodigy, Chicago-born Williams was just 17 when he joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1963. He recorded Lifetime, his debut offering, a year later in the company of Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter from the Davis band alongside saxophonist Sam Rivers and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. The music is fiercely original, defined by open-ended pieces that are laden with surprises as they navigate their way through distinctly avant-garde territory.
36. Wayne Shorter – JuJu
New Jersey-born Shorter rose to fame as a composer and tenor saxophonist for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers between 1959 and 1963 before joining Miles Davis’s band. It was while he was with Davis that he began recording as a leader for Blue Note. JuJu was his second LP for Alfred Lion’s label and featured him in a quartet setting alongside pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones from John Coltrane’s quartet. JuJu proves to be an inspired musical collaboration that allows Shorter to shine as both a player and composer. His saxophone lines are taut and muscular – except on the tender ballad, “House Of Jade” – while his compositions, often defined by snaking melodies and elliptical structures, brim with a bold invention.
35. Tina Brooks – True Blue
Tenor saxophonist Harold “Tina” Brooks recorded five albums in all for Blue Note but only one, True Blue, was released during his lifetime. Originally from Fayetteville, North Carolina, Brooks was an exponent of hard bop and played as a sideman for Kenny Burrell and Freddie Hubbard on Blue Note studio dates before Alfred Lion recorded him as a leader. Hubbard appears on True Blue, together with pianist Duke Jordan, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor, who offer sterling support throughout the six-track album. Apart from the closing standard “Nothing Ever Changes My Love For You,” Brooks serves up five original and consistently strong compositions, ranging from the finger-snapping “Good Old Soul” to the more urgent “Miss Hazel.”
34. Herbie Hancock – Empyrean Isles
This, Chicago pianist Hancock’s fourth offering for Blue Note, contained the funky jukebox hit, “Cantaloupe Island” – a close cousin of his 1962 soul-jazz smash “Watermelon Man” – but in the main was notable for being a progressive, post-bebop album characterized by envelope-pushing compositions built on advanced harmonic and melodic conceptions. The most outré track is “The Egg,” which with its mesmeric ostinato piano part, anticipates hip-hop’s looped samples and structures.
33. Sonny Rollins – A Night At The Village Vanguard
This iconic album was Sonny Rollins’ fourth and final LP for Blue Note, capturing him on stage in one of New York’s most prestigious jazz venues in the company of bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones. The tenor titan plays with an authoritative vigor, providing a masterclass of how to improvise without resorting to repetition and clichés. The absence of a pianist allows Rollins to play in a free and unfettered way.
32. The Jazz Messengers – At the Café Bohemia Vols I & 2
Often referred to as drummer Art Blakey’s “Hard Bop Academy,” the long-running Jazz Messengers was a breeding ground for talented young musicians that spanned several generations, ranging from Lee Morgan to Wynton Marsalis. One of the earliest incarnations of the group – with pianist Horace Silver, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and saxophonist Hank Mobley – can be heard on this double-volume live set recorded in a famous Greenwich Village jazz club. Leading from behind his drum set, the irrepressible Blakey puts his young charges through their paces on a selection of fast and slow material.
31. Donald Byrd – A New Perspective
This album is arguably Motor City trumpeter Donald Byrd’s greatest: an inspired coalescence of hard bop and African American sacred music. Herbie Hancock and Hank Mobley feature in a seven-piece band which is augmented by a choir and used by Byrd as a compositional tool to infuse modern jazz with the spirituality of gospel music. There’s a fervent church feel to tracks such as “Elijah” and “Chant” with their call and response cadences. But the album’s centerpiece is “Cristo Redentor,” a haunting ballad arranged by its composer, Duke Pearson.
30. Jackie McLean – Let Freedom Ring
An alto saxophonist with a distinctly dry, bittersweet tone, McLean joined Blue Note in 1959 and spent eight years with the label. He started as a hard bop disciple, but as Let Freedom Ring clearly shows, he was a progressive musician who wanted to push the jazz envelope and probe the music’s boundaries. In the company of pianist Walter Davis, bassist Herbie Lewis and drummer Billy Higgins, McLean reveals his credentials as a forward-thinking modernist with three memorable original tunes and a Bud Powell cover. The music still swings but the squealing, eerie high notes that emanate from McLean’s horn from time to time show Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman’s influence.
29. Larry Young – Unity
Hailed as the organ-playing equivalent to John Coltrane, Newark’s Larry Young offered a different approach to the Hammond B3 from the likes of blues-based label mates, Jimmy Smith and Big John Patton. Recorded in 1965, Unity is a masterpiece that represents the apotheosis of Young’s modal jazz aesthetic. Assisting in bringing his musical vision to life were saxophonist Joe Henderson, trumpeter Woody Shaw – who contributes three tunes, including the Coltrane-inspired “The Moontrane” – and powerhouse drummer Elvin Jones.
28. Freddie Hubbard – Open Sesame
Though in the early 60s Hubbard recorded free jazz with Ornette Coleman and undertook journeys into modalism with John Coltrane, his own recordings from that time, like his Blue Note debut, Open Sesame, offer an example of unadulterated hard bop. With saxophonist Tina Brooks and pianist McCoy Tyner in attendance, Hubbard demonstrated that while his virtuosity on fast songs was second to none, his ballad playing was also exceptional, revealing that he possessed sensitivity as well as a flawless technique.
27. Jimmy Smith – Back at the Chicken Shack
Though Fats Waller and Wild Bill Davis played the electric organ in a jazz context first, it was Jimmy Smith who made people sit up and take the instrument seriously when he took the modern jazz scene by storm in the late 1950s. Smith had already defected to Verve Records when Blue Note released Back At The Chicken Shack, recorded three years earlier in 1960. Featuring Stanley Turrentine’s husky saxophone, the album highlights Smith’s phenomenal technique as well as his ability to create long, blues-soaked mesmerizing grooves.
26. Miles Davis – Vol.1 & 2
Though Miles Davis mainly recorded for Prestige in the first half of the 1950s, he cut three sessions – with different sets of musicians – for Blue Note between 1952 and 1954. It resulted in two albums that are regarded as a blueprint for the hard bop sound, infusing jazz with blues and gospel elements. Whether he’s playing fast and furiously on uptempo material, like “Tempus Fugit,” or waxing lyrical on the wistful ballad, “It Never Entered My Mind,” Miles’ playing is never less than sublime.
25. Dexter Gordon – Our Man in Paris
After drug problems slowed his career in the 1950s, a rejuvenated Gordon enjoyed a new lease on life at Blue Note in the first half of the 1960s. As its title intimates, Our Man In Paris was recorded in France’s capital city. Gordon is joined by fellow Americans, pianist Bud Powell and drummer Kenny Clarke, with French bassist Pierre Michelot. They run through five jazz standards, including Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From The Apple” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia.” Gordon’s tenor saxophone, big and majestic but also incredibly supple, is commanding throughout.
24. Joe Henderson – Page One
Renowned for his gruff but soulful tenor saxophone tone, Ohio-born Henderson was 26 when he recorded his debut LP, Page One, which opens with the classic track, “Blue Bossa,” written by trumpeter Kenny Dorham, who also plays on the album. From the sensuous rhythms of the Brazilian bossa nova style, the album moves on to encompass driving hard bop (“Homestretch”), reflective ballads (“La Mesha”), cool modal jazz (“Recorda Me”) and slow, after-hours blues (“Out Of The Night”). A stunning debut.
23. Lee Morgan – Search For a New Land
Signing to Blue Note as a teenage trumpet prodigy in 1956, Morgan had been with the label a decade when the company issued Search For The New Land. It had been recorded two years earlier but was shelved when Morgan hit the US pop charts with the single and album, The Sidewinder. Morgan leads an all-star sextet – including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Grant Green – on five enthralling self-penned compositions, that range from the beautifully meditative title track to the African-tinged hard bop of “Mr. Kenyatta.” The Sidewinder might have made Lee Morgan a household name but Search For The New Land highlighted the depth of his artistry.
22. Sonny Clark – Cool Struttin’
Conrad “Sonny” Clark was a hard bop pianist from Pennsylvania who lived fast and died young. Regarded as his magnum opus, Cool Struttin’ was the seventh of nine albums he recorded for Blue Note during a fertile five-year stay. The album features a two-horn frontline consisting of altoist Jackie McLean and trumpeter Art Farmer, who are underpinned by a rhythm section comprised of Miles Davis’ then bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. From the soulful, swaggering title track to the hard-swinging “Blue Minor” and “Sippin’ At Bells,” Cool Struttin’ showcases the virtues of the hard bop style at its creative apex.
21. Art Blakey Quintet – A Night at Birdland vol.1 & 2
Shortly before he established The Jazz Messengers, Pittsburgh-born Blakey premiered his hard bop manifesto on two outstanding LPs recorded live in Manhattan’s Birdland jazz club during 1954. His quintet featured three of modern jazz’s rising stars: trumpet sensation Clifford Brown, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, and pianist Horace Silver. Together, they created magic and excitement on the bandstand, driven by the adrenaline-inducing rush of Blakey’s kinetic polyrhythms.
20. Clifford Brown – Memorial Album
Jazz lost one of its brightest and most promising young stars when Delaware trumpeter Clifford Brown perished in a car crash aged 25 in 1956. Though he rose to fame leading a group with drummer Max Roach two years earlier, Memorial Album unearthed New York sessions from 1953 with Lou Donaldson, Charlie Rouse, and Art Blakey. Brown’s playing is resplendent throughout on a varied selection of material whose performances not only confirmed his genius but also announced him as one of hard bop’s early vital practitioners.
19. Joe Henderson – Mode For Joe
Henderson’s fifth and final Blue Note LP was this magnificent opus, which found the Ohio tenor saxophone maven leading a stellar septet that included two of the label’s rising young stars: trumpeter Lee Morgan and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Also present is pianist Cedar Walton (who contributes two songs, the first of which is the classic title track), trombonist Curtis Fuller, who adds richness to the horn lines, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Joe Chambers. The music is rooted in hard bop but exhibits modal tendencies on some tunes, imbuing the session with an adventurous and progressive vibe.
18. Ornette Coleman – At The Golden Circle Stockholm
Originally a saxophonist, Coleman shredded the jazz rule book in 1959 with his avant-garde manifesto, The Shape Of Jazz To Come. By 1965 when this two-volume live album appeared, the Fort Worth-born musician had added violin and trumpet to his musical armory. Assisted by bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett, who establish an uncanny synergy with their leader, Coleman shows how much his free jazz aesthetic had evolved in just a few short years. A masterclass of collective improvisation.
17. McCoy Tyner – The Real McCoy
Philadelphia-born Tyner began his solo career at Impulse! while he was still part of John Coltrane’s groundbreaking quartet in the first half of the 1960s. After Coltrane died in 1967, Tyner signed with Blue Note, releasing his debut, The Real McCoy the same year. Accompanied by saxophonist Joe Henderson, bassist Ron Carter and former Coltrane band colleague, drummer Elvin Jones, Tyner serves up a memorable tour de force. Propulsive modal jazz (“Passion Dance”) is juxtaposed with pastoral ballads (“Search For Peace”) and swinging urban grooves (“Blues On The Corner”).
16. Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue
A Detroit-born guitarist, Burrell recorded a plethora of albums for Blue Note during several different stints with Alfred Lion’s label. This album is arguably the pinnacle of Burrell’s work: a small combo recording featuring tenor saxophonist, Stanley Turrentine, and augmented by Hispanic percussionist Ray Barretto. The latter’s congas add a piquant Latin flavor to the tasty “Chitlins Con Carne” and the equally groovy “Wavy Gravy,” a mid-tempo blues with a walking bass line. Burrell achieves the perfect balance between virtuosity and deep emotional expression.
15. Thelonious Monk – Genius of Modern Music vol.1 & 2.
Blue Note was the first record company to take a chance with Monk, whose unorthodox music with its jarring dissonances and quirky melodies many listeners found challenging. The label recorded a slew of 78-rpm singles between 1947 and 1952, eventually collecting those sides on two companion LP volumes titled Genius of Modern Music. Highlights are plentiful, including early versions of Monk’s most memorable tunes such as “Straight No Chaser,” “Ruby My Dear,” “Well You Needn’t,” and the immortal ballad “Round About Midnight.”
14. Bud Powell – The Amazing Bud Powell Vol. 1
An earnest disciple of the bebop revolution, Earl “Bud” Powell adapted saxophonist Charlie Parker’s radical new jazz vocabulary to the piano in the late 1940s with spectacular results. This album, recorded with rising young stars Sonny Rollins and Roy Haynes arguably represents Powell’s most outstanding achievement. Powell’s percussive, fleet-of-finger style, is best demonstrated on the original compositions “Bouncing With Bud,” and “Un Poco Loco.”
13. Horace Silver – Song For My Father
Although he co-founded The Jazz Messengers with Art Blakey, Silver preferred to forge a solo career and spent 28 years recording as a leader for Blue Note. His most famous album was this one, whose cornerstone was the infectious title song defined by a loping bass line, an elegant horn theme, and Joe Henderson’s vigorous tenor sax solo. The 10-track album also featured elegant ballads (“Lonely Woman” and “Calcutta Cutie”), Latin grooves (“Que Pasa”) and swinging hard bop (“The Kicker”). The album remains an enduring monument to Silver’s genius.
12. Grant Green – Idle Moments
Many of Green’s Blue Note sessions featured him in small combos that gave ample space to showcase his guitar skills. But this album, arguably the St. Louis fretboard maestro’s magnum opus, featured him in a sextet setting using more complex arrangements and denser textures. Though his co-stars included Joe Henderson, Duke Pearson, and Bobby Hutcherson, they didn’t eclipse him, allowing Green to shine as both a soloist and an ensemble player. The album’s four tracks range from zippy swingers (“Jean De Fleur”) to pensive ballads (Duke Pearson’s epic title song).
11. Hank Mobley – Soul Station
An often underrated tenor saxophonist whose mellow, sonorous style was overshadowed by the more visceral approach of his contemporaries, Georgia-born Hank Mobley nevertheless belongs in the pantheon of jazz’s elite horn players. He recorded 26 album sessions for Blue Note, of which Soul Station is the most remarkable. Featuring high-caliber sidemen – Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Art Blakey – the album finds Mobley in irresistible form. In addition to four superlative original numbers, Mobley provides soulful interpretations of two standards, including a beautiful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Remember.”
10. Andrew Hill – Point of Departure
Like Thelonious Monk before him, the fiercely individualistic pianist/composer Andrew Hill ploughed a lone furrow away from jazz trends. His unique compositional style and jaggedly idiosyncratic approach to the piano is abundantly evident on Point Of Departure, arguably Hill’s most enduring work, which features Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson, Kenny Dorham, and teenage drummer Tony Williams. The music is complex, asymmetrical, edgy, and abstract though a swing groove often prevails to give it a degree of accessibility. It remains a totemic LP of the post-bop epoch.
9. Dexter Gordon – Go
Standing at 6’ 6″ high, Dexter Gordon justified his “Long Tall Dexter” nickname. But what helped make him a true jazz giant was Go!, the third long-player he cut for Blue Note during a career renaissance in the early 60s. With Sonny Clark on piano, Butch Warren on bass, and drummer Billy Higgins, the Los Angeles-born tenor titan offers a stunning collection of performances. They range from fast swingers (“Cheese Cake” and “Love For Sale”) and mid-tempo foot-tappers (“Three O’Clock In The Morning”) to bittersweet ballads (“I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry”).
8. Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder
The Sidewinder was trumpeter Lee Morgan’s – and for a time, Blue Note’s – greatest commercial triumph. As a single, the infectious title track with its jaunty, danceable groove, made Billboard’s Hot 100, helping the parent album to ascend to No. 10 in the US R&B albums chart. The rest of the album was more exploratory, ranging from Latin-inflected pieces (“Totem Pole”) to advanced hard bop (“Gary’s Notebook” and “Hocus-Pocus”). Morgan’s collaborators included Joe Henderson and pianist Barry Harris. Even today, The Sidewinder continues to be one of the top-selling albums in Blue Note’s catalogue.
7. Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage
A maritime-themed concept album, Maiden Voyage is widely regarded as one of Herbie Hancock’s most satisfying long-players even though it came early on in the pianist’s long and storied career. Significantly, it marked a stylistic departure for Hancock, who ventured into the realm of modal jazz for the first time. With trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist George Coleman combining their horns, Hancock brought in Ron Carter and Tony Williams – his colleagues in the Miles Davis Quintet – to drive the rhythm section. Of the album’s five tunes, the title song along with “Eye Of The Hurricane” and “Dolphin Dance” went on to be regarded as jazz standards.
6. Cecil Taylor – Unit Structures
Three years before Ornette Coleman lit the touchpaper to the free jazz revolution, New York pianist, composer and fellow iconoclast Cecil Taylor was starting a music revolt of his own with the forward-thinking album Jazz Advance. A decade later, when Unit Structures, the first of his two Blue Note LPs, was released, Taylor had formulated a profoundly personal and idiosyncratic take on free and atonal jazz. Fronting a band comprising six kindred musical spirits (including trumpeter Eddie Gale and two bassists), Taylor presents five lengthy soundscapes that challenge the listener with their abstract complexity and ferocious intensity. Though Unit Structures is not for the faint-hearted, it signified a watershed moment in the history of free jazz.
5. Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers – Moanin’
Though regarded as the progenitors of hard bop, The Messengers helped to birth soul-jazz with this sensational album that premiered a new line-up of the band. Horn players Benny Golson and Lee Morgan together with pianist Bobby Timmons and bassist Jymie Merritt. Timmons wrote the catchy title tune, whose Amen-style call-and-response cadences referenced gospel music. The album also contained two other classic songs, both from Golson’s pen: “Blues March” and “Along Came Betty.” Blakey showcased his polyrhythmic prowess on an epic percussion-focused piece called “The Drum Thunder Suite.”
4. Eric Dolphy – Out To Lunch
A gifted multi-reed exponent and flutist, the LA-born Eric Dolphy only made one album for Blue Note, but it helped to bring him immortality, even though it was released a few months after his untimely death in June 1964. Considered a leading light of the avant-garde scene, Dolphy created a genuine masterpiece with the innovative Out To Lunch! , featuring the combined talents of Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Tony Williams. Dolphy alternates between bass clarinet, flute, and alto saxophone on five self-written tunes that range from the avant-bebop swing of “Hat and Beard” and “Gazzelloni” to more discursive pieces like the title track and comedic “Straight Up & Down.” Out To Lunch! is a touchstone in avant-garde jazz.
3. Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil
The biggest and brightest jewel in Wayne Shorter’s crown, Speak No Evil stemmed from an intensely creative purple patch in 1964 that resulted in three high-quality Blue Note albums (the other two were Night Dreamer and Juju). Backed by the dependable and inspiring Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones, Shorter, then the leading supplier of material in the Miles Davis Quintet, impresses as both a composer and improviser. His compositions, with their serpentine melodies, all possess an alluring, mysterious beauty. Highlights include “Infant Eyes,” a haunting ballad now regarded as a jazz standard, along with “Dance Cadaverous” and the faster title song with its earworm motifs.
2. John Coltrane – Blue Train
Blue Train was the first of several musical masterpieces that Coltrane would create in his short recording career. It came at a time when the saxophonist, who had transformed his life after overcoming heroin addiction, was playing with Thelonious Monk and honing his famous “sheets of sound” style. Though “Trane” had a deal with Prestige, he negotiated to do a one-off LP for Blue Note. The resulting album, rendered in a hard bop style, was the catalyst that kick-started his solo career. Thanks to the presence of Curtis Fuller’s resonant trombone, Blue Train offered a unique sonic signature with its three-horn frontline. It also showcased Coltrane’s advances as both an improviser and composer, especially on the magnificent title track and “Locomotion.”
1. Cannonball Adderley – Somethin’ Else
Topping our list of the greatest 50 Blue Note albums is alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s only recording for Alfred Lion’s label. What was also significant about the album was that it featured Miles Davis in a rare sideman role, which came about because Adderley, then 29, was playing in the trumpeter’s sextet at the time. Miles’ presence – playing a muted horn – functions as a source of inspiration for the Florida-born saxophonist, who serves up a career-defining opus. Also assisting are pianist Hank Jones, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Art Blakey. They combine their talents to create a compelling musical synergy on six tracks that range from haunting ballads (“Autumn Leaves”) to swinging uptempo numbers (“Love For Sale”). Somethin’ Else is an inspired collection of modern jazz and remains one of Blue Note’s – and jazz’s – significant recordings.
November 30, 2015 at 2:11 pm
To place Monk’s Blue Note recordings below Maiden Voyage, Song for my Father, Idle Moments, etc. seems perverse – superb albums but Monk lays out the template…
November 30, 2015 at 4:23 pm
Monk is a genius, but the early Blue Note albums are not his finest work, much of that came later for other labels…
November 30, 2015 at 3:36 pm
Definitely missing joe henderson’s in/out
November 30, 2015 at 3:52 pm
November 30, 2015 at 6:08 pm
That was recorded by Sonny on Prestige Records.
December 1, 2015 at 9:50 am
Saxophone Collossus was on Prestige records, however Blue Note did issue the exception Sonny Rollins Volume 2, with Monk and Horace Silver.
February 21, 2016 at 6:01 pm
Agreed, Saxophone Colossus is a great album, one of the all-time classics; however it was not made for Blue Note, but for Prestige, if I remember correctly.
November 30, 2015 at 4:48 pm
Strong list. The order is not so important to me. I’m just glad to have some great new recommendations for further Blue Note listening. Thanks
December 1, 2015 at 12:10 am
November 30, 2015 at 4:49 pm
make that available as a specially priced 50 digital album box set!!
November 30, 2015 at 5:23 pm
Not one fuckin Mingus? Are you kidding me? And A Love Supreme? Or Crescent? Damn… It’s hurting.
November 30, 2015 at 6:12 pm
These are the top 50 Blue Note recordings of all time only, not the top 50 best jazz record of all time. And Mingus didn’t record for Blue Note (although he’s on the trio record with Ellington, and Max Roach), and “A Love Supreme” and “Crescent” are on MCA Impulse records.
November 30, 2015 at 6:13 pm
Correction- “Mingus in Wonderland” is on Blue Note records, but I think that’s it.
October 9, 2017 at 11:10 pm
Yeah, Money Jungle with Ellington, Mingus, and Roach should definitely be on the list! Still a pretty solid list though!
November 30, 2015 at 6:21 pm
Mingus didn’t record on the Blue Note label.
November 30, 2015 at 6:22 pm
Sorry, Jack, I didn’t see your reply getting in before mine.
December 1, 2015 at 6:13 pm
Love Supreme is on Impulsem:-)
December 1, 2015 at 9:02 pm
The New Wave of Jazz is on ¡mpulse!
November 30, 2015 at 6:51 pm
Great to see all these great records, I do have many of them and 6 out of the top 10. Thank you Blue Note for having enriched many lifes with this extraordinary music, we should all do our utmost to ensure future generations continue to listen to these geniuses and Jazz music which adds additional dimensions to contemporary, two dimensional music from non-musical ‘musicians’… Who remembers which Tenor Saxophoner player used to say during gigs ‘Jaaaaaazzzzz Music’ ?
November 30, 2015 at 7:09 pm
and JOHN COLTRANE??????????????
November 30, 2015 at 7:34 pm
Coltrane’s only Blue Note session as leader is there at number 2…I would have it as number 1 though
November 30, 2015 at 7:33 pm
Obviously any list like this is subjective, but clearly they are trying to get as many artists in as possible. There could easily be more Art Blakey, Indestructable and Like Someone In Love spring to mind, as well as more Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Sonny Clark and Herbie Hancock, either way what a great label.
November 30, 2015 at 9:05 pm
I have many of them. one thing a lot have in common. Rudy Van Gelder studios.
November 30, 2015 at 9:25 pm
Strong agree on #1 ! Somethin else my choice for 2nd best jazz record of all time. (After KOB)
November 30, 2015 at 11:51 pm
That much great music + more on one label is just incredible. “Out to Lunch” and “Unity” changed my jazz life.
December 1, 2015 at 7:37 am
Hmmm, I think they overlooked Horace Parlan – Up & Down. What a great album with Ervin Booker & Grant Green performing at their best!
December 1, 2015 at 10:08 pm
I’ve got about 20 of these, and many are in my top ten jazz albums. Plus others by most of these artists. Would maybe add street of dreams and feelin the spirit by grant green for their mood, and bossanova bacchanal by Charlie rouse for its vibe.
December 1, 2015 at 10:42 pm
Great list, would be better if it included, Money Jungle – Ellington, Roach, Mingus
December 21, 2015 at 8:32 am
And why do you guys seem to always miss Grachan Moncur III. I never see him on your lists. A nd evolution should be top five if not top ten on any blue note list
January 25, 2016 at 6:18 pm
I don’t know if they are the BEST or not but thankfully I have LP copies of almost all of them.
January 26, 2016 at 12:34 pm
Not even one of the sam rivers classics?
January 28, 2016 at 11:17 am
surely Andrew Hill “One For One” and Horace Parlan “Headin’ South” should be in there?
January 29, 2016 at 4:23 pm
I must have over half of these releases. Blue Note is a treasure.
January 30, 2016 at 11:46 pm
Great list and an absolutely essential label for anyone who loves great music. IMHO the only notable absence is ‘Places and Spaces’ by Donald Byrd. A list like this without a Mizzell brothers production, is not complete.
August 18, 2017 at 4:06 pm
places and spaces is the album that containts tracks that i can’t decide which i like most! sad they forgot about this album(
February 17, 2016 at 3:51 pm
Harold Vick’s Stepping Out
February 17, 2016 at 4:21 pm
An obvious omission is the Jazz Messenger’s first album with Horace Silver(Doodlin’,The Preacher).I would also add Ike Quebec’s It Might As Well Be Spring,Art Taylor’AT’S Delight,The Blue Hour by Stanley Turrentine with The Three Sounds and Brown Sugar by Freddie Roach among others.
April 5, 2016 at 4:24 am
My wife found this list and asked me, How many of these do you have? Turned out I had about a dozen of them already, and all of the top five. After getting over my shock at seeing “Blue Train” come in at #2 below “Somethin’ Else,” I took it on as a project, and I’m collecting the rest now. Some of them I had heard but didn’t have copies of, others I had not heard, including the excellent Horace Silver “Song For My Father” and Hank Mobley’s “Soul Station.” How did I MISS these? This project will be well worthwhile.
November 2, 2016 at 1:28 pm
I am trying to put together around 6 hours of Jazz for a party entitled “All that Jazz” The vast majority of revellers will not of heard any jazz really and I know are cringing at thought of a party with jazz music. So could you recommend some blue note albums I could purchase with Jazz to wow the guests and especially stuff that is very danceable?
T G ASmith
August 16, 2017 at 1:46 pm
Not sure about the order but all the Blue Note albums up until the mid-60s were superb with a couple of exceptions (both included in your top 50). If it were up to me I would include all the Horace Silver albums – up to the Cape Verdean Blues!
Eugene C. Graham
August 16, 2017 at 6:08 pm
What about the Lee Morgan versus Freddie Hubbard battle royale on Night of Cookers Part 2? We were the winners on that one!
August 16, 2017 at 6:55 pm
August 16, 2017 at 8:24 pm
Anybody who appreciates the musical aesthetic of the Blue Note label and their vast discography made up of interesting combinations of a familiar roster of players should definitely check out the Criss Cross label. It’s sort of the modern equivalent of Blue Note, with all of their albums usually recorded in one session and a relatively small stable of players including such modern greats as Chris Potter, Alex Sipiagin, David Binney, Tim Warfield, Conrad Herwig, Seamus Blake, David Kikoski, Craig Taborn, Luis Perdomo, Antonio Sanchez, and Jeff Watts.
August 16, 2017 at 11:54 pm
It is a very good list. However, some personal favorites that are not on the list: Stanley Turrentine-That’s Where It’s At, Grant Green-Matador and Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims. I would put Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue in the top 5.
August 17, 2017 at 5:27 pm
A few that come to mind for me: Joe Lovano – Trio Fascination, Grachan Moncur/Jackie McLean discs, Cecil Taylor – Conquistador over Unit Stuctures
August 17, 2017 at 5:28 pm
No Free For All from Blakey!!
August 18, 2017 at 9:10 pm
Soe of my favorites sadly not here:: Jazz Messengers, Mosaic, The Big Beat, Meet You at the Jazz Corner; Wayne Shorter, Night Dreamer; Jackie Mclean, Desination Out; Johnny Griffin, A Blowing Session, Joe Henderson, Mode for Joe; and Sonny Rollins Volume 2. Herwise great list…I have many!4
August 25, 2017 at 3:33 pm
OK, final edit. TOP 10 in chronological order:
John Coltrane – Blue Train (1957)
Cannonball Adderley – Somethin’ Else (1958)
Dexter Gordon – Go (1962)
Grant Green – Idle Moments (1963)
Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder (1963)
Andrew Hill – Point of Departure (1964)
Herbie Hancock – Empyrean Isles (1964)
Larry Young – Unity (1965)
Joe Henderson – Mode for Joe (1966)
McCoy Tyner – The Real McCoy (1967)
P.S. You can delete my previous posts.
October 9, 2017 at 2:39 pm
Joe Henderson – State of the tenor
Joe Lovano – From the soul
October 9, 2017 at 3:23 pm
I’m tired of these america’s-centric lists, if you think Robert Glasper deserves a place here, then you must consider Erik Truffaz « The Dawn » in the list, it was a revolution in jazz in 1998 way before Robert Glasper: rap, acoustic jungle, mastering by an electronica artist from the french touch era (Alex Gopher, way better artist than those « daft punk » )
October 10, 2017 at 3:28 pm
Viewing a list from a persons subject matter is educating, in this instance Jazz recordings from the Blue Note label, I appreciate the input from everyone that made a comment as well, that gives me more artists to discover, all I can say is THANK YOU very much! & Good health to you all.
October 11, 2017 at 1:42 am
I was going to complain that the author had overlooked “Sugar” by Stanley Turrentine, but after further digging, I found out that the record was on the CTI label. Creed Taylor produced many of the Blue Note albums, so it wasn’t hard to think that “Sugar” was on the Blue Note label.
October 11, 2017 at 8:58 pm
Basra by Pete LaRoca (1965) definitely deserves to be in the top 50
October 12, 2017 at 6:02 pm
no herbie nichols, no sam rivers, wtf!
October 26, 2017 at 11:17 pm
Good starting list for Jazz newbies but you’ll always piss someone off. There is no such thing as a definitive list. I saw many albums on this list that I had never heard before and I have been listening to Jazz for over 40 years.
October 31, 2017 at 4:34 am
Post your top 20 then your top15 then your top10 everyone will have a different opinion
Boaz David Dror
February 6, 2018 at 6:28 am
No way Duke Pearson’s Wahoo is only at 49. One of the best albums ever. And no Pete LaRoca Basra is also a mistake. But most of all no JACKIE MCLEAN DESTINATION OUT?!?!? Did whoever write this actually listen to more than 50 blue note records?
Boaz David Dror
February 6, 2018 at 6:46 am
My quick top 25, without doubling up any Blue Note artists:
1. John Coltrane – Blue Train
2. Jackie McLean – Destination… Out!
3. Duke Pearson – Wahoo!
4. Pete La Roca – Basra
5. Andrew Hill – Point Of Departure
6. Johnny Coles – Little Johnny C
7. Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue
8. Bobby Hutcherson – Dialogue
9. Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers – Indestructible
10. Cannonball Adderley – Somethin’ Else
11. Ike Quebec – Bossa Nova Soul Samba
12. The Horace Silver Quintet – Song For My Father
13. Sam Rivers – Fuchsia Swing Song
14. Sonny Clark – Cool Struttin’
15. Joe Henderson – Our Thing
16.Wayne Shorter – Juju
17. Gil Melle – Patterns In Jazz
18. Freddie Redd Quintet – Shades Of Redd
19. Sonny Red – Out Of The Blue
20. Cliff Jordan* / John Gilmore – Blowing In From Chicago
21. Blue Mitchell – Step Lightly
22. Hank Mobley – Hank Mobley (1957)
23. Tina Brooks – True Blue
24. Kenny Dorham – Trompeta Toccata
25. Grachan Moncur III – Evolution
April 14, 2019 at 11:37 pm
I own the top 16 for sure but have to look to verify all I have. I know I have a minimum of 27 on this list and a great list it is. I love Jackie McLean but of all his great albums, I actually prefer the two he did on Blue Note with Grachan Moncur III, Destination Out! and One Step Beyond which had a great performance by Bobby Hutcherson. The blend of McLean’s sax with the trombone set fire to my ears. Exciting and beautiful, not avant garde but still pushing the envelope. I always looked out for any Blue Note releases and later I also loved Impulse as well as Riverside as long as it lasted. The original Bill Evans Trio brought me to Riverside. I’ve been listening since about 1962. I was lucky to have been growing up in what I think of as the greatest time in jazz history. There are so many artists that changed my life. Loved Dolphy, Trane but so glad to see Hank Mobley included. Miles didn’t like him or got tired of him but listening to him on Miles at Carnegie Hall and the Blackhawk(?), Mobley, for me, as an early fan out swung all of them. I love lists like this and although subjective, criticisms only show how many more albums of wonder and fascination in the creative process there have been in Blue Not’s history. I’ve virtually always listened to music, jazz in particular, with headphones. People who play jazz only for background music miss so much! I’ve enjoyed not only the article but all the comments here.
Bob Otto Bob
April 15, 2019 at 5:35 am
The major misses that spring to mind are Pullen-Adams “Breakthrough” and Joe Henderson’s “State of the Tenor.” Missing Pullen-Adams is kinda excusable because everybody forgets that one; missing State of the Tenor is like forgetting about Stan Musial.
Needs more Andrew Hill (“Smokestack” would be the obvious choice). Personally I’d take pretty much any of the Messengers with Morgan/Shorter over the ones listed. And I’ll second the call out on Herbie Nichols and Sam Rivers.
May 2, 2021 at 12:49 am
Pete La Roca Basra should be on there without a doubt. Possibly the greatest album they ever recorded, and it’s well accepted amongst the community as one of the top 10 Blue Note recordings at least. Maybe the perfect jazz album.
September 23, 2021 at 2:08 pm
Great debate starter. No right answers of course. I also missed Booker Ervin/Horace Parlan’s Back from the Gig and Joe Lo Abo’s Soul on Soul. But in my opinion, the omission of Sheila Jordan’s Portrait of Sheila is a terrible sin. Not just one of only two original Blue Note vocal albums, but one of the great jazz vocal albums by one of the music’s unique talents.
December 22, 2022 at 6:41 pm
Some of Blue Note’s masterpieces are not here: Fuchsia Swing Song
by Sam Rivers; At the “Golden Circle” Stockholm, Vol. 1 & 2 by Ornette Coleman; Complete Communion by Don Cherry; Some Other Stuff by Grachan Moncur III; Afro-Cuban by Kenny Dorham, etc.
February 6, 2023 at 6:06 am
These should be on the list- Introducing Johnny Griffin, Herbie Hancock Takin Off, Chick Corea Now hw sings, now he sobs, Joe Henderson State of the Tenor, Duke Ellington Money Jungle, Miles Davis Birth of the Cool, Bobby McFerrin Spontaneous Inventions, Joe Henderson Inner Urge. A list like this without Corea’s Now he sings, now he sobs is very incomplete i think.