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15 Essential Jazz Albums to Know (and Own)

Award-winning vibraphone player Joe Locke shares his essential jazz albums with a list that includes both staple albums and hard-to-find gems.

Richard Conde

Joe Locke is a renowned jazz vibraphone player who has recorded with everyone from Grover Washington Jr. and Kenny Barron to the Münster Symphony Orchestra and the Beastie Boys. The Jazz Journalists Association presented Locke the “Mallet Player of the Year” award in 2006, 2008 and 2009, and he has won Golden Ear Awards for “2005 Concert of the Year” and “2007 Concert of the Year.”

Locke, the son of a classics professor, was raised in Rochester, New York and learned to play piano and drums at an early age. By the time he was 13, Locke had taken up vibraphone and during his teens, he studied with pianist Phil Markowitz and bassist Steve Davis. Locke has performed as a sideman on over 60 records ranging from Rod Stewart’s It Had to be You to Dianne Reeves’s Bridges. As a band leader, Locke has put out over 30 recordings, the latest of which, Love is a Pendulum has received superlative reviews.

For his essential jazz listening, Locke includes legendary jazz pianists Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk. The comprehensive list incorporates the great arranging of Joe Henderson and the last record from Michael Brecker. For anyone looking to better familiarize themselves with the jazz greats, this list is the place to start.

Streaming Jazz

Vinyl on the Interwebs

Art Tatum

Solo Masterpieces

“Profound genius at the piano. If this recording were made today it would sound ahead of its time!”

Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald

Ella & Louis

“Two masters in an intimate setting with an all-star rhythm section. It is so evident they’re enjoying each other’s company.”

Thelonious Monk

Monk’s Music

“A classic recording from the high priest of Bop, featuring some of his great compositions. An interesting note about this recording — it features both Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane!”

Billie Holiday

Lady in Satin

“This is one of the most beautiful and poignant recordings in my collection. Here she is at the end of her career and the hard knocks of life imbue the songs with a depth most resonant.”

Coleman Hawkins

Today and Now

“The grand master of the tenor saxophone in fine form and playing some great tunes, including the gorgeous Love Theme from Apache.”

Additional Listening
1. Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus – “Sonny at the height of his creative powers. This kind of invention is timeless and stays fresh even after decades.”
2. John Coltrane A Love Supreme – “A meaningful marker in a deeply meaningful legacy. This recording is perhaps one of the most influential in jazz and captures the saxophonist giving himself rapturously over to the music.”
3. Ornette Coleman The Shape of Jazz to Come – “Ornette Coleman’s quartet took the jazz world by storm in 1959. Though this recording was considered avant-garde at the time, by today’s standards it is accessible, melodic and rooted in the blues.”
4. Joe Henderson Mode For Joe – “Not only does this recording feature some of the greatest voices in 1960s jazz, it showcases some of the leader’s consummate writing and arranging. One of the great Blue Note recordings!”
5. Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Big Band Consummation – “One of the great big band albums of all time. Thad’s great intellect and deep sense of swing come shining through as do some brilliant solos from jazz’s finest players.”
6. Shirley Horn Here’s To Life – “The depth of feeling contained in these tracks is nothing short of stunning. The combination of Ms. Horn’s artistry and the sensitive, lush and languorous arrangements of Johnny Mandel create a piece of work that is nothing short of a masterpiece.”

Records to Collect

Because We Know You Just Bought a Record Player

Eddie Harris / Les McCann – ‘Swiss Movement’


“When Jazz meets Funk in the form of Eddie Harris and Les McCann, it’s a party! This party was caught live at the Montreux Jazz Festival and we’re all the better for it!”

Buy Now

Kenny Wheeler – ‘Gnu High’


“One of the very best recordings from the brilliant trumpet/flugelhornist, featuring Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, and Keith Jarrett in a rare side man appearance.”

Buy Now

Keith Jarrett Trio – ‘Still Live’


“Keith’s Trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette made many live recordings for the ECM label. In my opinion this is simply one of the best. Some of Keith’s solo piano intros alone are worth the price of admission.”

Buy Now

Michael Brecker – ‘Pilgrimage’


“The final recording from one of the greatest musicians of his generation, on any instrument. In his eulogy at Michael’s funeral, Herbie Hancock said, ‘Michael’s life was like a beautiful sunset, the most beautiful part coming at the end.’ This recording is that beautiful sunset.”

Buy Now

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