Acclaimed Malaysian musician Michael Veerapen shares some of the most significant jazz albums of all time

These albums offer a wealth of career-defining moments in the history of jazz.

A selection of classic records to help anyone start — or supplement — their love of the genre.

This list of albums may not entirely encompass the wide breadth and evolution of jazz but it certainly serves as a key reference for anyone interested in exploring the genre's rich history on record. Jazz pianist, composer and producer Michael Veerapen recommends some of his favourites.


Birth of the Cool (1957)
Miles Davis

WHAT: Born during a series of rehearsals that began in a small basement apartment behind a Chinese laundry on 55th Street in Manhattan, Birth of the Cool was recorded in 1949 by a band that soon represented the cream of the next crop of jazz modernists. Their works came and went with little notice at first but seven years later, when the world came to grasp their impact, it became a true watershed moment in post-war music.

MICHAEL VEERAPEN: This is a seminal album in the cool jazz movement, featuring innovative arrangements and performances by a nonet including Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz and others, marking a significant departure from bebop conventions and generating an entirely fresh wave of playing that influenced a new generation in the early 1950s.


Time Out (1959)
The Dave Brubeck Quartet

WHAT: Quite simply the most commercially successful jazz outfit circa 1950s, the group was made popular by pianist Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Joe Morello and Eugene Wright. Brubeck’s eldest son, Darius, described the intent of the album as experimental and “entirely dedicated to the working out of a particular musical idea”, namely the use of metres and rhythms that were uncommon in the scene.

MV: The album is highly regarded for its groundbreaking use of unusual time signatures, particularly in famous tunes such as Take Five (the biggest-selling composition of all time and a Grammy Hall of Fame inductee) as well as Blue Rondo à la Turk. The latter was inspired by the music Brubeck heard on the street in Istanbul, which explains the use of aksak, a rhythmic structure whereby pieces or sequences are executed in a fast tempo.


Jazz at Massey Hall (1953)
The Quintet

WHAT: This was not the work of a circle of close brothers or a fond reunion with friends who had not jammed together in a while. Yet, the music and chemistry between the members, as many critics have pointed out, were sublime. The album recorded live on May 15 at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada — which made the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1995 — was deemed “the greatest jazz concert ever” among those in the know.

MV: It was the only time five of jazz’s top talents — Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach — gathered and recorded as a unit. These leading musicians were responsible for ushering in the bebop era, which became the “language” of jazz improvisation.


Giant Steps (1960)
John Coltrane

WHAT: Say what you will about Coltrane’s unconventional, metallic tenor tone quality, the saxophonist reached the height of chordal sophistication in Giant Steps. His first LP (long-playing vinyl disc) was iconic, not only because he recorded it as a band leader for Atlantic Records, but also because the album consisted solely of his own compositions. In 2004, Giant Steps was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board.

MV: Known for its complex harmonic structures and virtuosic performances, this outstanding work showcases Coltrane’s adventurous improvisational style (which exemplifies the melodic phrasing that came to be known as “sheets of sound”) and compositional prowess.


Speak No Evil (1966)
Wayne Shorter

WHAT: Although Shorter had made his mark as a composer by 1964, and joined what became one of Davis’ greatest quintets, Speak No Evil is a consolidation, or defining manifesto, of his consistent yet wide-ranging ideas. Atmospheric and a little broody almost, the music sings and is filled with the blues, making the album an unstoppable and formidable cultural monument. The reformation Shorter brought to the industry demonstrated the full extent of his talent as a saxophonist.

MV: This is an outstanding work of post-bop and modal jazz, which showcases Shorter’s emotive compositions and features a stellar ensemble including Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones.


Head Hunters (1973)
Herbie Hancock

WHAT: To widen his musical reach around the world, Hancock reinvigorated a historic idea while advancing something novel: creating a groove that made the audience free their minds and dance. Although that had been the goal of 60s’ “hard bop”, Hancock crafted a version that was more accessible — a finger-snapping, populist style that anyone could relate to. His mentor Davis wanted to update that concept by bridging African-American music, such as rhythm and blues as well as funk and jazz, but it was Head Hunters’ creative synthesis that vehemently and successfully captured the hearts of the younger generation.

MV: A masterpiece that seamlessly blends jazz with funk and rock influences. A notable highlight was the influential composition Chameleon, a jazz fusion standard composed by Hancock with Bennie Maupin, Paul Jackson and Harvey Mason — all of whom performed the original 15:44 full-length version on Head Hunters.


Getz/Gilberto (1964)
João Gilberto and Stan Getz

WHAT: Is it an exaggeration to call this bossa nova’s finest moment? American listeners seemed to agree when the songs, which exuded a harmonic sophistication and relaxed charm, first flooded the airwaves. The album still holds universal appeal today, thanks to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s crisp piano contribution, Gilberto’s syncopated plucking and Getz’s rich saxophone tone — all of which sound as breezy and effortless as if they were recorded yesterday.

MV: The album is best remembered for introducing Jobim to a wider audience with his composition, and one of the biggest smash hit singles in jazz history, The Girl from Ipanema. It was also credited with introducing and enlivening jazz with two popular genres, Brazilian bossa nova and samba.


Far East Suite(1967)
Duke Ellington

WHAT: Arbiters have called the title a misnomer as, strictly speaking, only one track — Ad Lib on Nippon, inspired by a 1964 tour of Japan — resonates with just a country in the “Far East”. The rest of the music was referenced upon a world tour undertaken by Ellington and his orchestra in 1963 throughout several Middle Eastern nations. The famed pianist took some cues and made a Western interpretation of the sights and sounds he absorbed, resulting in a reflective and evocative collection that vividly enunciated his vision.

MV: Davis once famously said, “At least one day out of the year, all musicians should just put their instruments down and give thanks to Duke Ellington”. Composed with long-time collaborator Billy Strayhorn, the album is regarded as one of Ellington’s greatest achievements.


This article first appeared on Apr 29, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.


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