Best Jazz Albums
Early/Trad Jazz

James P. Johnson
Classic James P. Johnson Sessions 1921-1943

Each generation of jazz musicians has their test pieces, challenging songs that they need to learn and master in order to be taken seriously in the jazz world. During the bebop era it was “Cherokee” and after 1960 it was “Giant Steps.” Back in the 1920s, every stride pianist needed to learn James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout.” Duke Ellington learned it by slowing down a piano roll version so he could practice the piece.

Featured Track: Carolina Shout

James P. Johnson was considered the master of stride piano, keeping time with his left hand (which alternated between bass notes and chords) while his right played melodic variations. At rent parties he could come up with an endless amount of variations to play on “Carolina Shout.” This is the earliest recording of his piece and it set the standard for what was to follow.

Jelly Roll Morton
The Complete Victor Recordings

One of the most distinctive pianists of the pre-1930 era, Jelly Roll Morton was also among jazz’s first major composers and arrangers. His series of recordings with his Red Hot Peppers during 1926-30 are full of joyful surprises, and his style of New Orleans jazz is heard at its most exciting during “Black Bottom Stomp.”

Featured Track: Black Bottom Stomp

Utilizing two-bar breaks, both jammed and arranged ensembles, and short solos that are sometimes written-out and at other times improvised, Morton makes the most out of every second during this three-minute performance. His septet (with cornetist George Mitchell, trombonist Kid Ory, and clarinetist Omer Simeon) is heard in a variety of different combinations during the exhilarating performance

Bix Beiderbecke
Vol. 1 – Singing The Blues

A cornetist with a beautiful cool tone, a lyrical style and relaxed phrasing, Bix Beiderbecke was already a legend a few years before his early death in 1931. One can hear in his playing aspects of the styles of Bobby Hackett, Miles Davis and Chet Baker along with the leaders of West Coast cool jazz of the 1950s.

Featured Track: Singing’ The Blues

Beiderbecke’s most famous solo was on 1927’s “Singin’ The Blues,” one of the first jazz ballads. In addition to his playing (which is both flawless and spontaneous), the C-melody sax solo of Frank Trumbauer and the subtle contributions of guitarist Eddie Lang also help make this performance into a classic

Bix Beiderbecke
Vol. 1 – Singing The Blues

Although famous in the jazz world as a very original cornetist, Bix Beiderbecke’s first instrument was the piano. He only recorded four times as a pianist and “In A Mist” was his only piano solo recording.

Featured Track: In A Mist

In his short life, Beiderbecke wrote four impressionistic works that were influenced by classical, folk and jazz. While he never waxed “Candlelights,” “In The Dark” and “Flashes” (other pianists have since recorded those works), he recorded “In A Mist,” often departing from what would be the written score to improvise variations on a work that was very advanced for jazz of 1927.

Earl Hines
Boogie Woogie, Stride and the Piano Blues

Like most jazz pianists of the 1920s, Earl Hines began his career as a stride pianist, keeping time with his left-hand, but he soon went in his own direction. While never completely abandoning stride, he enjoyed taking hair-raising breaks in which the time was briefly suspended before magically returning at the last moment.

Featured Track: The Father’s Getaway

On 1939’s “The Father’s Getaway,” after an impressionistic introduction, Hines starts the piece as a hot stride number. However it quickly becomes apparent that his left-hand has a mind of its own, stopping altogether in spots and joining with the right-hand on some wild breaks and transitions. The result is completely unpredictable music that sounds like no one else but Earl Hines.