OK, first let me start off by telling you what this article isn’t. Then I’ll tell you what it is. This isn’t a list of the 20 best jazz-guitar albums of all time or a list of what I think should be the only 20 jazz-guitar albums somebody to own. (This is not the be all and end all of jazz guitar; it is a beginning.)
This is a list of the 20 albums, representing the past 80 years of jazz guitar, which I would consider essential to my collection. These albums cover a wide range of styles, genres and combo sizes, ranging from solo guitar to large ensemble. But what links them together is that they are, at least in my opinion, 20 of the finest jazz-guitar records ever made.
Compiling a list like this is extremely difficult, but these are the albums that I wouldn’t want to live without. That have touched me as a listener and shaped me as a performer. There are many other records, especially from non-guitarists, that have had a big effect on me over the years, but these are the 20 that I couldn’t see myself doing without.
Check out the list, there might be some albums on here you haven’t heard before and would like to have in your collection. Feel free to add your own selections in the comments section. Lists like this shouldn’t be definitive, and this one definitely isn’t, so go ahead and add your favorite records to it.
If all that comes out of this is that people are exposed to new music that affects their lives as it has mine, then this exercise has been well worth it.
Charlie Christian: Genius of the Electric Guitar
Charlie Christian started us all down the path to modernizing the guitar within the jazz idiom. Being the first guitarist to be featured in a single-note fashion, in the same way that saxophones were at the time, Christian proved that the guitar could hold it’s own as a solo and comping instrument, which changed everything for those that came after him.
Though the sound of the record and the music may become dated over time, Christian’s playing has a timeless quality to it that will be enjoyed by generations of guitarists to come.
Johnny Smith: Moonlight in Vermont (Stan Getz)
One of the most successful guitarists of the late ’40s through the ’50s, Johnny Smith really hits the mark with this album featuring tenor great Stan Getz. Though Smith didn’t write the tune, “Moonlight in Vermont” has become synonymous with his name.
The arrangement features his characteristic spread chord voicings, classically based voice-leading and an ear for melodic development that is more compositional than improvisational. This is a great introduction into the musical world of one the 20th century’s most accomplished guitarists.
Kenny Burrell: Midnight Blue
While a lot of the players on this list are known for their blazing chops and incredibly advanced harmonic approaches to improvisation, Kenny Burrell is included for the exact opposite reasons. Not that he doesn’t have chops, or isn’t sophisticated, but his playing on Midnight Blue is a clinic in blues-based, melodic and motivic jazz improvisation.
Burrell’s solo on “Chitlins Con Carne” is one of the finest blues improvisations on record. His choice of motive, and ability to manipulate it to create continued levels of interest, is a joy to witness as a listener, guitarist or otherwise.
Wes Montgomery: Smokin’ at the Half Note
I know, I know, half the albums on a list like this could have been Wes’. And yes, I know his studio albums are some of best every recorded, but there’s something about this album that is unique and just draws me in every time I hear it.
Hearing Wes play with the Wynton Kelly trio, three of the finest musicians of their, or any generation, is impressive to say the least. Wes is in absolute fine form as he draws from a seemingly endless well of inspiration in his solos. It’s also a great album for those of us who didn’t have the chance to see Wes while he was alive.
Smokin’ at the Half Note provides an inside look into Wes’ approach to a live performance, and what he could accomplish when he wasn’t working within the constraints of the recording studio. This is definitely one of the best jazz-guitar records of all time.
Pat Martino: El Hombre
El Hombre is one of the best, and most influential, albums from Martino’s “early period.” For decades now, jazz guitarists have cut their teeth by learning Pat’s solo on “Just Friends,” and it’s now an essential and often required transcription in some of the nation’s top jazz schools.
While Martino would go on to experiment with modal music and Eastern sounds during the ’70s, El Hombre finds the young picker at his Bebop prime.
Joe Pass: Virtuoso
Virtuoso is an important and must have album for several reasons. It was Joe’s first attempt at a solo album, and one of the best solo records he ever made. As well, it transformed the way players conceived of the guitar in a solo jazz setting, opening the doors for future generations to explore the genre.
While his solo playing matured over the following decades, there is an excitement in his playing on Virtuoso that is absolutely engaging. If you only own one solo jazz-guitar record, this is it.
John Abercrombie: Timeless
Timeless, at least to my ears, is one of the first album to redefine the jazz-guitar organ trio. This is an album that is purely modern in context. Sure, the tunes have changes and bebop inspired moments, but this album is not the typical ’60s Blue Note organ record that had come to define the genre at the time.
Stepping out and experimenting with both sound and context is nothing new for Abercrombie. His career’s work has been full of these things, but he really hit the mark with this record. His playing on tunes like “Ralph’s Piano Waltz” and the title track are some of the finest in his long and storied career.
The fact that this was Abercrombie’s debut album as a leader makes it that much more impressive. This is not only a great organ trio record. It’s a great jazz record.
Jim Hall: Concierto
Anytime you pair someone like Jim Hall with Ron Carter, Chet Baker and Paul Desmond you know it’s going to be a classic session. Though the album is known mainly for the ensemble’s lengthy interpretation of the “Concierto de Aranjuez,” Jim’s solo on “You’d be so Nice to Come Home to” has become a classic jazz guitar track. Concierto is a must have for any Jim Hall fan.
Ed Bickert: Like Someone in Love (Paul Desmond)
One of the best jazz guitarists to come out of Canada, Ed Bickert turned listeners on their ears when he appeared on Like Someone in Love, led by the great Paul Desmond. Though Desmond’s name appears on the album cover, the saxophonist let’s Bickert shine on his many classic intros and extended solos.
Any guitarist wanting to learn how to perform in a piano-less quartet would be well served to spend time with this record. Bickert’s ability to comp and solo at the same time, as well as conjure up timeless chord solos, will have listeners wondering how many hands this Canuck really has.
Pat Metheny: Bright Size Life
Metheny is another player who could easily fill half this list with classic solo records, let alone those he’s done with the PMG. The reason I’ve included “Bright Size Life” on this list is because it’s the record that started it all.
Jazz, and especially jazz guitar, would never be the same after countless fans heard that stairway of fifths that open the album’s title track. With a lineup to die for, Jaco Pastorius on bass and Bob Moses on drums, Metheny pulls off an album that any guitarist would love to have on their discography. To top it all off, he was only twenty-one at the time it was recorded.
Ted Greene: Solo Guitar
Though he only released one album during his lifetime, Ted Greene knocked the ball out of the park with this record. With stunning arrangements, an unbelievable tone and an unworldly command of the instrument, Greene didn’t have to release a second record, he had already solidified his place in jazz history with “Solo Guitar.”
One of the most under-appreciated and undervalued players and guitar educators of the 20th century, Greene has recently found a new generation of fans and loyal followers through a new memoir and website dedicated to his music and pedagogy. If there’s anyone on this list that deserves greater recognition, it’s Mr. Greene.
Ralph Towner: Solo Concert
Beginning his musical career as a pianist, fans all over the world are grateful that Ralph Towner decided to change instruments and become the prolific guitarist and composer he is today. Sounding more like an orchestra than a guitar, this album features Towner firmly in his element, performing solo six and twelve string guitar.
The energy that Towner builds with each song is compelling, leaving the listener wondering what else this talented improviser has up his sleeve. Released on the ECM label, this record mixes modern classical and jazz in a way that has come to define not only Towner’s output, but the label itself.
Lenny Breau: Five O’Clock Bells/Mo’ Breau
Lenny Breau is often thought of as one of the forgotten geniuses of the jazz guitar world. Those who were lucky enough to see him perform, or study with him, while he was alive will often go on and on about what an amazing player and human being Lenny was.
Though he never became the big-name artist that many, including long-time supporter Chet Atkins, had hoped that he would, his musical legacy lives on today in many of his classic recordings of the ’60s and ’70s.
Five O’Clock Bells/Mo’ Breau features Lenny in an intimate, solo-guitar setting, with some vocals thrown in as only Lenny could. His playing is creative, focused and technically impressive, providing one of the best representations of Lenny’s capabilities as a guitarist.
Emily Remler: East to Wes
Though her career, and life, was cut short due to a long battle with drug addiction, Remler’s music will remain an integral part of the modern jazz-guitar vernacular. With a nod to one of her idols, Wes Montgomery, Remler’s playing on this album is both traditional and modern at the same time.
She has a strong command of traditional jazz vocabulary and her time feel is first rate, but she also brings to the mix a thorough understanding of modern jazz harmony and improvisation. Though she didn’t live long enough to reach her full potential, albums like “East to Wes” are as good as jazz guitar gets.
Mike Stern: Standards and Other Songs
Mike Stern has had a long and illustrious career, with many considering him to be the biggest name in jazz guitar today. Starting out playing in fusion groups, including Miles’ band in the early ’80s, Stern surprised everyone when he released “Standards and Other Songs.”
We all knew he could play, his previous album “Upside Downside” is a fusion classic, but few people would have guessed that Stern had such a virtuosic command of the bebop idiom.
Any and all of his solos on this record are a treatise on how to play modern bebop. He never misses a chord change, his substitutions are dead on and he screams energy from every solo. With everything he’s done to date, this album stands out as the pinnacle in a long and successful career.
Ben Monder: Dust
Though Monder had released Flux before Dust, this is often considered the album that introduced the virtuosic composer/guitarist to the world. This album is not your traditional jazz fair, and most would find that it’s more of a 20th century avant-garde classical album than jazz, but regardless how one defines this record, it’s a must have for any serious jazz guitarist.
Kurt Rosenwinkel: East Coast Love Affair
Rosenwinkel has firmly established himself as one of the leading figures in the modern jazz movement. His compositions borrow from modern rock as much as they do from modern jazz, but early in his career Rosenwinkel released two albums that focused more on standards than on his own compositions.
One of these albums is the live trio-record “East Coast Love Affair.” Kurt’s playing on this record is outstanding. Showcasing his ability to comp for himself as he weaves through single-line solos, Rosenwinkel’s playing is a study on how to play guitar in a modern trio. As enjoyable to listen to as it is to study, “East Coast Love Affair” is a must have for any fan of modern-jazz guitar.
John Scofield: A Go-Go
Featuring jazz giant John Scofield and funk wonder-trio Medeski, Martin and Wood, “A Go-Go” is often considered the pinnacle of the jazz-jam band genre. Borrowing from ’70s funk groups like the Meters and mixing in their own unique blend of modern jazz, these four guys rock and roll through every track on the album.
As well as being an enjoyable album to get up and groove to, the record has introduced a whole generation of young musicians to the world of jazz. Fans of funk and jam bands, who normally wouldn’t have sought out a jazz record or gone to a jazz concert, were suddenly exposed to the work of Scofield and other great jazz guitarists. For that fact alone, this album makes this list.
Joao Gilberto: Voz e Violao
For those of you who are familiar with this record you might be scratching your head as to why an album with little to no improvised solos is included on a list like this. Jazz guitar doesn’t have to have single-line solos to be considered worthy music, it just has to be great music. Gilberto’s performance, as both vocalist and guitarist, on this record is exactly that, great: his voice and guitar come together to sound as if they are one. His rhythms are authentic yet personal and his right-hand punctuation always supports and accentuates the vocal line, never taking away from it.
With so many great soloists in the jazz-guitar genre, a rhythm specialist like Gilberto stands out for his simplistic, yet engaging, approach to the genre. If you only own one Brazilian Jazz album, this is it.