The Ten Greatest Jazz collaborations of all Time

One of the things that’s always fascinated me in music is the coming together of great solo musicians to make a joint recording. This is a common theme across many different genres of music, from the jugalbandis of Indian Classical to the All-Star Bands of Rock (remember the Traveling Wilburys? Or the Rolling Thunder Revue?) to Western Classical collaborations (Du Pre and Barenboim performing Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman playing Beethoven together) and even the occassional cross-genre collaboration (the Menuhin and Shankar recordings, for instance).

But it’s jazz, perhaps, where these collaborations are most common. The reason for this, I think, is that jazz is at once a group effort and also extremely improvisational, so that there’s a natural incentive to play with other talented people. As a consequence, jazz also lends itself more readily to an apprenticeship model – with established greats playing the role of mentor to young talent (of course, this is true of Indian classical music, but Indian classical is more about a solo voice accompanied by other instruments – it isn’t quite as participatory as jazz). Whatever the reason, the history of Jazz is the history of great collaborations, with some of the most sublime artists in the business coming together to play some incredible music.

Here, then are ten of my favourite examples of such collaborations. Note that I’m only including collaborations that encompass all / part of an entire album / recording; one off songs, no matter how beautiful, are not included (though no one should go through life without hearing Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock collaborate to perform Gershwin’s Summertime; or Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgeral get together to sing How High the Moon):

1. Bird and Diz

When I first stumbled across this 1950 recording of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing together, I couldn’t believe my luck – I figured it just couldn’t get better than this. Until, that is, I read carefully through the fine print and discovered that the pianist accompanying the two legends was an up and coming artist named Thelonious Monk!! This is the only recording of Parker playing with Monk, and one of a handful of him playing with Gillespie and the result is sheer exuberance from the word go. The music soars and leaps as only the Bird can make it, and Gillespie matches him note for note, trick for trick. Check out Bloomdido and Leapfrog and Relaxing with Lee and…hell, check out every single breathless second of this recording – jazz has never, ever been this incredibly hot and this immaculately cool again.

2. The Davis-Shorter-Hancock-Williams-Carter Quintet

More than any other artist in the history of Jazz, Miles Davis stands out as one of the greatest collaborators of all time (see the rest of this list). But of all of his many, many collaborations, none, IMHO matches the incredible quintet comprising Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter (you can stop holding your breath now)

This quintet has a number of recordings to their credit – including the amazing Nefertiti and the visionary E.S.P. (there’s also an earlier Lincoln centre performance, dating back to 1964 which has George Coleman in Shorter’s place and showcases Miles at the pinnacle of his song-writing ability) and each one is a miracle of achingly beautiful melody combined with some of the most brilliantly complex jazz work ever. By the time these recordings were made Miles was already pretty much in full form (if not a little past it) but it’s a real treat to hear the others (Shorter, Hancock, Williams) coming into their own*.

3. The Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington Sessions

Recorded in 1961, this sublime recording showcases Jazz’s two greatest legends at the height of their powers. Consisting entirely of Duke Ellington numbers, this set includes such treasures as the sound of Armstrong playing Mood Indigo (the slow, deep moan of that trumpet to beautiful to believe) or swinging to It Don’t Mean a Thing; as well as one of the most heartbreaking performances of Solitude ever given. In some ways, this is not so great a collaboration: Ellington’s role as a performer is fairly understated here; it’s his genius as a songwriter that shines through most clearly in old Satchmo’s inimitable playing.

4. Birdsong

What do you get when you combine Jazz’s most energetic, wildly improvisational saxophone player with one of it’s sweetest, most melancholy trumpet players? You get Birdsong – an incredible recording featuring the talents of the great Charlie Parker and a young Miles Davis struggling to keep up with him. In some ways Birdsong is a hilarious recording – you can feel the tension between the two artists, the way that each tries to force his own pace (with Parker, clearly the more experienced performer at this stage, more or less winning) but the resulting music is exciting and alive and touched with a slow, solemn sweetness mixed with a sense of great hollow power. This is an incredible recording, and one that is a must for any serious Jazz enthusiast.

5. Louis and Ella

If there was ever a duo that represented jazz at its most joyful, it would be Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. In many ways, the two have very similar styles – a combination of high-octane improvisation with some of the sweetest, most swinging tunes in the genre (Ella even does some incredible imitations of Louis – check out her versions of Basin Street Blues and Mack the Knife). So it’s no real surprise that the two of them work incredibly well together, their two voices (or Ella’s voice and Louis’ trumpet) joining in perfect jubilant counterpoint as they literally sing their hearts out. To the best of my knowledge there’s no one full recording that the two ever made together (though recording companies have subsequently put together a number of such compilations), but there are a number of tracks that have just never been the same again after they sung them. My personal favourite is Let’s call the whole thing off with its wonderful sense of dialogue (check out Ella improvising of the line that ends in Vanilla, going “Chocolate! Strawberry!”). But there are other great numbers – a breathtaking version of Cheek to Cheek (with Ella’s soaring, radiant voice in marvellous contrast to Louis’s deep, muttered singing) and that quintessential recording of Dream a little dream of me the like of which we shall never hear again.

6. Miles Davis and John Coltrane

I did warn you, didn’t I? Miles is back, this time in a collaboration that predates the Shorter-Hancock quintet; a collaboration with another up and coming sax player called John Coltrane. So stunning (and more or less well deserved) is Coltrane’s reputation as a jazz artist today that it seems strange to think of him as a sort of understudy to anyone, even Miles. But the collaboration between these two works well, largely because they too have fairly similar musical ambitions. In some sense, Miles and Coltrane are the opposite end of the spectrum from Ella and Louis – they share a vision of Jazz as something slow and aching and melancholy (this is not to say that they can’t speed it up when they want to, anymore than it is to imply that either Armstrong or Ella couldn’t be as blue and sentimental as the next great performer). The Davis-Coltrane sessions are truly beautiful recordings, helped in large part by the fact that these are also the golden years of Davis’s collaboration with Gil Evans, so that the recordings here include such masterpieces as ‘Round about Midnight, Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess

All in all, though I’m less impressed by these recordings than I am by Davis’ later collaboration with Shorter. In part this is because I’ve always preferred Shorter to Coltrane – I think he’s a more exciting sax player overall; plus the Miles-Shorter-Hancock recordings give you the feeling that Miles is being pushed in new directions by the younger players in a way that Coltrane never quite manages to. That said, the Davis-Coltrane recordings are not to be missed.

7. Shakti

It took me a while to decide whether Shakti belonged in this set or not – you could argue that it isn’t really jazz (specially, if like me, you think the presiding genius of the band is not so much John McLaughlin as L Shankar), but on the whole I’m inclined to include it in here, partly because it’s hard to know how else to classify it, and partly because as collaborations go, this one is a whopper.

Listening to Shakti is an experience like no other. There’s a point (usually somewhere around the 3rd or 4th minute of the track) when words simply give out and you’re left with the sensation of being completely overwhelmed, of an entire world of music turned effortlessly on its head, of having escaped the gravity of everthing you knew (or thought you knew) about music. Pick any album you like – it doesn’t really matter – all you can do in the face of such genius is to shut your eyes and listen. And listen. And then listen some more.

8. Django Reinhardt and Stefan Grappelli

When you think of Jazz, the combination of a guitar and a violin is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Not, that is, unless the guitarist is the inimitable Django Reinhardt and the violinist is the searing Stefan Grappelli. The collaboration between these two musicians (combined with a couple of other players and going by the name of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France) has to be one of the most unique sounds in the history of jazz. Django is, of course, an incredible musician – his smooth, insightful guitar work is one of the most electrifying sounds in Jazz – and Grappelli adds an energy and a sense of poignancy with this violin work.

9. Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane

Playing at the Five Spot in New York in 1957, the Thelonious Monk Quartet was joined by an exciting young saxophonist called John Coltrane. The result is some of the sweetest, most incredible Jazz music ever performed. This album would be way higher on my listing, except that there are (to the best of my knowledge) only three completed tracks still available from these sessions, so that there really isn’t enough her to justify a higher rating. The three songs that do exist, though, are essential listening.

10. Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins

To be honest, I’ve never been a big Sonny Rollins fan. I see what there is to admire in his playing – I just don’t FEEL it. One of my biggest disappointments, for instance, was listening to Miles Davis’ Dig – the album has Sonny, Miles and Art Blakey and it still doesn’t, IMHO, really work.

The one exception though, is the recordings Rollins made with Thelonious Monk (with Art Blakey joining in for good measure and Tommy Potter on bass). This includes primarily the 1953 Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, but also their collaboration on Rollins’ Movin’ Out album. Monk, I think, is good for Rollins – he brings out a calmness and a depth in Rollins that, when combined with Sonny’s more innovative talents, makes for some truly great jazz.

* Shorter and Hancock, of course, continue to collaborate almost to this day – they’re a good team, and the number of records they play on together is probably too numerous to even mention.