One quick qualification: I'm going for underrated and lesser-known live albums on this list. Everyone knows about the Coltrane Village Vanguard recordings and Miles at the Plugged Nickel, so why repeat what's already been written? Here is the list, in chronological order...
- Art Blakey: A Night at Birdland, Volumes 1 and 2 (1954). Come for the early incarnation of the Jazz Messengers, stay for the Clifford Brown. Brownie tore it up on this night in 1954, and his solos on Confirmation, Once in a While, and A Night In Tunisia are among the best he ever put on record. Not the most obscure choice to lead off the list, but it was also one of the first albums I ever bought, so I threw it in.
- Count Basis: Count Basie at Newport (1957). To quote Ethan Iverson, "My advice is merely: listen to it. You want to know what jazz is? This is fucking jazz." Lester Young and Jo Jones sit in for an extended guest appearance; Illinois Jacquet, Roy Eldridge, and Jimmy Rushing also make guest appearances.
- Miles Davis: At Newport 1958. Miles has many great live albums in his catalog, so it's no surprise this one isn't mentioned more often. However, there aren't many live offerings of Miles with Cannonball and Coltrane, so this one is essential, methinks. Throw in Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, and you've got a great set. Mr. P.C.'s bass solo on Straight, No Chaser is sublime. Plus, the album cover features Miles in his sartorial splendor.
- Cannonball Adderley: Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco (1959). Quintessential hard bop from some of the masters. Cannon & Co.'s take on Spontaneous Combustion is some of the best 12 minutes on record.
- Eric Dolphy: Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, Vol. 1 (1961). Dolphy with Booker Little, Mal Waldron, Richard Davis, and Ed Blackwell, need I say more? More than any other album on this list, I revisit this recording again and again, and each time I am amazed at the unfulfilled potential of Dolphy and Little. Who knows what heights they may have scaled had they not died too young? Volume 2 is also available.
- Elvin Jones: Live at the Lighthouse, Volumes 1 and 2 (1972). Perhaps if someone had given a copy of these albums to Ken Burns, he would not have alleged that jazz "went away for awhile" during the 1970s.
- Old and New Dreams: Playing (1980). I was made aware of this one by Destination Out, and I am better off now that I know it exists. Brilliant free jazz from Dewey Redman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell.
- Keith Jarrett Standards Trio: Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note (1994). Jarrett's trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette have a ton of live recordings out there, but this one is my favorite, taken from a three-night stand at New York's Blue Note in 1994. Bonus quote from Amazon reviewer Stephen A. Smith: "Keith Jarrett's trio is the McDonald's of jazz. Its greatest sales asset is consistency."
- Pat Metheny: Tokyo Day Trip - Live EP (2008). I've gushed about this one enough already.
Extra Credit: See also the recommended recordings on last year's list of top working ensembles.
All images via jazz.com except Live at the Lighthouse via inconstantsol.blogspot.com.