10 of the Best Jazz Saxophone Albums

Musician playing saxophone on stage
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Anyone learning to play the saxophone will find inspiration in jazz history's best players. So take a listen to their seminal albums and get started down the road to stardom. 

Coleman Hawkins - Body And Soul (1939)

Coleman Hawkins handling saxophone

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After a five-year hiatus in Europe, Coleman Hawkins returned to the US and asserted himself as one of the premier tenor saxophone players on the scene. The first dozen and a half cuts on the CD reissue, recorded in 1939, are the most important. They are at the crossroads where blues and big band meet, pointing the way toward what would become bebop in a little more than 10 years. Fats Navarro, J.J. Johnson and Benny Carter all abide.

Charlie Parker - The Legendary Dial Masters, Volume 1 (1947)

Jazz musicians L-R Tommy Potter, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane perform at Birdland in 1951 in New York City.

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With a cast that includes Miles Davis, Lucky Thompson, Howard McGhee, J.J. Johnson, and Dizzy Gillespie, it’s hard not to like this compilation of pieces Bird recorded in 1946 and 1947 for Dial Records.

There are those who would opt for the more pristine Savoy sessions, but this 1989 disc released by Stash Records sounds just fine. In this album, Charlie Parker's virtuosic jazz saxophone playing shows why he is a legend.

Sonny Rollins - Saxophone Colossus (1956)

Sonny Rollins at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island

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Recorded during a particularly fertile period when Rollins tracked seven albums over the course of 12 months, Saxophone Colossus is universally considered his tour de force. Rollins’ signature piece, “St. Thomas,” is included here for the first time. The song's light calypso swing is aided and abetted — and, at one point, turned upside down — by legendary drummer Max Roach.

Rollins is at his most lyrical on the cocktail ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and is grimly cynical on his reading of “Moritat” (aka “Mack The Knife"). The last of the album’s five pieces, “Blue 7,” is a classic hat-and-beard blues, opened slyly by bass man Doug Watkins, emboldened with sprightly harmonic playfulness by pianist Tommy Flanagan and frosted with Rollins’ innovative melodic approach.

Cannonball Adderley - Something Else (1958)

Jazz saxophonist Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley performs onstage in circa 1971 in San Francisco, California.

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Perhaps the most underrated saxophonist of his time — a reasonable occurrence given the presence of Coltrane, Coleman, and Rollins — Cannonball Adderley nonetheless held his own ground among his peers. 

The best proof of that fact is the people who agreed to play his sessions, from Miles Davis to Art Blakey, from Bill Evans to Jimmy Cobb. 

Adderley's reading of “Autumn Leaves” is sneaky and subtle, “Love For Sale” featuring Jones is dynamic, and the title track, an Adderley classic, is, well, something else. 

John Coltrane - Giant Steps (1959)

American jazz saxophonist John Coltrane

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The first album John Coltrane recorded for Atlantic Records, Giant Steps was a combination of the Coltrane of the past two years, and a peek into the Coltrane who would flourish over the coming period.

The tunes are relatively simple, his melodic approach is sparser and easier to digest, and his tone is less repentant than his prior work. Tommy Flanagan, who also worked on Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus is admirable at the keys, Paul Chambers’ bass playing is hefty but not unwieldy, and Art Taylor drives the tunes when necessary and holds back when appropriate.

Ornette Coleman - The Shape Of Jazz To Come (1960)

Saxophonist Ornette Coleman performs on stage at the Newport Jazz Festival held in Newport, Rhode Island in July 1971

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Only the third album in his repertoire, The Shape of Jazz to Come defined Ornette Coleman's career.

The album features poignant harmonies between saxophonist Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry as well as astonishingly tasteful work from the rhythm section (featuring a young Charlie Haden on bass and the legend Billy Higgins on drums). That coupled with Coleman’s wise-beyond-his-years technique make this jazz record challenging and satisfying.

Dexter Gordon - Go! (1962)

Dexter Gordon, Capital Jazz, Knebworth, 1981

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Though some may claim this record is fettered by an indifferent rhythm section and a lack of meaningful material, it's undeniable that jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon is truly at his finest. “Where Are You” is a full-bodied ballad that oozes romanticism without becoming maudlin. And “Cheese Cake” finds Gordon in a playful mood, with pianist Sonny Clark offering a delightful foil to Gordon’s strong improvisation. 

Getz/Gilberto (1963)

Photo of Stan Getz with his Quartet performing live on stage

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Between 1962’s Jazz Samba and 1964’s The Girl From Ipanema, saxophonist Stan Getz had his defining moment: his collaboration with vocalist Astrud Gilberto.

This album is arguably the best among cool jazz records of the Brazilian ilk. Antonio Carlos Jobim is magnificent yet understated, and Milton Banana (possessor of the best jazz name ever) makes every drum tick sound like a Latin lover's heartbeat.

John Coltrane - A Love Supreme (1965)

Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane records in the studio in circa 1958

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Arguably one of the most important jazz records of all time, A Love Supreme was John Coltrane’s attempt to disentangle himself from all things human by reaching for all things spiritual.

His well-documented drug and alcohol issues were, if not conquered, held at bay at the time. The dental problems that troubled Coltrane years earlier were also held in check, allowing the master to fully explore the full range of his saxophone. The result was, as noted in The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD, “a tearing brutal delivery replete with false notes, splintery harmonics, and harsh almost toneless breath-noises.”

Hauntingly, this would be his most expansive work before his death a few years later.

Joe Lovano - Landmarks (1991)

American saxophonist Joe Lovano performs at the National Theatre of Cuba during the 33rd International Jazz Plaza Festival on January 19, 2018 in Havana, Cuba.

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Somewhere between the agitate harmony of Monk and the gunshot melodies of Coltrane, there landed jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano with his 1991 collection Landmarks.

With a cast including John Abercrombie on guitar, Kenny Werner on piano, Marc Johnson on bass and Bill Stewart, Lovano evokes the spirit of Dewey Redman and John Coltrane without sounding like a copycat. This album is considered one of the finest examples of where bop meets modern in the jazz repertoire.