These lists are in no special order, and some entries may be subject to change…:-)
Chick Corea - Now He Sings Now He Sobs. It would take a page to adequately praise what Roy Haynes does on this album.
Yes - Fragile. One of Bill Bruford’s milestones.
Earthworks - A Part and Yet Apart. I could easily fill up ten spots with Bruford recordings, but I’ll skip the King Crimson era (!) and jump ahead to his jazz phase, where one can still hear great cymbal work, polymeters, the cracking snare...and it swings.
Keith Jarrett Trio - Live at the Blue Note. Jack DeJohnette’s another favorite of mine, flowing from bar to bar, always sensitive to the moment.
Sonny Rollins - Saxophone Colossus. Max Roach in top form.
Peter Erskine - Juni. I love Erskine’s light touch with this piano trio.
Myra Melford/Han Bennink - Eleven Ghosts. I’d choose either this or a Clusone 3 album for wild and witty Bennink.
Herbie Hancock - Headhunters. Harvey Mason playing funk grooves with jazz finesse.
Miles Davis - Nefertiti. Tony Williams was stunning in the 1960s, and I could just as easily go with Sorcerer or several other choices. The drum highlights of this one are the delicate shadings in the tune “Fall”, and of course the title track.
The Police - Regatta de Blanc or Ghost in the Machine. Can’t decide, so flip a coin for me. Stewart Copeland’s style may be somewhat limited, but it’s original, and even when other people try to sound like him, they can’t.
The honorable mentions (Philly Joe Jones, Paul Motian, Jon Christensen, Elvin Jones, Trilok Gurtu, Joe Chambers, etc) are too numerous to list. From the rock world, I’d also tap Rush Signals (Neil Peart), Genesis Selling England by the Pound (Phil Collins), and a few King Crimson albums for starters.
Dave Holland - Prime Directive. Holland can do it all, enough said. Conference of the Birds and Gateway’s Homecoming are also contenders. Probably my favorite bassist.
Miles Davis - Seven Steps to Heaven. Ron Carter should have his own brand of glue.
Chick Corea - Now He Sings Now He Sobs. Miroslav Vitous on a highwire between Corea and Haynes.
Keith Jarrett Trio - Live at the Blue Note. Gary Peacock at his best, in my opinion.
Herbie Hancock - Thrust. Paul Jackson needs to be on this list.
Bill Evans Trio - The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings 1961. Not necessarily for Scott LaFaro’s finger speed, but for his dexterous mind. He complements the piano so well in “Milestones”, “Gloria’s Step”, “Jade Visions”, and several other tunes.
Yes - Fragile. A Chris Squire bible.
King Crimson - Discipline. Tony Levin mostly plays Chapman Stick on this one, but whether on Stick or electric bass, he’s my benchmark for solid, groovy basslines, no matter what the time signature. Also note his outstanding work on Peter Gabriel’s “Exposure” and “I Don’t Remember”.
John Paul Jones - Zooma. Heavy constructions by JPJ. Futuristic Zeppelin, guitar not required.
Soul Coughing - Ruby Vroom. Funky bull fiddling from Sebastian Steinberg.
Honorable mentions: The jazz list would extend to Paul Chambers, Charles Mingus, Richard Davis, and others. The problem with someone like Mr. PC is that he’s done so many records that I can’t pick only one, but he’s obviously a giant. In the fusion area, I also like Percy Jones on the Brand X album Unorthodox Behaviour. Oh, and Chuck Rainey lays down some of the coolest lines ever on Steely Dan’s “Peg”.
Ralph Towner - Solo Concert. A fingerstyle master. Players with this much skill often make a bigger show of it. Another choice would be A Closer View.
Andy Summers/Robert Fripp - I Advance Masked. Atmospheric and polyrhythmic textures from the axemen of the Police and King Crimson.
Yes - The Yes Album. Steve Howe may have been more adventurous on later albums, but this one sends a clearer, warmer message.
Terje Rypdal - Rarum. An ECM collection of Rypdal’s Strat magic.
Arcana - The Last Wave. Derek Bailey patrolling the wasteland.
Tony Williams Lifetime - Believe It. Allan Holdsworth is the only guitarist who can play as fast as he does without making me ill. I like some of his later albums a lot (None Too Soon, Sixteen Men of Tain, All Night Wrong), but the fat mid-70s vibe of this Lifetime album is something else. His solos are more down to earth, too.
Steve Khan - Got My Mental. Such tasty tone and phrasing from a great modern jazzer.
David Torn - Cloud About Mercury. Singing strands of the universe.
The League of Crafty Guitarists - Intergalactic Boogie Express. Robert Fripp’s acoustic platoon in action.
Gateway - Homecoming. I like John Abercrombie’s sound on this – clean, with a slight bite – and his smart playing.
Honorable mentions: John McLaughlin Live at Royal Festival Hall, Sonny Rollins The Bridge (Jim Hall), and a bunch of Andy Summers solo tracks. In senior year of high school, I listened to Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow and Wired almost every week, but the guitar was really just icing on the rhythm section’s cake.
This sort of exercise is fun but full of angst because I have to omit so much. For that reason, I won’t even try to whittle down saxophone or piano.
One final note. When celebrating individual performances, I also take into account how players blend into the material, arrangement, group sound, and general atmosphere of the music. I’ve got no use for a technique clinic in every tune; I’m often more impressed by what musicians leave out, rather than cram in. Quality over quantity.