1. Thelonious Monk: “Monk’s Mood” from Thelonious Himself
This seven-minute performance doesn’t contain any solos. Monk plays the head once by himself, once with John Coltrane and then another half-chorus with the addition of Wilbur Ware on bass. The soulful tenderness is nearly overwhelming and I used to put this track on “repeat” in college when I needed some help finding inner peace.
2. Dexter Gordon: “Don’t Explain” from A Swingin’ Affair
There are probably several dozen ballads by Dexter that could fit into this list (“Darn That Dream” from Dexter Calling and several different versions of “Body and Soul” were particularly close to making the cut). This one is a stand-out, with a particularly fine reading of the melody and an incredibly melodic and story-telling solo.
3. Wayne Shorter: “Infant Eyes” from Speak No Evil
This performance had a tremendous formative impact on me in my early days. Wayne plays the gorgeous melody as only Wayne can, and then solos in a manner that epitomizes lyrical restraint and (take note, students) exploration of harmonic color. Herbie Hancock gets special mention as well for his ethereal yet assertive comping.
4. Coleman Hawkins: “Body and Soul,” reissued on various collections
This is just an all-time classic, and rightfully so. The most important instrumental version of the most important ballad in jazz by one of the most important soloists, and it shows how searching a soloist could be even in the pre-bop era.
5. Cecil Taylor: “This Nearly Was Mine” from World of Cecil Taylor
This performance, to me, epitomizes the way in which a piece can be ugly and beautiful at the same time. There is not much here that is “pretty,” yet there is an intense beauty in the searching and edgy manner in which Cecil squeezes the pathos-juice out of this extremely sad song from South Pacific.
6. Bill Evans: “Danny Boy” from Time Remembered
This is the highlight of a short, aborted solo session, Evans’ first after the shocking death of his cohort Scott LaFaro. I’ve heard this enough times that I can now listen without being on the verge of tears every time. But it took a while to get there.
7. Charles Mingus: “Self Portrait in Three Colors” from Mingus Ah Um
Another track with no solos, Mingus’ orchestration skills and lyrical side are on full display in this lovely, multi-layered tune.
8. Sonny Rollins: “You Don’t Know What Love Is” from Saxophone Colossus
One of the most melodic soloists in jazz history, Rollins has recorded many classic ballad performances. This one is the first that really grabbed me. As a senior in high school I listened to it over and over, and it still sounds great.
9. Miles Davis: “Round Midnight” from Round About Midnight
Certainly one can’t make a list of ballads without Miles, and this is my favorite of his numerous performances of this tune. The contrast in colors between his harmon-ized reading of the melody and John Coltrane’s searching solo is striking, and both are very emotionally resonant.
10. Art Blakey (featuring Freddie Hubbard): “Blue Moon” from Three Blind Mice
Almost worth it just to hear Blakey’s well-placed call-outs (“Sing it, baby, sing it!”), this track is most noteworthy for Hubbard’s tender reading of the melody and his extremely soulful solo.