10 All-Time Great Jazz Quartets

From Goodman to Shorter, some of the best jazz has carried the sign of four

There’s something special about a quartet. Not that anything’s wrong with other group configurations, but the balance that can be achieved between four musicians—as between four seasons and four elements—often yields unique rewards that feel both surprising and deeply right. That’s why we’re inaugurating our new weekly list series, The JazzTimes 10, with a look at 10 all-time great jazz quartets. We’re not ranking them or saying that these are the absolute best, but we are saying that they’re all crucial to the history of jazz. If you aren’t as familiar with some of them as you’d like to be, you know what to do.

Benny Goodman Quartet

To team two white musicians (Goodman and Gene Krupa) with two black ones (Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton) was, sadly, a bold move in Depression-era America. But the Goodman quartet of 1936-37 isn’t just remembered for its racial makeup; it was, above all, a dazzling showcase for four absolute virtuosos, as the red-hot tracks on After You’ve Gone: Benny Goodman Trio & Quartet Sessions, Vol. 1 (Bluebird/RCA) make clear.

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Gerry Mulligan Quartet

Jazz quartets without a pianist had existed before, but they didn’t sound like this. As Chet Baker blew wistful trumpet melodies, Mulligan’s buoyant baritone sax weaved intricate lines around him, with one of two bassists (Bobby Whitlock in 1952, Carson Smith in 1953) offering clever counterpoint and one of two drummers (Chico Hamilton in ’52, Larry Bunker in ’53) grounding it all. Go to The Best of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker (Pacific Jazz/EMI) for a solid primer.

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Dave Brubeck Quartet

The prime draw of this group was always the contrast between Brubeck’s driving, often thrillingly bombastic piano and Paul Desmond’s sublimely cool alto sax. General consensus is that the Time Out version of the band, with Eugene Wright and Joe Morello, was the best. But we’re also partial to 1954’s Jazz Goes to College (Sony Legacy), featuring the Bob Bates/Joe Dodge rhythm section and two brilliant examples of spontaneous improv, “Balcony Rock” and “Le Souk.”

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Thelonious Monk Quartet

Monk was a master of the quartet format, no question, but which foursome was his greatest? The ‘50s band with Coltrane? The ’60s one with Charlie Rouse? We’d like to put in a good word for the 1958 group that recorded Thelonious in Action (Riverside/OJC) at the Five Spot in NYC: Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, Roy Haynes on drums, and the irrepressible Johnny Griffin on tenor sax. “Light Blue,” “Rhythm-a-Ning,” “Blue Monk,” “Evidence”—if you’re in need of some prime Monk music, look no further.

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Modern Jazz Quartet

From 1952 to 1974, the MJQ—pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Connie Kay—embodied elegance and intelligence in jazz. Pyramid (Atlantic), from 1959, is just one of many high points for this band, containing two Lewis-penned evergreens, “Django” and “Vendome,” as well as inspired versions of “How High the Moon” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”

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Ornette Coleman Quartet

Like Gerry Mulligan, Coleman got rid of the piano, but he went much further by also dispensing with regular chord changes. It pretty much goes without saying that his quartet with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins belongs on the short list of utterly revolutionary jazz groups, but we’ll say it again anyway. All of this band’s output is worth your time, but you may as well start with 1960’s Change of the Century (Atlantic), which features, in “Ramblin’” and “Una Muy Bonita,” some essential foundation stones of the Ornette catalogue.

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John Coltrane Quartet

Most powerful and influential jazz quartet of all time? Quite possibly. A Love Supreme and Impressions are of course unimpeachable documents of this band, but we recommend delving deeper: Pick up 1965’s The John Coltrane Quartet Plays (Impulse!). Okay, it does include more than four musicians—Art Davis joins Jimmy Garrison on bass for one tune—but the awe-inspiring rendition of “Chim Chim Cheree” is just the classic quartet, with Trane on soprano sax. The piercing first note of his solo on that track is, we contend, one of the most intense musical moments ever captured on tape by anyone.

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Keith Jarrett Quartet

This eclectic unit, featuring Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian, stayed together for five years (1971 to 1976) and was underappreciated for many more. But in recent times, the so-called “American” Quartet’s stock has risen sharply. The adoration expressed for its fearlessly exploratory music by younger players like Branford Marsalis and the Bad Plus certainly hasn’t hurt. On The Survivors’ Suite (ECM), an ambitious two-part work released in 1976, Jarrett—typically for this band—plays not only piano but also soprano sax, bass recorder, celeste, and drums.

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World Saxophone Quartet

A different kind of quartet, lacking not just piano but also bass and drums. On 1989’s Rhythm and Blues (Elektra), saxophonists Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, David Murray, and Hamiet Bluiett chose a different kind of repertoire, too: soul and funk numbers like “For the Love of Money,” “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” and “Night Train.” When these immediately recognizable tunes get entered into the WSQ rearrangement program, the results are pure poetry.

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Wayne Shorter Quartet

One elder statesman (sax legend Shorter) hooks up with three younger geniuses (pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade) to form a group that continues to be one of the top jazz quartets of our time. Their first album, 2002’s Footprints Live! (Verve/Universal), compiles the best recordings from three 2001 concerts. Offering abstract takes on several key Shorter compositions, including the title cut, it’s a high-level demonstration of musical telepathy in action.

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