The 3 Greatest Jazz-Rock Bands

There are two kinds of jazz-rock bands: those that play jazz music with rock inflections (like Return To Forever) and those that play rock (or pop) with a requisite amount of jazz influence. This list focuses on the latter; rock bands with jazz vibes.

01
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Chicago
Chicago. Press Image Provided By The Band

With all respect to this great band, Chicago stopped being a jazz-rock band when Ronald Reagan stopped being president.  But the eight studio albums that came before 1977 were some of the most exhilarating jazz-rock fusion music of the decade.

The band's 1969 debut album, called "Chicago Transit Authority," rang a clarion ​ball for all who wished to listen that the fusion of "On the Corner"-era Miles Davis and early Weather Report had broader possibilities. The star on  "CTA" was guitarist Terry Kath, whose incendiary approach toppled multiple musical boundaries.

Their second album, known simply as "Chicago," demonstrated the band members' ever-evolving skills as writers, highlighted by three long-form compositions: the 12-minute "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon," the charming "Memories of Love" and the four-movement "It Better End Soon."

Commercial success naturally drew out the pop side of the band's personality, but later albums still answered to their jazz roots, like the charismatic turn-of-the-century vibe of "Chicago XIII" (The Red Cardinal album). More »

David Clayton-Thoma
David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat and Tears, 1975. Michael Putland/Getty Images

There are some who would say that Blood, Sweat & Tears began and ended with the participation of Al Kooper, who was on-board for the band's first effort, "Child Is the Father to Man."

But even the most narrow-minded of listeners must agree that the band's eponymous second album, "Blood, Sweat & Tears," is one of the most beautiful jazz-rock records of all time. Their reading of Laura Nyro's "And When I Die" is definitive, and their cover of "God Bless the Child" is second only to Billie Holiday's. The record has its gentle moments (the Satie "Variations"), makes it clear the band can jam ("Blues -- Part II") and made time and tempo changes safe for pop radio ("You've Made Me So Very Happy").

The band members proved that their chemistry was no fluke with their third and fourth albums (uneventfully entitled "3" and ​"4"). They relied on the same songbooks as on "Blood, Sweat & Tears" (Laura Nyro, Steve Winwood) with the wise addition of Goffin and King's "Hi-De-Ho."

The band dropped the ball from time to time -- witness the Dick Halligan composition "Symphony for the Devil" blended with the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" -- but that hardly tarnishes the accomplishments of the band during the short four years they were led by David Clayton-Thomas. More »

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Steely Dan

Donald Fagen
Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, 2013. Michael Verity

Though there was little doubt after listening to this band's first two records that Steely Dan came from the world of jazz, the ever-elusive Donald Fagen and Walter Becker never really admitted it -- at least musically -- until 1974, when they included Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" on "Pretzel Logic." From there, the gloves came off.

The Eastern mysticism of "Katy Lied" was infused with a melding of Duke Ellington's ​"Far East Suite" with Tony Scott's meditative melodic approach. ​"The Royal Scam" exploded the idea even further, lacing heavy guitar lines over jazz changes on cuts like "Don't Take Me Alive." 

Their "comeback" records of the 2000s don't warrant much attention, but their '70s output is as good as it gets.