After a hiatus from pieces on jazz piano, and with all this time on my hands, I thought it time to return to my favorite recordings, both musically and sonically, from a few of my favorite jazz pianists. As I have already covered those of Monty Alexander and Benny Green, I will cover a few more here. Some are no longer with us and can no longer be experienced live and others, very much so. There are quite a few here that are very well known and others, not such much. It is my hope that you check out those that you were not previously aware of as they have produced some very compelling recordings.
1. Oscar Peterson
In my estimation, Oscar Peterson is one of the top, if not the top jazz pianist of all time. It would be impossible to cover all of his numerous recordings here so I would like to focus on his series of trio recordings with Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. While there are numerous ones to consider here, my two favorites are Night Train and We Get Requests as I find the musicianship and sound to be top notch. I find the 24/96 file from Verve to be the best sounding reissue of Night Train. Silky smooth, detailed and dynamic. As for We Get Requests, my pick is the DSD release from Superhighrez. The DSD64 file was created from a 24/192 file and converted to DSD, which I convert back to PCM, albeit at 24/176.4, for playback through my Schiit Yggy DAC with Unison USB. The resulting sound is superb and very dynamic. While we are on the topic of this incredible trio, I have to mention the trio’s recording with my favorite tenor player, Ben Webster. The trio backs Ben on Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson. I love the sound of this album. It is very spacious and fills the room with Ben’s breathy sound taking center stage with the trio spaced behind him, left to right. A truly beautiful recording. Speaking of beautiful recordings, also check out Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster. Here the two tenor giants are backed by Oscar on piano, Ray Brown on bass with Alvin Stoller on drums and Herb Ellis on guitar. This is IMHO, one of the finest sounding jazz recordings from this time period. It is fantastic to be able to follow the two tenors when they are blowing at the same time, with their distinctive tones and styles, clearly separated and yet mixing together perfectly. This is the perfect 1 am recording with the lights on low or even better yet, not on at all.
2. Bill Evans
What is there left to say about Bill Evans that hasn’t already been said? His early trio with the phenomenal Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums are not to be missed. Scott LaFaro was tragically killed in a motor vehicle accident a few short weeks after a engagement at The Village Vanguard in New York which, fortunately was recorded by Riverside. Two recordings were released from these sets, Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. These recordings both put you right back in the club that night. One can even decipher the conversations at tables in the audience. It is actually amazing how many people at these shows seemed to be too engrossed in banal conversation rather than listening to the last sets that this magnificent set of musicians would ever play together. Another great studio set featuring this trio recorded before the Vanguard dates is Portraits in Jazz. This is another fine recording. While Bill Evans is clearly the leader of the set, he gives tons of space to both LaFaro and Motian to do their thing. While I prefer the Vanguard sessions, this set is superb as well. No doubt there are tons of other superb Bill Evans recordings that I could have picked to include here. These happen to be the three that get the most play on my system. The rest will just have to be the subjects of another pieced focused exclusively on Bill Evans. However, for those unfamiliar with him or jazz in general, these are a good place to start exploring his vast discography.
3. Dave Brubeck
I was inspired to include Dave Brubeck on this list as a result of a comment in a thread here on AS that argued or strongly inferred that Time Out was not really jazz or was some sort of lesser jazz, even though the album Time Out is one of the best selling jazz albums of all time. Oh well! In any event, I don’t think that Mr. Brubeck always gets the due he deserves as a keyboardist. He is a phenomenal player. His work on Time Out really speaks for itself. However, I direct you to two live recordings where he really struts his stuff as a versatile pianist, The Dave Brubeck Quartet Live at Carnegie Hall recorded in 1963 and The Dave Brubeck Trio and Gerry Mulligan-Live At The Berlin Philharmonie that was recorded in 1972. I just love live jazz recordings for their overall energy and spontaneity and these two releases have them in spades. Just listen to Brubeck’s playing throughout these recordings, especially the straight blues piano he plays on the Berlin set. Both recordings sound fantastic as well.
4. Gene Harris
Of the first four on this list, Gene Harris is probably the least known but very worthy of your consideration. The person who I can best compare him to in terms of style and tone is my personal favorite, Monty Alexander. Like Monty, he has a joyful, soulful sound, with plenty of dynamics and inventiveness but a tad more on the blues side than Monty. Gene Harris first came on the scene with The Three Sounds which he formed in the 1950’s with Andrew Simpkins on bass and Bill Dowdy on drums. They recorded quite a few worthy albums on Blue Note beginning with Introducing The Three Sounds in 1958. This release is very representative of the other Blue Note releases and is a great one to start out with. It sounds mighty fine as well. It seems that Mr. Harris retired from the music scene in 1977. He was brought out of retirement by Ray Brown in the early ‘80’s after Ray found him living in Boise, Idaho. Ray convinced Gene to join his new trio and along with Jeff Hamilton on drums, recorded a string of excellent albums on Concord, including that audiophile classic, Soular Energy as well as Summer Wind (Live at Loa), Bam Bam Bam, 3 Dimensional as well as The Red Hot Ray Brown Trio, featuring Mickey Roker on drums. They are all worth a listen. In the late ‘80’s, Gene formed his own band and headlined a number of recordings on the Concord label. My favorite of these recordings, both musically and sonically, is the 1994 release Funky Gene’s with Luther Hughes on bass, Paul Humphrey on drums and Ron Eschete on guitar. Unfortunately, Gene passed away in 2000 while waiting for a kidney transplant. However, his estate, through Resonance Records, released Live in London in 2008 with Martin Drew on drums, Andrew Cleyndert on bass and the great Scottish guitarist Jim Mullen. The album was recorded live at The Pizza Express jazz club in London in 1996. It is said that the band was hired shortly before the gig but you wouldn’t be able to tell as the performance is tight as well as sensational.
5. Fred Hersch
I first became aware of Fred Hersch in the 1990’s with releases as a leader as well as an accompanist on Chesky Records. Those releases include the superb Dancing In The Dark, Live At Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 31 and The Fred Hersch Trio Plays. I have been fortunate a few times to see Fred Hersch perform live. The only word I can use to describe him is a genius. His music can be very complex and abstract and yet he plays some of the most beautiful piano I have ever heard. The last time I saw him live was at The Village Vanguard a year or so ago. I sat at the table just below his piano stool. He never opened his eyes the entire time he played. It was like he was in another world, all his own. It was a riveting performance. Fred is best seen live but if you can’t there are two live recordings on Palmetto Records which capture him perfectly, namely 2012’s 2 CD set Alive At The Vanguard and the follow up Sunday At The Vanguard, released in 2016. Superb sound and performances. Another superb sounding recording is 2018’s Live In Europe, which is a sonic tour du force.
6. Bill Charlap
When you take a look at Bill Charlap, you would never guess that he is a top jazz pianist. He looks more like an accountant. But he sure can play. He forms the basis of a very tight trio, that has been playing together for years, with Kenny Washington on drums and Peter Washington on bass. This trio has released a string of fantastic recordings that are well engineered. The best of these recordings are Live At The Village Vanguard (gee, there are a ton of great albums that have been recorded at The Village Vanguard, which has the best sound of all the New York jazz clubs, by far, IMHO) released in 2007, the sensational and my favorite Bill Charlap Trio album, Notes From New York released in 2016 as well as their latest studio album, Uptown, Downtown released in 2017. Another excellent album featuring the trio is Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern released in 2015. This album also features an appearance by Bill Charlap’s wife, Renee Rosnes on piano. I guess the Charlaps are the dynamic duo of jazz piano.
7. Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk without a doubt has the most distinctive style of all the great piano icons of jazz. All it takes is two or three notes and you know exactly who you are listening to. Monk has that almost disjointed phrasing that acts to pull you right into the performance. He was also a wonderful composer, penning such classic tunes as Round Midnight, Epistrophy, Crepuscule With Nellie, Bye-Ya, Bright Mississippi, Rhythm-a-ning, Straight No Chaser and Bemsha Swing, just to name but a few. As I have noted, I love live albums, and Monk has a beauty, The Complete Thelonious Monk At The It Club, featuring Charlie Rouse on tenor, Ben Riley on bass and Larry Gales on bass. These sets were recorded at the It Club in San Francisco in 1964 and features arguably his best quartet playing his best known compositions. This band is tight and it is a thrill to be able to be transported back in time to hear this group at its best. Fine sounding too. Another great release is Monk’s Dream released in 1963. It also features Charlie Rouse on tenor along with John Ore on bass and Frankie Dunlop on drums. This release was Monk’s first on Columbia and features many of the tunes from Live At The It Club. Another interesting release is Les Liaisons Dangereuses released in 2017. I find it to be most interesting for the last track which shows the making of Light Blue. It starts with Monk playing some notes. The drummer chimes in with a beat, Monk likes it but the drummer stops. It takes awhile for Monk to coax the drummer to play the beat the way he wants until the tune is born. Also of interest is the fact that this long piece does not have the same mastering as the finished track on the album and sounds more dynamic and frankly more real. I wish the rest of the tracks on the album sounded as good. Another fine album is Thelonious Himself released by Riverside in 1957. This is a solo piano album where you can really focus in on his distinctive style. Finally, another favorite of mine is Thelonious Monk Meets Gerry Mulligan. Yes, it seems like an odd pairing but it works.
8. Patricia Barber
Yeah, I know. I will get some blowback on this one. Yeah, audiophile slop, tired of hearing her at shows, she is a singer, yada yada yada. But guess what? She is a phenomenal pianist. I have seen her a few times at The Blue Note and The Jazz Standard in New York and was blown away listening to her play the piano. Her technique is perfect. She was playing traditional standards that you don’t usually hear on her records that had me gobsmacked. Listen to her playing on my favorite of her recordings, Nightclub, to get a glimpse of what I have been able to hear live. The same is true of her self released live recordings Monday Night Live At The Green Mill, especially a Volume 2. Go on, don’t be scared. Give her another listen.
9. Ben Paterson
Ben Paterson is one of the upcoming younger jazz pianists, a young jazz buck if you will, who has a very bright future ahead of him. Born in Philadelphia in 1982, Ben moved to Chicago for college. It was in the Windy City where Ben developed his jazz chops. Ben was the winner of the 2018 Ellis Marsalis International Jazz Piano Competition, so you know he can play. Ben has a straight ahead jazz style who can really swing. He can even sing and plays a killer Hammond organ. While he does not yet have an extensive discography, it is a fine one nonetheless. There are two recordings of his which are on heavy rotation in my room, the 2007 trio release, Breathing Space on OA2 Records and That Old Feeling released by Cellar Live in 2016. Breathing Space features Jon Deitemyer on drums and Jake Vinsel on bass. The set features jazz standards played beautifully and features excellent sonics. That Old Feeling has the vibe of an early Nat King Cole album with Ben on piano and vocals, Chris Flory on guitar and George Delaney on bass. This recording is very spacious, with a three dimensional sound field, superb instrument separation and a killer piano sound. A simply wonderful recording. Ben’s latest release is a Christmas album, I’ll Be Thanking Santa. Released in 2019 it is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Christmas albums. It features excellent sound and wonderful creative arrangements, which is actually suitable for year round listening.
Ben Paterson at Qobuz
10. Emmet Cohen
I had not really heard any of Emmet Cohen’s recordings until very recently. I was aware of him as he accompanies vocalist Veronica Swift on her wonderful debut album. However, a gentleman in Philly who operates a unique jazz “parlor” called Exuberance (check it out. It is his living room!) informed me that Emmet and the rest of his trio, Russell Hall and Kyle Poole, would be live streaming concerts from their flat in Harlem on Facebook and Instagram on Monday evenings while we are all locked down during this pandemic. I turned ito the first one (and every one since) and immediately became a fan. Joyous, swing, bopping and eclectic jazz of the highest order. The concerts are still up on Facebook. Check them out by all means. I enjoyed the first show so much that I downloaded this trios only recording, Dirty In Detroit live At The Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe. I am sure glad I did. Fine sound and even greater playing. Please, check out this trio. They are spectacular.
11. Mike Bond
Mike Bond is another newcomer to the jazz scene at the ripe old age of 30 and is clearly someone to keep an eye, or maybe an ear on. Mike is a very talented pianist and composer from New Jersey with a wonderful debut album, The Honorable Ones, that was released in February 2020. Mike composed and/or arranged 10 of the 12 tunes on the album. In addition to being a fine pianist, Mike is showing some real compositional chops on this release. The album features quite a group, with Ben Wolfe on bass, Anwar Marshall on drums, Josh Evans on trumpet and Steve Wilson on saxophone. Also featured on the album are beat boxer Gene Shinozaki and vocalists Claudia Acuna and Maya Holliday. The album is well recorded as well. I had the pleasure to attend Mike’s album release party at Exuberance in Philly in February and was blown away by Mike’s prowess on the piano. This is a wonderful debut release and Mike, no doubt, had quite the future. This release is well worth your time.
Mike Bond at Qobuz
Well, that is all for now folks. This list was not intended to be all inclusive, either in terms of artists or their respective discographies. These are just some of my favorites that are in heavy rotation here at Chez Whip. There in much more to come in regards to my favorite jazz pianists. I hope you give these fine artists a listen and enjoy and above all, stay safe and be well.