The piano has been central to the development of jazz music, but just who are the best jazz pianists of all time? Here are, or what we think are, the greatest jazz pianists ever, but have we ever missed your favourite?The list is in alphabetical order.
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Mose Allison (b.1927)
Singer-composers are not all that common in jazz. Vocalists have usually concentrated on reshaping the riches of the great American songbook or the blues, calling attention to their interpretations rather than the qualities of the original material.
Which is all the more reason to praise and prize the distinctive talent of octogenarian Mose Allison who, in a career stretching back beyond five decades, has produced a unique body of work. Allison’s songs are unmistakeable – wry, bluesy comments on the contemporary scene that manage to be streetwise and satiric, down-home and hip. If they have not made him a household name, they have earned him the devotion of fans all over the world, and the respect and emulation of a couple of generations of his fellow singers, including stars of rock and pop.
The tangy variety and range of Allison’s style reflect his origins. Born in rural Mississippi, he absorbed blues and boogie-woogie from an early age, as well as classical piano and the innovations of bop. In 1956 he made the leap to New York, where he found quick employment as a pianist with the likes of Stan Getz.
But he soon began to pursue his real vocation as a jazz minstrel, which he has continued ever since, performing his songs on the international club and festival circuit and making a string of records. An irresistible cross-section of the results appears on the Warner compilation, Introducing Mose Allison. The introduction begins with the very first track, an Allison hit titled ‘New Parchman’, in which a convict on a Southern prison farm drawls: ‘The place is loaded with rustic charm’. The sardonic sentiment is pure Allison, as is the driving groove, punctuated with jabbing dissonances and whirlwind forays into new keys.
Every track has that kind of wit and energy, aspects of the central impulse that, on one of my favourite pieces, he calls his ‘Swingin’ Machine’ (‘It’s much more felt than seen.’) Always, the Allison muse is fed directly by personal observation, as in the tune he wrote to rebuke noisy audiences: ‘Your mind is on vacation, but your mouth is working overtime.’ There’s plenty to savour here from a true original, survivor and jazz bard.
Count Basie (1904-1984)
Count Basie’s name brings to mind associations that might seem contradictory: a famously minimalist piano style and the celebrated big band he led for 50 years. In fact, the two were perfect complements. The Basie band took much of its character from the subtle way the Count’s pithy, elliptical attack framed his shouting brass and saxes. More crucially, Basie’s touch set the tone for the band’s rhythm section; the light, insistent pulse that generated the irresistible current of swing that lifted soloists and ensemble to heights of inspired excitement.
That excitement hit the big time beginning in 1936, when the Basie crew came east from Kansas City (KC). Their success was based on a simple formula of creating in an ensemble the spontaneity and fire of small-group jazz. The key was the band’s line-up of great soloists, including tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans and trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry Edison. Original tunes, uncomplicated but driving, provided a jumping-off point for solos backed by riffs which seemed a corporate extension of the solos themselves. And underpinning the whole was Basie and his floating, insinuating rhythm.
The results can be heard in any number of records, including Basie’s famous ‘One O’Clock Jump’, a string of solo choruses building to a churning climax. But that unique sound depended on the strength of its components. When his stars departed, and the swing era waned, Basie changed tack. While the Basie band of the ’50s boasted first-rate players, it emphasised power, precision and well-crafted arrangements. The Count’s deft piano still produced an infectious rolling swing, but many jazz fans felt this sleek unit was a different creature from the lean, mean cat from KC.
But the latter group had some appealing hits, including ‘April in Paris’, with Basie’s ‘one more time’ tag, and the languid arrangement by Neal Hefti, ‘Li’l Darlin’’. Both are present on the Avid two-CD set (left). Each represented ensemble reveals the wonderful things that happened when, in the words of Billie Holiday, ‘Daddy Basie would two-finger it a little’.
Carla Bley (b.1936)
Though Carla Bley was once proclaimed ‘the Queen of the avant-garde’, she’s too much of a free spirit to be defined by a label. Born in California 70 years ago in May, she learned piano from her choirmaster father and accompanied services from an early age, before dropping out of church and school to concentrate on competition roller skating.
At 17, jazz seized her attention and she went to New York, waiting on tables at Birdland and absorbing the musical ferment. In 1959 she married pianist Paul Bley, who encouraged her talent for composition, and tuneful originals such as ‘Sing Me Softly of the Blues’ became contemporary standards. As a performer, she became known in free jazz circles for high energy abstraction.
But composing remained closest to her heart, as a means of realising the teeming spectrum of styles that spoke to her. The Beatles, Satie, hardcore rock, Indian ragas, blues and gospel, Latin and free – they all claimed a place in the Bley musical imagination, compounded with a wicked instinct for satire. And in 1971, those multiple tendencies converged in The Escalator over the Hill, a jazz opera which attracted critical acclaim if not many performances.
Bley became a fixture on the global post-modern scene, touring with an array of groups from duos to big band, performing new originals and recording on her own WATT label. Her work has continued to evoke a wide range of influences (Bruckner is among her heroes) and her command of the big band genre is witty and ingenious, realised by her regular corps of virtuoso musicians, including her husband, bass guitarist Steve Swallow, and British tenorist Andy Sheppard.
One of her recent projects is Looking for America. On sketching melodic ideas she found that fragments of ‘The Star‑Spangled Banner’ kept cropping up. An American liberal troubled by Iraq, Bley was bemused that ‘my new piece had a patriotic virus’, but, typically, stuck with it. What came out is an exhilarating mix of Charles Ives and Charles Mingus, mockery and nobility, bombast and boogaloo – all magnificently played. Though Bley may have gone looking for America, she wound up, as ever, finding herself.
Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)
Dave Brubeck has been incredibly well-known for most of his career. His early success with college audiences – the Brubeck quartet virtually invented the campus circuit – catapulted him on to the cover of Time magazine in 1954. (The pianist’s reaction was embarrassment: he felt Duke Ellington deserved the honour.) In 1960 his star status increased with the album Time Out. Brubeck’s mixture of asymmetrical rhythms and catchy tunes won international renown, though the disc’s biggest hit, the sinuous ‘Take Five’, was written by the quartet’s alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, with some structural advice from his boss.
But, as all too often in jazz, popular celebrity inspired critical condescension. He was slated for his ‘academic’ approach – he had studied with Darius Milhaud – his use of such classical devices as counterpoint and polytonality, his sometimes thunderous keyboard attack and disinclination to swing in a conventional manner. Critics damned his lyricism with faint praise and dismissed him from the jazz tradition.
However, over the years, as the idea of a monolithic tradition has become suspect, Brubeck has come to be seen as a remarkable, original talent. Far from being some kind of uptight academic, he still has trouble reading music and is one of the most purely intuitive pianists jazz has produced. His style is founded completely on a commitment to musical expression, fuelled by a belief that, as he once put it, ‘jazz should have the right to take big chances’ – even going beyond what has been considered jazz. And, even though he has just turned 90, Brubeck continues to tour, compose and display his lifelong zest for making music.
A handsome survey is contained in The Essential Dave Brubeck, a two-CD set selected by the pianist, ranging from a freewheeling trio in 1949 to the recent quartet. Particularly impressive is his partnership with Paul Desmond, whose wit, swing and invention provided a lucid foil for Brubeck’s experimental ardour. The classic quartet, with Desmond and super- drummer Joe Morello, is well represented, including tracks from Time Out and Time Further Out.
Chick Corea (1941-2021)
Acoustic, electric, latin, free – Chick Corea’s career seems to have touched all the bases in today’s jazz scene. Yet that variety is firmly centred in some abiding principles: a passion for music, the piano and performance. They were a kind of birthright. The son of a professional musician, Corea grew up surrounded by music. Piano lessons instilled his well-grounded technique and love of the classical tradition. At the same time, he got into jazz, particularly the hard bop attack of pianist Horace Silver.
Formal education frustrated him. After a few weeks first at Columbia University, then at Juilliard, where he’d been accepted to major in the piano, he left to commit himself to jazz. Working with all kinds of bands, and absorbing all kinds of styles – with a special fondness for fiery Latin rhythms – Corea built a reputation as composer and player, confirmed in such albums as Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, with bassist Miroslav Vitous and master-drummer Roy Haynes.
In 1968, his career took a leap with a call from Miles Davis. Corea’s tenure with Davis included the epoch-making Bitches Brew, but he found the electronic ambience too fragmented, lacking ‘romance or drama’. He sought those qualities in solo improvisations and with Circle, a free-form trio, then subsequently formed the quintet Return to Forever in 1972. It featured electric instruments, a vocalist and such exuberant originals as ‘La Fiesta’.
But he still found drama in acoustic music – scintillating duets with vibes virtuoso Gary Burton and his reconstituted trio with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes. For the last 20 years Corea has followed his instincts in multiple directions, touring solo, and with ‘Elektric’ and ‘Akoustic’ bands.
Corea once said he sought to combine ‘the discipline and beauty of the classical composers with the rhythmic dancing quality of jazz’ – which is an apt description of the recordings in his personal ECM compilation. Ranging from Return to Forever’s joyously lyrical ‘La Fiesta’ to the extraordinary trios with Vitous and Haynes, their impassioned creativity brings to mind the words of William Blake: ‘Energy is eternal delight’.
Blossom Dearie 1926-2009
When Blossom Dearie died the obituaries began by declaring that that really was her given name. It seemed too good to be true, the winsome image so perfectly suited the doll-like delivery which had made her a unique presence on the international scene for over half a century.
But that little-girl voice concealed a rare and determined talent. She’d paid her dues in big bands – including a stint with Woody Herman’s singing group The Blue Flames – worked as an accompanist and soloist in clubs, led her own piano trio. Moving to Paris in 1952, she formed a vocal octet, The Blue Stars, who scored an international hit with Blossom’s arrangement of ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ (La légende du pays aux oiseaux). Back in the US, her career flowered, attracting a coterie of fans who relished her distinctive style in jazz clubs and smart cabarets. Dearie’s personal territory was the jazz-cabaret frontier, an adroit blend of delicate swing and wit. As her fellow musicians well knew, she was a collector and connoisseur of good tunes, savouring clever lyrics and chord changes, which she projected with subtlety, insight and humour.
But she also loved to swing, and her easy, buoyant sense of time affirmed her jazz credentials. That infectious mix makes the Avid compilation of four albums from the 1950s a delight. It includes her Gallic trip to Birdland with the Blue Stars, while a set with a French rhythm section demonstrates her pianistic side. But Dearie comes into her own on tracks featuring such elite sidemen as guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jo Jones – classic standards superbly performed, with her sure instinct for vocal nuance complemented by effortlessly perfect grooves.
Such aplomb explains the cult following she enjoyed over the years. She was never slow to castigate audiences for rudeness, and some of her best songs have a satiric bite. If you can find it, one of her own favourite discs was the live Blossom Time at Ronnie Scott’s, containing ‘I’m Hip’, a portrait of a jazz pseud. But she herself was the real thing, a jazz musician to the bone. And, despite appearances, no evanescent little flower either, but quietly steely and enduring.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
Since jazz is usually celebrated as an improvisor’s art, it may seem paradoxical that one of its major figures was a composer. Though Duke Ellington was a notable pianist, he declared, ‘My band is my instrument,’ and for over half a century he made it the medium of a peerless body of work.
For Ellington, composition was never an abstract process, but a direct response to people and situations. He once said, ‘I see something and want to make a tone parallel,’ and the titles of his works are a catalogue of incidents, encounters and atmospheres. ‘Haunted Nights’, ‘The Mooche’, ‘Daybreak Express’, ‘Black, Brown and Beige’ – every Ellington piece enshrines a life in motion, pursued with spontaneity.
And Ellington’s lifelong companions were the members of his band – among them the gutbucket growls of trumpeters Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams, the arching sensuousness of altoist Johnny Hodges and the rumbling majesty of Harry Carney’s baritone. As individual and sometimes contrary a set of virtuosos as ever shared a bandstand, he composed with these sounds and personalities in his head, writing specifically for them. And they provided the raw material for his astonishing originality in harmony and orchestration. To many, Ellington may have been known for such lush popular hits as ‘Sophisticated Lady’, but his colleagues recognised an attainment of another order. As Miles Davis put it, ‘Some day all the jazz musicians should get together in one place and go down on their knees and thank Duke.’
Many critics think Ellington’s finest period was 1940-42, and The Blanton-Webster Band offers a complete chronicle of magnificent music, a sequence of three-minute masterpieces which still dazzle by their variety, daring and sheer creative brilliance. But for a single-disc overview of the ducal experience, try a compilation which was linked to Ken Burns’s BBC documentary from 2000 – Jazz: The Definitive Duke Ellington includes masterpieces from 1927 to 1960, featuring the major Ellington voices and providing a compelling cross-section of an extraordinary accomplishment.
Bill Evans (1929-1980)
In the rakish, outsider’s world of jazz, Bill Evans seemed an anomaly. Bespectacled and unassuming, he had a clerical air which prompted a bandleader to nickname him ‘the minister’. Yet at the piano – head bent over the keys, eyes closed – he was the image of intensity, spinning out the luminous, questing lines Miles Davis likened to ‘quiet fire’.
It was his tenure with Davis’s legendary 1958 sextet that made Evans a star, particularly his crucial role in the perennially best-selling album Kind of Blue, recorded the following year. Davis brought the pianist back into the band for this project, knowing his touch would be ideal for its open-ended, modal lyricism.
In a series of recordings made mostly with trios, Evans’s unique style won him a celebrity status of his own. His purity of sound, and genius for harmonies and voicings, earned him a reputation as ‘the Chopin of jazz’. Indeed, he knew much of the classical repertoire: he’d performed Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto at college and regularly practised Bach.
But his devotion to jazz was primary, as was his conviction that its essence was emotion. Though he took a rigorous view of what he called ‘the extremely severe and unique disciplines’ of jazz, and disparaged wild-eyed abandon, he regarded feeling as the ‘generating force’. That quality of feeling informs the trio recordings he made live at the Village Vanguard in 1961. Evans’s group marked a revolution in trio-playing: the pianist encouraged virtuoso bassist Scott LaFaro not simply to lay down a beat, but to engage in dialogue. Their subtle interplay, with drummer Paul Motian, illuminates such tunes as Evans’s lilting ‘Waltz for Debby’ and LaFaro’s brooding ‘Jade Visions’.
Though some critics found Evans’s art too inward-looking, he could swing too. Everybody Digs Bill Evans is a case in point, with the pianist’s bright, sharp-angled attack supported by the straight-ahead drive of bassist Sam Jones and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Yet the disc also features spellbinding ballads and Evans’s solo classic ‘Peace Piece’. Derived from Chopin’s Op. 57 Berceuse, it’s a mesmerising demonstration of why Bill Evans influenced every jazz pianist who followed him.
Erroll Garner (1921-1977)
Since Erroll Garner left the scene over 30 years ago, in 1977, it’s hard to convey what a phenomenon he really was. Without making any conscious attempt at celebrity, the elfin pianist became that rare thing: a jazz musician who was also a household name. He attracted a huge audience solely by exuberant improvisation, love of good tunes and utterly infectious swing.
His talent for giving musical pleasure appeared early. From the age of ten, in his native Pittsburgh, he was a radio star, building a daunting reputation in local jazz circles during the 1930s. When an aspiring pianist named Art Blakey came up against Garner at a jam session, he decided he’d better switch to drums. In 1944, Garner made his move to New York, impressing contemporaries with an originality that, in its wit, drive and virtuosity, harked back to giants such as Fats Waller and Earl Hines. Yet his quick-silver harmonic sense and twisting, questing lines struck a chord with the young lions of bebop. Indeed, some critics dubbed Garner a ‘disciple’ of bop’s chief keyboard luminary, Bud Powell. But at a private piano conclave, Bud hid in the kitchen after Garner played, to avoid following him.
Finally, the young pianist sounded like nobody but himself, and assumed top-rank status, performing with the likes of Charlie Parker. Even more remarkably, he became popular with the mainstream public, winning a devoted following in person, on records and TV.
That quality of sheer delight informs every moment of Erroll’s celebrated Concert by the Sea, recorded live in California with a trio in 1955. Here are all the Garner trademarks – the impish, stalking introduction to ‘I Remember April’ which segues into feather-light melody, driven along by the pianist’s pulsating four-to-the-bar left hand; the shifts in dynamics, romantic flourishes, plunging asymmetrical octaves; dancing, blues-inflected lines that sweep forward to a chordal climax. And the hushed, spellbinding ballads that conjure Debussy one minute, Rachmaninov the next.
Outside of the music, all we hear is Garner’s occasional guttural rasps and the palpable rapture of the audience which, even today, I’m sure you’ll share.