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Jazz Corner: Jazz Piano to the Fore

From Nat ‘King’ Cole to Chick Corea to Count Basie; a look at some of the finest jazz pianists

Sunil Sampat Feb 21, 2017
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Nat 'King' Cole. Photo: William P. Gottlieb/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Nat ‘King’ Cole. Photo: William P. Gottlieb/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Last month, a good friend of mine was excited about embarking on a road trip to Goa and wanted to have jazz piano for company on his car’s music system. We got into a discussion about the music he would choose for the journey. He has since returned from his trip—and I am not sure of what he heard on the road trip, but my mind is still creating a list of outstanding piano jazz to recommend for similar road trips, or simply for sessions of listening, armed adequately with one’s choice of tipple! The piano is such a brilliant, versatile instrument—an orchestra in itself. The 15 jazz pianists I would like to have on that famous (and by now overcrowded) desert island would be: This order does not suggest any kind of ranking.

1. Oscar Peterson: My favorite Peterson album from a huge choice is Live in Paris at the Salle Pleyal, a brilliant album featuring bassist Neils Pederson and Joe Pass on acoustic guitar. Notice that drums don’t feature in this concert.

2. Bud Powell: I love his single “Um Poco Loco” featuring Max Roach on drums and his album, Bouncing with Bud.

3. Art Tatum: Acclaimed by many as the ultimate jazz pianist, check out his solo albums where you can hear the totality of the sound of the piano.

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4. Red Garland: A lyrical pianist who put magic into Miles Davis’s albums—Relaxin’, Cookin’, Steamin’ and Workin’.

5. Bill Evans: Of his many recordings I’d pick “Waltz for Debby.”

6. Phineas Newborn Junior: A much underrated artist but as good as any. His album This is Phineas is spectacular.

7. Wynton Kelly: Another pianist from Davis’s acoustic jazz era. His playing on Davis’s album, Someday My Prince Will Come, reveals the beauty of Kelly’s playing.

6. Herbie Hancock: A pure genius of jazz piano, Hancock introduced us to the electric piano and its variants, but I am prejudiced in favor of his acoustic piano playing.

9. Chick Corea: Another versatile genius on the piano. I love his playing on his famous album Return to Forever and his very early recording with Stan Getz on the album Sweet Rain.

10. Keith Jarrett: An intellectual pianist, and like Hancock and Corea, Jarrett is a modern piano giant. I am particularly partial to his recordings of Standards in trio format with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette.

11. Thelonius Monk: Nobody sounds or composes like Monk. His musical inspirations have come from some unique place! Just listen to his great compositions, “Round Midnight,” “Well, You Needn’t,” “Straight, No Chaser” or “Epistrophy” with his quartet.

12. Count Basie: The man who defined ‘less is more’ and the man who led the swingiest jazz band ever! His playing on many tunes but particularly on his composition “One O’Clock Jump,” “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and “Corner Pocket” is simply delicious.

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13. Nat ‘King’ Cole: Somehow better known as a singer, Cole was a magnificent jazz pianist and inspired the likes of Peterson. Love his work with the fabulous Lester Young on tenor saxophone.

14. Kenny Barron: Pick any of his trio recordings. For me Barron is the finest contemporary pianist in the business.

15. McCoy Tyner: John Coltrane’s fabulous pianist on his post Miles era. Tyner is good with Coltrane. Also try his album Super Trios.

There are also Duke Ellington, Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck, Hampton Hawes, Mulgrew Miller and others, of course.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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