The legitimate approaches to solo jazz piano are as varied as jazz itself. Some players try to fill in all the gaps left due to the absence of other instruments, while others embrace the space and the “blank canvas” aspect. In either case there are all sorts of techniques for making the music flow yet sound adequately full. I think back to my first lesson with the pianist Richard Thompson. He asked me to play something for him and I asked “trio-style or solo-style?” He looked at me incredulously for a moment and said “it’s a piano. Play it.” I’m still not sure whether he was being Zen-like or just annoyed, but I’ve gone back to that edict often in the 20 years since. In the end, the music demands certain things, we’ve got the use of 10 fingers spread between 2 hands (if we’re lucky – Horace Parlan did pretty damned well with less) and we’ve got to figure out
As I gear up for the CD release concert for my first (and, if I were a betting man, likely only) solo piano record, Turtle Steps it’s a good time to reflect on the solo piano performances that most exemplify what I love about the format. Many of my favorite solo pianists are unrepresented, including Chick Corea, Fats Waller, Bill Evans (whose solo version of “Danny Boy” is one of my favorite musical moments, period – somehow it didn’t seem like it belonged on this list, though), James P. Johnson, Cecil Taylor, Hank Jones, JoAnne Brackeen, Lennie Tristano, Ray Bryant and many others). Likewise there are a number of great pianists not much older than me who have recently done brilliant solo projects, including Eric Reed, George Colligan, Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer and so on. I don’t think any of them will begrudge omission in favor of the artists below, however.
1 ) Art Tatum “Tiger Rag” (from Piano Starts Here)
This one is #1 in part due to its sheer awesomeness and in part to get the Tatum homage out of the way. I can’t prove it, of course, but I submit that this track from 1933 (alongside other Tatum performances of this tune) has probably caused more people to quit the piano in hopeless frustration than any other in history. Tatum in general is like the 7-foot star athlete on the junior high school basketball team – the extent to which he dwarfs all others is kind of comical.
2 ) Thelonious Monk “’Round Midnight” (from Thelonious Himself)
This list could easily be populated entirely by Monk. I am particularly fond of this album, and this is my favorite version of “’Round Midnight,” which is really saying something. Monk’s economy, touch and unparalleled use of “ugly beauty” in his note choices are in full display here. As a monumental bonus, the album also features an additional 22 minutes of false starts and partial takes leading up to the master take of this song.
3 ) Earl “Fatha” Hines “I’ve Got the World On A String” (from Live at the New School)
I have Lewis Porter to thank (among many other things) for turning me on to Earl Hines and specifically to the jaw-dropping brilliance of his solo piano work in his “golden years” when clearly nobody remembered to tell him that he was well past his prime and shouldn’t be growing and innovating any more. This sixteen minute tour de force from 1973 (46 years after his first collaborations with Louis Armstrong) doesn’t lose steam at any point either technically or creatively. There’s a fun digression into “Honeysuckle Rose,” some stunning pianism, surprisingly (at least if you’re not hip to 1970s “Fatha”) modern harmony and some ridiculously facile stride for good measure.
4 ) Jaki Byard “Jaki’s Blues Next” (from Blues For Smoke)
Who says that the worlds of James P. Johnson and Cecil Taylor are mutually exclusive? Not Byard, that’s for sure. I love his authentic rags and his far-out dissonant works, but I have a particularly soft spot for performances like this that run the gamut. As a bonus, the quizzical looks of music students hearing this for the first time are invariably priceless.
5 ) James Williams “Spirit(ually) James” (from Soulful Serindipity by JW and Bobby Watson)
I’ll admit that I’m not generally a fan of a) contemporary Christian music (I know, I know, I’m a heathen, sorry) or b) medleys. But when James recorded the song “Why We Sing” as the conclusion of a medley alongside several spirituals for his Live at Maybeck album in the ‘90s, it really knocked me out, and this after I’d already spent years trying to figure out how to evoke the same je-ne-sais-quoi as JW in my own playing. This track, recorded a year before James’ tragic passing, also revolves around “Why We Sing” but in a medley that also spends a good amount of time with “Wade In the Water” and touches on such things as Ellington, Fats Waller and Ravel at other points. I can’t think of another pianist who could have pulled all of these elements together into such a coherent and soulful performance, but that’s just what happens here. Unlike much of James’ work, this is IN PRINT (CD or digital download) so there’s no good reason for not buying it now.
6 ) Jelly Roll Morton “Mamanita” (from Library of Congress Recordings)
That Jelly Roll Morton described the “Spanish Tinge” within jazz rhythm is well-documented. Too few people, however, really dig into what that means vis-à-vis Jelly’s own music. His late-career Library of Congress recordings are a particularly great way to hear his vision of early jazz history and his own music casually but authoritatively delivered on the piano with his unique sense of rhythm and orchestration. And this track has a particularly appealing “Spanish Tinge.”
7 ) Teddy Wilson “That Old Feeling” (on Commodore records, released on various anthologies)
This track is from 1938, though I could have just as easily picked stuff from his session of Cole Porter tunes in the 70s or any number of sessions in between, distinguishable largely by recording quality since, unlike his predecessor Earl Hines, Wilson’s style remained pretty steady throughout his career. For elegance of swing feel he is probably rivaled only by Nat Cole, and Teddy’s stride left hand is rock-solid on a level that this elegance sort of camouflages.
8 ) McCoy Tyner “Naima” (from Echoes of A Friend)
One of the first jazz piano recordings to really turn my head was McCoy’s 1988 session “Reflections.” Up until that point I had been really intrigued by his playing on the Coltrane track “My Favorite Things” and had heard nothing else by him until I found the aforementioned album on cassette at a local record store. Because I have listened to so much McCoy since then in so many contexts, it’s easy to forget that his solo piano work had a lasting and formative influence on my concept of jazz piano. This 1972 recording, a tribute to his departed friend and employer Coltrane, is a haunting example of the power and textural depth of his solo piano approach.
9 ) Kenny Barron “Memories of You” (from The Traveler)
Call it nepotism (go ahead, do it) but I had to put Kenny on here, as to my ears his approach to solo piano, especially ballads, distills the best of the elegance of the “Detroit School” of pianists (Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, etc.) with a significant touch of Monk. Though my techniques are in many ways different, my own approach to solo ballad playing is a shameless attempt to have an impact comparable to his in the same setting. “Memories of You” comes from his (as of this writing) most recent album as a leader and although there are many great examples of his solo playing (“You Don’t Know What Love Is” from New York Attitude, “Melancholia” from Wanton Spirit, “But Beautiful” from Frank Morgan’s You Must Believe In Spring and on and on), this one shows that his elegance just keeps getting more refined.
10) Keith Jarrett “Part IIC” (from The Koln Concert)
This particularly “track” was selected somewhat arbitrarily. Really, putting this album in here felt a little bit like a square peg in a round hole, especially given how many of my favorite solo pianists didn’t make the list. But in the end, this album is so brilliant and so groundbreaking that I just couldn’t split hairs about categories and such. I could have picked any track here to represent Keith’s touch, soulfulness, harmonic richness and mind-blowing creativity, and picked this one as it’s perhaps the most digestible starting point for someone new to his fully-improvised piano music.