Top 10 Piano Trio Tracks
Given my line of work, this is a particularly tough one to narrow down. If you look at my other top 10 lists, you’ll see that there are also lists for piano trio albums and for piano solos. This is for standout individual tracks (yes, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs is an exceptional album, forgive me for not selecting any of the individual tracks) and takes the whole performance into account (hence no Bud Powell, with all due respect to his rhythm sections). I’ve also limited it to piano/bass/drums trios – on one level this is semi-arbitrary, on another it’s because I feel like comparing the King Cole trio to these is apples and oranges (or at least pears).
Without any further ado . . .
1. Red Garland: “Billy Boy” from Milestones by Miles Davis – with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones
I’ll admit, somewhat sheepishly, that Red Garland is not one of my personal favorite pianists (of course, that’s not a particularly damning insult, considering how crowded my list of favorites is). His playing and the full-trio unity and groove on this classic track, however, are about as perfect as perfect could be. If you’re reading this and not familiar with this track, STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND LISTEN TO IT NOW and then you may return to reading.
2. Ahmad Jamal: “Poinciana” from At the Top: Poinciana Revisited, with Jamil Nasser and Frank Gant
To some, this might be utter heresy once they look and notice that, while I chose “Poinciana,” it is not as played by the classic Crosby/Fournier trio (if you’re not familiar with that one, it’s an important point of reference, so check that out to on the But Not For Me: Live at the Pershing album). Fact is that I’m a huge devotee of his less heralded trio (save for the Awakenings record) with Frank Gant and the recently-departed Jamil Nasser. They groove like crazy on this track and Ahmad’s own playing is revelatory, with stunningly modern harmonies and runs mixed in with the playful riffs.
3. Bill Evans: “Gloria’s Step” from Sunday at the Village Vanguard, with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian
Not much to say about this that hasn’t already said. My favorite track from one of the most important trio recordings in modern jazz history, with wonderfully interactive and creative playing and an underrated sense of swing.
4. Ray Bryant: “Cubano Chant” from Con Alma, with Bill Lee and Mickey Roker
I love Ray Bryant’s trio conception, which is soulful, fun, harmonically clever and manages to make a trio sound huge. This song is one of his best-loved (not just by me) and Lee (Spike’s pop) and Roker are super-tight as they play the head and super-swinging beyond.
5. Horace Silver: “Opus de Funk” from Horace Silver Trio, with Percy Heath and Art Blakey
Folks tend to think of Horace Silver in the context of his many great quintet recordings, as well they should. His early trio work with Art Blakey, however, is a wonderful display of his early piano style, which had a profound influence on the shape of modern jazz piano that folks seem to have largely forgotten nowadays. Before the modern innovations of Bill Evans’, Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner and the soulful directions of Bobby Timmons and Wynton Kelly, Silver was arguably the first to take Bud Powell’s style and add a personal touch to it, and every hard bop pianist who has come since has stood on his shoulders, whether they realize it or not. This track, with great work by Blakey, shows him at a fascinating crossroads where he is incorporating the blues and gospel devices with which he is now most closely identified, but is still using the long, Powell-derived bop lines with which he began.
6. Duke Ellington: “Fleurette African” from Money Jungle, with Charles Mingus and Max Roach
This is truly a full-trio track (as opposed to a piano solo with accompaniment) with Mingus especially taking a prominent role on this achingly moody latter-day Ellington composition. Ellington himself offers up one of his most lyrical and nuanced piano performances here.
7. Herbie Hancock: “Sorcerer” from Speak Like a Child, with Ron Carter and Mickey Roker
Another “confession,” and my understanding of psychology is perhaps not adequate to explain this phenomenon, but part of me resists loving Herbie. I’m pretty sure it’s because I came up in a time when he was so uniformly idolized by my peers that I felt inclined to distance from that and identify more with others among the pianists I dug. But let’s be real here, Herbie is super-bad and has been for a long time. This particular track (note Mickey Roker on drums yet again) is to my ears the perfect example of Herbie’s irresistible blend of swinging, bluesy touch, bop-informed phrasing and harmonic innovation.
8. Kenny Barron: “You Don’t Know What Love Is” from The Perfect Set, with Ray Drummond and Ben Riley
This is my list, so I’m entitled to be partial to Kenny Barron. In my book, his trio with Ray and Ben ranks atop the many he has led, and I’ve enjoyed all of the many shows I’ve seen with this group, especially those that took place in the Village at Bradley’s (as is the case with this recording). This is quintessential KB trio from the rubato intro to the slow, measured development and ridiculously tight and swinging group work (and great solos) as the groove and dynamics ebb and flow.
9. Roy Haynes: “After Hours” from We Three, with Phineas Newborn, Jr. and Paul Chambers
At some point I’ll elaborate/blog on my Phineas-only list (maybe I’ll even make another), but as for full-trio tracks, I had to go for this epic slow blues. P.C. plays wonderfully and Roy Haynes manages the dynamic development with characteristic mastery. Newborn himself is, of course, soulful, melodic and technically stunning.
10. James Williams: “In the Open Court” from Magical Trio 2, with Ray Brown and Elvin Jones
This was a somewhat tough call, in that it meant leaving out any number of hard swinging trio tracks by Bobby Timmons, a choice for which JW himself would have likely given me a polite scolding. Nonetheless, this track swings so hard and is so soulful and was so important to my own musical development that I had to “follow my gut” here. When I heard this album, and particularly this track (dedicated to some of JW’s favorite basketball players) it was so soulful and grooving that it literally made me think “oh, you mean jazz can sound this good?” Given their seemingly opposite rhythmic conceptions, Ray Brown and Elvin Jones make for an odd pairing, though they worked well together with Phineas Newborn and Cedar Walton in years past, and this wonderfully displays their blues-informed common ground.