28 November 2005 (Updated 27 June 2006)

Adventures in the world of jazz piano

By Tapani Lausti

The sound of the piano is a central ingredient of my consciousness. In my childhood home in Helsinki someone was playing the piano practically every day. Not even the disappointments in my own piano studies could take away the enjoyment of the piano.

Then, during the 1950s, jazz became popular among Helsinki youth. For many it was a passing fad. For me it became a life-long passion. This only strengthened my enjoyment of piano as an instrument. My first experience of jazz piano was the music of Teddy Wilson. Although I preferred bebop, Wilson’s swing-based elegance impressed me. Besides, I first heard him in the company of the great alto saxophone player Charlie Parker — who triggered my jazz enthusiasm — and the trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie on tracks which were recorded with the leadership of the vibraphone player Red Norvo in 1945. The tracks were “Get Happy” and “Congo Blues”. They are now available in CD form on Red Norvo on Dial: All Existing Takes (Spotlite 1995).

I was greatly impressed by an EP record called Jazz Giants ’56 on which Wilson played an amazing solo on “Gigantic Blues”. His light touch combines with drummer Jo Jones’ brushes which sound like breaths of wind. This track can now be found under tenor saxophonist Lester Young’s name on a CD called The Jazz Giants (Verve 1956). Lately I have been listening to And Then They Wrote… (Columbia 1959), on which Wilson plays famous tunes composed by other pianists, like for example Thelonious Monk’s ”’Round Midnight” and Erroll Garner’s ”Misty”. I would also like to mention Striding After Fats (Black Lion Records 1974).

My next piano-listening experiences were connected with the famous 1950s quintet of Miles Davis. I loved Red Garland’s playing with his beautiful block chords. My favourite tracks were ”Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and ”Diane” on Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige 1956). In a Helsinki jazz club called Old House Jazz Club, where I used to hang around a lot in the late 50s, a local pianist used to play “Billy Boy”, inspired by Garland's trio performance of this tune on Davis’ Milestones (Columbia 1958). In my collection, I have the wonderful trio recordings Red Garland’s Piano (Prestige 1957), Groovy (Prestige 1957) and Red in Bluesville (Prestige 1959) as well as a later record Stepping Out (Galaxy 1979).

Another pianist brought to my notice by Miles Davis records was Wynton Kelly. Possibly one of his most famous recordings is on “Freddie Freeloader”, the only track on which he appeared on the famous Kind of Blue (Columbia 1959). Later he recorded fine performances with Davis on ”Someday My Prince Will Come” (Columbia 1961). His playing is also extremly enjoyable on several albums under tenorist Hank Mobley: Soul Station (Blue Note 1960), Roll Call (Blue Note 1960), Workout (Blue Note 1961) and Another Workout (Blue Note 1961). Of his own records, I want to mention Wynton Kelly Piano (Riverside 1958) and Full View (Milestone 1966).

The most famous pianist with Miles Davis was Bill Evans who influenced greatly the next generation of pianists. I think I heard his trio album Portrait in Jazz (Riverside 1959) before the legendary Kind of Blue album (Columbia 1959). On the trio album I was impressed by the interplay between Evans, bassist Scott Lafaro and drummer Paul Motian, especially on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Even though I have been a great admirer of Evans ever since, I acquired his famous Village Vanguard recordings only much later. Waltz for Debby (Riverside 1961) I didn’t hear until the 90s and Sunday at the Village Vanguard (Riverside 1961) I only bought this year. Having listened to it repeatedly, I can only wonder how I had waited this long to enjoy this great music. Recently I found a collection of radio recordings from another famous New York club: The Legendary Bill Evans Trio: The 1960 Birdland Sessions (Fresh Sound Records). The sound quality is not very good but it is interesting to compare some tracks with the same compositions on Portrait in Jazz. I also like Consecration,  I and II (Timeless 1980), even if one of Evans’s biographers claims that the pianist would not have approved the publication of these tapes from San Francisco’s Keystone Corner club.

I visited New York in 1959 and spent an evening at Village Vanguard, although I cannot remember who was playing there that night. In 1960 I visited the city again and this time caught pianist Lennie Tristano at the Half Note club with the usual lineup of altoist Lee Konitz and tenorist Warne Marsh. They can all be heard on Subconscious Lee (Prestige1949-50). Recently I added to my collection an album recorded around the same time in this famous club, Lee Konitz Live at the Half Note (Verve 1959). The pianist was Bill Evans, the drummer Paul Motian and the bassist Jimmy Garrison. Konitz and Marsh also appear on Evans’s Cross Currents (Fantasy 1977) but for some reason the music sounds surprisingly unexciting.

I spent a year in California as an exchange student in 1959-60. To my disappointment, jazz was not at all popular there. As a consolation I spent many evenings listening to an excellent jazz radio station in Salt Lake City. I also bought many great albums. The best of them was undoubtedly pianist Horace Silver’s Blowin’ the Blues Away (Blue Note 1959), which had just been published. Later I acquired the highly acclaimed Song for My Father (Blue Note 1963-64). More recently Silver excelled on The Hardbop Grandpop (Impulse 1996). Recently I found an excellent trio recordings compilation Horace Silver and spotlight on drums (Blue Note 1952-53). The drummer is Art Blakey. On two tracks the trio is augmented by Sabu's conga drums.

During my year in California, I also bought Dave Brubeck’s Jazz at Oberlin (Fantasy 1953). Some people find Brubeck’s playing corny but in my innocence I enjoyed immensely his solos. Besides, Charlie Parker admired the music played by Brubeck’s quartet. (Interestingly the quartet’s alto saxophonist Paul Desmond was one of the few who weren’t influenced by Parker.) I still enjoy many Brubeck albums like Jazz Goes to College (Columbia 1954) and  Dave Digs Disney (Columbia 1957). During my school years I had EP versions of these albums and enjoyed especially the tracks ”Take the ’A’ Train” and ”Some Day My Prince Will Come”.

I have noticed that my American years 1959 and 1960 were exceptionally productive years for great jazz albums. Among them is a fine piano trio album Ray Bryant Plays (EMI 1959). On this album Ray Bryant introduces many famous jazz compositions, among them Thelonious Monk’s ”Blue Monk”, pianist John Lewis’s ”Delauney’s Dilemma” and Garner’s ”Misty”. Bryant’s no-nonsense playing on this album makes it a very good introduction to piano jazz. Much later I heard Bryant live at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club and bought his Double R B (Mercury Music 1995), where one of the tracks is again ”Delauney’s Dilemma”. The bassist is the legendary Ray Brown. Bryant is at his best, I think, on Sonny Rollins on Impulse! (Impulse 1965).

Bryant’s version of ”Blue Monk” was the first time I heard a composition by Thelonious Monk. I believe my first Monk album was Monk Big Band and Quartet in Concert (Columbia 1963). I was immediately hooked on his music. His earlier work I heard on the famous albums Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 and 2 (Blue Note 1947-1952). ”Ruby My Dear”, ”Thelonious” and ”In Walked Bud” were my favourites. I greatly enjoyed Monk’s concert in Helsinki in the 60s. As was often his custom, he danced around the grand piano with shuffling steps while tenorist Charlie Rouse was playing his solos. Monk was wearing a fur hat; he was in the cold North, after all. Possibly the best example of Monk and Rouse’s collaboration is Straight, No Chaser (Columbia 1966-67).

And this year Monk’s admirers received a surprising gift. Archives revealed an unknown recording from 1957 on which the pianist teamed up with John Coltrane: Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note 2005). Both musicians are in top form. In Monk’s playing you can hear the joy with which he responds to the good grand piano and an enthusiastic audience.

With his angular melodies and unusual rhythms, Monk did not have many followers in piano style. Bud Powell, however, with his more flowing style left a deep imprint on the playing of next generations of pianists. I first heard his playing on the famous Jazz at Massey Hall (Fantasy 1953). The dream quintet had Charlie Parker on alto, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums. My next experience of Powell’s music was probably on Dexter Gordon’s Our Man in Paris (Blue Note 1963). Troubled by mental problems, Powell in some critics’ opinion was far from top form on this album. Nevertheless, I have always enjoyed his solos here. Powell and Monk have sometimes been seen as opposite in style, but listening to Powell on A Portrait of Thelonious (Columbia 1961) makes one wonder. There are similarities as well. One can also hear Powell’s wonderful playing on Bud Powell: Jazz Giant (Verve 1949) and The Complete Blue Note and Capitol Recordings of Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron (Blue Note 1947-49). Recently I found an excellent two-CD collection made in Spain: Bud Powell: Complete 1947-1951 Blue Note, Verve & Roost Sessions (The Jazz Factory 2001). The Verve recordings mentioned above are included in this collection.

A great pianist under Powell's influence was Sonny Clark. He was Dexter Gordon's favourite accompanist, a good example of their collaboration being Go! (Blue Note 1962). I never tire of listening to Clark's playing on the trio album The 45 Sessions (Blue Note 1957-58). Sonny Clark Trio (Blue Note 1957) comes from the same recording sessions. In terms of jazz history, one has to include Sonny's Crib (Blue Note 1957) with John Coltrane, and quintet recordings Cool Struttin' (Blue Note 1958) and Leapin' and Lopin' (Blue Note 1961).

Among the pianists of the 60s, Herbie Hancock was one who had studied Powell’s playing thoroughly. I have none of his trio albums in my collection but extremely fine music can be heard on his Maiden Voyage (Blue Note 1965). I have always enjoyed Hancocks solos on “All Blues” on Miles Davis’s The Complete Concert 1964 and on “Seven Steps to Heaven” on the album by the same name (Columbia 1963). A more recent concert in Toronto's Massey Hall produced an interesting CD Directions in Music: Celebrating Miles Davis & John Coltrane (Verve 2001). Hancock is joined here by trumpetist Roy Hargrove and tenorist Michael Brecker.

Another pianist who became world famous in the 60s, was McCoy Tyner. His piano sound is easily recognisable with unusual chord voicings and percussive style. Of course, all the John Coltrane albums on which he appears, are worth listening to. My own favourite is Crescent (Impulse 1964). Recently I found a trio album which I was not aware of before. It is Nights of Ballads & Blues (Impulse 1963). I also want to mention McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington (Impulse 1964). And one mustn't forget the famous The Real McCoy (Blue Note 1967) with Joe Henderson on tenor. A more recent excellent tenor/piano collaboration is on Infinity (Impulse 1995). The tenor saxophonist on this album is Michael Brecker.

One oustanding jazz piano recording of the 60s is undoubtedly Oscar Peterson’s Night Train (Verve 1962). Many jazz experts still think it is Peterson’s best album. A couple of years after the recording of this album, I heard Peterson live in Helsinki. I still remember how stunned I was when Peterson started the first number without the bass and drums. His swing was almost unbelieveable. Only a little bit later bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen walked onto the stage. I also enjoy Great Connection (MPS 1971) on which the bass is played by the wonderful Dane, Nils-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. NHOP appears also on A Tribute to My Friends (Pablo 1983), with many enjoyable moments.

One unforgettable jazz evening took place in a Helsinki jazz restaurant in the early 80s. The pianist was Kenny Drew who gave a duo performance with another excellent Danish bass player, Mads Vinding. They can be heard on Your Soft Eyes (Soul Note 1981), with Ed Thigpen on drums. I can also recommend , Kenny Drew Trio (Riverside 1956) with bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, Jazz Impressions of Pal Joey (Riverside 1957) with Philly Joe Jones and bassist Wilbur Ware, as well as Ruby My Dear (SteepleChase 1977), with bassist David Friesen and drummer Clifford Jarvis. Drew is on top form also on Jackie McLean’s Bluesnik (Blue Note 1961).

Jarvis takes my mind to London where I lived 1983-2000. Jarvis had settled permanently in London and until his death played regularly at a jazz pub called ”Uncle Sam”. This was a place where London jazz musicians jammed from late Sunday evening until early Monday morning. Unfortunately the pub did not have a piano. However, in another East London jazz club, Tenor Clef, many pianists offered wonderful evenings. One such evening was when pianist Kenny Barron played solo piano. I first heard Barron in Helsinki in the 60s when he was a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s Quintet (Dizzy Gillespie: Something Old, Something New, Philips/Verve 1963). A couple of years ago I heard Barron’s band at the Almuñécar jazz festival here in Andalucia. That excellent band can be heard on Images (Gitanes 2004). Over the decades Barron has become a major artist on his instrument. This can be heard to good effect on a new CD published this year: Live at Bradley's: The Perfect Set (Gitanes 2005, recorded in 1996). One mustn’t forget either Barron’s wonderful collaboration with Stan Getz during the tenorist’s last years. I want to mention here two CDs:  Anniversary (Universal 1987) and Yours and Mine (Concord 1989). I also recommend trio albums Green Chimneys (Criss Cross Jazz 1983) and Scratch (Enja 1985). Barron also appears on bassist Charlie Haden’s dreamy duo album Night and the City (Verve 1996).

On another Haden duo album the pianist is one of my all-time favourites, Hank Jones. The CD is Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs (Verve 1994). One of Jones's unforgettable recordings is The Great Jazz Trio (Inner City 1978) with those famous Miles Davis alumni, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. Jones’s version of Davis’s “Milestones” is superb. I also want to mention an album which somehow has a very unusual atmosphere: Upon Reflection: The Music of Thad Jones (Universal 1993). Thad, Hank and the drummer on this recording, Elvin Jones, were brothers. Another interesting, and again different, CD is Hank Jones with the Meridian String Quartet (LRC 1990).

Fantastic piano jazz, and doubly so, can be heard on I’m All Smiles (MPS 1983), which is a concert with two grand pianos played by Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan. The two pianists had already earlier recorded together: Our Delights (Galaxy/Fantasy 1979). Of Flanagan’s own records the best probably is Jazz Poet (Timeless 1989). As a sideman, Flanagan often produced great solos. Among my favourites are his solo on “Airegin” on The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (Riverside 1960) and on “On Green Dolphin Street” on tenorist Sonny Rollins’s There Will Never Be Another You (ABC Records 1965). Flanagan also accompanied many famous jazz singers, among them Ella Fitzgerald. Listen to his wonderful comping and solos on Kim Parker's album Good Girl (Soul Note 1982).

There is also a great two-piano album called An Evening with Two Grand Pianos (Atlantic 1979) with Hank Jones and John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet fame. Lewis’s own Evolution II (Atlantic 2001) is a must for any piano jazz lover.

So, this was the story of my love affair with jazz piano. There are still many other pianists, whose work I have enjoyed. I have also included only American pianists. Let me finally give you a list of piano jazz albums from my collection which I haven’t mentioned above:

Geri Allen, Segments (DIW 1989)

Geri Allen, Twenty One (Blue Note 1994)

Paul Bley, Not Two, Not One (ECM 1999)

Jaki Byard, Giant Steps (Prestige 1961-62)

Jaki Byard, Solo Piano (Prestige 1969)

Bill Charlap, Written in the Stars (Blue Note 2000)

Sonny Clark, The 45 Sessions (Blue Note 1957-58)

Chick Corea, Three Quartets (Strech 1982)

Albert Daily, That Old Feeling (SteepleChase 1978)

Kenny Drew Jr., Portraits of Charles Mingus & Thelonious Monk (Claves Jazz 1994)

Duke Ellington, Money Jungle (Blue Note 1962)

Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra (Verve 1966)

Bill Evans, At The Montreux Jazz Festival (Verve 1968)

Bill Evans, Montreux II (Columbia 1970)

Bill Evans, From Left to Right (Verve 1970)

Bill Evans, Symbiosis (MPS 1974)

Barry Harris, Stay Right with It (Milestone 1961-62)

Gene Harris, The Best of the Three Sounds (Blue Note 1958-62)

Fred Hersch, Dancing in the Dark (Chesky Records 1992)

John Hicks, Something to Live For (HighNote 1997)

D.D. Jackson, So Far (RCA Victor 1999)

Ahmad Jamal, Ahmad's Blues (Chess 1958)

Keith Jarrett, Somewhere Before (Atlantic 1969)

Keith Jarrett, Standards, Vol. 2 (ECM 1985)

Keith Jarrett, Standards Live (ECM 1985)

Keith Jarrett, The Cure (ECM 1991)

Jimmy Jones, Trio (Swing 1954)

Duke Jordan, The Great Session (SteepleChase 1978)

Roger Kellaway, The Art of Interconnectedness (Challenge Records 1987)

Junior Mance, At the Village Vanguard (Jazzland 1961)

Brad Mehldau, Live at The Village Vanguard (Warner Bros. 1997)

Brad Mehldau, Anything Goes (Warner Bros. 2004)

Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Monk (Prestige 1952)

Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington (Riverside 1955)

Thelonious Monk Alone in San Francisco (Riverside 1959)

Phineas Newborn Jr., A World of Piano! (Contemporary 1961)

Oscar Peterson, I Got Rhythm (Giants of Jazz 1945-47)

Oscar Peterson, The Great American Song Book (Back Up 1952)

Oscar Peterson, The Song Is You (Back Up 1952)

Oscar Peterson, We Get Requests (Verve 1964)

Don Pullen, Evidence Of Things Unseen (Black Saint 1983)

Jimmy Rowles, Isfahan (Sonet 1978)

Joe Sample, Fancy Dance (Sonet 1969)

Art Tatum, Over the Rainbow (Dreyfus Jazz 1934-49)

Bobby Timmons, Trio In Person (Riverside 1961)

I have mainly used recording years, which are not necessarily years of publication.

You can learn about the history of jazz piano by reading pianist Billy Taylor's book Jazz Piano: A Jazz History (Wm. C. Brown 1982, 1983). For information on other jazz books and CDs, go to Books and Jazz CDs. Visit also the Music pages of the archive.

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