The ten best jazz pianists of all time
William P. Gottlieb
With the exception of players like Thelonious Monk or Art Tatum, piano players don't quite have the name recognition of their horn playing counterparts. All the same, these ivory ticklers play an equally integral role in jazz. As such, just like our lists of the ten best sax players and ten best trumpeters, we put due effort into compiling this rundown of jazz's most virtuosic and compelling piano players. Keep reading for the ten best pianists of all time.
10. Ahmad Jamal While some pianists favored a heavy handed approach to the piano, 83-year-old Ahmad Jamal favors a lighter touch, and his use of space between the notes was said to have a great influence on Miles Davis. While At the Pershing: But Not For Me, recorded at Chicago's Pershing Hotel in 1958, is hailed as one of his greatest recordings, Jamal also released a number of stellar trio recordings, including some early '70s Impulse! releases, like The Awakening and Freeflight, as well as 2010's A Quiet Time.
9. Oscar Peterson Over his six-plus decade long career, Canadian Oscar Peterson, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 82, won eight Grammys and played more than 200 recordings. The nimble-fingered pianist showed promise as a young child, and he started gigging professionally as a teenager. Influenced heavily by Art Tatum, Peterson released a number of outstanding albums on Verve throughout the '50s and '60s, including The President Plays with the Oscar Peterson Trio, which also featured Lester Young, and Night Train, one of his most famous discs.
8. Chick Corea Since getting his start playing gigs in high school, Chick Corea has gone on to release dozens of outstanding discs under his own name, platters like Now He Sings, Now He Sobs and My Spanish Heart. After playing on Miles Davis's late '60s/early '70s jazz-rock fusion albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the prodigious 72-year-old pianist helped propel fusion even more with various incarnations of Return to Forever. Corea reunited the band's classic line-up of Stanley Clarke, Al Di Meola and Lenny White to tour in 2008.
7. Keith Jarrett Not only a virtuosic and prolific jazz pianist, 68-year-old Keith Jarrett, who will receive National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters awards in January, has recorded quite a few brilliant classical albums throughout his forty-plus year career. Over the last three decades, Jarrett's Standards Trio, which includes bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, has released a number of great discs on ECM, all of which showcase superb musicianship and interplay between the three. Jarrett's solo work is equally as highly touted, especially The Köln Concert, recorded in 1975, which is a tour de force in live improvisation.
6. McCoy Tyner A major force in John Coltrane's classic quartet from 1960-65, 74-year-old McCoy Tyner is known for a heavy-handed approach to the piano, which was fueled by his powerful left-handed block chords. While deft playing can be heard on some of Coltrane's greatest Impulse! albums, like Crescent and A Love Supreme, some of Tyner's late-'60s, post-Coltrane, Blue Note material, especially The Real McCoy, showcases his intuitive playing. Some of his more recent material over the last decade, including 2008's Guitars and 2009's Solo: Live From San Francisco are fine efforts as well.
5. Bill Evans When Bill Evans teamed up with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro, they formed one of the finest trios in the history of jazz, and their synergistic chemistry is documented on their 1961 Village Vanguard sessions. Influenced by Impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel, Evans was lilting and lyrical at times in his approach to piano, especially on cuts like "Blue in Green" and "Flamenco Sketches" from Miles Davis's watershed album Kind of Blue. Evans's Portrait in Jazz, Waltz for Debby and his 1975 duet album with Tony Bennett are other standout recordings.
4. Herbie Hancock It was evident from Herbie Hancock's 1962 debut Blue Note album, Takin' Off, recorded when he was 22, that the pianist was not only a gifted musician, but a gifted composer, as well, as evidenced on "Watermelon Man," one of his most famous cuts, and "Driftin'." While his early and mid '60s Blue Note material was thoroughly impressive, especially Maiden Voyage, his playing seemed to develop considerably during his five years with what was dubbed Miles Davis's Second Great Quintet. Throughout the '70s, Hancock experimented in jazz funk, and in 1973, he released the iconic Head Hunters, a landmark album in jazz-fusion. In 1983, his song "Rockit" was one of the first popular singles to feature turntable scratching. Over the last decade, the 73-year-old Hancock some interesting crossover discs like 2005's Possibilities and 2010's The Imagine Project.
3. Bud Powell Tutored by Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell was one of bebop's greatest pianists and also a primary player in the development of the genre. Despite being hospitalized following an incident where he was beaten by police in 1945 (when he was twenty years old) and spending time in mental hospitals, Powell's intense genius on the piano is evidenced on his Blue Note releases like Bud Plays Bird, and the five volumes of The Amazing Bud Powell, as well as the legendary 1953 bop summit, Jazz at Massey Hall. Powell was quite gifted as a composer, as well, penning jazz staples like "Parisian Thoroughfare," "Bouncing With Bud" and "Un Poco Loco."
2. Thelonious Monk Known for his angular, unconventional approach to harmony and rhythm, Thelonious Monk is one of jazz's most original pianists. While Monk released some great material recorded in the studio during the '50s, including Brilliant Corners and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, some of his live recordings were downright extraordinary, especially his live recordings from New York's Five Spot, like Misterioso and Thelonious in Action. His remarkable solo album, Alone in San Francisco, features the pianist playing some of his most gorgeous ballads like "Ruby, My Dear," "Pannonica" and "Reflections."
1. Art Tatum Possibly the most virtuosic pianist in the history of jazz, Art Tatum had tremendous technique and could play at dizzying speeds, especially on an insanely fast and celebrated 1933 recording of "Tiger Rag," which is part of the outstanding Columbia compilation Piano Starts Here, that also includes some of the first recordings he made. While Tatum could play flawlessly at high speeds, he was equally at home laying back on a relaxed stride piano song or ballad. Any of his solo or group recordings on the Pablo imprint also showcase Tatum's extraordinary and seemingly effortless talent.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.