Whilst the early days of unamplified jazz may not have favoured the piano, it soon became an essential part of the genre, featuring on a huge proportion of the best jazz records of all time.
In this article, we trace the history of the instrument through 10 of the most famous jazz piano albums.
It’s hard enough picking a selection of the greatest jazz pianists, let alone a single album from each!
But whilst these things are very subjective, there are a core collection of recordings that, through sales figures and critical acclaim alone, solidify their place in jazz collection history.
Whether you’re new to the topic or a long-time jazz fan, we hope you’ll find some great (re)listening ideas!
Piano Starts Here (1933) – Art Tatum
“I gave up the piano for two solid months and had crying fits at night… It actually haunted me that someone could play the piano this well.”
Oscar Peterson on hearing Art Tatum for the first time.
Arguably the greatest jazz piano technician of all time, many jazz pianists talk about Art Tatum the way saxophonists talk about Charlie Parker and drummers talk about Buddy Rich.
Despite his blindness and a gentlemanly and unassuming manner, at the keyboard Tatum was a force of nature and redefined what was possible on the instrument.
A rock solid left hand stride technique and dazzlingly fast right-hand and unison runs are undoubtedly the hallmarks of his style, but his use of reharmonizations and chord substitutions was ahead of his time and wouldn’t become commonplace in jazz until later.
“Piano Starts Here” contains four tracks from his very first studio session in 1933 combined with nine tracks from a 1949 live performance.
Despite the relatively poor audio quality of the recordings, the technical brilliance and clarity of Tatum’s playing shine through and he will continue to both terrify and inspire aspiring pianists for generations to come.
Concert By The Sea (1955) – Erroll Garner
On September 16th 1965, Erroll Garner and his trio with Eddie Calhoun on bass and Denzil Best on drums recorded one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time at the Sunset School in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
Incredibly, the recording was made with a single microphone and was never intended for commercial release.
It was practically a bootleg recording, but after hearing the tapes, Garner’s manager Martha Glaser persuaded Columbia Records to release an edited version of the performance.
Erroll Garner couldn’t read music, was entirely self-taught and regularly used a Manahattan phone book as a booster seat at the piano because he was only 5-feet-2 inches tall.
His tendency to harmonise melodic lines with rolled chords and fill every space with trills and arpeggiated flourishes led to some critics dismissing him as a stylist or cocktail pianist, but the sheer joy, humour and exuberance of his playing brought him to the attention of mainstream audiences.
The natural effervescence and ebullience of Garner’s playing has never been more evident than it is here and the enthusiastic response of the audience shows they were clearly having a ball that night.
There may be better quality recordings of the trio available, but “Concert by the Sea” remains a perfect example of the spontaneous magic and unique intimacy of a live jazz performance.
At the Pershing: But Not For Me (1958) – Ahmad Jamal
This live recording of Ahmad Jamal’s trio with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernell Fournier on drums is his most popular and enduring album.
It originally sold over two million copies, reached no. 3 on the Billboard ‘Hot 100’ and remained in the chart for over two years.
The most famous track on the album is the beautifully understated ‘Poinciana’ which perfectly illustrates the pianist’s judicious use of space against Fournier’s iconic latin groove.
Re-workings of other familiar jazz standards such as ‘Surrey With Fringe on Top’ and ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ further showcase Jamal’s unique touch and his preference for improvising with melodic fragments over longer, more chromatic bebop lines.
Miles Davis was an enormous admirer of Ahmad Jamal’s playing and it’s not hard to hear how his approach to time and space influenced Miles’ concepts for ‘Kind of Blue’, which was released a year later and became the biggest-selling jazz album of all time.
Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961) – Bill Evans
Bill Evans is undoubtedly one of the most influential jazz pianists of the 20th century.
His classical training is evident in the depth and colour of his sound and his innovative use of harmony and rhythmic displacement have become cornerstones of the modern jazz piano sound.
Evans worked with many musicians throughout his career, performing with Miles Davis’ quintet in 1958 and returning a year later to play on four of the five tracks on “Kind of Blue”.
However, his preferred format was the piano trio and after leaving Miles, he spent the majority of the rest of his career working with a trio.
“Sunday at the Village Vanguard” is a live recording of his first trio, formed in 1959 with bassist Scott LeFaro and featuring drummer Paul Motian. The trio was remarkable for the interplay and interaction between its members.
Whereas bass and drums had traditionally been relegated to a supporting role in this format, this group aspired to be a meeting of three equal partners improvising as a unit and removing individual responsibility for timekeeping from any one instrument.
In particular, Scott LeFaro utilised his great technique and fluidity on the bass to move away from predictable walking bass-lines and offer countermelodies and linear responses to Evans’ ideas.
This approach redefined what a piano trio could be and provided the prototype for many later celebrated trios – including those led by artists such as Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau.
This recording is all the more special and poignant for the fact Scott LeFaro died tragically in a car accident just ten days after it was made. His death affected Evans greatly and he didn’t play at all for several months afterwards.
It is likely that the tracks on this album were intended to highlight the best of Scott’s playing as every track features a bass solo and opens and closes with two of his original compositions – Gloria’s Step and Jade Visions.
The 1962 album “Waltz for Debby” contains further material from these sessions and serves as a further testament to the power and musicality of one of the most celebrated trios of all time.
Money Jungle (1962) – Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus: three giants of jazz coming together for a single, unrehearsed recording session. Ellington was 63 at the time of the recording and over twenty years older than the other two.
Given the esteem with Duke was held by Mingus in particular, the ferocity and intensity of this album is astonishing.
Mingus was always known for being short-tempered and volatile and apparently at one point during the session he packed up his bass and walked out: Ellington had to chase after him and persuade him to return.
There are conflicting reports about the cause of the tension – some say Mingus was unhappy with Roach’s playing, others that he was upset because none of his original compositions were featured.
Whatever the reason, there’s an edge and fire to the music recorded that day that still makes this an astonishingly contemporary-sounding album.
Mingus asserts himself throughout, often playing over the piano and maybe even trying to overpower Ellington. Yet whenever he pushes, Duke pushes right back with an edge and bravura that few might have imagined he was capable of.
From the angular, combative nature of the title track to the forceful and unrelenting re-working of Juan Tizol’s Caravan, this is a primal, take-no-prisoners approach to trio playing and a perfect example of the nature of improvised jazz as an expression and reflection of a single moment in time.
Night Train (1962) – Oscar Peterson
Night Train is probably Oscar Peterson’s most famous album (from an already-impressive discography!) and a showcase for his great trio with Ray Brown (bass) and Ed Thigpen (drums).
The album features an engaging and varied mix of blues, standards and Duke Ellington compositions with only one original – Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom.
This is mainstream jazz playing at its finest.
The tempos are rock solid and the trio swings like crazy. Peterson’s light touch and virtuosity belies the complexity and virtuosity of his playing and there’s an infectious effortlessness and joy throughout.
Producer Norman Granz might have had commercial radio in play in mind as each track is under five-minutes long – making it the perfect album for new listeners more used to pop or rock recordings.
Some critics have been dismissive of Oscar Peterson as he wasn’t seen as an innovator or as ‘serious’ an artist as some of his contemporaries.
Nevertheless, the enduring popularity of Night Train points to both his greatness as a pianist and the unity and precision of one of the finest trios in jazz.
Solo Monk (1965) – Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk was undoubtedly a one-off – one of jazz’s great composers and a pianist with an eccentric and instantly-recognizable style.
This recording of solo piano versions of original compositions and jazz and popular music standards is the perfect introduction to Monk’s inimitable musical world.
Commonly known for his angular and percussive stabs at the keyboard, this album proves that Monk possessed much more facility than many believe.
Several tracks showcase his fine left-hand stride technique and his ability to employ different colors and dynamics in each hand prevents the music from ever becoming harsh or unpleasant.
Most importantly, the solo piano format allows Monk the freedom to realize his musical conceptions without compromise or consideration for a rhythm section.
Whilst he recorded several solo albums during his career, Solo Monk is arguably the most accessible of them all, whilst still displaying all of the quirky humor and idiosyncrasies that made him utterly unique.
The Real McCoy (1967) – McCoy Tyner
This 1967 post-bop quartet recording with Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones was McCoy Tyner’s first album as a leader for Blue Note after leaving John Coltrane’s group in 1965.
Comprising five original compositions, the album showcases McCoy Tyner’s trademark use of quartal harmony and a pentatonic approach to melodic improvisation which has influenced almost every jazz pianist since.
It also features some of Joe Henderson’s finest playing on any Blue Note record.
From the uncompromising, hard-blowing and joyously ferocious ‘Passion Dance’ and the up-tempo polyrhythmic energy of ‘Four by Five’ to the more reflective mood of ‘Contemplation’ and ‘Search for Peace’, this is an album of contrast and exploration and one which producer Alfred Lion described as ‘a pure jazz session’.
Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968) – Chick Corea
This was Chick Corea’s second album as a leader, but was the one that truly established his credentials as a first-class jazz pianist and composer.
The interplay, communication and empathy between the trio of Corea, drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Miroslav Vitouš is remarkable considering they hadn’t played together much previously.
As a pianist, Chick possessed great facility and a crystal clear technique. The influences of pianists like Bill Evans’ and McCoy Tyner are evident, but his style is unquestionably his own.
Haynes and Vitouš also excel on this album, regularly eschewing the obvious throughout and supplying so many counter-melodies and original rhythmic ideas that the piano solos are more accurately described as real-time co-compositions.
A compelling fusion of hard-bop and the avant-garde, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs is a fine example of what makes the piano trio such an intimate and compelling format and remains one of the most important and influential recordings of Chick Corea’s prolific career.
The Köln Concert (1975) – Keith Jarrett
The Köln Concert is nothing short of a phenomenon. The best-selling jazz piano album of all time and the best-selling solo album of any genre, it has sold well over four million copies to date.
The story behind the 1975 performance at the Opera House in Cologne has become almost as famous as the music itself. Jarrett was suffering from a back problem and had to wear a brace to play.
He had been struggling to sleep as a result and was exhausted after a long drive from Zurich.
A mix-up regarding the piano meant that he arrived to find an inferior, out-of-tune Bösendorfer baby-grand instead of the 290 Imperial concert grand model that had been specified.
There was no time to source a replacement piano and the instrument was so poor that the pianist originally threatened to cancel the concert.
However, following several hours of desperate work from piano technicians and a lot of cajoling from the promoter, Jarrett finally agreed to perform.
The piano tone was still horrible, with jangly, piercing high notes, a woolly bass register and a sustain pedal that wasn’t working properly.
Somehow Jarrett managed to work with and even transcend the limitations of the instrument.
Relying heavily on left-hand ostinatos and focusing mainly on the middle-register of the piano, he produced two remarkable and spontaneous improvisations lasting 26 and 48 minutes respectively.
Some critics would argue that there are better Keith Jarrett solo performances on record, but the fact that the Köln Concert continues to captivate listeners over 60 years later remains a testament to the triumph of creativity over adversity and the magic of improvise.
Thanks for reading!
Of course, there are literally hundreds and hundreds of amazing jazz piano albums out there, but we hope you’ll agree these 10 go a long way to tracing an important line of history.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!