In this article we’re going to take you through 10 iconic jazz piano solos which stretch from the early 20th Century to the modern day.
The piano also has a long and rich history in Western music in general.
You can hear the influence of classical piano music on the early jazz pianists, particularly the flamboyance and harmonic sophistication of romantic piano music.
This background also gives the piano a strong pedagogical underpinning, and so it is no surprise that the jazz world is full of highly skilled pianists.
A common rhythm section instrument, the pianist’s main role is often as an accompanist, but jazz music is littered with virtuosic soloists – from early legends like Art Tatum all the way through to current greats like Brad Mehldau.
This list of iconic jazz piano solos features some dazzling technical displays, but not all solos need to go to the moon and back to be great – as a couple of the choices on here should demonstrate.
While there are many amazing piano solos out there, being ‘iconic’ suggests a wider impact beyond the quality of the solo itself. So it’s no coincidence that many of these come from some of the most famous jazz albums of all time.
Ah… Art Tatum.
The pianist that makes all other pianists shake their heads in disbelief – including some of the most accomplished classical pianists in the world.
Tiger Rag is perhaps his best known recording, and while it doesn’t quite fit the definition of a “solo” as we might normally mean it in jazz, it thoroughly deserves its place on this list – not to mention that the entire track is shorter than many modern piano solos!
Tatum was a true virtuoso and his technical prowess is on full display here, alongside a very sophisticated harmonic sense for his time (it holds up well today too). If you don’t have to pick your jaw up off the floor after listening to this then listen again! Just outrageous.
Bill Evans – Autumn Leaves
Anyone who has started playing jazz will know that Autumn Leaves is one of the most commonly played jazz standards, from beginners to masters and everyone in between.
It’s special for the level of direct interplay between the musicians and for challenging the commonly accepted instrument roles in straight ahead jazz at the time.
Indeed, this album is often credited with ushering in a new aesthetic in small group jazz.
Funnily enough, the piano solo is one of the more “straight-ahead” parts of the track, but the way it emerges swinging from a collective, broken-up, conversational trio exploration is sublime – as is Bill’s customary clarity and motivic development.
McCoy Tyner – Resolution
This track is from one the most important albums in jazz, “A Love Supreme” by the John Coltrane Quartet.
McCoy revolutionised jazz harmony at the piano, particularly in his use of stacked 4ths and pentatonic scales moving in and out of the underlying harmony, and the mutual influence between him and Coltrane is clear to hear throughout their time together.
As a soloist, McCoy combines a robust and insistent left hand with a remarkably fleet fingered right hand.
Even when playing streams of notes he is always clear and swinging hard.
You can hear the aforementioned harmonic style all over this solo, but even more important is the perfect pacing as he builds beautifully towards Coltrane’s entry, and his connection with drummer Elvin Jones is a sheer, visceral joy.
Herbie Hancock – Witch Hunt
Herbie Hancock is one of the few jazz pianists, or jazz musicians for that matter, to truly reach way beyond the borders of jazz and become a household name.
He has plenty of iconic albums of his own, but his playing on Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” (an essential record in its own right) is an absolute masterclass, both as an accompanist and as a soloist.
This solo is on every serious jazz pianist’s study list: compact, and combining strong motivic development with sophisticated harmony and rhythm, particularly his various phrasings of triplets.
You might think that this would make the solo less groovy, but this is certainly not the case. It’s also fun to hear him with Elvin Jones on drums, a comparatively rare occurrence.
Chick Corea – Matrix
It seems that Chick Corea can sometimes be a little overlooked by hardcore straight ahead jazz fans who aren’t into his fusion work.
However, his trio album with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs” is a classic, being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and leaves no doubt that he is firmly among the greatest in the acoustic jazz realm.
Matrix is a 12 Bar Blues in F, but takes possibly the most ubiquitous form in jazz and makes it almost unrecognisable… almost.
You can hear the influence of McCoy Tyner, but Chick definitely has his own sound – the angular, twisting lines that spin around the harmony are mesmerising, his touch is crystal clear, and the interaction between the 3 musicians is really fun to listen to.
Keith Jarrett – The Köln Concert Part 1
Another one that isn’t really a ‘jazz piano solo’ in the usual sense, but there may not be a more iconic recorded piece of improvised piano music than this – and you could just as easily pick any the other tracks on the album.
This may come as a surprise, but The Köln Concert is the best selling solo piano album in history (in any genre), as well as being the best selling solo jazz album ever.
That all of this came out of a good deal of adversity just makes it all the more impressive, and it’s hard to hear the album in the same light after reading about the various things that went wrong in the run-up to the concert.
Jarrett is an absolute titan, a master of the piano with huge imagination, deep emotion and an almost frightening ability to realise complex musical ideas in real time.
Some jazz fans are disappointed by the relatively straightforward harmonies, lengthy trance-like vamps and almost “hook” like melodies on this recording, a significant departure from much of traditional jazz and even from a good deal of Jarrett’s own work.
It is likely, however, that these very differences are what made the album such a genre-crossing success, and a close listen reveals hidden depths underneath.
Ahmad Jamal – But Not For Me
This version of the George and Ira Gershwin standard is from the classic live recording of Jamal’s trio at The Pershing in Chicago in 1958.
Quite a few critics at the time were unconvinced, labelling it lounge or cocktail piano, and the album’s unusual commercial success for a jazz album might fool some people into thinking that they were right.
However, jazz musicians (and particularly rhythm section players) love this album for how ‘locked in’ the trio is in executing simple things well and the consequent deep groove; there is not a wasted note to be found.
This only one of the many small details that lift it above the aforementioned assertions.
Ahmad Jamal is the epitome of cool, and his piano solo here is typical of his style – spacious phrases in the high register with very sparse left hand, juxtaposed with passages of grooving two handed block chords.
There is a certain conviction and courage needed for this, and there is no better example than the very opening of his solo, where he begins with the same phrase repeated no less than 12 times… Count it!
A little extra note: the way drummer Vernel Fournier observes and emphasises Jamal’s phrasing with a simple riveted ride cymbal hit at 1:46 is just perfect.
Often drawing comparisons to Art Tatum due to his formidable technique, Peterson is one of the few jazz pianists who managed to reach a wide and relatively diverse audience while playing almost exclusively straight ahead jazz.
This is the title track from what is most likely Peterson’s best known album – possibly due to the fact that many of the tracks are deliberately short (making them more radio friendly).
This in no way diminishes the quality of the music making, although this particular solo is actually not entirely typical of Oscar Peterson, as there is relatively little in the way of the aforementioned dazzling technique or the clean bebop lines that were a big part of his sound.
However, he was never far away from the blues, and he sounds perfectly at home playing a grooving, bluesy and succinct solo on this.
Wynton Kelly – Freddie Freeloader
It makes sense that one of the most iconic piano solos ever would come from one of the most iconic albums ever – Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”.
Kelly is widely regarded as one of the most swinging pianists and immaculate accompanists to have played the music, though this is actually the only track that he plays on the album, as all the others have Bill Evans on piano.
The relative simplicity and moderate tempo makes this solo a good starting point of study for jazz piano students, but that isn’t to suggest it is anything other than masterful.
He leaves plenty of space here, not needing to raise the roof, but letting his solo arc gently over 4 well-paced choruses. You can hear his trademark mixture of bluesy phrases and bop lines, with clean phrasing and no notes wasted.
Brad Mehldau – Exit Music For A Film
Having established himself throughout the early and mid-nineties, Brad Mehldau released the fourth in a series of “Art of the Trio” albums with his now firmly established trio featuring Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy.
Both the trio and Brad himself have been hugely influential on successive generations of jazz musicians in a number of ways, but one of the most notable is in his regular choice of repertoire from outside the jazz canon, including songs by The Beatles, Nick Drake, Oasis etc.
While Mehldau was not the first to do this (one of his teachers, Fred Hersch, is also fairly well known for this) he has arguably had the most impact in inspiring other musicians to look beyond the borders of jazz for material.
His affinity for the music of Radiohead is particularly noticeable, and he has returned to their repertoire many time throughout his career.
This version from “Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard” is not his first recording of Exit Music, but it is the earliest example of him really stretching out on this kind of material, and in some ways, sets the stage for later work in a similar vein.
This is Brad Mehldau in full flow, and you can really hear his trademark harmonic nods to German Romanticism, his ferocious technical command, advanced rhythmic sense and ability to really control and maintain energy in slowly intensifying a solo.
Thanks for joining us for this dive into 10 iconic jazz piano solos which stretch almost a century of music.
Of course, there are many more we could have included, but hopefully this is an interesting starting point for your own discovery.
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!