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George Whitty on Influential Jazz Piano Players: Part 1

george whitty on influential jazz piano playersI was recently presented with a list of “12 Influential Jazz Piano Players” and asked to write some thoughts on each of them. This is by no means any sort of “comprehensive list of the 12 most important people…” or any such thing, but it’s a good topic for a blog post, so here we go.  I HEARTILY ENCOURAGE YOU to grab some music by these pianists (there’s a recommended CD or two next to each of them) and immerse yourself in the genius of the history of our fine art!

Art Tatum

Well, let’s start at the top with one of, if not THE MOST remarkable musicians in history.  Everybody who likes not just jazz piano, but jazz in general, owes a deep debt of gratitude to this guy.  He’s most famous for having a shockingly great technique, but the depth of his musicianship goes a lot farther than that.  Blind since a very early age and born with perfect pitch, he was a real prodigy throughout his childhood, largely self-taught early on as far as his technique went, he learned to play by ear from piano rolls his mother had. 

One of the coolest things about YouTube is the availability of film of this guy playing the piano. There are no histrionics, no pained face, no grunting and groaning, no effort, just the piano played like it probably will never be played again. The chops are ridiculous but completely musical always, the stride piano has to be heard to be believed, but to me one of the great things about Art Tatum was the HARMONY he left the jazz world.

The voicings, the bitonality, the harmonic language, the reharmonization, he really developed a lot of the vocabulary everybody still uses today. 

He used to show up at after-hours bars with crappy pianos, play a chromatic scale up the keyboard, make a quick note of which notes were the most out of tune (apparently, for all the crappy pianos he played, out of tune pianos drove him kind of nuts), then play the whole night in whatever keys made least use of the out-of-tune notes.  He never really got with the linear Bebop thing; his style was to play the crap out of the TUNE a million different ways. 

We’re lucky to have some great recordings of the guy (a lot of his early stuff comes from very crunchy old 78s) in, for example, “The Best of the Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces”, which feature a pretty well-tuned and recorded piano.  Take a listen and set your sights on THIS and you’ll have plenty of room to grow! 

One last little story:  apparently Bud Powell (coming up…)  was opening for Tatum at a club in the ‘40s and he challenged Art with something along the lines of “I’m gonna show you what real speed and technique are about” or some such thing, and Art just laughed and said “I’ll tell you what:  anything you play with your right hand, I’ll play with my left”. Truly touched by God. 

Les McCann

What a wealth of killer piano this guy plays, and like a lot of the “seminal guys”, like maybe Jaco Pastorius, Jimi Hendrix, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, he’s got his own iconic style (people refer to it as a “Les McCann feel”) and nobody has ever played it better.  And a very sweet guy to boot;  I met him at Montreaux in the ‘90s and introduced myself and had a nice conversation with him and he was “just like anybody else” despite being a huge titan for me. 

And a lot of what makes him so “titanic” to me is the SECRET STUFF he plays, a feature that he has in common with a lot of New Orleans piano players.  Tons of inner-voicing harmony, real fists full of notes that have these very satisfying cadences running in the middle of his voicings, kind of a Gospel-styled thing, and each note is getting some special grease or another. 

And then there’s the TIME;  nobody lays it in there like Les McCann.  He’d been a real presence for years before he and Eddie Harris broke through to the pop charts with a live recording from Montreaux in 1969 of a tune called “Compared To What” (fun fact: Roberta Flack, a Les McCann “discovery” recorded the tune on her debut record). 

Eddie Harris is another one: a total one-off, often imitated but never even close to duplicated (my tune from Mike Brecker’s CD Time is of the Essence called “Renaissance Man” is dedicated to Eddie Harris).  But this recording is about as funky as it gets, totally raw (I defy any of the “Gospel Chops” drummers to play anything as funky as the bare-bones, raw quarter-note bell ride cymbal that starts the tune off), with Eddie singing the **** out of the tune, a kind of protest song, and the band just on fire. 

We discuss the gospel triadic harmony in my ArtistWorks lessons series; few can match Les McCann as a master of this sort of incredibly satisfying playing.  It’s impossible to listen to his work and not get a smile on your face. 

One pianist who’s really got a very strong Les McCann streak and is also a joy to listen to is Larry Goldings (who is also a frightening organ player). Take two Les McCann cuts and call me in the morning!

Dave Brubeck

When I was 13, my parents went into the little local record store in Coos Bay, Oregon, and said “Our George is into jazz music. What records should we get him?" And the guy there, against all odds, really knew his stuff and told them “Get him Dave Brubeck at Carnegie Hall and this Keith Jarrett's solo double-record set”. 

I had been playing some of Brubeck’s stuff for a year at that point, from a book (one I remember was called “Strange Meadowlark”) but hadn’t heard it played.  And that is just a fantastic record, although I have to admit that the really beguiling thing for me on it was Paul Desmond, another unique genius with a line and his own very distinctive sound.

Brubeck was another pretty adventurous guy with the harmony, working somewhat in parallel with Bill Evans on some similar ideas harmonically.  And of course, the very idea of playing something in 5/4 was a really great idea, and to have made it sound as natural and organic as these guys did was a very cool feat; the version on the Carnegie Hall record is so spacious and beautifully shaped it’s kind of a revelation; such tasteful playing on there.

Brubeck’s touch was never my thing, I have to say, but as a guy who contributed a ton of great things to the jazz lexicon and whose writing and records are still a huge pleasure to listen to, he’s another pianist very worth checking out.  The book of tunes I had of his was an utter mystery to me;  I could barely play the stuff when I was 13;  it seemed like every single note had an accidental in front of it, but that was the beauty of it.  Definitely a good dose of Debussy in there (some passages could be lifted straight from Claude, who had a big influence on jazz harmony through various musicians). 

Chick Corea

The first keyboard playing I ever heard which truly lit me up was Chick Corea.  And I guess there’s something there that’s like they say a baby duck is: it thinks the first thing it sees is its mother.  And I would say that (note: in all severe modesy)  I’ve been more influenced by Chick’s playing than by anybody.  Maybe Freddie Hubbard, the great trumpet player, too.  But gee, you just can’t ask for a more complete musician than this guy, and he’s really quite off into his own thing and always has been.  The lines he plays when he’s blowing are just so thrilling to me, with the most peculiar, Chick-only wrinkles in them that just literally make me laugh out loud. 

And the harmony he plays, again, so unique to him (a lot of it derived from 20th-century classical composers like Bela Bartok) is just mind-boggling.  The ears on him are ridiculous;  if you buy no other piano CDs I’m listing on this little series of blog posts, buy “An Evening with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea” and you will hear two absolute geniuses multiplied off each other several fold in a way that is as close to magic as any disc I own. 

Again, YouTube is just so great in this respect:  I can whistle you every single note on that disc (and its Polydor counterpoint), but to watch them go out and play the same tunes so radically differently every night on various YouTubed concerts really gives you an appreciation of how original this duo was.  His duets with Hiromi are another huge YouTube treat;  she and Chick just sit there cracking each other up with various incredible ideas and twists and turns, and they are right there with each other the whole time. 

I have a weakness for the Light as a Feather album, insofar as I have a weakness for Chick’s Rhodes playing and it’s at kind of a melodic peak on those tracks (and the reissue with the alternate takes is huge fun as well).  

And again, I finally had the pleasure of meeting Chick Corea at an outdoor concert in Istanbul while I was playing with the Brecker Brothers on a double bill, and he was completely down to earth.  It rained incredibly hard on the concert, and I just loved the fact that the Turks couldn’t have cared less.  They all stayed, out there in the rain, and partied and danced and were a great audience the whole time. 

Afterward, I said to Chick:  “So what’s next for you?  Are you going to do some more electric stuff?”  And he replied “No, I don’t think so…” and I asked why not, and he surprised me by saying “You know, I just never felt like I was really very good at it”.  To which I replied “Really?  You know you got a whole generation of guys like me into it”, and he said that he just never really felt like it was his voice the way the piano was, or the way that the synthesizer was Joe Zawinul’s voice.  And I took a lot out of that:  my idol being so frank and honest with himself and with me about where he thought his music was at; no need to sugar-coat or to soften anything up, what is, is. 

I guess the thing that Chick and Freddie Hubbard (and Lee Morgan, too, and Sonny Rollins, but I’m digressing) have in common is the ability to make me laugh out loud with the wrinkle in the line.  Some piece of weird harmony or a couple well-placed “wrong notes” that only they could think of, something that throws you out of your seat and then lands you again. 

And his recent orchestral writing is full of the same;  incredible character that only he could create.  So I salute Chick Corea for reaching out to me via my $59 Montgomery Ward’s record player and forcing me to pursue music for a living by the sheer brilliance of his playing!

Bill Evans

One of those guys who really shaped jazz for all time with his harmonic sense, his spacious melodic playing, his way of accompanying, and a different kind of sensitivity that he brought into the jazz world.  My favorite Bill Evans album is still kind of the first Bill Evans, mostly because it’s so spacious and contemplative.  But he created a huge body of great records that are all great listening (the disc “Affinity” with Toots Thielmans is a favorite). 

Bill Evans really took the piano in several different directions as far as its function in the band and in regards to the harmonic palette.  He rarely played the root of the voicings he employed, for example, leaving that for the bass player to play, or not to play, or to redefine. 

And he found a perfect foil in Scott LaFaro, another musician who was busy expanding on what the bass could do in a jazz setting.  Those records are still right up there with the very best piano trio recordings.  Bill Evans was also a true master of motivic playing, something that we discuss in our ArtistWorks Jazz Piano course;  it’s almost a revelation to listen to him take a little nugget and turn it over several times, each time fleshing it out with something different, often the last time or two by putting some unexpected harmony underneath it. 

He brought a lot of European classical music into jazz (although this had been in the mix for years), actually playing extensive passages that could have come from Claude Debussy or Maurice Ravel in a jazz context. 

Miles Davis loved this palette, which had a lot to do with his hiring of Evans in the ‘50s;  he once said “Bill Evans plays the piano the way it should be played”, which is quite a quote from somebody who worked with the very best pianists, always. 

 

Bill Evans had a huge influence on a great deal of the pianists who came after him:  Herbie Hancock once cited, if memory serves, his main influences as Bill Evans and Ravel.  Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, an entire generation of piano players grew up and expanded on what Bill Evans brought to the table.  But he was a truly suffering individual with a very rough upbringing and a pretty bad drug habit that eventually contributed to an early death;  I once heard his death referred to as “the world’s longest suicide”.  But what a gift he had for turning that melancholy toward the world of music and playing such incredibly poignant music...

Stay tuned for more about Georgy Whitty's influential jazz piano players in Part 2! Learn Jazz Piano with George Whitty Online at artistworks.cm/jazz-piano

jazz piano lessons with george whitty

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