I have been listening to jazz music for the best part of fifty odd years and have developed a love of most genres of the music from early New Orleans to the Avant Garde, although I have to confess that I still cannot get to grips with Be Bop, despite spending many hours trying.
During my listening lifetime I have developed a love of pianists and my favourites are wide and varied. I think the first real jazz pianist I heard was Oscar Peterson playing “Night Train” on a Verve LP I bought back in the 1960s. I loved how Peterson took a melody then created a whole new musical world with his improvisations, often displaying phenomenal technique that was reminiscent of Art Tatum at his finest.
In more recent years I have become a Keith Jarrett acolyte, even forgiving (partly) his outrageous and intolerant behaviour towards audiences. In the early part of his career Jarrett played with Miles Davis and was part of the jazz / rock scene of the late 60s and early 70s. Much later he moved towards playing solo concerts of which the iconic “The Koln Concert” is probably the best known. My own personal favourite is the “Vienna Concert” which contains improvised melodies that Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky would have been proud of.
The man who shook the piano world up was Cecil Taylor; he was classically trained and was one of the pioneers of free jazz. His music is characterized by an energetic, physical approach, resulting in complex improvisations often involving ne clusters and intricate polyrhythms. His technique has been compared to percussion. I remember buying the LPs “Conquistador” and “Unit Structures” back in the 60s and being assaulted by music that I found difficult to comprehend. Extensive listening (and perseverance) enabled me to work out what Taylor was trying to do with his music. An undeniable genius but not easy listening.
I must also mention the godfather, namely Duke Ellington, who I still believe is extremely under rated as a pianist, primarily because he focused on composing and arranging for his band but would play the occasional solo with the band. The LP Money Jungle made by Ellington with a rhythm section of Max Roach and Charlie Mingus gives some indication of what he was capable of. Moreover, there is a video on YouTube of him playing a solo concert, which is simply magical.
Other pianists I would throw in for consideration are Bill Evans, Thelonius Monk, Stan Tracy, John Taylor, Michael Garrick, Kenny Barron, Brad Mehldau, Hank Jones and Count Basie. My own personal choice is quite easy and here is the reason why. During the late 60s I was a regular visitor to the old Free Trade Hall in Manchester where I saw a number of great jazz artists, Basie, Gillespie, MJQ, Earl Hines, Budd Johnson amongst others. I became inspired hearing such good music that I had serious thoughts about learning to play the piano.
Shortly after this I went to another concert in Manchester and managed to get a seat a few rows from the front of the stage so I could see the performers up close. For close on two hours I sat and watched Oscar Peterson give a performance of such technical virtuosity and musical creativity it was difficult to comprehend at times.
I came out of the concert hall shaking my head and thinking “forget the piano lessons, you aren’t ever going to get close to playing like that.” So for me Oscar Peterson is the finest jazz pianist and I have posted a video of him playing one of his own compositions from the Canadiana Suite.