We wanted to bring our readers a list of what we think are the greatest jazz pianists! In writing this, we realised that it’s hard to come up with a “Top x” list when it comes to the piano – there have been so many phenomenal names, each within their time, that not including them on a countdown list would be seen by many as a crime.
Names like Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Erroll Garner, Horace Silver, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, which all transformed how the piano was played at the time and expanded the boundaries of possibility, should forever be kept in mind when talking about the greatest or most influential pianists.
Instead, we thought we’d call this a “favourites” list and save ourselves a little bit of face, in case there are names which our readers blatantly feel are missing or not represented! These are names which we like to listen to regularly for a variety of reasons and we hope to be featuring as our Jazz / Soul Records of the Month in the coming months!
Without further ado, below is our list of the greatest jazz pianists and clips to show their genius and give a glimpse of why we love them!
An innovator and one of the most important figures in Bebop, Bud Powell was a powerhouse tutored by none other than Thelonious Monk himself. Although he took many influences from Art Tatum and others, his clearest inspiration was Charlie Parker. So much so that he even emulated Parker’s playing in his own soloing. One of the greatest examples of this can be heard on the Jazz at Massey Hall album where the two teamed up, amongst others.
Unfortunately, his career was cut short when he died at age 41. Powell was plagued by mental health issues for most of his life, having spent time in a number of hospitals. His genius cannot be overstated and he remains one of the greatest jazz pianists to listen to!
Having made a real name for himself with Coltrane’s group in the 60s, Tyner can be heard on a number of legendary recordings, including A Love Supreme and Crescent. While he’s known for a more heavy-handed approach and full block chords with his left hand, it was his later work for Blue Note that for us highlighted his more delicate and sensitive side – an excellent example of this can be heard on The Real McCoy.
He’s an exponent of modal jazz and the blues can be heard in just about anything he’s done. His long career have also resulted in a massive and fantastic body of work which we recommend all of our readers to delve into at some point!
Jarrett started playing piano at the age of two and rapidly grew into a gifted child prodigy steeped in classical music. Comparatively few jazz musicians have recorded classical music… Wynton Marsalis comes to mind, but the trumpet’s role in the classical repertoire is pretty marginal, so we like to think that makes Jarrett very unique and brought additional layers of complexity and creativity to his improvisation.
His 1975 album, The Köln Concert, with worldwide sales of over 3.5 million copies, is the best-selling solo album in jazz history, as well as the best-selling piano album of all time. Jarrett’s consistent quality across the spectrum of styles is matched by his creative longevity. His performing style is also quite unique, known for standing up during playing and singing and humming along as he plays.
One of the original cool jazz cats, Ahmad Jamal’s influence on jazz cannot be understated. Unlike many at the time, who would play dizzying uninterrupted solos with torrents of notes, Jamal played a much more laid back, delicate and soft style of piano. Providing pauses between phrases, he was able to establish presence, fullness and space in his music, something Miles Davis would notice and admire him for in the 50s.
His best selling album Live at the Pershing quickly became a massive success for Chicago-based Chess Records, and remains as one of the greatest instrumentalist albums out there in our view!
Originally from Quebec, Canada, Peterson was a classically-trained child prodigy who fell under the influence of Art Tatum and Nat “King” Cole. Widely considered to have been the greatest jazz pianist from a technique perspective, Peterson’s lightning fast improvisation can be dizzying at time, but always beautiful. He drew on his classical training as well, and a lot of influences can be heard in his playing of Bach and Rachmaninoff.
The Tatum influence is the one we hear most clearly as listeners, but one thing to recognise is how clean and precise every single note Peterson plays is, as compared to the more blurry playing Tatum. Duke Ellington called him the “Maharaja of the Keyboard”, and for very good reason! He’s one of our absolute favourites too!
As a side note, ever wondered what it would be like to get a piano lesson from Oscar himself?
Hearing Monk for the first time, you may think that your record player is skipping ahead, or that it’s got a scratch on it. Relax, it’s just Monk. We’ve described him in the past as the Picasso of jazz piano because of his ability to dissect, flip around, bend and amend songs so that they remain recognisable but are wrapped in something completely new.
Emerging in the bebop dawn of the 40s, he pursued his own path, creating a one of a kind musical universe where angular but hummable melodies, dissonant cluster chords, and a lightly-swinging rhythmic pulse ruled. Monk struggled with mental health related problems for the majority of his life, but perhaps that was part of what lead to his music being so unique. That, and the fact that he rarely ever played without a hat on
What makes Herbie so great for us is his ability to write extremely simple, catchy tunes which lay a foundation, and then allow the musicians to improvise over them almost infinitely – think of Watermelon Man, Chameleon, Cantaloupe Island, and many more as examples. Hancock was a child prodigy, but his career was jump-started when he joined Miles Davis’ Quintet in 1963.
He’s a true chameleon, having also dabbled in jazz fusion, funk, and even some early hip hop, but make no mistake about it. Hancock is as great a jazz player as they come, and one which has a huge body of work under his name and a growing list of musicians he’s influenced.
Our absolute favourite jazz pianist, who we’ve featured in both of our May as well as April records of the month is Bill Evans. An absolute giant of the piano when it comes to playing reflective ballads – no one can do it quite like Bill. Utilising large, full block chords while harmonising a melody over it, Evans was able to establish a very unique, comforting and full sound which makes his playing so recognisable.
A troubled soul, he was plagued with drug addiction problems throughout his adult life and professional career, but it didn’t stop him producing a remarkably beautiful and consistent body of work. Evans believed that “jazz” is a style of playing music that is fundamentally about about improvisation over a framework, and not a genre of music with a specific sound. He described playing jazz as “Making one-minute’s music in one-minute’s time.”