Last month I blogged about my top 10 favorite jazz piano tracks, and this time around I’ll be looking at entire albums. In addition to using the same traditional definition of “piano trio” (e.g. acoustic piano, acoustic bass, drums), I’ll define “album” as something conceived and put together for release as a unified piece of work. So a Bud Powell compilation does not count, for example.
And away we go:
1.Phineas Newborn, Jr.: A World of Piano, with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones (Side A) and Sam Jones and Louis Hayes (Side B)
Ah yes, back to the days when LP sides actually meant something (I just can’t bring myself to say “tracks 1-4” instead of “Side A”). Anyway, I make no secret of my devotion to Phineas, and Side A of this record is a definitive statement of his artistry (notwithstanding the fact that The Piano Artistry of Phineas Newborn, Jr. is another album entirely). He plays his butt off on “Cheryl” and “Manteca,” and then things really get ridiculous. He plays Lush Life with a Ravel-based intro, great lyricism, and a portion mid-way through where I swear it sounds like he has 3 hands (skillful use of the sostenuto pedal, I’m guessing, but I don’t really know). Following this is “Daahoud,” 4:43 of some of most burnin’ jazz you will ever hear, period. Most amazingly, to me, he somehow imbues soul and blues feeling while playing perfect bop lines and shredding the changes at an extremely fast tempo. That Side B is a slight letdown is no shame, and every track there is fabulous as well, arguably highlighted by and even-faster version of “Oleo.”
2.Papa Jo Jones: Jo Jones Trio, with Ray Bryant and Tommy Bryant
Papa Jo Jones is, of course, best known for his work with Count Basie in the 1930s and ‘40s, but this 1958 session finds him at the top of his game, particularly on the utterly ridiculous drum feature “Old Man River,” a stellar testament to the hipness of the greatest “old-school” musicians. The star here, though (at least to this pianist’s ears), is pianist Ray Bryant. Always a great player, composer and arranger, he is largely responsible for the amazingly tight trio arrangements that provide the basis for the incredibly swinging music here. The trio manages to sound extremely tight and polished but not the least bit sterile.
3.Kenny Barron: the Only One, with Ray Drummond and Ben Riley
This was the first Kenny Barron record I checked out (courtesy of old friend Amanda Monaco, who encouraged me to come to Rutgers to study with him), and I’ll sheepishly admit that I didn’t immediately love it. At the time, my attention was much more easily caught by funkier pianists (Bobby Timmons’ This Here Is Bobby Timmons, which ever-so-narrowly missed making this Top 10 list, was my favorite at the time) and thus Kenny’s conception did not immediately resonate. With the possible exceptions of the funky version of “Love For Sale” and the slow-grind “Blueswatch,” composed by one of his students at the time, the flowing lyricism that is central to Kenny’s style (even on up-tempo numbers like “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and “All God’s Children”) was a foreign sound. That, of course, was nearly 20 years ago, and my conception has since expanded. Kenny’s flowing phrasing is now one of the hallmarks of my own playing, and this is my favorite among the many examples of his trio work with Ben Riley on drums (Green Chimneys with Buster Williams might be next on the list, for what it’s worth).
4.Bill Evans: Portrait in Jazz, with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian
This is another instance in which it’s important to distinguish that I’m talking about “favorite” and not “best” or “most important,” in which case I’d be pedagogically obligated to cite Sunday at the Village Vanguard. That one would be a pretty easy choice for a favorite as well, but this one gets me the most excited. Courtesy of a dubbed cassette in high school, Portrait in Jazz was my first exposure to Bill Evans and I can now see that it had a profound impact. Interestingly, while this is still highly interactive music (as on the famous version of “Autumn Leaves”), it is also the most straightforwardly swinging of Evans’ recordings with Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro and as such highly recommended to those who haven’t yet been able to penetrate the “introspective” layers of the Village Vanguard recordings from two years later.
5.Mary Lou Williams: Free Spirits, with Buster Williams and Mickey Roker
The more Mary Lou Williams I listen to, the more I’m reminded of how underappreciated she is. Besides that, there are relatively few musicians with her longevity who just kept getting better, but I would cite this mid-70s recording as evidence of that. Her playing is authoritative, harmonically modern and intensely soulful. The CD reissue includes some great bonus tracks not on the original LP (which I bought years ago, so it was a particular treat to hear these additional tunes). My favorite track is “Baby Man” (which I subsequently arranged for the Playdate album), a bluesy yet modern tune composed by John Stubblefield but never actually recorded by Stubby himself. Every track here is a winner, though, and Buster and Mickey play beautifully as well.
6.Ahmad Jamal: Awakening, with Jamil Nasser and Frank Gant
As addressed in the last top 10 post, I have a particularly strong soft spot for this incarnation of Ahmad’s trio. His earliest trio (with Ray Crawford on guitar) is phenomenal, though “ineligible” for this list due to instrumentation. Of course most folks are familiar with his hugely important trio with Vernell Fournier and Israel Crosby, and But Not For Me: Live at the Pershing is easily one of the most popular piano trio records ever. But this album is a wonder of a different variety. Like a handful of really important records, I remember where I was when I bought it and where I was when I first listened to it. It is some of the moodiest work of Ahmad’s career and some of the most colorful, richly textured piano trio work ever recorded. There are also moments (as on “Wave”) where he shows that he had a lot more chops in his trick bag than he was letting on most of the time.
7.James Williams: Magical Trio 2, with Ray Brown and Elvin Jones
Those who have read a number of these lists have likely encountered this album repeatedly, as it served as a formative influence and is still one of my favorites. The ballads (“You Are Too Beautiful” and “Too Late Now”) are tender and there are some exciting up-tempo moments as well (as on “Bohemia After Dark”). Most of all, though, the incredibly hard-swinging medium tempos that were JW’s bread and butter are on display as well here as they ever were. Elvin and Ray find an amazing pocket together, and James’ soulful yet modern playing takes it all to a stunning level of artistry. This pre-supposes that you’re into that sound, I guess – me, I would be hard-pressed to cite a single album more important in my development than this one.
8.Sweet Basil Trio: St. Thomas, with Cedar Walton, Ron Carter and Billy Higgins
I had the pleasure of hearing Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins together on a few occasions, and it was a real marvel to behold – on more than one occasion I have cited their work together (along with that of Kenny Barron and Ben Riley) as the epitome of a swinging pocket in the modern era. Billy and Cedar worked together with a number of bassists (Paul Chambers, Sam Jones, Buster Williams, Tony Dumas, David Williams, etc.), but I have the softest soft spot for their astoundingly mature and interactive work with Ron Carter. Each swinging track on this recording (appropriately enough recorded live at Sweet Basil in New York) sounds like an exercise in telepathy among the trio members.
9.Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes
Perhaps I need to see a therapist about this (once I get through the rest of my psychopathology, I guess), but as with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea is someone I almost hesitate to cite as an influence, since among modern pianists he’s such an obvious choice. Those musings aside, I remember buying this cassette in high school after being hipped to it by the Colombian bassist Jairo Moreno . . . and I totally didn’t get it. Fast forward maybe 2 ½ years, and at the beginning of my junior year of college I had finally reached a certain level of basic jazz fluency where I was ready to explore more modern stuff without it being built on a shaky foundation. I put this one back in and NOW I got it. Needless to say this album is a classic, with incredibly assertive playing by all three trio-members and a level of effortless fire (is that an oxymoron) that helped bring the expectations for modern jazz pianists up a notch.
10.Hampton Hawes: Spanish Steps (reissued as Blues for Bud), with Jimmy Woode and Art Taylor
I can’t really call Hampton Hawes a “formative influence,” as I was fairly oblivious to his playing until my mid-20s. At that point I began checking out his trio work on the Contemporary label and realizing how underrated and amazing he was, bridging the gap between blues and bop on a level comparable to Wynton Kelly or early Horace Silver. This recording, made in Europe after his long hiatus due to a trumped-up drug incarceration, shows Hawes version 2.0 in a sense. By this point he had absorbed a lot of modern influences in his rhythm and harmonies as well, without sacrificing any of the other elements. The results of this leap in development are particularly appealing on this album, which contains some of the hippest and most swinging piano playing that you’ve probably never heard.