I LOVE A PIANO #1
As I have said before, the jazz instrument I am most attracted to is the tenor saxophone, starting with Lester Young.
But I do love jazz piano too. I recently wrote a tribute on this musings page to one of my personal favourites, the little known short-lived black 1950s West Coast pianist Carl Perkins (see“Too early in the grooveyard”).
I’d now like to share with you a little more of my appreciation of bop and hard-bop jazz pianists.
Let’s start with the totally one-off, wacky genius Thelonious Monk. I first saw him live at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1961, having persuaded my bemused father to take his jazz-mad 15 year old son to the concert. Monk didn’t do the half-suspected shuffling dance but instead took his shoes and socks off and waved his feet at the audience during a patient Charlie Rouse solo.
Antics apart, Monk’s many compositions are fascinating and beguiling. How about for example the mirror image of the first 8 bars of Epistrophy or the ugly beauty, not of Ugly beauty, but of Crepuscule with Nellie?
And his harmonies, voicings and horizontal, flat, hammering fingers (think of the touch of a child playing Chopsticks) always knock me out.
Monk belongs to no continuing tradition. The only people I have heard who sound remotely like him are Duke Ellington (precursor), Stan Tracey (through Ellington) and Bruce Boardman (replica).
The father of the tradition of modern jazz piano is of course Bud Powell, who reduced the left hand to sparse chords and single root notes and concentrated on mercurial melodic soloing in the right hand. In other words, he had a solo voice as linear and fluent as Charlie Parker.
Speaking of whom, one of my desert island discs is a live club recording (broadcast from Birdland in 1950) of the bebop classic Ornithology featuring the pair of them plus Fats Navarro on trumpet. Bird goes first, brilliant as always. Fats is up next with thoughtful and creative choruses which answer Bird on equal terms. And then a breathtaking Bud Powell on top form cuts them both with an unforgettably intense and swinging piano solo.
I have put this track up on the music page this week to see the New Year in with a blast. Even if you don’t agree with my rating of the solos, the whole performance is classic be-bop at its most exhilarating.
In the wake of Bud come a host of admirers and imitators who developed their own thing. Among these I would mention only a handful who have a special charm for me.
I suppose the most faithful and pure disciple has been Barry Harris, who always paid homage to Bud in his own fastidious and less flamboyant way.
Very much in the same tradition are the ultra-hip Elmo Hope (who took over the piano chair in the Curtis Counce quintet when Carl Perkins died) and the tasteful and versatile Tommy Flanagan.
Listening to Horace Silver is a unique joy. We know the contribution to jazz he has made as a bandleader and discoverer of talent (something he shares with drummer Art Blakey). But dig his piano! So authentic. It comes out of Bud (especially his early trio sides) but is deliberately pared down with minimalist right hand and growling left.
I thrill to the driving, percussive, bluesy sound of Hampton Hawes, and am equally fond of the very different style of Hamp’s great friend Bill Evans.
Although Bill’s greatest gift to us is his lyricism and emotional pull, I equally admire the powerful swing of his early period – thinking particularly of the early Riverside trio albums. When you hear him start to really dig in, it is no wonder that his favourite drummer was Philly Joe Jones.
I remember being fortunate enough to be in the audience (I believe sitting next to Brian Priestley) at a Bill Evans recording for BBC TV Jazz 625. Chuck Israels was on bass and Larry Bunker on drums. On How deep is the ocean, Bill was starting to cook up a storm and, at the end of every chorus, I felt like shouting to Larry Bunker to switch from polite brushes to sticks. When he finally did, the effect was positively orgasmic………..
Well, that’s the tip of the iceberg. There are several other pianists whose praises I would like to sing and I would also like to explore the subject of phrasing and time feel on the piano but I will have to leave that for another blog.
Meanwhile, I leave you with this thought. A standard piano has 52 white notes and 36 black – 88 in all. Mick Pyne once wrote a tune called Note 87 in which he claimed to have used all but one. I can’t remember which one.