So you’ve decided that you want to start learning how to play jazz piano, but everyone says that you need to start listening in order to learn. The only issue is that perhaps you’re not sure where to turn. If you have no experience playing jazz, you might not know exactly where to look to find the classic jazz recordings which will give you the most bang for your buck when embarking on your jazz piano learning adventure. This post will give you a starting point for your listening. It’s by no means comprehensive, but from here, you can begin to cross-reference the artists on these classic recordings to branch out to find additional albums which will be huge assets as you continue to learn jazz piano.
This list will go in no particular order and there are sure to be what will seem like glaring omissions. Therefore, it’s important to remember that this list is only a starting point for your jazz piano listening.
1. Oscar Peterson: We Get Requests
This classic Oscar Peterson album from 1964 is a lesson in much of the vocabulary that forms the building blocks of learning to play jazz piano. Peterson’s playing here isn’t so flashy that a novice jazz piano student couldn’t glean valuable information from it. And to top is all off, everyone swings like crazy on this recording! This one is a must have!
2. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
Even though Miles Davis isn’t a pianist, this album makes it to the list. This recording is such a classic and contains such iconic performances from both Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly that there’s no way it can’t be included. If you started your jazz piano learning journey by studying the solos on this album, you’d be off to an excellent start. Learning at least several of the solos on this recording note for note is practically required study for all jazz piano students as is learning to play every song on this album.
3. Bud Powell: The Amazing Bud Powell
Bud Powell is to jazz piano what Charlie Parker is to jazz saxophone. Powell translated much of Parker’s vocabulary to the piano and was one of the first bebop pianists to truly define what it meant to play bebop piano. His solo improvisations were incredibly melodic and the way he imitated solo horn melodies in his solos set the standard for the evolution of jazz piano.
4. Erroll Garner: Concert By the Sea
One of the things I love about Erroll Garner’s playing is how he defined such a unique style. His very orchestral style of playing reminds me very much of Count Basie’s rhythm section. Garner’s left hand quarter notes are reminiscent of guitarist Freddie Green’s quarter note strumming while playing with Basie’s band, and Garner’s right hand melodies played in blocked chords ever so slightly behind the beat make it seem as if one is listening to a pianist playing a Basie arrangement with two hands. As a bonus, Garner swings like there’s no tomorrow!
5. Duke Ellington: Duke Ellington and John Coltrane
Here’s another recording that’s not strictly a jazz trio album, but there’s much to be gleaned from it. As great of a bandleader as Duke Ellington was, he was also a fantastic pianist with a very unique style. He played like a composer/arranger, and by that I mean that his playing was always economical and extremely well thought out. As an accompanist, he always plays just the right amount to support the soloist, and he never plays too much. This recording has Duke playing with tenor saxophone legend John Coltrane, so it’s a great opportunity to hear his accompanying skills next to a master saxophonist. Duke has a very specific style of piano playing which every aspiring jazz pianist should be familiar with.
6. Thelonious Monk: Misterioso
A natural segue from Duke Ellington would be to become familiar with the playing of Thelonious Monk. Another legendary jazz pianist, Monk is known for his angular and disjointed playing which can only be described “quirky”. That said, he was a true genius as a player, bandleader, and as a composer. His playing borrowed heavily from Duke Ellington and if you listen carefully, you can hear many similarities. Monk’s classic recording “Misterioso” features many of the hit songs which made him famous. For anyone who wishes to learn to play jazz piano, this album is essential listening.
7. Ahmad Jamal: At the Pershing
Anyone who wishes to learn jazz piano has to become familiar with pianist Ahmad Jamal. One of the things I love about Jamal’s playing is that while he is indeed a virtuoso, he never brags about it in his playing. His style is always refrained, elegant, and economical. His famous rendition of the song “Poinciana” is a lesson in arrangement, harmony, and texture. Oh, and he swings like there’s no tomorrow!
8. Horace Silver: Blowin’ the Blues Away
This has got to be one of my favorite jazz albums of all time, and Horace Silver is also one of my favorite jazz pianists. Horace Silver is famous for his work with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and he continued on to have a successful solo career as well. His playing swings like crazy, his improvisations are incredibly singable and melodic, his compositions are beautiful and memorable, and he equips himself with bandmates who work together extremely well. Aside from everything one can learn about playing jazz piano from Horace Silver, his music just makes you feel good!
9. McCoy Tyner: Inception
No list of classic jazz pianists can be complete without mention of McCoy Tyner. Tyner is famous for his work with John Coltranes group, though of course he worked with a whole host of other artists through the years in addition to having a long solo career. His playing has influenced every single jazz pianist who came after him. His unique style of voicing chords, his approach to harmony, and his aggressive approach to the instrument completely changed the way jazz piano was played. Even more impressive is listening to his work with the John Coltrane Quartet accompanying Johnny Hartman as it’s some of the most delicate and sensitive accompanying I’ve ever heard. Any aspiring jazz pianist should become intimately familiar with McCoy Tyner’s style.
10. Bill Evans: Portrait in Jazz
I saved Bill Evans for last simply because he’s possibly my favorite on the list. Bill Evans got his start playing for Miles Davis, though he quickly went on to have a successful solo career. Known for his exquisite touch, lush harmonies, and beautifully melodic improvisations, Bill Evans created his own incredibly unique style which influenced every pianist who followed him. There is a wealth of knowledge to glean from listening to his playing, and anyone who wishes to learn jazz piano needs to be familiar with him.
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