Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Jazz Piano Aces from the 1950's

The decade of the 1950's saw profound changes in the forms of American roots music that have been discussed here. Jazz was no exception. By 1950, as Bebop began to take hold and become more mainstream, there was a decisive shift away from the big band format. In its place emerged smaller combos, quartets and above all, the trio. Most smaller jazz combos retained the piano as an anchor, and in most trios it was always present. This greater emphasis on on piano gave rise to some magnificent players during the decade, some of whom became leading innovators in the contemporary jazz scene. Stylistically, these players possessed fluency in all the primary modes of expression in fifties jazz: bebop, hard bop, ballads, pop arrangements as well as R&B based material. Most of the players highlighted here went recorded extensively in the 1950's on the 33 rpm disc, on labels like Verve, Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside and Savoy, and a lot of these recording are pure treasures of American small combo jazz. Also, most all of these players went on to enjoy continued success, and a couple are still performing live today. Since the 1950's are featured in this post, I have attempted to include recordings from the period, there are a few exceptions, McCoy Tyner for one. The order of the pianists included here is in no way hierarchical, it's random. Finally, many thanks again to all the collectors at youtube who have made these recordings accessible to all of us.

1) Hampton Hawes: Hawes is rooted in bop but is very comfortable in all the idioms of the period. Check out "Walkin," recorded with his trio in 1955. Excellent.

2) Bill Evans: 1950's association with Miles Davis and Charles Mingus earn Evans a highly respected position in this group. Check out this 1950's composition of the classic ballad "My Foolish Heart" for a dose of Bill's measured, ethereal style.

3) Thelonious Monk: Monk is a veritable jazz icon and Bebop pioneer who was a tenacious innovator in style throughout the decade. Check out his trio doing "Blue Monk" from 1958.

4) Hank Jones: Hank is one of the true patriarchs, having studied with the legendary Art Tatum and played with virtually everyone, including Coleman Hawkins, Billy Eckstine and Charles Mingus. Hank is over 90 years old and still performing today. Check out this live trio recording with Buddy Rich and Ray Brown from the 1950 entitled "Ad Lib." Hank really shows his stuff here.

5) Tommy Flanagan: Another of the living patriarchs, Tommy is best known for his work on two historically monumental saxophone albums of the 1950's: John Coltrane's Giant Steps and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus. Check out Tommy in a trio setting here with Elvin Jones on drums and Wilbur Little on bass from 1957 doing "Eclypso." Outstanding.

6) Red Garland: Garland performed with the giants of the 1940's: Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Roy Eldridge, and this experience served him well as he emerges as a top post bop performer in the 1950's, recording solo for Prestige and also extensively with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Jimmy Forrest. Check out "Billy Boy" by Red and his trio from 1958. Very smooth.

7) Oscar Peterson: One of the all time greats, the Canadien Peterson was just getting started in the 1950's as he forged his longstanding relation with bass legend Ray Brown. This fascinating recording from the late 1950's is entitled "Cubano Chant," and demonstrates the influence of Cuban rhythms in this trio setting, with Brown and Ed Thigpen. Incredible playing.

8) Horace Silver: A prolific composer, Silver was a mainstay with the Blue Note label throughout the fifties, recording primarily hard bop, R& B flavored material and some ballads. Check out this Latin influenced composition; "Senor Blues" from 1959.

9) Milt Buckner: Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Milt was also an organ player, and is primarily known for his "block chord" innovations on piano. Check out this organ/piano arrangement of "The Beast," from the 1960's, a composition chosen by Angelo Badalamenti to be used in David Lynch's neo-noir film Mulholland Drive.

10) McCoy Tyner: Having seen Tyner perform with his own ensemble in 1973, I will always be a huge fan of this incredibly talented player. This early example of Tyner's prowess, recorded with John Coltrane from 1959, is entitled "One in Four" and is astonishingly good, listen for Tyner's solo at 4:30. McCoy is still going strong today, and has just released a new album.

11) Ahmad Jamal: Another exquisite player who emerges in the 1950's, Jamal flourished in the all popular trio setting of the decade. Give a listen to this live performance of "Darn That Dream" from 1959. Sublime.

12) Randy Weston: Born in New York and of Jamaican origin, Weston recorded extensively in the 1950's for Riverside. Randy enjoyed association with jump blues, jazz and R&B musicians alike. In the 1960's he recorded with many of the avant garde greats. This fascinating tune, "Little Niles" from his 1956 Riverside LP "With These Hands," is extraordinary and seems to anticipate the more experimental sounds to follow in the 1960's.


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