Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Jazz World: Piano Masters

With the end of the year stuff out of the way, it's time to get back to my little chronological jazz survey. I left off with two of the greatest icons of the bebop era, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I'll continue with some pianists and composers who began in that era.

Bud Powell

Bud Powell was to the piano what Parker and Gillespie were to their instruments, a player of incredible dexterity and speed who gobbled up time like nobody before him. Recurring health problems meant that he didn't always perform or record at his sharpest but he did leave a number of great recordings and fine compositions behind him. This is one of his finest, "Un Poco Loco", with Max Roach doing the amazing percussion work.

And this is a live clip of him playing "Get Happy" with Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke:

Thelonious Monk

Then there's Monk. He emerged in the bebop era but he didn't sound like any of the other players of the time. He is still one of the music's most unique figures. His music was off-centered and dissonant mixing tempos and working off its own peculiar logic. Many people in the 40's and 50's thought he was either crazy or a fraud. Even when they admitted there was something to the nooks and crannies of his compositions they thought his piano playing was amateurish. Today Monk's compositions are integral parts of the jazz repertoire. Several musicians have based projects, if not major parts of their careers, on exploring his music and Monk is regarded as one of the greatest composers this music ever produced and also a hell of a piano player.

His most popular composition is the ballad "Round Midnight". Here he is playing it in his own unique way:

This is his quartet live in Japan with Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, Butch Warren on bass and Frankie Dunlop on drums doing his composition "Epistrophy". Monk's piano playing may look odd but listen to how it sounds:

Herbie Nichols

Herbie Nichols was a pianist and composer who did not have the high profile of the previous two gentlemen. He went his own way in the New York scene, playing in all kinds of bands and writing music that worked in aspects of swing, Caribbean music, Dixieland and classical dissonance. He died at the age of 43 and only released a handful of records, all in a piano trio format. Later avant garde players picked up on what he did and kept his music alive with Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg and trombonist Roswell Rudd, one of Nichols' actual friends, being the biggest champions of his work. Rudd has even recorded several albums of compositions Nichols himself never got to record. This is just one example of the lively eccentricity of his music, "Step Tempest":

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