Top 8 Jazz Piano Albums

These are the albums you should know

Piano

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With 88 keys, the piano is capable of many chords and self-harmonization. As such a versatile instrument, the piano is an asset in any jazz ensemble. Herein lies 8 quintessential jazz piano albums by artists ranging from Jelly Roll to Duke, from Count Basie to Monk. Sit back, turn the volume up, and let these jazz piano prodigies take you on a musical journey. 

Jelly Roll Morton: Library Of Congress Recordings

Jelly Roll Morton

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There are a number of albums that highlight Jelly Roll Morton’s brilliance as both a soloist (The Pearls) and a bandleader (Jelly Roll Morton 1923-1924). But this record which includes both music and interviews is a true gem. In it, Jelly Roll Morton showed that a boldly lyrical approach to the piano was possible, a style that has since influenced greats from Art Tatum to Diana Krall.

The album was recorded by Alan Lomax on an acetate recorder in 1938, just a few years before Morton died. According to Richard Cook and Brian Morton, Library of Congress Recordings is a “virtual history of the birth pangs of jazz as it happened in the New Orleans of the turn of the century." 

Art Tatum: The Best Of Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces

Art Tatum: The Best Of Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces

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For those inclined to dive into the “deep end” of jazz piano, this “best of” compilation is a worthwhile entry point.  

Art Tatum's sheer speed and fluidity on the piano keys shows on tunes like “Too Marvelous For Words”  and “I’ve Got The World On A String." It's probably better to just listen to this record rather than read about it. Its impact is self-evident.

Count Basie: The Complete Atomic Basie

Basie

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As Richard Cook and Brian Morton wrote in the third edition of The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD, this album “might be the last great Basie record.”

Recorded in 1957 with Thad Lewis, Frank Wess and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis in the horn section and Eddie Jones and Sonny Payne anchoring the rhythm section, this record is the definition of the late big band era style. “The Kid From Red Bank” features Count Basie wildly swinging while Jones brings a subtle brand of cool to “Duet.”

Neal Hefti’s arrangements throughout are pitch perfect and Davis’ explosions from time-to-time prevent the record from lapsing into lounge lizard doldrums. A brilliant record through and through.

Duke Ellington: Never No Lament

Ellington

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The humongous collection that spans Duke Ellington's recordings with Columbia is wonderful, of course, as are his sessions with Coltrane and his many “suite” recordings. But, song for song, dollar for dollar, there’s no better set than this.

With Jimmy Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on sax, this record also includes greats like Barney Bigard Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn.

To know jazz piano, you need to know Ellington. Here’s the place to start.

Bud Powell: The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 1

Powell

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Once it was invented by Jelly Roll Morton, refined by Art Tatum, and then carried to the bandstand by Count Basie and Duke Ellington, jazz piano then arrived at the dawn of bebop.

Bud Powell was a key player in transitioning jazz piano from big band to bop, and this record embodies that evolution. With his incendiary playing and fascinating rhythmic and harmonic language, Bud Powell truly is "amazing."

Bill Evans: The Complete Riverside Recordings

Bill Evans: The Complete Riverside Recordings

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Bill Evans changed the face of jazz piano an immeasurable way. A sensitive and gentle man, his melodic sensitives were so acute it was as if he were wearing his heart on his sleeve with every note.

He made so many cornerstone recordings for Riverside between 1956 and 1963 it’s difficult to choose one. So why not have them all? 

Keith Jarrett: The Koln Concert

Keith Jarrett

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Here's the bizarre story behind this 60-minute concert recording. The first jazz concert at the Koln Opera, it was promoted by a 17-year old and performed on a substandard piano by a player who was in substantial pain due to a back injury. It also started at the late hour of 11:30 PM and went at a ticket price of $1.72 USD.

Even so, Jarrett’s solo expeditions were brilliantly bombastic and often full of brute force and energy.

Thelonious Monk: Genius Of Modern Music, Volume 1

Thelonious Monk: Genius Of Modern Music, Volume 1

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A Brilliant piano player that he was, Monk’s greatest contribution to jazz was as a composer and here is where it all started. From the infectious swing of “Humph” to the jagged melody of “Who Knows,” Monk followed Bud Powell as one of the greatest bandstands to bop innovators.

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