Best Jazz composers

February 24, 2017

The Best Jazz Composers of All

In the spirit of Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, I’ve decided, just for fun, to take a crack at the 10 greatest jazz pianists of all time. Greatest can mean most popular, or it can mean the most important in the development of the music. I have considered both in relatively equal measure in coming up with my list. Erroll Garner was one of the most popular and is in my own top 10 of favorites, but he’s not in my top 10 in terms of importance. Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley are certainly contenders for the top 10 in importance, but not in popularity. I have given a slight preference to pianists who are great composers, as what is improvisation but composition on the fly? And I’m limiting this to jazz with a swing perspective. Then I don’t have to deal with Eddie Palmieri (whew) or any of the great Latin jazz artists.

Here’s what I think.

#1 Art Tatum
This shouldn’t be a surprise. He took the legacy of Fats Waller completely to its outer limits and combined it with a virtuoso technique and a harmonic and rhythmic imagination not excelled by any jazz pianist since. And he was almost completely blind, to boot. If I had to pick one desert-island pianist, it would be Tatum.

#2 (tie) Bill Evans
Everyone who plays a ballad plays some Bill Evans, but his influence was so much more than that. He was one of the greatest composers of jazz standards and perhaps the most important interpreter of jazz standards from the Great American Songbook. And a multiple reinventer of the piano trio, first with LaFaro and Motian, then with Gomez and Morell, and last with Johnson and La Barbera. Evans took George Russell’s important harmonic theories, part of the structure of Miles’ “Kind of Blue, ” and made them jazz piano mainstream, and incredibly beautiful. In addition, he was one of the first jazz pianists to bring the sonorities and aesthetics of classical music to jazz. He pretty much played only trio and solo, and, like Jamal, that was part of his genius, to know himself, what he wanted to do and should do.

#2 (tie) Herbie Hancock
This is also a no-brainer for the top 10, and, in my mind, he is the equal of Evans in influence. He is one of the great composers of jazz, from both popular and artistic perspectives. As a player, he is one of the truly great “compers” and is a true innovator as a soloist, in his ability to synthesize a creative vision out of merging hard bop and European classical music. And probably the greatest quintet pianist ever, in the greatest quintets of jazz: those of Miles Davis. As a leader, he had many triumphs, the early Blue Notes and the jazz/funk experiments of the ’70s probably being the most significant. Hancock is one of the most collaborative artists as well, and brings his sensitivities to many pop artists. Results are sometimes mixed, but that’s what happens when you’re an improviser, and Hancock has always embraced chance-taking. His use of electronics in jazz was pioneering, and often wonderfully innovative and satisfying.

#4 Bud Powell
If not underrated, definitely underappreciated because of his personal struggles and uneven recorded output. Bud Powell created a piano idiom completely parallel with that of the great Charlie Parker, but completely original. We all play the way we play now largely because of Bud, the first piano master of the modern improvised line. And a major composer as well.

#5 Thelonious Monk
Another of the easy ones to pick. Probably in the top five of most performed jazz composers, with an utterly original style grounded in the Harlem piano school but escaping to the outermost regions of logic and structure. He completely exemplified modernism within the bebop school, in an idiom melodically often quite separate from that of his close friend Bud Powell, who showed much of Monk’s influence in his own work. His style echoes in all great pianists today.

#6 Keith Jarrett
One of the most spectacularly accomplished musicians of all time, Jarrett has made fine recordings of Bach, Shostakovich and Lou Harrison, some of the greatest jazz trio records ever, the wonderful European quartet recordings with Jan Garbarek, and the record “Spirits, ” on which he overdubs himself on ethnic flutes, voice, soprano saxophone, guitar and percussion instruments. Furthermore, Jarrett invented a new genre of solo piano playing with events like the Köln Concert after he had shown complete mastery and individuality within traditional solo piano jazz and gospel music with the album “Facing You.” And that’s in addition to his contributions to Miles Davis’ groundbreaking ’60s and ’70s music.

#7 Fats Waller
Waller is the complete culmination of the Harlem stride piano school — the most important development of early jazz piano — and a great technical player and creative improviser. Jelly Roll Morton was important both as a composer and as a pianist, but Fats took it to the ultimate place. In my mind, James P. Johnson was a worthy rival and a fine composer as well. But if you have to pick one guy, Fats wins hands down, especially given his tremendous popularity as a bandleader and singer. And you wouldn’t have Tatum without Waller, as Tatum sometimes said. “Fats, that’s where I come from.” Sadly, a way-too-short career.

Jessie J "Mamma knows best" - montreux jazz
Jessie J "Mamma knows best" - montreux jazz
Jazz on 3: Birdman composer Antonio Sanchez in session
Jazz on 3: Birdman composer Antonio Sanchez in session
Best Of | Live the Lab | Montreux Jazz Festival 2014
Best Of | Live the Lab | Montreux Jazz Festival 2014

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