Sunna Gunnlaugs

The Best Pianist

October 9, 2009 12:19 am | Filed under: Music | Comments (4)
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A few weeks ago I posted on my facebook fan-page and on twitter this question "Who do you think is the best jazz pianist ever?" However, I could have asked "Who's your favorite jazz pianist?" and gotten much different responses. The replies were interesting because most people don't necessarily just think about who is the best in terms of technical abilities on the instrument but combine it with who appeals the most to them musically, and that's the beauty of it. Technical abilities don't really mean much if the music (or the emotional content to connect with the listener) isn't there. But then again, without the technical abilities one may not be able to execute the ideas to communicate the emotion. It takes two to tango.

The nominees were Keith Jarrett (6), Art Tatum (3), Bill Evans (3), Brad Mehldau (2), Bud Powell (2), Oscar Peterson (2), McCoy Tyner (2), Herbie Hancock (2), Thelonious Monk (2), Erroll Garner and Chick Corea.

There are of course different elements that appeal to different people. In his reply to me
 @AliNAskin said "That's tough. I would choose 3: Art Tatum's technique is überhuman. Bill Evans is deep. Keith Jarrett has many facets" And @ScottMcLemore said "Has Bud Powell been mentioned? He had a certain super-human kind of a thing that I liked."

I have, of course, many favorite pianists… too many to count, but Bobo Stenson, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau are at the top of my list. Maybe it's the melancholy and introspection they share that appeals to me but also melodic and harmonic content.

I love Herbie Hancock especially with Miles Davis. His solo on All of You (from the My Funny Valentine album) is one of my all time favorites. I love the adventurous intros and joy of Erroll Garner. Just see how much fun he is having here:

I also love the motivic development of Enrico Pieranunzi, the elegance of Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly's super swinging touch and the list goes on.

Perhaps the most interesting or even controversial choice would be Thelonious Monk,  who is definitely the underdog in terms of technical ability. His approach can be reminiscent of a child joyfully banging out phrases on the piano. However, sometimes he surprises you with a run out of nowhere, and many of his compositions are technically challenging. In this paradox lies his charm and the formula of his undeniable connection with the listener. (I will be dedicating a post to Monk on his birthday in a couple of days, so check back soon.)

Keith Jarrett would be my personal pick as the best pianist for technical abilities, but also his broad range of music produced with only a handful of musicians. I love all his groups although the European Quartet (sometimes called the Belonging Quartet) is my favorite. As a little follow up on my twitter/facebook experiment I asked a few days later which of Keith Jarrett's groups people favored, the standards trio with Peacock and DeJohnette, the American trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, the American Quartet with Charlie Haden, Paul Motian and Dewey Redman or the European quartet with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen. Again it was fun to get the responses from people both on facebook and twitter.

The European Quartet got most votes (5), next the American Quartet (3) and finally Standards Trio (2). But as @gharness said "My favorite is the European Quartet, but I wouldn't want to be without any of them" All in agreement there, we wouldn't want to be without any of them.

Thanks to all who responded on my facebook fan-page and the following tweeters for tweeting to me @sigurarm @IBilderberg @siggidori @darinwilson @Abakaue @StuArte @fantashit @ScottMcLemore @barrospablito @AllelosMusic @charlanebrady @RussBass @SingingSinha @kraljsvemira @AliNAskin @sewjools @mikeconaty @euskirmusic @zumix29 @gharness @nailmusic

And of course, the discussion can continue here. Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts.

4 Responses to “The Best Pianist”

  1. Pablito Barros says:

    I am not a musician, I do not understand the technique, just vote for the heartbeat. :-)
    I voted for Keith, especially because I'm a fan of ECM records, then to me it sounds very familiar. But there are as big as Bobo, Hancock, Evans, Monk, etc…

    Greetings, Sunna!

  2. Tom Luther says:

    Great notion! My vote would go first to Art Tatum and second to Monk, the latter having the greatest influence on me personally. These may seem like diametrically opposed choices, but my thought is that both of these pianists used texture and tone of the instrument to its fullest( Tatum's "Willow Weep for Me", Monk "'Round Midnight", "Bright Mississippi" to start). In one sense it is an easy choice to go with Art, because his technique is so prominent, but for me it's less about is technique and more about his phrasing, variation, and inventiveness. The same goes for Monk. With Monk there is a visceral power that is so key to music, particularly jazz.

  3. Great topic Sunna! For me the clear winner is Keith. No one dead or alive has his ability to create music from nothing like in his solo concerts, with such technical perfection, creative innovation, and pure emotion. And he does it to that level over and over again. Art Tatum was indeed blessed with great speed but I don't get the same emotional response from him. A little more with Oscar Peterson but he repeats himself a lot. This is all just one opinion of course. Brad Mehldau is my latest heir to the throne. His pianistic skill is amazing(the left hand just continues to amaze me as does his inter-dependence) and he has elevated playing in odd meters(something I have not heard Keith ever attempt)to a new level. All in all we live in an amazing time to be able to hear both Keith and Brad and a myriad of others;Gonzalo,Danilo,Enrico,Bobo, Chick, et al.

  4. zu.mix29 says:

    Well, Which one is Better? mmm…I think everyone of them is really special one!

    I like Keith ,Bill evans,and Monk more :)

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