This week we’re going to concentrate on some of the great piano players in American jazz history. The piano is the quintessential jazz instrument, but it is also the hardest instrument to record properly, and since we are going to be focusing on older recordings, don’t expect a lot of audiophile-level listings here. But, by no means, just because a song is not recorded to today’s standards should it be ignored. That being said, a couple of these recordings are absolutely outstanding sonic treats.

Count Basie – Roseland Shuffle (1937). The template for Big Band swing, listen to the interplay of the soloists followed by the punch of the entire band as it comes in to support the refrain. Basie’s piano work here set the standard for decades to come.

Professor Longhair – Tipitina (1953). In the sense that I really don’t have a clear clue what this song is about, consider this the Louie, Louie of the jazz world. Nevertheless, this song defines New Orleans and therefore American jazz. Professor Longhair plays a loose style of piano that is 98% feel, 32% technique.

Duke Ellington – Caravan (1936). One of Ellington’s less accessible tunes for a mainstream non-jazz audience, this one highlights mid-20th Century experimentation with modalities and arrangements that were stretched well beyond what American audiences had come to expect. In many ways, Caravan opens the door for the be-bop movement in the 1950s.   Ahmad Jamal

Chick Corea - Matrix (1968). Pure virtuosity without leaving the audience behind and bewildered, this track off of Corea’s 1968 How He Sings, How He Sobs shows how powerful a jazz trio (piano, bass, drums) can be. You can hear the direct line from Basie, through the be-bop era straight into mid-60s cool – uninterrupted and purely American.

Ahmad Jamal – But Not For Me (1958). Sticking with the jazz trio format,this track recorded live at the Pershing Hotel in Chicago, IL, in January 1958, oozes the coolness of mid-fifties swing. Jamal (R) is an under-rated (and under-appreciated) American jazz giant, and a lot of our current concept of swing and cool comes from his work on records such as this one.

As always, a lot of really serious players were left off this list, but since we’re concentrating on getting a collection together for the listener who is new to this genre, these five are as good a place to start as any. Happy exploring!

Jack Sharkey for KEF