Twenty-one of the Best JAZZ PIANO TRIO Albums of All Time
Having recorded three TRIO albums myself, the format of piano, bass and drums is close to my heart. Here are some of the recordings I keep coming back to, presented in chronological order of recording, with links to a sample track for each album on YouTube.
In my opinion, these albums should be in the collection of anyone interested in jazz piano. For further tracks and in-depth info about all these pianists, please check out my ‘Jazz Piano Library’ PODCASTS on MORLEY RADIO.
1. Bud Powell – THE AMAZING BUD POWELL Vol 1 (1951)A Night in Tunisia
One of a pair of Blue Note albums that show the quintessential bebop pianist at his virtuosic best. The CD re-issue include some alternate takes and it’s amazing to hear how different his improvising is on successive versions of the same tune, especially his flawless 16th-note double-time runs on the famous 4-bar break in Night in Tunisia
. Also check out the cadenza/ending on the same tune (which is completely different on the alternate take), and his composition Un Poco Loco
, featuring that famous cowbell pattern from drummer Max Roach (expertly interpreted by Jeff Lardner on my 2010 trio album SHAPESHIFTING).
2. Erroll Garner – CONCERT BY THE SEA (1953)
I’ll Remember April
Garner was a one-off, an international star in the 1950s with a unique, unclassifiable style that has been much imitated but never equalled. Mainly self-taught, he never learnt to read to music, but his extraordinary virtuosity and sheer joie-de-vivre captivated audiences. Listen to the way he personalizes melodies with his trademark block chords, bombastic octaves, four-to-the-bar left-hand chords and sudden extreme changes of dynamics. Mambo Carmel
is an example of his ebullient Latin-jazz style, which became more and more prevalent in his later recordings.
3. Horace Silver – TRIO AND ART BLAKEY – SABU (1953) Safari
Silver is best-known as one of the architects of the ‘hard-bop’ school; his five or six-piece groups were like a training ground for up-and-coming jazz musicians in New York from the 1950s to the 1990s. This is one of his few trio recordings, almost his first album, but in my opinion still one of his best. The Bud Powell influence is clear, but Silver’s compositional prowess is already impressive – at least half the tracks are originals, including Safari
and Opus de Funk
4. Hampton Hawes – TRIO Vol 1 (1955)
I Got Rhythm
An underrated pianist, Hawes combined fluent Bud Powell-influenced phrases with a strong blues feeling and an instantly recognizable touch. This is first of three trio albums released in the 1950s on the Contemporary label. They’re all excellent, but this includes the wonderful Blues the Most
(a tune I attempted to do justice to in 1998 on my first trio album THE OTHER SIDE) and an impressive version of All the Things You Are.
5. Red Garland – RED GARLAND’S PIANO (1956)
Please Send Me Someone to Love
Best known for his elegant, swinging playing on the Miles Davis albums WORKIN’, STEAMIN’, COOKIN’ and RELAXIN’, all from 1956, Garland had a wonderfully light, bubbly touch and was known for his off-beat left-hand chordal style, as well as his ability to effortlessly improvise double time 16th-note lines. This is his second trio album; the track I’ve selected shows off the more bluesy side of his playing, and also his much-imitated two-handed block-chord style. For a taste of his more bubbly up-tempo style, try his version of Stompin’ at the Savoy.
6. Ahmad Jamal – LIVE AT THE PERSHING (1958)
These legendary tracks, recorded under less than perfect conditions in a Chicago club, have had a far greater influence than you might expect, even though Jamal was sometimes dismissed by critics as a mere cocktail pianist. Miles Davis was a fan of his approach and appreciated his use of space and contrast. Jamal’s use of exaggerated dynamics also had something in common with his approximate contemporary Erroll Garner, also from Pittsburgh. Poinciana
is one of his most iconic performances, featuring the New Orleans flavour of Vernell Fournier’s drumming, with Israel Crosby on bass. I couldn’t help but use a similar arrangement in 2003 on my second trio album, TWELVE BY THREE.
7. Bill Evans – PORTRAIT IN JAZZ (1959)
What is This Thing Called Love
Bill’s third record as a leader, featuring what was to become his most famous rhythm section, the ground-breaking Scott LaFaro (bass) and Paul Motion (drums), who redefined the roll of bass and drums in a trio. It’s hard to choose from all the excellent trio records Evans made between 1956 and his death in 1980 – a close second would be the live recording with the same trio, SUNDAY AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD (Waltz for Debby
) and his previous album EVERYBODY DIGS BILL EVANS (featuring drummer Philly Joe Jones).
8. Ray Bryant – CON ALMA (1960)
Another underrated pianist, his playing on this album is a delight, alternating a delicate and precise touch with an earthy blues feeling and swinging solos. The title track, the Dizzy Gillespie tune Con Alma
is a masterpiece, as in Bryant’s composition Cubano Chant
. Also included are great renditions of well-known standards such as Autumn Leaves
, C-Jam Blues
and Round Midnight
. My CD is packaged with another album – LITTLE SUSIE – which is also highly recommended.
9. Bobby Timmons – THIS HERE IS BOBBY TIMMONS (1960)
Pianist in drummer Art Blakey’s group The Jazz Messengers, Timmons wrote Moanin’
around 1958, and it has become his best-known composition. It’s great to hear this trio version, on his first trio album, recorded a couple of years later. The album also features another great tune of his, This Here
, an extended blues in ¾ time, together with standards such as My Funny Valentine
, The Party’s Over
and Come Rain and Shine
. You can watch me play This Here
with my trio on YouTube here
10. Phineas Newborn Jr. – A WORLD OF PIANO (1961)
This pianist’s fluent bebop playing displayed a rarely equalled technical facility; he is particularly remembered for his trademark virtuosic double-time lines, executed in both hands simultaneously, two octaves apart, imitated to great effect by pianists such as Oscar Peterson and Benny Green. His playing on the Clifford Brown tune Daahoud
and Sonny Rollins’ Oleo
is simply astounding… But to hear Phineas stretch out on a slow blues, check out the track After Hours
on the Roy Haynes trio album WE THREE.
11. Oscar Peterson – NIGHT TRAIN (1962)
One of the all-time classic trio albums, this early recording stands out from Oscar’s other albums because of his relaxed, unshowy playing, and the theme of the blues running through every tune. These include Bag’s Groove, Georgia on My Mind
and his gospel-flavoured composition Hymn To Freedom.
With the great Ray Brown on bass.
12. McCoy Tyner – REACHING FORTH (1962)
Recorded during the pianist’s time with the famous John Coltrane Quartet, this trio session gave Tyner the opportunity to explore his own version of the innovations pioneered by the great saxophonist. It’s true to say that McCoy’s style turned jazz piano on its head, with his quartal chords and pentatonic improvisations influencing hundreds of jazz pianists ever since. I love his driving modal playing on the title track, which is based on just two chords, but never gets boring
13. Wynton Kelly – FULL VIEW (1966)
Kelly took over from Bill Evans in the Miles Davis group in 1959 and is famous for playing on the track Freddie Freeloader
on Miles’ KIND OF BLUE album. He’s one of the most swinging pianists ever, with a strong bluesy streak too, and this is one of his best trio albums. As well featuring a selection of attractive standards, a couple of groovy tunes by his friend Rudy Stevenson are on the programme – worth checking out.
14. Dudley Moore – AUTHENTIC DUD (1966)
Blues for Boots
Better known as comedian and film star, Moore was an expert jazz pianist and one of the first I heard as a teenager due to his frequent appearances on British TV. Heavily influenced by Erroll Garner, he was also capable of playing really ‘down home and dirty’ blues, as this track demonstrates in spades. Other tracks on this album include a bossa-nova style Fly Me to the Moon
and highly listenable versions of standards such as Yesterdays
and You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.
15. Chick Corea – NOW HE SINGS NOW HE SOBS (1968)
An astonishing tour-de-force by the young Corea, before he branched out into the electronic wizardry and more commercial offerings typical of his later ‘Elektrik’ bands. The cohesiveness and interaction between Chick, bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes is truly astounding. Pianistically, Chick was exploring the type of quartal voicings and pentatonic improvisation pioneered by McCoy Tyner, and the result still sounds incredibly fresh and modern.
16. Monty Alexander – LIVE! AT MONTREUX FESTIVAL (1976)
This features the Jamaican pianist’s trio with John Clayton (bass) and Jeff Hamilton (drums) at their absolute peak. The audience’s electric response to the trio’s changes in tempo and dynamics in Ellington’s Satin Doll
is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat. I’m not sure it’s possible to swing harder than this! Another stand-out track is Work Song
17. Gene Harris – LIVE AT OTTER CREST (1981)
A Little Blues There
We’re lucky to have this concert not only on CD, but also on video (as on the YouTube link above). It's a joyous occasion and Harris and his trio are on top form. The bluesy Battle Hymn of the Republic
has gospel overtones, building to a high-energy climax, but he shows a more restrained side to his playing on the ballad My Foolish Heart,
and some impressive bebop chops on the up-tempo Cute.
A hugely enjoyable set.
18. Michel Petrucciani – LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD (1984)
The French pianist emigrated to the USA in 1982, making this record soon afterwards, aged around 21. He went on to forge a successful international carrier despite serious physical and health issues. His emotionally charged and romantic style is well communicated here as always. As well as several originals the programme includes a lovely version of the Monk tune Round Midnight
19. Keith Jarrett – STANDARDS LIVE (1986)
Too Young to Go Steady
(Not available on YouTube)
In any selection of the best trio recordings ever made it’s impossible not to include an album by Keith Jarrett’s trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette – the question is, which one? There have been so many! Try also STANDARDS Vol 1 (1983), Vol 2 (1985), STILL LIVE (also 1986) and THE CURE (1990). I find his inventiveness inspiring, but the group empathy within the trio is also hugely impressive.
20. Benny Green – RAY BROWN TRIO: BASSFACE (1993) Milestones
The great bassist Ray Brown didn’t employ just any old keyboard player and his choice of the young Benny Green for this date is testimony to the pianist’s abilities. On this session, recorded live in Santa Cruz (California) with Jeff Hamilton (drums), he swings as hard as anybody. The Phineas Newborn influence is clearly signalled, not only in Green's playing, but on the Ray Brown composition Phineas Can Be.
The arrangement of Milestones
shows a more modern sensibility, with some exciting modal playing.
21. Brad Mehldau – THE ART OF THE TRIO Vol 1 (1996)
I Didn’t Know What Time It Was
Mehldau plays this Rogers/Hart standard in 5/4, an unusual choice, but he improvises comfortably in this time signature, without it sounding stilted. Other tracks on this highly-acclaimed recording recall Bill Evans – I Fall In Love Too Easily
has an understated quality which could be perfect if you’re in an introspective mood. At other times he seems to be channelling Keith Jarrett – check out his charming original Blackbird
This is just my personal selection – apologies if I’ve omitted some of YOUR favourite trio recordings! I'd like to have included some trio albums by two other great pianists – Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock – but they seem to have mostly recorded with larger groups.
I welcome suggestions for some 21st Century additions…