We asked Samara Joy, Hanif Abdurraqib, Vijay Iyer and others to share their favorite tracks showcasing what might be the most nuanced instrument in jazz.
Over the past few months, The New York Times has asked all kinds of experts to answer the question, What would you play a friend to make them fall in love with Duke Ellington? How about Alice Coltrane? We’ve covered bebop, vocal jazz, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra and the music of the 21st century.
This month, we’re focused on the piano, perhaps the most nuanced instrument in jazz. At the hands of an artist like Thelonious Monk or Shirley Scott, Herbie Hancock or Geri Allen, the piano captures a vast range of emotions — some easily identified; others more textured — while blurring the lines between jazz, ambient and classical. It’s an instrument so equally subtle and pronounced that even one of the most celebrated pianists in jazz still has trouble assessing it.
“I’m trying to figure out what the black and white keys do after 86 years!” Ahmad Jamal said in a 2020 interview. “I first sat down at the piano when I was 3 years old, and I’m still trying to figure out what they do!” Indeed, there’s no other instrument that heightens and soothes like the piano, its melodic chords a worthy complement to stronger-sounding drums and horns.
Below, we asked writers, critics, musicians and D.J.s to recommend their favorite jazz recordings that put the piano in the spotlight. Enjoy reading their commentary and listening to the excerpts, and find a playlist at the bottom of the article with full tracks. As always, be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.
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Dan Tepfer, pianist and composer
Some people are attracted to what they know, others to what they don’t know. If you’re the second kind of person, I think you’ll find the deep mystery of this track fascinating. There’s something about the exquisite density of the harmonies, about Thelonious Monk’s subtle variations in phrasing, about his overall attitude, that transforms the simple melody of the original song into a whole universe, one you could lose yourself in. Then, at 1:49, he does something seemingly impossible: He bends a piano note. Even though I know the trick to doing this, I’m always amazed at how effective it is in his hands. But what’s even more remarkable is Monk’s ability, throughout the track, to extract a sound out of the piano that’s like nothing else. It’s at once angular and approachable, bold and vulnerable, complex and childlike. Perhaps more than anyone, Monk embodied jazz’s highest calling: to sound radically like yourself.
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Samara Joy, vocalist
“Father Flanagan,” a song composed and played by the great Barry Harris, is one of my favorite songs highlighting the piano. Although George Duvivier and Leroy Williams play on this tune as well, Barry starts the song in a rubato fashion with his deeply lyrical interpretation of the melody before bringing the band into time for the top of his solo on this beautiful walking ballad. A special element of this particular track that proves his superior sense of melodic playing is the fact that Barry sings as he’s soloing, which can be heard if you listen closely. He played with so much soul and melody, everything cohesive yet free flowing. From intro to ending, solo to comping, Barry Harris on this recording showcases an incredible command of the instrument and details exactly how the piano should be played.
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Hanif Abdurraqib, writer
The title track to “Money Jungle” is one of my favorite jazz piano moments. I love “Money Jungle” as an album, because it sounds, in a way, how it felt to make. Duke Ellington tossed Charles Mingus and Max Roach in a room for a day, and committed to making a recording, clashes of style be damned, the generational gap between he and the other two be damned. Mingus and Roach got into it constantly; at one point Mingus stormed out and had to be coaxed back into the session by Ellington. The title track works to me as a great piano song because of how unwavering Ellington’s playing is, even — or perhaps especially — in the moment in the middle of the song, where it seems Mingus grows impatient, his bass attempting to push its way into the brief silences between Ellington’s bursts of piano. I like players who aren’t afraid to live out the tensions of a session, of a day, of a life, within the music. Ellington was always, but especially by that point, a consummate professional. He steers the song into a perfect landing, even as Mingus’s bass fades, sounding entirely exhausted.
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Vijay Iyer, pianist and composer
Geri Allen showed up in the 1980s with powerful grooves, exuberant melodies and astonishing polyphonies between her anchoring left hand and her wry, fluidly inventive right. This composition, named for her friend Kabuya Pamela Bowens-Saffo, feels like a sturdy, splendid palace built entirely from the peculiar details of her musical language: the splayed intervals proliferating and surrounding you as ostinati; the asymmetric rhythms stacked in contrapuntal towers; the jagged, exploratory right-hand lines weaving around and across these patterns; all of her mercurial tendencies solidified and given full force. This was the music of Geri Allen: clear, ebullient, and resoundingly complete. Her premature passing in 2017 broke our hearts, and we are all still catching up to her artistry.
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Keanna Faircloth, writer and podcast host
Hip-hop is a half-century old this year and one artist that has provided a treasure trove of sample material for some of the most significant tracks in the rap canon is Ahmad Jamal. His compositions are a pot of gold. With the recent passing of David Jolicoeur (a.k.a. Trugoy the Dove or Plug Two) of De La Soul, I am reminded of how the title track from that group’s 1996 album, “Stakes Is High,” is anchored on a segment derived from Jamal’s “Swahililand,” composed over 20 years prior and released on the album “Jamal Plays Jamal.” The track’s haunting and percussive chord progressions provide a perfectly ominous backdrop for De La Soul’s reality-rooted lyrics. The song’s co-producer, J Dilla, was heavily influenced by jazz — not unlike his contemporaries Pete Rock, Q-Tip and others — and his contributions further solidified the genre as the mother of hip-hop.
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Marcus J. Moore, jazz writer
In 1964, one year into his post as the lead pianist in Miles Davis’s band, Herbie Hancock released the concept album “Empyrean Isles,” a tribute to an imagined world in the Great Eastern Sea. On “The Egg,” the LP’s improvised centerpiece, Hancock and the drummer Tony Williams open with a mesmerizing loop of keys and percussion, over which the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard blows triumphant wails, giving the song a pronounced majesty. But it isn’t until the midway point that Hancock’s genius shines through: A classical pianist, his notes pivot between light and dark, joy and melancholy, setting up the second half’s more traditional fare. Such ingenuity would typify Hancock throughout his career. To this day, he’s still a wandering soul embracing the youth movement, still bending genres while expanding the idea of what jazz can entail.
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Cosmo Baker, D.J.
On “Maimoun,” Stanley Cowell (a jazz giant who hasn’t gotten his props) accompanies the great Clifford Jordan on his tour de force album, “Glass Bead Games,” released in 1973 on the Strata-East label. While this version isn’t a “piano song,” one cannot overlook the power and pulse of the instrument here. There’s an almost solemn feeling to the introduction, which quickly transforms to a melody filled with immense joy and restraint against Jordan’s towering sax. Though Cowell’s piano helps construct the magnificent cathedral Jordan is building, the true possibilities unfold once his role shifts. It’s leading Jordan’s tenor, then sparring with it, feigning, teasing, until the 2:16 mark when Cowell takes the reins and leads the listener to the very soul of the composition — that feeling of peace and nostalgia. With some art, the aim is to invite one into a place. On “Maimoun,” Cowell is letting the listener into a very magical place — tender, vulnerable and exquisitely gorgeous — through his keys. And keys open doors.
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Atiyyah Khan, D.J. and arts journalist
I first heard this track by Abdullah Ibrahim, formerly known as Dollar Brand, only a few months ago but was immediately hooked. What drew me to it was the title “Sathima,” a dedication to Ibrahim’s former partner, the late singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, who was an incredible artist in her own right. Funk is not the first association with Ibrahim, and yet this tune is incredibly funky, one that would work easily on dance floors. The groove chugs rhythmically and steadily forward toward freedom, but there is enough space left for those striking horn solos to come in, and Ibrahim’s piano flourishes situate it in the spiritual realm. It’s head music that moves the body, too.
The tune appears on the 1975 album “African Herbs,” one year after Ibrahim’s hit “Mannenberg” was released; this composition follows with a similar sound — 11 minutes of uplifting joy. Though Ibrahim was predominantly based in the United States, this album was recorded in South Africa, giving it that signature sound thanks to the incredible musicians he gathered for this session.
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Jacqueline Schneider, writer
If music were a meal, “Lonely Woman” would have Michelin stars. Despite its name, Horace Silver’s seven-minute composition leaves me feeling the opposite: quite attended to, emotionally full — even sentimental. The kind of song that transports you into a meditative state, its melodic chord pairings recall possibility, self-reflection and optimism. The piece progresses as a conversation in the language of piano — each key enunciated as its vibrations pan soulfully to distribute the sound. When I want to pay homage to an entire genre, I play this song. Silver, who started as a saxophonist, reinvented himself as a pianist with Stan Getz and went on to join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers collective, representing, to me, legacy, hope and potential.
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Ashley Kahn, writer
Think soft, languid splashes on the mirrored surface of a pond at twilight. Minimal gesture, maximum effect: nearly seven minutes of lyrical serenity and hushed, harmonic stillness. It’s a deep cut — you won’t hear it played onstage — but also a landmark of modern jazz, one that defied the typical form and flow of chord changes, while echoing the guileless air of a Satie “Gnossienne,” or the insouciance of Chopin’s “Berceuse.” Bill Evans considered “Peace Piece” a one-time, impromptu moment, never revisiting it after recording it in 1958. Intending to deliver a take of “Some Other Time” from “On the Town,” he found himself entranced by the opening chords, which he looped into a meditative ostinato, layering sharp statements that grew in density and weight, the moody effect morphing into profound emotion. It still feels pristine and stands as a stellar example of at least three ideas: Evans’s brilliance at weaving together jazz piano with Romanticism and various 20th-century classical sources. The ascent of modal jazz — slow-moving harmony, pedal-point bass lines — that crystallized a year later with Evans’s participation on Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” (“Peace Piece” provided the foundation for “Flamenco Sketches”). And the covalent nature of jazz, eager to bond with worthy musical elements from all corners, edges, paths.
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Nduduzo Makhathini, pianist and improviser
“Vukani, vukani madoda ilanga liphumile” — opening chant
Through the sun, as a metaphor, Bheki Mseleku invites the listener to awaken to a new consciousness. Symbolically, this record marked the dawn of democracy in South Africa, and its inherent rhetorics. The song title “Sulyman Salud” refers to the African American jazz pianist McCoy Tyner’s Islamic devotion name. Given Mseleku’s connection to modal music, one could read this offering as an expression of the continuities in the spiritual pursuits in Black arts across the Atlantic. It is also a nod to one of Mseleku’s greatest piano heroes.
“You are the sun of the soil, Sulyman Salud” — chant before piano solo
“Sulyman Salud” enables us to hear the sonic affinities over the Atlantic Ocean. It says to us: “The erasure project did not entirely succeed; some parts of our collective memory still hold intact.” Here, the listener is invited to hear how jazz, as a memory, reverberated back in the continent. In this sense, jazz not only inspired Africans here at home, it also reminded them of the inherent “jazziness” — it invoked community. Traces of such claims are found in this piece as it indexes a long lineage of pianism in Africa and its diasporas.
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Martin Johnson, writer
In a jazz world that passionately reveres its pantheon, the great pianist Mal Waldron (1925-2002) is often overlooked. He has a compelling back story: tenure with Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Max Roach, an onstage nervous breakdown, and a series of magical collaborations with the saxophonist Steve Lacy. He’s a premiere interpreter of Thelonious Monk, and like that jazz great, he’s among the artists hailed in Matthew Shipp’s iconic essay on the Black Mystery School Pianists. Mal had a unique and compelling style. His left-hand playing was insistent and brooding; his tempo might best be described as unhurried. His approach suggested a man who had something profound to say and a disrupting urgency to say it. “Snake Out,” one of his signature compositions, showcases this intensity beautifully. It goes beyond the traditional tension and release and becomes incantation and ecstasy.
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Michael J. West, jazz writer
You can’t really bend notes on an acoustic piano; that’s just the physics of the instrument. Andrew Hill instead bends the principles of harmony and rhythm around the piano. On “East 9th Street,” from his 1975 album “Divine Revelation,” he starts while comping Jimmy Vass’s soprano saxophone solo. Hill falls out of key and so far behind the beat that he displaces it — as if he were on tape, being played back at slow speed. When it’s his turn to solo, he veers in wide curves around the harmony and seems to be fighting with the bassist Chris White and the drummer Art Lewis over where the syncopation should be. But he’s always in control: bending the music, but to his will. To top it off, Hill’s ebullient, Afro-Latin composition is terrific.
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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic
Standing at the interchange between the stride piano he’d learned growing up in Pittsburgh, and the hot pot of bebop he landed in after moving to New York, Erroll Garner felt his way into a playing style that was as sharply subversive as it was irresistible. All that, without ever learning to read music. The mid-20th century was a good time for visionary subterfuge in American music; just because Garner conducted his revolutions gently doesn’t mean he wasn’t on the front lines. His left hand thrummed guitarlike chords, chased bass lines into the mud, leaped through harmonies like a stride pianist’s would. His right hand could zip and add bright dashes of color, or join the left in thick rhythmic smudges of harmony. Recording the old popular tune “I Don’t Know Why” in 1950, for his outstanding Columbia Records debut, Garner’s fingers lick at the keys and he drags the melody along, dandling it, relishing it. The song itself is unremarkable, but the playing amounts to unmitigated pleasure. White journalists liked to portray him as a simple-minded savant, but the real Garner was a fighter as well as a genius: He and his manager, Martha Glaser, would later sue Columbia for releasing an album without his permission, winning a first-of-its-kind decision and drawing a hard line for musicians’ rights.
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