88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

The jazz pianists newly emerging to the public’s consciousness in the post-bop, post-free jazz era had certainly developed their own styles: Herbie Hancock, who had been part of Miles Davis‘s band, formed his own jazz rock group in 1968 achieving hits with “Chameleon”, “Watermelon Man”, and the album Headhunters (1973); he formed the group V.S.O.P. which played a style that combined modal jazz harmonies with hard bop lines and exploratory solos (V.S.O.P.: The Quintet, 1977). Hancock’s 1983 album Future Shock explored further fusion possibilities with Grand Mixer D.ST on turntables, post-industrial metallic rhythms, improvisations over a funk techno beat, and jazz licks on a regular acoustic piano (similar ground is covered in Perfect Machine, 1988). In the 90s, Hancock created the exquisitely lyrical Gershwin’s World (Verve, 1998), and in 2001 he pushed the envelope again with Future 2 Future (Transparent Music) with its blend of electronic music, diva vocals, world music and jazz.

Pianist Chick Corea also left the Miles Davis band in the late 1960s to found a free jazz quartet called Circle but then switched back to a romantic jazz feel in 1971 with his jazz rock group Return to Forever (Romantic Warrior, 1976) which combined electro-acoustic timbres with lush harmonies and vocal lines. Corea’s beautiful duo with vibraphonist Gary Burton entitled Crystal Silence (1972, and re-recorded in live performance on “Chick Corea and Gary Burton in Concert”, ECM, 1979) is now considered a classic. Hancock and Corea toured as a duet on acoustic pianos (á la Strayhorn and Ellington) in 1978 (An Evening with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, Polydor, 1978). In 1986 Corea formed his Elektrik Band, one of the top fusion groups of the 80s, and his Akoustik Band, a trio that performed jazz standards in 1989. In Remembering Bud Powell (Stretch, 1997), Corea assembled many notable young jazz performers who play Powell’s creations in a post-bop manner, and his Past, Present and Futures (Stretch, 2001) contains exceptional homages to past music and fresh interpretations of Corea’s new style.

Keith Jarrett left Miles Davis at first to explore electronic keyboards but now sticks mostly to the piano. He played both in the traditional style of the head tune followed by improvisation and recapitulation (although at a more stretched out tempo) in his album Facing You (1971, ECM), and in the improvisation style that has come to characterize his solo piano concerts in the 22 1/2 minute long “Death and the Flower” (The Impulse! Years 1973-1974), The Köln Concert (1975, ECM) and the Sun Bear Concerts (1976, ECM). His excellent trio format can be heard on Standards Vols. I & II (1983, ECM), Standards Live (1985, ECM), Tokyo 96 (1996, ECM) and the exceptional Inside Out (2000, ECM) which is all spontaneously played except for an encore and draws on the trio’s vast memory of jazz, blues, and rhythm ‘n’ blues.

Alfred McCoy Tyner is one of the most influential jazz pianists of the second half of the 20th century. While playing with the legendary John Coltrane in the early 1960s, Tyner created a special “sound” with his left-hand pedal point drones. This Indian music-like world enabled chords in the right hand to be freely played without reference to a particular tonal center, and provided great freedom for Coltrane’s solos while maintaining a sense of cohesion (Coltrane’s “Alabama” and A Love Supreme). Tyner’s Expansions (1968, Blue Note) courses between hard bop and extended avant-garde exploration. Enlightenment (1973, Milestone) contains the percussive 25-minute solo “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit.” Tyner’s wonderful ballad “You Taught My Heart To Sing” and his Latin-influenced “Señor Carlos” appear in brilliant versions on Live at the Musicians Exchange Cafe (1987, Who’s Who in Jazz). Tyner’s vast knowledge of historical piano styles is integrated into his personal style in the impressive Jazz Roots: McNoy Tyner Honors Jazz Piano Legends of the 20th Century (2000, Telarc).

Even though Al Haig was recognized as a brilliant bebop pianist during the period of 1945-1949, he was generally overlooked during the 1950s and 60s, until 1974 when he was remembered and championed by the British label Spotlite in a three-volume set of live performance and studio takes Al Haig Meets the Master Bop Saxes. His Strings Attached album (Choice, 1975) featured Haig’s pure style of the 40s as does his last album Bebop Live (Spotlite, 1982).

Paul Bley‘s unique spare, laconic, pointillistic yet lyrical “outside” style was best revealed in his album Closer (1965, ESP) with compositions by Carla Bley, Annette Peacock, and Ornette Coleman. His 1972 album Open, To Love is a much better recorded release, with a jazz version of the “music of extended duration” that characterised pattern music in the early 60s, especially in Bley’s version of Annette Peacock’s “Nothing Ever Was, Anyway”. Bley’s “Bebopbebopbebopbebop” (1989, Steeplechase) was surprising to many people because Bley features straight bop tunes like “Ornithology” played with terrific energy and variation. In Basics (2000, Justin Time), Bley delivers a solo performance filled with lush harmonies, rhythm and blues motifs, and tone clusters, as well as his signature geometrical poetics, and fine sense of pacing that keeps the music cohesive yet transparent in timbre and line.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox