7 Essential Jazz Piano Albums

A highly subjective list of my ‘top’ seven jazz piano albums, featuring Art Tatum, Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal and Thelonious Monk.

** DISCLAIMER: highly subjective, many obvious omissions, and in no particular order **

1. Art Tatum – Piano Starts Here 7 Essential Jazz Piano Albums: Art Tatum - Piano Starts Here album cover

This solo piano tour de force features Tatum’s utter piano mastery on beautiful arrangements of beloved jazz standards such as St. Louis Blues, Yesterdays, Tea For Two and a version of Willow Weep For Me that first inspired me to want to be a jazz pianist. This album (recorded in 1950 & 1955) shows that jazz piano starts and ends with Art Tatum.


2. Keith Jarrett – Facing You7 Essential Jazz Piano Albums: Keith Jarrett - Facing You album cover

This was Jarrett’s first album for ECM Records. It was recorded the day after a gig Jarrett did with Miles Davis in Oslo, Norway in 1971, and features a beautiful set of original solo piano compositions/improvisations. The range of emotion that Jarrett pulls out of the piano is stunning, and his touch, feel and groove are inspired. Keith Jarrett went on to record dozens of fantastic albums for ECM, but this one is special.


3. Thelonious Monk – Solo Monk7 Essential Jazz Piano Albums: Thelonious Monk - Solo Monk Album Cover

Monk is perhaps best known as a composer of memorable jazz standards, but his piano playing has always impressed and inspired me. This Columbia release from 1965 features Monk’s pianistic skills on both originals and standards, from stride style to his ultra-modern “Monk” voicings and improvisational skills.


4. Herbie Hancock – River: The Joni Letters7 Essential Jazz Piano Albums: Herbie Hancock - River: The Joni Letters album cover

Herbie Hancock has made many important and beautiful albums since his debut Takin’ Off on Blue Note in 1962 (at the age of 22). It’s easy for us to reference the classic ’60s albums as his finest output (and they are fantastic), but I think this record represents Hancock’s piano mastery as well as any. Perhaps even more, as he has a lifetime of musical absorption to call upon. Check out his subtle touch on Solitude, his groove on Edith and the Kingpin, his free-flowing work on Nefertiti….actually, just check out the whole album, you’ll be glad you did!


5. Ahmad Jamal – But Not For Me7 Essential Jazz Piano Albums: Ahmad Jamal Trio - But Not For Me album cover 

Ahmad Jamal’s classic 1958 live recording from the Pershing Lounge in Chicago is a delightful representation of Jamal’s classic trio, with innovative arrangements of standards including But Not For Me, Moonlight in Vermont, and his timeless version of Poinciana. That arrangement is so strong, it’s been copied and played for years – “Play it with a Poinciana groove” is heard around the world at rehearsals and gigs to this day. This is piano trio playing at it’s finest, documented in a hip, intimate, live gig environment. Yes!


6. Bill Evans – Interplay7 Essential Jazz Piano Albums: Bill Evans - Interplay album cover 

Bill Evans remains one of the most iconic jazz pianists of the 20th century, influencing both his peers and jazz piano generations to come. His recorded output was diverse, from early recordings with Miles Davis, a number of important trio recordings, and a seminal duo recording with Tony Bennett. But this 1963 classic Interplay is a classic Evans recording – an all-star quintet swinging through standards as well as an Evans original. Freddie Hubbard, Philly Jo Jones, Percy Heath, Jim Hal and Bill Evans doin’ it up right!


7. Oscar Peterson – Exclusively for My Friends, Vol. 1: Action7 Essential Jazz Piano Albums: Oscar Peterson - Action album cover 

Oscar Peterson has about 200 incredible albums, and that’s just the ones I know about. I picked this one because of a particular moment, a snapshot in time where the trio is swinging so HARD that I recommend folks listen to that moment for the official definition of swing (3:04 on Tin Tin Deo.) Oh yeah, the rest of this album is pretty good as well, as are all the volumes of the Exclusively for My Friends series.