“Two-fisted” might mean ragtime, or Harlem Stride, or even just mellow standards played a danceable tempo. The oom-pah beat is obvious in the left while the right plays full out.
Great ragtime and stride pianists are heard to best effect when the style was popular and the avatars were young, generally on 78s recorded in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. The early sides of Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Willie the Lion Smith, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams, and Art Tatum are collected on CD and the streaming services.
The peak was before the LP, but that doesn’t mean great two-fisted piano playing can’t be found spinning at 33 1/3 RPM. During the 2020 pandemic I had time to listen to my stash. This is no kind of organized overview, let alone even remotely complete. These selections were literally from one section of the music shelf.
Earl Hines Tea For Two
Earl Hines Quintessential Recording Session
Jaki Byard Family Man
Earl Hines/Jaki Byard Duet!
Erroll Garner Afternoon of an Elf
Erroll Garner Gemini
Donald Lambert Meet the Lamb
Hank Jones This is Ragtime Now!
Hank Jones Solo Piano
Ram Ramirez Rampant Ram!
Dick Wellstood One Man Jazz Machine…
Ralph Sutton Off the Cuff
Herman Chittison Piano Genius
Claude Hopkins Crazy Fingers
Jim Turner Old Fashioned Love: A Tribute to James P. Johnson
Hank Duncan Hot Piano: A Tribute to James P. Johnson and Fats Waller
Eubie Blake The Marches I Played on the Old Ragtime Piano
Eubie Blake The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake
Eubie Blake Volume 1 (featuring Harold Browning)
Luckey Roberts Ragtime King
Johnny Guarnieri at the Stereo Piano: Piano Dimensions
Charles Thompson The Neglected Professor
Sir Charles Thompson Portrait of a Piano
Doc Cheatham and Sammy Price Black Beauty
Joe Sullivan New Solos by an Old Master
Burt Bales New Orleans Ragtime
Paul Lingle Dance of the Witch Hazels
Paul Lingle The Legend of Lingle
Ellis Larkins A Smooth One
Hazel Scott After Hours
Sir Roland Hanna Sir Elf
Sir Roland Hanna A Gift From the Magi
Hampton Hawes The Challenge
Tommy Flanagan Alone Too Long
Keith Jarrett Facing You
Geri Allen Homegrown
Earl Hines Tea For Two (1965) and Quintessential Recording Session (1970). Earl Hines happily beat the odds and left a long and vital series of records made in the ’60s and ’70s. (See also another recent pandemic DTM, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, and Stanley Dance.)
Tea for Two is one of the earliest of his solo LPs and it’s a gas. Hines was a deep swinger and had endless chops, but what really sets him apart is his fearlessness as an improviser. At times he tries too much; the liner notes cite the rhapsodic “Tea For Two” as a tour de force, which is fair, but it’s also a bit of scattershot ramble. When Hines dials it in just right, like on “Blues in Thirds,” then the music is just phenomenal. A truly vast roar of sound (helped along by his signature double glissandos) occurs near the end of several tracks: try “Blues After Midnight.” Good lord.
Some of the most honored 78s of all time are the collections of originals Hines recorded for QRS in 1928. In 1970, Marian McPartland invited him to re-record the whole set for her label, Halcyon, thus the title Quintessential Recording Session. McPartland’s liner notes are excellent, it’s a relief to read a fellow practitioner on this esoteric art. In the end the 1928 tracks remain in a class of one, but the remakes are good fun and certainly an invaluable resource for anyone working on this repertoire. “Panther Rag” is an underrated composition, a Zez Confrey style novelty rag that is incredibly difficult to play. The elder Hines still has the measure of the music he wrote as a young man.
Jaki Byard Family Man (1978). Byard might be considered one of the first poly-stylistic or post-modern jazz pianists, someone who played it all in a single set, an embodiment of that great Art Ensemble of Chicago slogan, “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future.”
In the mid-’60s, when Charles Mingus stopped his band and told Byard to play some stride, it was a really fresh moment. This concept was (and is still is) a worthy alternative to the dominant aesthetics of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, etc.
Other great pianists followed right on his heels — Stanley Cowell, Dave Burrell, Don Pullen — but there’s something truly “old-school” about Byard’s sound that is totally natural and wonderfully charismatic. My favorite Byard remains the first two trio LPs and the unrepentant masterpiece The Jaki Byard Experience!, but there will be something unforgettable on any Byard disc. On Family Man, it is “L.H. Gatewalk Rag,” a piece written for theatre and possibly inspired by Scott Joplin’s “Great Crush Collision March.” A genial rag in B-flat straight-eighths begins, G-minor drama ensues, and then a swinging C major takes it home.
If Jaki Byard says it, it must be true.
Earl Hines/Jaki Byard Duet! (1972). A smart idea, almost too smart, for at times it is a little challenging to guess who is playing what! Hines and Byard are truly on the same wavelength. The opening train blues “A-Toodle-Oo, Toodle-Oo” is a masterpiece, but every track is great, including a beautiful romantic solo from each. “As Long As I Live” is perfect for these two…
Erroll Garner Afternoon of an Elf (1955) and Gemini (1972). Erroll Garner was another unclassifiable talent, someone whose expansive reach covered all the bases, from the deepest swing to the most esoteric concepts, all played with a smile and supreme technical know-how.
Garner recorded a lot, and while there are by definition no bad Garner albums, neither of the two at hand seem unusually essential compared to benchmark discs like Concert By the Sea or Plays Misty.
Afternoon of an Elf is a solo recital, it must be one of his earliest solo LPs, and — incredibly — his left hand index finger was in a splint at the time of recording. The best track is a smoking “Fandango” that rolls from G major rhythm changes to G major blues with casual grace. The title track recalls Willie “The Lion” Smith’s “Echoes of Spring.”
Gemini has bass (Ernest McCarty), drums (Jimmie Smith), his regular conga player (Jose Mangual), and even a bit of harpsichord. Garner is keeping up with the times, for example a funky “Eldorado” (where McCarty has more to do than most bassists with Garner) and a chorus of George Harrison’s “Something.”
Donald Lambert Meet the Lamb (recorded 1960-’62). Anyone who follows this genre bows their head at the mention of Donald Lambert.
Lambert might have had the best left hand of all. Not much was recorded. There are a few precious early tracks from 1941, an “Anitra’s Dance” at Newport that remains one of the most shocking things ever captured on video,
and about 3 LPs worth of music from the era of Meet the Lamb.
Lambert was near the end and the pianos are horrible. Some of the tracks are better than others. Still. At tempo, Donald Lambert’s fearlessness can make one’s eyes water.
Hank Jones This is Ragtime Now! (1964) Like many of the very greatest jazz pianists, Hank Jones made his share of unlikely concept albums. Here Mr. Jones plays rags quite straight, albeit with a swing beat and some improvisational flourishes, in a trio with Milt Hinton and Osie Johnson. These are studio veterans, everyone does whatever it takes, including Johnson clicking on his rims like a much earlier drummer. Sadly, the first side of Joplin has Hank on tack piano, which just seems wrong for a pianist of Jones’s stature. On side B, the pianist digs into reasonably obscure repertoire on a concert grand, including three classics from Joesph Lamb and a new rag from Manny Albam that sounds like a James P. Johnson riff piece.
Jones’s own charming double-note etude “Bag O’ Rags” is the best thing on the whole album. “Bag O’ Rags” should be transcribed and paired with Roland Hanna’s “Century Rag.”
After “Bag O’ Rags,” the most important aspect of this curio may be simply that the great Hank Jones was willing to do this project.
Hank Jones Solo Piano (1956). More on Jones’s normal beat is the classic recital of standard songs. While an older LP, the fidelity is wonderful — Jones goes out of his way to praise Rudy Van Gelder in the liner notes — and remains one of the very best records for appreciating Jones’s touch. It’s the kind of pianistic control where you just open the dictionary and try to find the right kind of superlative: Silky, pearly, golden, effervescent, luminous…
Jones was influenced by Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, but also learned bebop on the job. Unlike most beboppers, Jones kept some of the stride feel even when playing with a modern rhythm section like Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Jones was two-fisted no matter what.
This LP has it all. Indeed, there’s no better example of post-Tatum striding standards. A basic library item.
Ram Ramirez Rampant Ram! Piano Solos (1973). Ramirez is the composer of one of the most famous standards, “Lover Man.” He’s on a certain number of jazz records with major players in the 40’s but this is one of his few records as a leader. It’s an enjoyable listen, moderate swinging tempos, a bit ‘o stride, attractive flourishes not far from Teddy Wilson. The repertoire includes Ellington, the blues, and of course “Lover Man.” If you want to really learn the “right” changes to that chestnut, here ya go. (Ramirez plays it in D-flat.)
Dick Wellstood One Man Jazz Machine… (undated, probably mid-70s). A live set from the Cookery, where you can occasionally hear a little talking and eating in the background. Wellstood had a lot of raw ability, could play stride at a high level, and also had a significant career as a jazz critic. “Eclecticism” was Wellstood’s watchword, and the set starts in a pretty unlikely place, a set of bluesy variations on the same famous Paganini’s caprice used by Brahms and Rachmaninoff. Near the end of the track he busts out some stride in a Donald Lambert vein and it’s genuinely exciting. When Wellstood is playing slower and more like “typical jazz” (there are covers of the hard bop ballad “Theme for Ernie” and McCoy Tyner’s “Search for Peace”) he’s not so engaging: I’m not quite sure of Wellstood’s own voice or what he believes in terms of an improvised line. But when Wellstood goes all out with two fists blazing, the music settles into a “thing.” On “If Dreams Come True,” which is associated with James P. Johnson, the music kinda just sits there for a few minutes before he finally lights it up with serious Harlem know-how.
Ralph Sutton Off the Cuff (1976). Ralph Sutton is a fantastic pianist. Each song is in the zone. Fancy stride classics like “Echoes of Spring” and “Viper’s Drag” nestle up to unfussy standards like “Memories of You” and “Two Sleepy People.” One highlight is an obscure Bob Zurke fingerbuster, “Eye Opener,” but just as good is “Muskrat Ramble,” which I don’t think I ever heard a solo pianist attempt before. The breathtaking precision of Sutton’s execution suggests that it is all quite pre-planned, but the spirit is still jazz. On the second side an anonymous electric bassist and drummer sit in to no effect whatsoever.
For some reason I never paid much attention to Sutton before — I bought this somewhere on a whim and never listened to it — but going ahead I will keep learning about his contribution; a casual listen online suggests that Sutton’s best work ranks with anybody.
Herman Chittison Piano Genius (anthology of 1944 and ’45 tracks). Like so many Swing Era legends, Herman Chittison is an obscure figure today, although Robin D.G. Kelley recently made a case for Chittison being an important influence on Thelonious Monk. Much of this LP is taken up with trios with bass and guitar, which are fine, but the meat are four solos. The aesthetic verges on “light classical,” Chittison plays arrangements of Schubert, Chopin and MacDowell, but his chops are almost Tatum-level and he can swing too. The best thing is a superb traversal of “Where or When.”
Claude Hopkins Crazy Fingers (1973). Like Eubie Blake, Claude Hopkins was interested in writing songs, and this late-in-life recital of mostly original compositions has plenty of straightforward rumination before the left hand opens up for some Harlem action. The title track is a swinging novelty number, while a memorable “Late Evening Blues” shows that authentic member of the fraternity can make a pure triad speak the blues. It’s interesting to hear someone play “Willow Weep for Me” and “Indiana” who learned them when they were new.
Jim Turner Old Fashioned Love: A Tribute to James P. Johnson (1982). A really nice tribute from a youngster, very well played, if perhaps lacking the last degree of confidence. The repertoire includes “Carolina Shout” (in B-flat!) and many other wonderful James P. pieces. Turner was a protege of Johnny Guarneri, and one of the highlights of this LP is a modern stride work by Guarneri for his student, “The Turner Shout.” The label Euphonic Sounds released a lot of cool piano records that are a bit dim sounding overall; while not a household name, Turner stayed in the game and more recent releases are more charismatic.
Hank Duncan Hot Piano: A Tribute to James P. Johnson and Fats Waller (no date given; according to Lord “live ‘Nicks’, New York, 1957 to 1963”). Duncan played with King Oliver and Sidney Bechet; other biographical details are scarce, and there doesn’t seem to single picture of him online. At any rate, he’s a great stride pianist, very much in the Waller and James P. mold. The best track might by James P.’s “Jingles,” on this LP called “Old Man Harlem.” The ballads and boogies are less distinctive, but when Duncan opens up the left hand at tempo it’s the real deal.
Eubie Blake The Wizard of the Ragtime Piano (1959) and The Marches I Played on the Old Ragtime Piano (1960). Blake lived a long life and received many honors; most of his easier to find discs and videos are from when he is elderly indeed. On these obscure LPs Blake is a sprightly 72 and 73, and boy is he hitting that damn piano. Of the two, The Marches I Played on the Old Ragtime Piano gets the nod, it is really a perfect album. The band accompanying Blake in exceptional style is surprisingly all-star: Kenny Burrell, Milt Hinton, Panama Francis, and legendary clarinetist Buster Bailey.
I was inspired by these marvelous records to explore the rest of his career and write a JazzTimes Chronology column on Blake. As part of my research, I read the fine new biography, Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race by Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom. Oddly, Carlin and Bloom denigrate these ’59/’60 sessions as having little interest.
The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake (1968). This famous 2-LP set was produced by John Hammond and did a lot for the world of ragtime. After this set was released, Blake spent over a decade entertaining delighted audiences all over the world. (Blake was actually 80, not 86, at the time of recording.) It’s a bevy of amazing music. Blake talks and interacts with the small studio audience; he also plays full out, not trying to take it easy on himself. The very first cascade has some clams and the engineering can be a little brittle: For my own taste, the 1960 Marches LP above and the 1971 set below actually have more charismatic production. Still, by any standard, The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake is a crucial historical document. The last track is his famous torch song “Memories of You,” played in grand pomp in F major before modulating up to A-flat.
Eubie Blake Volume 1 (featuring Ivan Harold Browning) (1971). Once he finally had some worldly late-in-life success, Blake blew off John Hammond and formed a label with Carl Seltzer. Again, I diverge from Carlin and Bloom, for I think this marvelous set of solos and duos with stunning singer Ivan Harold Browning is better than The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake. Indeed, Volume 1 might be the single best serving of Blake as a composer and songwriter.
Luckey Roberts Ragtime King (1958). Roberts was a speed demon and a terror of Harlem rent parties when he was younger, but at a mellow 70 years of age he is ready to take it pretty easy on a set of standards with a nice quartet including Garvin Bushell, Joe Benjamin, and Herbert Cowens. Unlike the Blake music with Buster Bailey just above, Bushell is the lead voice and takes solos. Cowens doesn’t play a spang-a-lang cymbal beat but keeps it on the snare like an older New Orleans drummer.
The few solos from 1946 are the best Roberts I’ve heard, there’s something timeless about those tracks, I particularly adore the avant-garde style of “Railroad Blues.”
For 1958 band excursion of Ragtime King, certain details suggest a dated “concept” album, as if the quartet was hired to play Dixieland on a steamboat. I might be wrong about that. At any rate, this is still a beautiful date, with a serious handful of keys from Roberts, albeit on a piano with some kind of “tack” preparation.
It’s uncommon to hear Bushell in an exposed setting, I’m not sure if this somewhat sentimental alto and clarinet performance is really “his style” or not. (Bushell worked with Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller, and Cab Calloway before accompanying John Coltrane at the Vanguard in 1961.)
Johnny Guarnieri at the Stereo Piano: Piano Dimensions (1965). Guarnieri could play, holding his own with Lester Young and other Basie-ites in the ’40s at a time when there weren’t so many white pianists who could swing. His career sort of stalled out after the Swing Era; In the 70’s he was in residence at the Tail O’ the Cock restaurant for over a decade. The liners of Piano Dimensions makes a big deal about fancy stereo sound, which is ridiculous since the LP sounds pretty bad. Some of the Rachmaninoff-esqe gestures in “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Stella By Starlight” are in rather banal Don Shirley territory, but Guarnieri had still kept up the Harlem chops he learned from emulating James P. Johnson. Uptempo pieces like “Keep Movin'” and “My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms” are lively. The mid-tempo closer “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street” is perfect, with a beat that undulates back and forth just so.
Some of the Guarnieri videos on YouTube are rather jaw-dropping, for example a long workout on “Stealin’ Apples.”
Charles Thompson The Neglected Professor (mid ’60s?) In his extensive notes, the ragtime historian Trebor Tichenor lays out the case for Thompson (born 1891) deserving a place in St. Louis ragtime history alongside Scott Joplin and Tom Turpin. (This Charles Thompson is not the same as the Sir Charles Thompson who wrote “Robbin’s Nest.” Sir Charles is on the LP just below.)
These recordings are from late in life but they are still rather astonishing, both musically and technically, especially for a deep blues feel. Thompson sounds more like a New Orleans pianist than a New Yorker, with eighth notes that hang out between straight and swung. Sadly the fidelity is terrible and the pianos are worse. Still, a valuable document.
Sir Charles Thompson Portrait of a Piano (1984) This well-produced and well-played solo recital is a friendly listen. Most of the tracks are standard songs played in the swinging Teddy Wilson to Hank Jones mold, including Thompson’s own big hit, “Robbin’s Nest.”
In his glory years, Thompson was a crucial member of the swing-to-bop fraternity, on records with Lionel Hampton, Coleman Hawkins, Buck Clayton, Charlie Parker, and of course the co-writer of “Robbin’s Nest,” Illinois Jacquet.
According to the liner notes, this album was made after a decade playing in piano bars, where Thompson got to practice his two-fisted approach. The results are obviously excellent, it’s top shelf pianism. However, it is also strictly middle-of-the-road, ideal for talking over as you serve drinks at a party, and thus perhaps not totally satisfying for a dedicated listener.
Doc Cheatham and Sammy Price Black Beauty: A Tribute to Black American Songwriters (1979). Like the Sir Charles Thompson, another Sackville LP produced by Bill Smith and John Norris, who thank the artists on the jacket “for the privilege of being able to record their music.” Norris also supplies helpful liner notes.
Black Beauty is more of a feature for soulful trumpet than for stride piano, but Sammy Price is in there, playing lots of rhythmic notes in support of the great Doc Cheatham. I am aware of Price more as a blues and boogie player than a ragtime and early song artist, but of course almost everyone has more reach than a thumbnail sketch lets on.
The concept for the album is great, and the duo is reverential and swinging throughout.
— Travelin’ All Alone (J.C. Johnson)
— Some of These Days (Sheldon Brooks)
— Love Will Find A Way (Blake/Sissle)
— After You’ve Gone (Layton/Creamer)
— Someday You’ll Be Sorry (Louis Armstrong)
— Old Fashioned Love (J. P. Johnson)
— I’m Coming Virginia (Heywood/Cook)
— Squeeze Me (Waller/Williams)
— Memphis Blues (W.C. Handy)
— I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling (Waller/Link/Rose)
— Louisiana (J.C. Johnson/Razaf)
Joe Sullivan New Solos by an Old Master (1953) Sullivan was a big jazz star in the Swing Era, but like so many others, faded from view. Released in 1955, this disc must be one of the earliest stride piano recitals on 12-inch LP. Sullivan is already past his prime, but it’s still a good listen, showcasing his aggressive “spanking” of clusters in the right hand, which oddly foreshadow Don Pullen. There are remakes of his biggest hits “Gin Mill Blues” and “Little Rock Getaway” and a pretty good boogie woogie, “Farewell to Riverside.”
Piano Ragtime of the Forties (1973) (It looks like the title of the LP is “Pork and Beans” but the cover is a picture of the sheet music to the Luckey Roberts composition). There were exceptions, but a kind of basic division in the 20th century ragtime players is easy to make, the black originators and the white followers.
David A. Jasen has given so much to the literature; indeed, Black Bottom Stomp: Eight Masters of Ragtime and Early Jazz (co-written with Gene Jones) is one of the best jazz books I know. Since this LP Piano Ragtime of the Forties was curated by Jasen, it automatically has merit. Jasen shows his appreciation of the originators by giving them over twice as much text on the back. (The first side is originators, the second side is followers.) A few things on this collection are probably still not online.
Like his composerly contemporaries William Albright, William Bolcom, and Gunther Schuller, Jasen was impressed with the published score. Indeed, the cover of this LP, a picture of sheet music, confirms this attitude. At that time there was no computer-assisted transcription, which would have been another barrier to learning this music by ear.
It is time for a new round of ragtime scholars to publish a critical edition of original compositions as played by the pianist-composers: James P. Johnson, Wille the Lion, Fats Waller, Luckey Roberts, Eubie Blake, Charles Thompson, Claude Hopkins and others — heck, I’d put “Bag O’ Rags” by Hank Jones, “L.H. Gatewalk Rag” by Jaki Byard, and “Century Rag” by Roland Hanna in there too. (James Dapogny’s edition of Jelly Roll Morton is a useful model.)
After all, these are some of our greatest American musicians. Our conservatory students should step away from those tired Gershwin preludes and deal with some of this serious piano repertoire instead.
Burt Bales New Orleans Ragtime (1973?) Another great pianist. Bales’s covers of classic Jelly Roll Morton are unforced and swinging. Perhaps even better are a pair of ruthless servings of Scott Joplin, “Original Rags” and “Maple Leaf Rag.” Talk about two-fisted. Dimly recorded.
Paul Lingle Dance of the Witch Hazels and The Legend of Lingle (1951). Burt Bales can be heard paired with Paul Lingle on a on a 1957 LP, They Tore My Playhouse Down, which is easy to find on CD and highly recommended to two-fisted enthusiasts. Bales is a straight swinger, while Lingle has something mysterious and poetic in his conception, perhaps not far from Art Hodes. My favorite is “Yellow Dog Blues,” with a big “wrong” low note in the arrangement.
The two LPs worth of casual tracks recorded by Lingle on the job at the Jug Club are not as worthy as the studio performances on They Tore My Playhouse Down. “Louisiana Rag” by Leon M. Block is obviously being read from the sheet music (apparently Lingle carried stacks of the stuff around to the gigs) but it’s got a certain charismatic feel that is undeniable. A “new” piece like Harry Warren’s “September in the Rain” (from 1937) is more anonymous, that’s just normal cocktail music; it’s more valuable to hear Lingle play Joplin’s “Original Rags” or read the sheet to George Thomas’s “Muscle Shoals Blues.”
Ellis Larkins A Smooth One (1977). In the 70s, Larkins was known to hip New Yorkers as a smooth stylist in the piano rooms. His big influence was Teddy Wilson, so he naturally pairs with Hank Jones, but he also has surreal moments like Earl Hines, and can rhythm guitar out in the left like Erroll Garner. The tracks with George Duvivier and J.C. Heard are enjoyable but the two solos, Benny Carter’s “Blues in My Heart” and Larkins’s own “C. E. B.,” define an idiosyncratic talent. The left hand stuff Larkins does here is simply outrageous, full tenths the whole time, enabling the whole piano to resonate from top to bottom.
Hazel Scott After Hours (1980). Hazel Scott is back in the news thanks to a mesmerizing 1943 novelty act with two pianos, which Alicia Keys saw YouTube and emulated for a performance at the Grammys.
Scott’s last record from 1980 (she died a year later) has some affinities with the Larkins just above, a mainstream trio disc with Duvivier and a swinging drummer, in this case Oliver Jackson. It’s an expansive mood record of medium tempos and grooves, with a two-fisted bluesy profile next door to someone like Gene Harris, although Scott has a rhythm guitar left hand.
They called Avery Parrish’s “After Hours” the “Black National Anthem” at one point, everyone had to play in it the ’40s and ’50s. In the opening stanza Scott is all the way down in the bottom register, a great effect. Two unaccompanied choruses setting up “St. Louis Blues” is an album highlight, and makes one wish for a larger Scott discography.
Sir Roland Hanna Sir Elf (1973) and A Gift From the Magi (1978). Hanna was a modern jazz pianist, but he was also interested playing the whole instrument and creating a unaccompanied language where nothing was missing. Past a certain tempo, Hanna’s left keeps a half-tempo feel, so it never really opens up into a Harlem stride thing. Still, Hanna brought an unforced and unclichéd “two-fisted” feel to mainstream post-bop piano. A unique and underrated voice.
Sir Elf is mostly standards done with a exploratory touch, for example a swinging “Yours Is My Heart Alone” that explores motivic development and even bitonality. “You Took Advantage of Me” starts a bit in the Tatum tradition before snaky bop lines over stride bass reminds us of his heritage as an essential Detroit pianist. “Killing Me Softly With His Song” evokes Jelly Roll’s “Spanish Tinge,” while “There Is No Greater Love” is straight up serious jazz.
A Gift From the Magi is starkly different, all original compositions with a classical flavor, at times sounding like a literal lift from French Impressionism. (Hanna says as much in his notes.) The “Spanish Tinge” is now much more like Granados than New Orleans. Charlie Haden’s “Silence” is included in the set list, confirming my suspicion that Roland Hanna and Keith Jarrett could operate on a remarkably similar wavelength (Jarrett debuted “Silence” on record with Haden a year or two earlier).
Both of the above LPs are naturally excellent, but they are also arguably just steps in Hanna’s development. In 1979 Hanna would track Swing Me No Waltzes, a perfect assemblage of the striding exploration on Sir Elf and the formal composition of The Gift of the Magi. For me, Swing Me No Waltzes is one of the greatest unaccompanied jazz records ever made.
20th Century Detroit piano: Hank Jones’s Solo Piano offers the standards, Swing Me No Waltzes offers the originals. Can’t beat it.
Hampton Hawes The Challenge (1968) and Tommy Flanagan Alone Too Long (1977). In terms of a dedicated solo piano approach, Hank Jones and Roland Hanna were somewhat unusual of their peer group. The solo LPs by the impeccable beboppers Hampton Hawes and Tommy Flanagan might have something missing. Even the album titles suggest how the success of these ventures were in doubt: The Challenge, Alone Too Long.
Hawes plays a light time in his left, usually a walking bass line, which is arguably not quite meaty enough to support the quicksilver brilliance of his right. Flanagan’s recital mostly offers ballads; when he goes into a faster tempo, Flanagan relies on the sustain pedal more than he would with a bassist.
If you love Hawes or Flanagan, there’s still plenty to enjoy here, but neither disc would be a good gateway album. In the context of everyone else on this page, these bop masters show that they are not really two-fisted.
Keith Jarrett Facing You (1971) and Geri Allen Homegrown (1985).
After avant-garde and popular music took over jazz in the ’60s, many pianists adopted other ways of being “two-fisted” rather then the old-school oom-pah bass. Studio solo recitals from Keith Jarrett and Geri Allen, recorded 14 years apart, remain two of the best examples of post-Coltrane solo piano. While one could never mistake Jarrett for Allen or the other way around, the way they both can elide gospel and abstract gestures in a single piece is actually quite similar; At the least, Jarrett’s “In Front” and Allen’s “Home Grown” are part of the same family tree.
4/4 swing still shows up from time to time. Jarrett played a fair amount of stride on record in his early years; “Starbright” from Facing You might be his single greatest essay in the form. When Allen offers Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” on Homegrown there’s a strong quarter note beat emanating from her left hand that is not far from Eubie Blake.