Aki Takase (piano)
St. Louis Blues (2001), Aki Takase Plays Fats Waller (2003), The Dessert (2003), Evergreen (2009), New Blues (2014)
There are some important differences between Takasi and many other free-style players. Her music is cheerful, witty, clever and has an internal logic: you never feel she’s just improvising for the sake of being different.
The album St Louis Blues is a playful, fond tribute to old New Orleans music that includes the most demented version of the title track you’re likely to hear. At times the album sounds like a Tom Waits instrumental (if you can imagine that), then it jumps back to old-school jazz and straight to free frolics again. It stays interesting and entertaining, though. No self-indulgent flights of fancy.
The Fats Waller homage, cheeky and almost burlesque, works like a charm as well. It’s joyful and has tender moments as well, which captures the Waller sound and era perfectly. The “comical” singing is a it much, however.
The more recent New Blues came after PG was published, but I’m sure the authors will like it. Here, though, as happens once in a while, the humour gets a bit daft – with some vaudeville vocals that turn out quite silly.
The Dessert is fun all round with 13 tracks about food. Takase plays with a long-time partner, Rudi Mahall, who does odd and quirky things on deep-voiced clarinets. The pair revisit tradition again on Evergreen, playing some surprisingly straight versions of standards.
Takase is married to German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, whose trio are respected veterans of European free jazz (try Pakistani Pomade, a favourite of the PG writers, if you’re hard enough). Apple Music has some of the albums where the couple play together, but his hammering style pushes her music beyond my limit of endurance.
Art Tatum (piano)
The Standard Transcriptions (1935-45), 20th Century Piano Genius (1950, 1955), The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces (1953-55), The Tatum Group Masterpieces Vol. 1 (1954), Vol. 7 (1956), Vol. 8 (1956)
The big deal with Art Tatum is that he came onto the scene in the ‘30s with a full bag of tricks – all he needed in his brief career. He could play in any traditional piano style and rattle off right-hand runs that can make your head spin.&
In terms of style there isn’t a huge gap between the early Standard Transcriptions and the Pablo Solo Masterpieces. What happened during the years between is that Tatum became even more inventive with his on standards. His doing what comes naturally – to such an extent that he sometimes sounds casual.
The album 20th Century Piano Genius was recorded in two sessions at a fan’s house. Ironically the sound is better than on many of the studio albums and the ambient noise (tinkling cups, coughs and grunts of approval) give them a quaint atmosphere.
The Tatum Group Masterpieces cover eight discs and the Penguin Guide recommends 1, 5, 7 and especially 8, where sax legend Ben Webster stands firm with those waves of arpeggios splashing over him. I like Vol. 7 the best, thanks to what Buddy DiFranco adds with his sweet clarinet.
Cecil Taylor (piano)
Jazz Advance (1956), Looking Ahead! (1958), The World of Cecil Taylor (1960), Conquistador! (1966), For Olim (1986)
He studied classical composition and had to be talked into trying jazz. Though he liked it, he was chomping at the bit from the start. On “Bemsha Swing”, the opener of Taylor’s first album as a leader, he already turns traditional jazz time on its head.
There is still some swing and familiar elements on Looking Ahead!, but after that Taylor becomes, as Penguin Guide generously describes him, “the most daring of artists, with his music leaving tonality and jazz rhythm and structure behind”.
It took him a while to build up a following with his piles of blocked chords and long meanders outside the perimeter of whatever melody he was playing. By the time of For Olim, he was generally considered a pioneering genius of modern jazz – and almost unlistenable if you can’t get your head around free playing. Mind you, that’s not it. There are free players, some on piano, I enjoy. Taylor just seems to academic, constantly in some sort of polemic with the nature of jazz and perhaps even music itself.
Even so, you have to try him for future reference, since his influence was huge and many would take the same paths later.
Tolvan Big Band
Plays the Music of Helge Albin (1997), Code Red (2007)
The problem with many modern big bands is arrangers who go full blast all the time. After the initial thrill of the huge, busy sound, ear fatigue sets in. You might argue many Western classical composers also pulled out all stops in symphonies, but they also took it down a notch with slower or quieter movements – much like rock bands do with the ballads between the hard tracks.
An example of relentless big band sound is the work of British arranger Colin Towns, highly rated by Penguin Guide and also known for scoring TV series like Doc Martin and movies. Listen to what he does with the Beatles song “I Am a Walrus” on the album Another Think Coming. It’s astonishing. But he doesn’t let up and a few tracks later you might have had enough.
The music of Sweden’s Tolvan Big Band is just as involved and dramatic, but the Scandinavians vary the intensity. That makes it easier to take in albums like Plays the Music of Helge Albin (their sax-playing leader) and Code Red in one sitting.
An added bonus with them is that they play just their own compositions. It’s a nice change after the standards most big bands eventually turn to. Apple Music has more than these two albums.
McCoy Tyner (piano)
Inception/Reaching Fourth (1962/63), The Real McCoy (1967), Time for Tyner (1968), Enlightenment (1973), Supertrios (1977), Manhattan Moods (1993)
Perhaps it’s a hint that I like a bit of full-blooded drama in my music, but I liked Tyner from my first encounter. As it turns out, I haven’t even heard his finest albums yet. Inception was his debut as a leader (before that he spent six famous years in John Coltrane’s line-up) and Reaching Fourth, since deleted, is pared with it on Apple Music. Bonus. Tyner’s playing is not as big and meaty as it would become, but he leaves you in awe with fast, always melodious runs and unexpected chords.
The Real McCoy and Time for Tyner make the “Core Collection” list in PG, by which they mean no jazz fan should be without it. No arguments here. The first has Joe Henderson flying on sax, the second features the imaginative Bobby Hutcherson on vibraphone.
Here’s a health warning you don’t see often in the Penguin Guide: Enlightenment is named as one of two “huge, sprawling concert recordings which will drain most listeners”. It starts of with the three-part “Enlightenment Suite” and you’ll know within minutes if you’re up for it. Don’t play this to sensitive listeners.
On the Supertrios double, PG says, Tyner is at the top of his powers. The two pairs he works with both know exactly how to deal with him. The chords are huge and dense, the right hand works furiously and reaches an almost euphoric peak at times. Listening to these discs back to back is a bit much, but they offer a thrilling display of virtuosity.
The pianist has to keep it lighter on Manhattan Moods, a duo with Hutcherson, so the delicate vibraphone isn’t drowned out. He doesn’t compromise, though, and his hands are as busy as ever.
I've realised now that when Tyner leads (as opposed to playing behind John Coltrane), he’s not my absolute favourite piano man. What might be missing, is some shade among the bursts of bright light. Pick your moment, though, and he’ll blow you away with his unbounded energy and powerful improvising.