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TOP FIVE: Grammy Award-Winning Jazz Pianist Ranks His Top Five Records of All Time

I called up Grammy Award-winning Jazz pianist, composer, professor, student, and everything in-between Brian Ward and asked him about his top 5 favorite records of all time.

TOP FIVE: Grammy Award-Winning Jazz Pianist Ranks His Top Five Records of All Time

Written by Jacob Ward

Photo by Jacob Ward

1. Everybody Digs Bill Evans

Bill Evans

The first record I chose is maybe my all-time favorite record, which is hard to say, but it’s called Everybody Digs Bill Evans. This is one of his early records. It’s got a great drummer on it, Philly Joe Jones, and those guys were really good friends. Bill Evans is known for his classical approach to Jazz piano, but on this record he’s digging in a little harder–swingin’ more stuff. But it’s got some really pretty stuff on it, like one of my favorite tunes overall is called “Peace Piece”. He uses this ostinato[1] from Erik Satie in his left hand and plays an improvisation over it.

It’s just this:

It’s pretty cool because all the text on the record cover is a bunch of quotes from other musicians. It goes along with the title of Everybody Digs Bill Evans. You can see Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Cannonball Adderley, all have quotes on here about how they dig Bill Evans.

You said this was influenced by Erik Satie, do you know how this album, in particular, influenced Jazz coming after it?

This album was recorded in 1958, so that’s a year before he recorded Kind of Blue with Miles Davis. Some of the things that Satie and the impressionists[2] did had an influence on Jazz: Miles Davis and Bill Evans and John Coltrane. All three of those guys went in their own direction. So you can kind of get a glimpse of how he was dealing with the impressionists in jazz.  

Bill Evans was white, and as far as I’m concerned he’s really the only white innovator in Jazz. And by innovator in Jazz, we take that to mean somebody who has influenced the sound of Jazz overall. Some people may argue with me on that, but...

2. Fat Albert Rotunda

Herbie Hancock

Another one I really dig is this one called Fat Albert Rotunda by Herbie Hancock. It was made in 1969 and it kind of bridges that gap between Jazz and Fusion, so it’s got some funky stuff on it. And actually, he wrote this music for the Fat Albert cartoon, so it’s music for a cartoon show.

So this is a great record, it’s got Joe Henderson, Johnny Coles on trumpet, Buster Williams and Tootie Heath. But they’re playing funk. And it’s really funky, not like James Brown influenced funk. It’s its own thing. He never did anything like it before or after.

This record is really special to me because when I was growing up in Salem [Oregon], I bought this at a record store, and was probably one of the first records I’ve bought. So it’s been a huge influence on me as a musician, I’ve listened to this hundreds of times. The record is coming out of the sleeves, I’ve got masking tape holding it together.

3. A Brazillian Love Affair

George Duke

George Duke is another piano player (these are all piano players). He came up in the era of big budgets for records in the 1970’s, when the record company executives really didn’t know what they were doing. So they just left it to the artists, “go make us some money”, was the attitude back then. It’s the complete opposite of now where everything’s pre-packaged.

In the 1960’s, Stan Goetz and some other Jazz musicians went down to Brazil and created this hybrid Jazz-Brazilian music that became very popular in the United States called Bossa Nova, that term’s more of a generic term here in the States. So this album is round 2 of Brazilian influence in Jazz music. In 1979, George Duke went down there and spent some time with the great people down there.

There’s nothing like it, it’s unique. You’re never gonna hear anything like it again, because I think at the time it was a nice exchange of ideas between musicians of different cultures and it just got captured on a record. You can’t recreate it. It’s a fresh take on Brazilian music, Jazz, Funk, R&B, all mixed up together.

How has this album specifically influenced the way you play?

I’ve been heavily influenced by George Duke’s approach to playing electronic keyboards. He has a way that he humanizes it, it doesn’t sound mechanical or like a machine. It’s hard to do – when you’re playing the piano or organ it’s organic, it’s not hard to sound like a human being. Also, a couple of these tunes I’ve played a lot, so I’ve borrowed a couple licks from this album.

The artist George Duke has been a huge influence on me. His ethic and the way he approaches music, he’s got an open mind. He’s not stuck in one genre or another. You listen to one of his records and there’s some little bit of everything on there. You can move the needle from one track to another and it’s not going to sound the same at all.

4. But Not For Me

Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing

This is a live recording in 1958 at a lounge in Chicago, so it had the audience clapping and stuff. It’s just a trio: piano, bass, and drums. So this album is like a model for how to play in a Jazz piano trio. It’s swingin’, it’s so swingin’. Each member of the band has an equal role, it’s not just the piano player. Although he’s definitely driving the bus, he leaves a lot of space to hear the drums and bass.

He’s a very economical player, and he’s got a really nice touch. He’s influenced me a lot in that regard. How to approach playing in a group. Listening, leaving space, setting things up for other people to shine. The economy and the touch on the piano are beautiful.

Could you explain what touch means, specifically?

That’s probably the hardest thing to explain. Being a teacher, it’s the hardest thing to teach. I don’t even think it can be taught. The only thing I can do is to point out that it’s a thing to be studied on your own.

I think, [touch] is your attitude behind the notes that you play – that’s what it means in Jazz. Another way you can think of it is how you approach your instrument to fit into a certain situation. In a band, everyone has their own part. It’s the combination of sound, timbre[3], and articulation and fitting into that moment. I don’t even think I’ve ever defined touch before so thank you.

5. The Real McCoy

McCoy Tyner

I saved the best for last. This is a prized copy of The Real McCoy by McCoy Tyner. It was recorded in 1967. McCoy Tyner was the piano player for John Coltrane in the early 1960’s. He had a lot of influence for that part of the Jazz movement, he played a lot of modal[4] sounds.

He had made a few records on his own. This one, however, is really special – I think it’s another one of those moments in time that was caught in a studio. It has Elvin Jones, who was Coltrane’s drummer. He had Joe Henderson on saxophone, and Ron Carter on bass, who was Miles Davis’ bass player. It was an interesting combination of personnel in the band. It’s a classic Blue Note recording. It was recorded in New Jersey at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio which has a specific piano sound. It’s kind of a dark, round sound.

Is that something that you can just tell? Like “oh, that’s so and so’s studio.”

Yeah. Absolutely because I’ve listened to enough records that I can tell and know which label it was recorded on, basically by how it was engineered. It’s funny, too being in grad school again, I encounter folks who’ll listen to a recording of a symphony and know who’s conducting it.

So pretty much every Jazz pianist has dealt with this record. Everyone has gone through this record, you have to.


Special thank you to Brian Ward for this interview. All images edited by the author.

[1]ostinato: continually repeated rhythm or phrase; [2]impressionism: period of western art music between 1870 and 1920; [3]timbre: the quality of a sound or voice; [4]modal: in music theory, relating to tonal centers or scales.

Jacob Ward is a junior in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance pursuing a BMA in Performance with a Minor in Performing Arts Management and Entrepreneurship. Recently, he was appointed Digital Fashion Editor of SHEI Magazine, the official arts, fashion and culture publication at the University of Michigan. Merging his interests in music, fashion, and current events has led him to work at the UMMA to amplify the student voice.

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