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15 Jazz Trio Recordings

I've always had the habit of to compiling my favorite recordings. Given that many of us spend more time listening and shedding than usual, I found it appropriate to share some of my lists. For anyone interested, here are 15 jazz trio recordings that, I believe, are important to know:

I have never listened to a recording that mixes funk and latin influences with modern jazz in this manner. Particularly, playing over Monk tunes. Perez' version of Everything Happens to Me is still the grooviest version I have ever listened to. This whole record is insanely groovy and I could not stop listening to it for months. Danilo Perez, here, interprets Monk in the most modern yet appropriate manner. Monk's trade mark dissonance and syncopated rhythms are not mimicked but re-interpreted in Danilo Perez's incredibly funky and latin grooves. For example, the track Hot Bean Strut begins with a funky groove then turns into an unstoppable latin groove that is slightly laid back, making it incredibly swinging.

Recently, the great McCoy Tyner passed away. He is one of the most important pianists of all time, and there is really nothing more to say about this legend. Compared to his earlier trio recordings like Inception or Nights of Ballads and Blues, this recording is a culmination of his modern style using fourths and pentatonics. I chose this record over his earlier trio recordings, because it is difficult to walk away from the monstrous energy of this record. It is also fun to compare with Chick Corea's Now He Sings, Now He Sobs and hear the uncanny similarity. No doubt, Chick was influenced by this record. Do not hesitate to listen to McCoy's earlier trio recordings too, because they showcase a different touch and feel of the great master. McCoy Tyner was not just someone who played the piano with fourths and great force.

I first came upon this record through Ethan Iverson's interview of Fred Hersch. There is not much more that I can say that Fred Hersch and many others have said about this record. One thing I will add is that for compers like pianists and guitarists, this is a great record to practice accompaniment. Where else can you find such a swinging, human backing track?

One of Chick Corea's most celebrated records, there isn't much for me to say on this record too. Most young pianists have, at one point in their life, transcribed Matrix, Windows, or Steps. Chick's take on Pannonica is glorious too. The energy and chemistry that Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous are something to behold. Another great trio recording to check out by Chick Corea is Tones for Joan's Bones.

It is not a secret that many jazzers spend a great deal of time listening to old recordings of jazz greats. Understandably, it is a necessary habit for an oral tradition such as jazz. Swing and improvisation cannot be learned from theory books. However, too many allow this to prevent them from listening to new records. One such record, I believe, many should listen to is Break Stuff by Vijay Iyer. It is a strange but compelling mix of hip hop, free jazz, and minimalism. Tracks like Hood, Break Stuff, and Diptych blew me away when I first listened to them. This was my introduction to contemporary jazz that is not modal or straight ahead. There are other great records by Vijay Iyer like Historicity and Accelerando. The former mixes free jazz with Asian influences, while the latter brings a pop sensibility to Vijay's eclectic taste. Iyer's compositions are quite mathematical at times, yet the free improvisation gives it a kind of rawness that is sweetened by pop sensibilities. Coupled with the Bad Plus, Vijay Iyer offers a new path for jazz.

Ahmad Jamal's recording at the Pershing is possibly the most influential trio recording in jazz history. If a student wants to learn about space, one would recommend this recording. Jamal's pearly touch on the higher register, Vernel Fournier's tasteful yet insistent drumming, and Israel Crosby's groovy ostinatos create a masterpiece of space and chemistry. I have always felt like this recording is an aural autopsy of what makes jazz groove, swing, and work.

Let me be upfront: this is not my favorite Brad Mehldau recording. I tend to listen to Seymour Reads the Constitution, The Art of the Trio Volume 1, Day Is Done, Where Do You Start, and When I Fall In Love. However, nobody can deny the historic importance of this record. Many students are transcribing the 7/4 solo of Brad Mehldau on All the Things You Are or his contrapuntal solo on Solar. This record is just full of tricks and ideas that any student of jazz should study. Mehldau is another contemporary jazz artist whose complex improvisations have a touch of pop sensibility. Any of the records I listed in this paragraph are worth listening to, as well as his non-trio recordings like Highway Rider and Largo.

This recording is the first major hit by The Bad Plus, and it certainly displays the characteristics highlighted in Vijay Iyer's bullet point above. Unlike Vijay Iyer, The Bad Plus have a more rock sensibility. Given their midwestern white background, it is no surprise that they lean more towards rock. For me, The Bad Plus nails the pop sensibility better than Vijay, whereas Vijay is better at expressing his highly conceptualized music. One should also check out their other recordings like Made Possible, For All I Care, The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, Never Stop, and Prog. You will find that not only do they mix rock with free jazz, but they also have classical and electronic influences.

If anyone wanted a list of the most tasteful lines produced by a pianist, Red Garland must always be in the top 5 in my opinion. There is nobody who can play swinging, melodic lines that just go so well together like Red Garland. His light touch and insistent left hand definitely add to the seamlessness of his lines. I have never listened to a Red Garland solo that sounds hesitant, unnatural, or out of place. There is always the right amount of space, the right amount of repetitive motifs, and just the right amount of everything! I picked this record over others like Groovy, because it is longer and has my favorite trio versions of Almost Like Being In Love and Stompin' At the Savoy.

If anyone tells you that Duke Ellington is "old school," please give them this recording. Duke Ellington plays the most 60's jazz with Charles Mingus and Max Roach in this record. One can find the Duke's impressionist Fleurette Africaine, as well as groovy and powerful modern blues playing in Very Special and Rem Blues. When I first played this for my wife, she could not believe that it was Duke Ellington playing the piano.

Ron Carter's bass sounds phenomenal in this record, and, of course, Joe Henderson is one of the most innovative improvisers in history. This is another record where accompanists like myself can practice along Al Foster's tasteful drums. This record, alongside Sonny Rollins' Vanguard record above, is possibly my favorite with which to practice. Just listening to Ron Carter's fat bass is another thing I love to do.

One of the most difficult selections in this list has been this particular record. This is because Phinease Newborn Jr. has another fantastic trio record called A World of Piano! A World of Piano! is certainly the better known record due to Phineas' virtuosic playing as well as modern touches. However, I could not bring myself to ignore the groovy and swinging playing in Harlem Blues. With the monster rhythm section of Ray Brown and Elvin Jones, it was too difficult a choice. You can find incredible ballad playing as well as mind blowing two hand solos in both records. Please listen to both.

Keith Jarrett is one of my favorite pianists, however, Jarrett's trio recordings, despite their numerous quantity, are not my favorite outputs of Keith Jarrett. They tend to be a bit meandering and unswinging. Nevertheless, there are always great melodic moments in his trio recordings that I cannot deny. Yesterdays, along with Live At the Deerhead Inn, are Jarrett's most swinging trio records.

Yes. I chose this record. This is like the Kind of Blue of jazz trio recordings. However, can you really deny the importance of this record? Every pianist who plays a ballad has thought of this record more than once. Evans' calm, serene playing displays a kind of patience and intimate relationship with the pedal that contemporary pianists need to take more seriously.

Bud Powell is the Charlie Parker of jazz piano. I don't believe that is an understatement. Much of bebop vocabulary on the piano began with Bud Powell. This was my first Bud Powell recording, and I believe it is for many others. Powell's solo on Tempus Fugit was my first introduction to virtuosic two handed solos and the significance of the diminished chord paired with a minor chord. Unfortunately, it has been difficult for me to find trio recordings other than Jazz Giant. Many of his other records are compilations of Powell's playing in solo, trio, quartet, quintet, and other settings. Do check out this record and absorb everything by Bud Powell. Chick Corea himself is a card carrying disciple of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.


Noticeably, I have omitted Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock. This is because neither of these great pianists have many trio recordings. Compared to their great work in quartet or quintet settings, their trio recordings just do not showcase their magnificence. This is why I will include them in other lists like solo piano or quartet lists. Another pianist I omitted is Wynton Kelly, and that is because I am not as familiar with his trio recordings. Kelly Blue is the only one I know. I have heard that there are many great Kelly trio recordings.

Another noticeable omission is the guitar trio. Pat Martino's organ, bass, and guitar recordings are the only trio guitar recordings that I am familiar with. Martino's peculiar trio, in my opinion, warrants a separate list. Other than those records, I am not familiar with trio recordings that consist of guitar, bass, and drums. Rather than forcing myself to include combos I am not so familiar with, I chose to stick to combos with which I am more familiar. Do listen to Pat Martino's Footprints, Live at Yoshi's, and El Hombre.

Now that I have finished the jazz trio list, which should I do next: Solo Piano or Jazz Quartet? The former is going to be comprised of a lot of Keith Jarret records; the latter will be so numerous that it cannot possibly be contained by fifteen. Did I leave out any other great trio recording? Please let me know. Stay safe and healthy!

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