Okay, it’s admittedly impossible to try and pinpoint the definite best jazz piano albums. However, it is a worthwhile endeavor anyway!
Jazz is an important music genre, and it’s present in most of the music we listen to today.
As mentioned in our blog post, The Black Roots of Your Favorite Genres, jazz originated in New Orleans sometime around the early 1900, combining classical music, slave folk songs, and West African culture. It’s since taken influence from tons of genres, leaked into other genres and evolved into many mainstream subgenres.
To learn about the pianist who prepared the world for jazz, read our post on Scott Joplin’s Impact. Additionally, we highlight Eubie Blake, an early contributor to the genre, on 6 Black Pianists You Should Know About.
Perhaps just as much as for its influence, jazz is also recognized for being complex — even to the best musicians. Therefore, before you can get into jazz playing, you need to get into jazz listening.
We’ve curated here a list (and YouTube playlist) of the 9 best jazz piano albums that all musicians should listen to. In the spirit of Black History Month, we’re highlighting work by Black pianists, but there are name drops at the bottom if you’d like additional listening!
This is an incredibly short list, and it isn’t assembled in any particular order. In fact, we don’t even want to really claim these are the best jazz piano albums. And we didn’t focus exclusively on piano solos either!
Mostly we hope this is a good starting point for those just getting into jazz and jazz pianists. And if you haven’t heard any of these classic albums, you should do so!
Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (1963), Duke Ellington & John Coltrane
Two jazz masters collaborating on one record. You won’t find any list of “best jazz albums” without this one — it’s one of the best recordings in jazz period by many accounts.
Duke Ellington, who had already made a significant contribution to jazz in the 20s and 30s, leaned into more creative styles in his later years and sought out collaborations with contemporary players. This resulted in his pairing with Coltrane and his group, and the result was “Duke Ellington & John Coltrane”
The diverse mix of songs and influences, combined with the emotional weight of each piece, make this album a standout. The complete understanding of melody and rhythm that both Ellington and Coltrane possessed, along with their diverse influences, particularly in blues, contribute to the shared harmony found on this recording. The mature sounds evident throughout the album make it easy to understand why it is considered a classic.
The accessibility of the album, combined with the many jazz standards that are included, make it an ideal starting point for those just getting into jazz. In fact, I’d argue it’s a must-listen generally speaking — even for people who don’t usually like jazz.
Head Hunters (1973), Herbie Hancock
Released in 1973, this album marked Hancock’s departure from previous work in the more acoustic jazz realm. He continued on with his usual complex harmonies, driving grooves, tight rhythm sections. However, he additionally began to embrace electronic instrumentation and funk influences. The result was a seminal album in the jazz fusion genre.
“Head Hunters” was a commercial success upon release, reaching the top of the jazz charts and crossing over to the R&B and pop charts too. The album features the hit single “Chameleon,” widely acclaimed for its innovative use of synthesizers, percussion, and Hancock’s signature keyboard playing. It remains one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, and has been widely recognized as a groundbreaking release in the genre.
The album’s fusion of jazz, funk, and electronic elements made it a touchstone for the jazz fusion movement of the 1970s. It continues to inspire musicians today, and fans of funky fusion and innovative playing will also surely love this record.
Solo Monk (1965), Thelonious Monk
The thing to know about “Solo Monk” is that it’s Monk solo. Released in 1965, just as Monk began his historic group with John Coltrane, this album features Monk’s unique and imaginative interpretations of both his original compositions and jazz standards. So basically it’s masterclass piano for 38 minutes straight.
With his signature dissonant chord voicings and inventive improv, Monk’s playing is both technically skilled and emotionally expressive here particularly. Throughout the record, he demonstrates his mastery of various styles, including stride, a fast and rhythmic playing style that originated in the early 20th century.
Monk’s inventive and spacious approach to the keyboard sets him apart from other pianists and has earned him a well-earned place among the greatest jazz musicians of all time. “Solo Monk” is thus not just one of the best jazz piano albums but also the best introduction to Thelonious Monk.
Night Train (1962), Oscar Peterson
Night Train is a 1962 album recorded by Oscar Peterson and his trio during the peak of their fame. Notably, the lineup had gone from piano-bass-guitar to piano-bass-drums which gave them a new, edgier sound that prioritized melody over technicality.
The result was this: a defining moment in Peterson’s career and a tribute to the funkier roots of jazz. “C Jam Blues” and “Moten Swing” are particularly well thought-out interpretations of classic standards. The titular track is arguably one of his greatest creative peaks, and definitely a piece that defines him as an artist.
The “master of swing” Oscar Peterson had exceptional dexterity coupled with elaborate technique and playfulness on the keys — all of which are on full display on “Night Train.”
Piano Starts Here (1968), Art Tatum
Art Tatum’s Piano Starts Here (1968) does more or less mark the beginning of modern jazz piano. His playing is characterized by its super rhythmic, stride-heavy style and strong improvisation. At the time, this pushed the boundaries of jazz piano, and it led to more innovative reharmonization, voicing and bitonality throughout the scene.
Tatum was recognized by other pianists throughout the mid-1900s for his exceptional technical ability. But despite his talent, he didn’t achieve as much recognition as some of his other peers. It was Norman Granz who then, in an effort to change that, recorded 200+ tracks of Tatum’s tracks between 1953 and 1956. This solo recital was the first of the series released by Granz.
Tatum’s impact on jazz piano cannot be overstated, and “Piano Starts Here” serves as a testament to his musical genius. He was a master of improvisation, and his solos were always filled with surprising twists and turns that kept the listener on their toes. This album captures the energy and excitement of his live performances, and gives you a taste of what made Tatum one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.
But Not For Me (1958), Ahmad Jamal
“But Not For Me,” released in 1958, is a timeless album by the talented jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. This album features Jamal’s trio performing a collection of classic standards and original pieces. And while he was already influential in jazz throughout the early 1950s, but this 1958 release took things even further.
One of the defining features of “But Not For Me” is Jamal’s use of space and rhythm, which is minimal although effective. His light-but-tight touch on the piano allows the melody to shine while his attention to dynamics and imaginative arrangements keeps the album engaging. The trio’s harmony is especially evident in tracks such as “Poinciana” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”
In later decades, Ahmad Jamal developed a more whimsical playing style, perhaps best captured in his 1970 album, “The Awakening.” However, his earlier work has proved to have immense drawing power too. “But No For Me” continues to fascinate pianists today, and it has influenced every new generation of jazz musicians and pianists since. It easily makes our list for best jazz piano albums no matter how you define “best” or “jazz piano.”
The Genius of Bud Powell (1956), Bud Powell
“The Genius of Bud Powell” is a seminal album by the legendary pianist and father of modern jazz, Bud Powell. Released in 1956, this aptly-named record features Powell’s incredible technical abilities and creative vision on full display.
“Tea For Two” and “Hallelujah” set the record off with Powell playing at breakneck speeds within his trio. Eight solo pieces then follow, all featuring Powell’s talent and creativity as a jazz pianist. By the end of the 38m runtime, you’ll have been exposed to one of the earliest works in modern jazz, Powell’s signature bebop sound within a trio, and Powell’s mastery of the piano solo.
Simply put: this album is a milestone for jazz piano. Especially if you’re looking to explore the world of bebop and the start of modern jazz, “The Genius of Bud Powell” is an essential listen.
Go! (1962), Dexter Gordon & Sonny Clark
“Go!” (1962) is a personal favorite of mine and a standout record for hard bop. Admittedly, this may not qualify as one of the best jazz piano albums since it’s not entirely jazz piano. Dexter Gordon’s tenor saxophone is at the forefront (and the highlight for me personally). However, Sonny Clark on the piano (and bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins) also brings virtuoso levels of playing.
Gordon’s playing is characterized by his tendency to play slightly behind the beat, giving his solos a more relaxed feel. That manifests into many wonderful tracks on this record, including the catchy minor-key theme “Cheesecake,” a soulful rendition of “Love for Sale,” and heartfelt ballads such as “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” and “Where Are You.” The upbeat “Second Balcony Jump” is filled with a solo from Clark that captures his characteristic humor and cleverness as well.
The album as a whole is strongly integrated, with each member of the quartet making meaningful contributions. The wonderful thing about “Go!” for me is that it’s well-suited for casual listening and for close inspection. You can find new details in each listen, and never grow tired of how infectious and enjoyable it is.
A World of Piano (1962), Phineas Newborn Jr.
While you may have heard of other pianists on this list, it wouldn’t surprise me if Phineas Newborn wasn’t yet on your radar. The thing about him is that he wasn’t particularly an innovator in jazz piano. Its instead precision, intricacy, and improvised flair that best define him as a musician.
“A World of Piano!” is an astounding listen particularly for those who know what to pay attention to. There’s a ton of subtle virtuosity that admittedly goes over my head!
One standout on the album is “Oleo,” one of Newborn’s most renowned songs. It begins with a delicate and nuanced intro, setting the stage for the masterful playing to come. Newborn effortlessly navigates through complex chord progressions, showcasing his technical prowess and intricate sense of melody. As the song keeps progressing, the playing becomes more expressive and impassioned, with fast-paced runs and sparkling flourishes.
For those who don’t usually listen to jazz, “A World of Piano!” may not be an easily digestible listen. There are a range of emotions and complexities captured on the album though, and certainly anyone could enjoy Newborn’s remarkable display of piano skills and imaginative improvisation. If you’re talking about the best jazz piano albums, you need to have Phineas Newborn Jr. represented, and we think this is one of the best contendors.
“If I had to choose the best all-around pianist of anyone who’s followed me chronologically, unequivocally … I would say Phineas Newborn, Jr.” –Oscar Peterson
More Jazz Pianists with the “Best” Jazz Piano Albums
Coming up with this list was extremely difficult. It’s worth noting some jazz pianists were primarily known for group work, and not particularly compositions or albums.
Erroll Garner, Red Garland, McCoy Tyner, Fats Waller, Sun Ra — there are no shortage of excellent jazz pianists we could highlight.
And if you are an absolute beginner, please do yourself a favor and listen to Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Chick Corea, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Pharaoh Sanders — again, we can keep going forever.
Frankly, we owe jazz to multiple generations of talented musicians. Piano played a huge role in the sound, but it can’t take all the credit!
One thing that’s for sure is I’m optimistic that the future is still bright!
Robert Glasper is a contemporary jazz pianist, already celebrated for combining jazz with other modern genres in a tasteful and refreshing way.
Samara Joy was just recognized at the 2023 Grammys for her album, “Linger Awhile”; not only did she win Best Jazz Vocal Album for it, but she was also named Best New Artist, becoming the second jazz musician in history to have done so!
Any albums or names we missed? Let us know in the comments! And here’s the link to the complete 9 Best Jazz Piano Albums playlist on YouTube so you can save them all and listen to them later.