I love the piano. It’s the perfect combination of the percussive with the melodic. Add in individuality of various pianists and the improvisational qualities in jazz, (stir), and you’ve got a rich variety of virtuosity. Here are some of my favorites.
Thelonious Monk – actually not a great place to start, but a place to end up. Amazingly unique, within jazz and all of music. Prepare for dissonance in its most musical form. One friend commented to me, “it just sounds like he’s playing the wrong notes!” But the beauty is that he means to. Additionally, in the words of Dave Chappelle, his timing was ill.
Herbie Hancock – innovating since the beginning of his career. His sound is Miles ahead, so what you choose to hear varies wildly. Any of the 60s Miles sessions on which he is pianist are good places to start for a “classical” look at Herbie. His contributions to electronic music are undeniable – see Headhunters (1973) and Future Shock (1982) for the most well known examples. He’s still doing it though, with River: The Joni Letters his most recent (and successful) effort.
Duke Ellington – though the most popular big band oriented Duke is not my favorite, his small combo stuff (which is more to my liking in general) ranks among my favorite ever, specifically Money Jungle.
Oscar Peterson – recently passed away, monumental pianist.
Bud Powell – according to everyone, he influenced everyone, though I’m not exactly sure how, since I’m just listening to echoes.
Jimmy Smith – Kind of the king of jazz organists. My personal favorite of his so far is Groovin’ at Smalls Paradise. But I haven’t heard Chicken Shack yet!
Neal Evans – speaking of organists, Neal is a contemporary keyboardist with Soulive. Greasy gravy!
Art Tatum – homage to one whose musical sensibilities might as well were heightened in absence of his sight. A master organizer – fits more notes comfortably into a small space than Ikea could.
Airto Moreira, Chucho Valdes, Sergio Mendes – latin jazz turned out to be a perfect marriage of cultural and musical heritage, and these are some of the purveyors on the keys.
Diana Krall – mentioned here because it’s quite pleasurable to watch her play, though she’s known for her singing. Contemporary.
There are a ton more, but these are among my favorites. I’m sure I’m missing someone. Others off the top of my head worth mentioning are Jaki Byard (a la Mingus), McCoy Tyner, Benny Green, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, and dozens more ….