Three Classic Piano Trio Albums

The influence of Bud Powell on Monk, Red Garland, and Phineas Newborn

Red Garland. Phineas Newborn. Thelonious Monk. Bud Powell. These may seem like odd bedfellows, but a look at several reissues by Garland, Newborn, and Monk reveals how, as pianists, they fell under the direct influence of Bud Powell.

That’s hardly surprising given that Powell developed the bebop language of the piano. But Garland, Newborn, and Monk all share something else as well—they are both what jazz writers and fans call ‘two-handed’ pianists. That might seem like an oxymoron, but in fact, it’s a very important distinction.

Bebop and post-bop pianists overwhelmingly played long strings of running eighth and sixteenth notes with their right hands, using the left only to outline chords. It’s true that many pianists developed distinctive ways of voicing chords as a way of distinguishing themselves, but it became increasingly rare for pianists to use their left hands as a rhythm element, as stride pianists had done, or as a walking bass, as pianists such as Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson did.

While Garland, Newborn, and Monk were all influenced by Powell, as was nearly every jazz pianist to come along afterward, they retained elements of older jazz piano styles. As examples of each pianist’s work, we’ll take a closer look at reissued CDs by each.

Thelonious Monk/Trio Amazon | Spotify

Monk is usually cited as one of the founding fathers of bebop, and indeed he was present and absorbed the harmonic lessons of bop. But he went beyond that, both in his use of more dissonant harmonies and in his pianistic style, which combined elements from bop, modern jazz, swing, and earlier stride and Tin Pan Alley piano styles. In short, Monk was the total package, and the RVG edition of this Prestige release is a near-perfect Monk recording, offering up bracing versions of many of his most famous compositions while they were still fresh and allowing the listener to hear Monk’s unadorned piano style.

In later years, particularly as he gained recognition and recorded for Columbia in the 1960s, Monk rearranged and re-recorded these tunes many times, and often they achieved a more polished veneer that went against the grain of Monk’s compositional style and made it easy to forget just how revolutionary these compositions were when they were first hatched.

The first two tracks here come from the last, chronologically, of three sessions included here. The lengthy rendition of “Blue Monk” that leads off the CD finds Monk in the company of bassist Percy Heath and drummer Art Blakey. Monk’s piano work is a master class in two-handed piano technique, as Monk plays clusters of harmonies with his right hand, punctuating with left-hand notes, then bringing his left hand up to participate in a melodic run. Bud Powell’s influence is certainly evident, as Monk’s solo contains flashes of Powell’s deft runs, but it’s frequently more Powell’s spirit that comes across than any actual tendency for the two pianists, who were close friends, to sound alike. Listening to Thelonious Monk Trio, it is very easy to hear the two pianists as complementary to each other, each completing the other’s pianistic style to create an organic whole.

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It’s been said that Powell’s extensive use of the right hand to play technically difficult melodic improvisations while keeping the left hand as a minimal comping instrument led to the piano being on the same plane as front line horns in modern jazz. That makes sense, but listening to Monk here, one can’t help but feel that he was able to make his piano the equal of any horn player while still maintaining the instrument’s more orchestral possibilities.

The other two sessions included here are both from late 1952. Both feature Gary Mapp on bass, while Blakey and Max Roach alternate on drums. Neither Mapp nor Heath makes much of an impression on these sessions—it’s all about Monk and the interaction between Monk and the two amazing drummers. Thelonious Monk Trio is an essential Monk disc and should have a place in the collection of any serious modern jazz fan.

Red Garland/Soul Junction Amazon | Spotify

Red Garland was influenced by Powell, as well as by Nat Cole and Ahmad Jamal, and he managed to incorporate these influences into his own distinctive style that was heavy on the blues. Garland was an imaginative improviser, and his calling card became his distinctive use of block chord voicings that combined octaves with the fifth in the middle of the right hand, and accompanying chords in the left hand.

Garland’s style is eloquent and sophisticated, like Jamal’s, but has a sufficient blues groove to keep any accusations of ‘cocktail’ piano style at bay. In addition, Garland had a solid knowledge of bop harmonic structure, and could easily fit in with a modern outfit, as demonstrated by his work with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Garland recorded prolifically in 1956 and 1957, with the November ’57 session that produced Soul Junction also providing the tracks for All Mornin’ Long and part of High Pressure. Many of these sessions also included John Coltrane, with whom Garland had been working in the Miles Davis Quintet that recorded the classic series of albums Workin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’, and Cookin’.

It’s been noted frequently that Coltrane and Garland were perfectly complementary together, and that can certainly be heard here. On the opening title track, a lengthy blues number, Garland renders a perfectly bluesy roadhouse solo, then provides the perfect background for Trane’s explorations that already point beyond the limits of the standard blues harmonic structure. He’s equally at home on ‘Woody ‘n You,’ with Donald Byrd’s hard bop Clifford Brown-influenced style. In fact, this group is so perfectly balanced, poised between jazz’s present and future, with a firm grounding in the past, that it is remarkable to think what they may have been like if they had been a working band (the group did play a few live gigs, but not many).

A classic album that has been well-loved for many years, it’s great to hear Soul Junction in ist 24 bit digital remaster as part of the Prestige RVG remasters. Anyone with an interest in great post-bop small group playing and in the art of jazz piano needs this in their collection.

Roy Hanes (w/Phineas Newborn)/We Three Amazon | Spotify

This is Roy Haynes’ session, and he certainly is in great form, which sets up a classic recording featuring largely unsung pianist Phineas Newborn, who was influenced not only by Powell but also by Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. Blessed with phenomenal technique, Newborn seems to have made it too much the centerpiece of his playing in his early days, a fact that is alluded to in Ira Gitler’s new set of liner notes, in which he aroused the ire of none other than Thelonious Monk by writing exactly that criticism of the young Newborn.

By the time of this recording (1958), Phineas Newborn had learned much about the judicious use of space and was capable of playing with a fierce swing. Despite this, there were critics who still seemed to find his work superficial, a charge also sometimes leveled at the work of Newborn’s contemporary, Ahmad Jamal. Erroll Garner, too, was plying his two-handed style, and while very well received by the public, didn’t properly get his critical due.

Newborn can slip in and out of two-handed mode, doing the Bud Powell thing of comping with the left hand while allowing his right hand to run free with melodic filigree, then just as abruptly rolling into a right-hand figure accompanied by boogie-woogie bass, and on and on. Truly a remarkable pianist because of his deep understanding of the underpinnings and history of his instrument, Newborn is even more amazing in the company of Haynes, who actively spars, rhythmically, with the pianist, and bassist Paul Chambers, who is always in the right place at the right moment. In the hands of this able trio, there is never any question about the fact that they will swing hard (as evidenced by the Newborn original “Sugar Ray”). The question instead is what inventive elements will each player contribute to what is already known to be a high quality, swinging performance. The answers are many and, as each player does his thing, stunning.

This is one of the most amazing piano trio CDs around. It’s good news that, although Phineas Newborn’s recorded output is small, his quality overall is beyond reproach. If you remember Newborn like a long-lost friend, now is the time to get reacquainted. If you’ve never listened to him, this disc is an excellent way to check him out in the company of musicians who are truly his peers.

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