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Richie Beirach: Exploring Who Matters Most Among the Jazz Pianists

Victor L. Schermer By

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[The following is a commentary on pianist Richie Beirach's 2020 e-book The Historical Lineage of Modern Jazz Piano: The 10 Essential Players (Conversations between Richie Beirach and Michael Lake), downloadable for free here.]

Jazz piano has always garnered (no intended reference to Erroll Garner) special interest among the instruments because it is truly an orchestra in itself. Its keys cover the full range from low bass to highest soprano, and it is tailored (no allusion to Dr. Billy Taylor) for harmony, counterpoint, and rhythmic accompaniment of the melody. It combines a percussive feel with rich sonorities, the latter the reason for its invention during the Baroque era.

When jazz originated, ragtime and stride piano players like Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson helped define the jazz idiom. In the big band swing era, with exceptions like Teddy Wilson, the pianists mostly faded into the rhythm section, where "comping" for the other musicians became a special skill. But with the small groups of Kansas City, bebop and beyond, the pianists became central figures again and often led their own groups. Interest in jazz piano became so popular that two radio shows: The Billy Taylor Show and Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz had long tenures playing and discussing the music as set forth on the piano. (Taylor covered all the instruments, but was himself a notable pianist. McPartland, a fine pianist herself, interviewed many of the greats, and indulged in piano duets with them.)

So today it's an extension of a media tradition for a master jazz pianist like Richie Beirach to set forth his views and recollections about those jazz pianists whom he considers essential (he emphasizes that word) to the development of jazz piano in the modern era. Beginning with jazz piano's first true virtuoso, Art Tatum, Beirach fast forwards to the pantheon of the greats from the 1950s onwards to the 1990s. The complete list of Beirach's choices includes Tatum, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Paul Bley, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Cecil Taylor. Beirach makes haste to say that they are not necessarily his favorites or the best of the lot, but that each contributed something essential to the development of the piano in modern jazz. However, as soon as you get into this concise and fast-reading e-book, you're going to wonder why others, like Mary Lou Williams, Red Garland, George Shearing, Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan, Horace Silver, Monty Alexander, Geri Allen, Kenny Barron, Renee Rosnes, and many others are not on his "most essential" list. Each of them expanded the range and scope of the jazz piano.

However, that just makes the reading all the more interesting because Beirach isn't slighting anyone. He isn't pitting one pianist against another. Rather, with his enormous skills as a pianist/composer and his many hours of live and recorded listening, he sets for himself the specific goal of explaining in simple and straightforward ways how and why these particular pianists "made a difference." Each either created or fully developed genuinely new ways of playing that had a profound influence on other pianists then or afterwards. Are there others? Of course there are.

This is a short and sweet e-book, fitting for the cyber age, and it is taken from recorded conversations with the publisher, Michael Lake, himself a musician (alto trombone) and initiator and host of the Jazz Master Summit. (Beirach's cohort in the above photo is not Lake but his long-time musical collaborator, Dave Liebman.) My own All About Jazz interviews with Beirach showed how well he explains things in a relaxed, at times entertaining yet always astute, knowledgeable way. So in this little book, there are some rather profound insights always expressed in plain language and with obvious excitement and joy. Beirach loves these musicians, although some more than others, and above all, he loves the music in a way that is contagious.

With each pianist on his list, Beirach focuses in on what each pianist added to the mix that is significant and lasting. The legendary Bud Powell is a good example. Here is an excerpt from Beirach's comments about Powell that gives an idea of what he considers essential and formative, with my thoughts about their meaning in italics:

"Bud Powell was one of the major architects of the bebop language along with Bird, Diz and Monk. ... Piano players before Bud in general did not have his fire or his energy. ... There's is a direct connection between Bud's right hand and Charlie Parker's lines. ...[The pianist's "language," personality, and energy fits exceptionally well with a new trend.]

"Bud's left hand was strong and he played with great rhythmic accents. ...Now, Bud played mostly in the middle of the piano with his left hand chord and the right hand line was above middle C. [An original rhythmic pulse and new placement and use of the left and right hands.]

"Bud was also a great composer. He wrote fantastic tunes like "Parisian Thoroughfare," "Un Poco Loco," and "Glass Enclosure" ... "Glass Enclosure" was one of his standout compositions, which had some advanced chords in it. There was one particular chord which is double augmented chord, a polycord. It was a D major 7 #5 over a Bb major 7 #5. And as a point of reference, Chick Corea used that chord in his tune called "The Brain" from 1969 from the Is album [Solid State Records, 1969 -Eds.] A great innovative chord from Bud Powell that influenced the music of others...[The pianist wrote important compositions and developed new harmonic possibilities.] "Bud's legacy is one of forceful power and brilliant creative ideas. Remember, this is the 1940's where at best Bud had a microphone in the piano. No monitors. [The pianist adapts to the conditions and demands of the time period and situation. ]

"Bud set a precedent. He established a level of pianistic brilliance, creativity, and fire that has rarely been equaled. Remember, Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson had that light touch. That would never have worked with Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. Art and Teddy didn't have to burn through the rhythm section to project their sound. Those were just two different styles of playing. ...." [The pianist stands out in the crowd. He defines a piano style that does well with the new music and musicians.]

Thus, with Powell as with each of the pianists, Beirach emphasizes four major contributions: style, rhythm, harmony, and the way each composes and improvises. Then he looks historically at how they contributed to major developments in jazz. Finally, he considers their overall cultural significance. In Powell's case, he suggests how Powell was a victim of racism, and how he found a more accepting and favorable climate in Europe.

Beirach strives to be objective and analytical about each of the pianists, and he largely succeeds in doing so. But some of his biases and personal feelings do enter the picture. For example, his fondness for Bill Evans as both a musician and a friend shines through his analysis of Evans' chordal and voicing innovations and bringing to the fore the piano trio as a co-created expressive medium rather than a foil for the pianist. Beirach is intimately familiar with the whole corpus of Evans' work from beginning to end. He has intimate knowledge of the tragedies of Evans' life such as his drug and alcohol addictions, and how Evans himself felt about it. (Evans resigned himself to addiction, but mostly maintained his musicianship, reliability, and moral principles despite it.)

Evans was a true friend: "Bill was my hero. He was in my house playing my piano and sounding just like Bill." Beirach's warm approach to Evans is quite different from the detached, objective approach he takes with, say Keith Jarrett, whose playing he admires but for whom he is almost struggling to find words. And he dismisses everything that Chick Corea did after his initial few years of storming the jazz scene in New York: "From 1972 until the present, Chick sounds like the great pianist and musician he is but measured by how he started, that incredible innovative path was gone for me." It seems to me that Corea has never stopped playing with exceptional technique, inventiveness, and creativity. Countless musicians continue to be inspired by their encounters with him. It's jarring to find Beirach so readily dismissing his later work. And in any case, few people in any field are as innovative later in life as in their formative years.

By contrast, Beirach's take on McCoy Tyner is filled with admiration and respect, well deserved for this late, great hero whose alliance with John Coltrane was magnificent. Tyner then continued on his own for many years to enrich the legacy of jazz. After uniquely giving Tyner "Mount Rushmore" status, Beirach summarizes his contribution: "McCoy was a solid group player. ... And his harmonic language was innovative and unheard of in the world of jazz. Even though McCoy was influenced by the likes of Stravinsky, Bartok, Scriabin, and Shostakovich, he created his very own harmonic language." He then goes on to show how Tyner moved away from bebop piano to a more forceful and complex way of playing which measured up to Coltrane's ever-evolving and imaginative stretching of the musical vocabulary in many different directions at once. Tyner was a rare example of a pianist who evolved his own language during a time when he was in service of another musician, in his case Trane. Beirach emphasizes how Tyner changed the way pianists play the bass part and use the left hand, which he achieved in the context of the iconic John Coltrane Quartet, a highly integrated unit with Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. Yet within that inseparable unit, Tyner created his own piano approach that countless others, including Tyner himself later on, have used in many diverse contexts near and far from the source.

For most jazz fans, all the names of the pianists will be highly recognizable, except for one: Paul Bley. Known well to pianists, masterful and original, he did not join the bandwagon to fame. His recording Diane (SteepleChase, 1985) with Chet Baker is a masterful and haunting volume of ballads where Bley matches Baker's minimalist feel and takes it to a new level. Bley contributed to developments in jazz from the late Lester Young era to bebop on through the early 2000s. In the 1960s, he emerged as one of the important musicians in the "free jazz" circle of Ornette Coleman.

Beirach makes a better argument for Bley's originality than he does for Bley's strong influence on others. He tells one of those great jazz stories of "a recording called Sonny Meets Hawk (RCA Victor, 1963) with Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins along with Roy McCurdy on drums and Bob Cranshaw sharing the load with Henry Grimes on bass. Sonny Rollins was playing crazily against his master Coleman Hawkins on the standard "All The Things You Are." It started out being a traditional reading of the tune. Coleman Hawkins was playing the melody, with the bass and rhythm with Bley comping very lightly and very sparsely. Then Bley starts to solo and the whole world stops! He's obviously playing the tune "All The Things You Are." But it doesn't sound like "All The Things" because he's playing over and around the changes in a rhythmically complex manner but still swinging."

You can listen to almost any recording which includes Bley on the roster and hear that originality and inventiveness. But whether he was "essential" to developments that came during or after him is difficult to say. And in jazz circles, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that he took risks, played masterfully, and moved his fellow musicians and listeners. That, Bley did over and over again.

This is where we get in to the problem of singling out jazz pianists as "essential." It's fun and interesting to look for the individuals who would be on "Mt. Rushmore" or win a Downbeat poll, or end up on Beirach's or anyone else's short list. But jazz does not fit well with the "great man theory of history" in which a few individuals are seen as the forces that move civilization forward. Of course, some musicians are innovators, and some stand out in the crowd for both good and bad reasons. But jazz, possibly more than any other art form, comes out of the interactions of countless artists relating to each other many times in multiple contexts. As a quintessential example, the two central figures of bebop are always cited as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. They certainly did play an important role. But even a cursory look at the innumerable musicians who created bebop shows that they were always swapping ideas, listening to each other, bumping into one another's styles, and writing tunes on scrap paper, and in the case of Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia," according to Art Blakey, on a garbage can cover after a gig somewhere in Texas. Geniuses there are, but most developments in jazz are the product of collective interaction and special moments of spontaneous creation.

Nevertheless, Beirach's excursion into the great pianists captures what they brought to the mix in an erudite way that is also meaningful for listening purposes. His style is refreshingly appreciative and alive, including his own recollections of the jazz scene and the musicians. It's an easy read, but it will leave you with a deeper understanding of what these particular pianists contributed. In addition, there are some iconic photos and lists of Beirach's favorite recordings that frame the ideas and provide an additional incentive for further pursuit of the music itself. Beirach, a master pianist, proves himself here also to be a great teacher and advocate. I was going to say that this is a book well worth having on your shelf, but this one belongs on your Kindle or other device. And thanks to the generosity of Michael Lake during this pandemic, it's free.

Photo: Richie Beirach and Dave Liebman

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