Pianist John Colianni talks about some of his favorite songs. To listen to the full playlist visit our YouTube page.
Lou Rawls – What Did I Do (To Be So Black And Blue)
Diana Ross – Billie Holiday Medley
I’ve never been the biggest fan of Jazz singers doing “tribute” sets. I tend to think they should do their own thing and shine in their own presence. But I really like Diana Ross’s versions of all 3 of these pieces. This is from the soundtrack of the bio film “Lady Sings The Blues”, and Diana of course portrays Billie Holiday (known as “Lady Day”). Her singing is first rate. She gets the Billie Holiday vibe of world weary sophistication, mixed with street smarts and jive. But she also memorably inserts her own identity and unique brand of phrasing. These backup arrangements are just great, too, swinging and soulfully accompanying Ms Ross. If any fans know who wrote these charts, feel free to let me know! Meanwhile, I also have a personal connection to this clip. One of my main mentor-teachers was Carlton Drinkard, a pianist who was Billie Holiday’s accompanist on and off for ten years or so. In these clips, he is loosely and wonderfully portrayed as the character “Piano Man”, by Richard Pryor, who you see at the piano throughout.
Louis Jordan – I Know What You’re Putting Down
Louis Jordan was a masterful alto (and tenor) sax player, a smooth ballad player as well as a stomping, swinging blues player. And he was a beautiful singer, half blues shouter/ half balladeer. He had a great band, who you see here “The Tympani Five”. They are all tight, agile, driving players. What I particularly like on this track is the piano accompaniment. I don’t think you can see the piano player, but he’s surging away behind Louie’s vocal with really soulful blues licks, delicately played, but right “in your face”. Knowing how to play with that “sanctified” sound and touch is a special asset. I believe the pianist here is Wild Bill Davis, who went on to greater fame as a Hammond B-3 organist who had a string of hit records with his own band.
Count Basie – Michelle
This is the Count Basie cover of the Beatles tune Michelle. Their band has the same lineup as our big band – 17 pieces. Me and my bassist, Boots Maleson, were figuring out the interesting chord substitutions they used in this arrangement – tricky. The band plays with a lot of feeling on this recording from 1966. This is a good song that works as a Pop/Rock ballad or a Jazz piece. Basie is in great form himself on the piano, doing his spare kind of playing on here. (don’t let him fool you, though – he could also be a ferocious player with a lot of technique). Also notice the smooth rhythm section.
Larry Coryell – “ATM Girl”
This is a live trio recording by Larry Coryell. He’s about the best there is at playing the guitar at this kind of tempo. He does it with ease! I like the excitement he builds in his solo. Larry was also an accomplished Flamenco guitar virtuoso. And he led a world famous Jazz fusion band called “The Eleventh House”. He toured and recorded several top-selling albums in the 60s and 70s, to great acclaim and critical reception. And his career never slowed down. Larry toured the world, playing all the top Jazz venues year in and out, to fans of all ages. His collaborators are a “who’s who” of Jazz heroes. Too many highlights to mention, for sure. But this performance, featuring Larry live in NYC, is a standout. He’s on fire, and the energy and creativity are unrelenting throughout this piece. And I’m not biased, just because I wrote this song, or because I’m playing piano here….(I’m on his 2011 release, “Montgomery”, by the way)
Bobby Hackett – “Emily”
Bobby Hackett plays cornet, an instrument I’ve never been wild about. I like trumpet. But players like Bobby Hackett, Ed Polcer, Bix Beiderbecke, Ray Nance, and Nat Adderley (all cornetists) all make me go back on that judgement every time I hear them (and don’t forget my FB friend Dan Tobias). So great. Anyway, Bobby Hackett (who I hear was Clifford Brown’s favorite cornetist) is tremendous. He plays in a way that (to me) resembles singing. And that quality is on display here, for sure. Very eloquent at interpreting melody, especially on ballads. This number, “Emily” was written by the arranger-composer Johnny Mandel, for a film he scored. It’s said that “Emily” wasn’t nominated for an Oscar because the piece was not SUNG in the movie, which is a requirement (or was). Too bad… Anyhow, I am drawn to this orchestration written to back up Bobby’s soloing. Whoever wrote it sure knew how to write for a string section! I’m envious.
Sue Raney with Stan Kenton and his Orchestra – “Let There Be Love” and “I’ve Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”
Stan Kenton was leading his super-size band at this time – over twenty pieces! He had just added a four man section of mellophones (a brass instrument) to his band, which was already a full-sized big band. Sue Raney was his singer back then, She was fabulous! Tremendous pitch and time feel, and she subtly “acts out” the songs with her conversational phrasing. Talented lady, for sure. And these arrangements are really effective behind her. It’s really interesting to hear Kenton play an Ellington piece like “I Got It Bad”. Kenton revered Ellington (who wouldn’t?). I think these charts are by Bill Holman, a West Coast sax player and arranger. Superb, if you ask me.
Blossom Dearie/Michel LeGrand – “Lullaby Of Birdland”
This features the American singer Blossom Dearie and the “Blue Stars Of France”, a vocal group. They sound a bit like the Swingle Singers, another European Jazz choir. This song was written by the (British) pianist George Shearing. (Shearing is one of my favorite players, and he won two Grammys in the 80s for his duet albums with my old boss, Mel Torme.) Shearing is not on this recording, btw. Anyway, this song is usually sung in English, but the French lyrics give it a wistful quality, which I like. Michel LeGrand, the French pianist/composer, wrote this arrangement, and I really like what he did. That “two beat” feel by the rhythm section is very cool. And those singers are just right. They swing and sing in tune, more than you can say for most. By the way, the singer in our big band, Jamie Rae, sings one of her songs with us in both English and French – “My Man”, also known as “Mon Hommes”, a highly dramatic piece that gets.
Les Paul Trio, “Dance Of The Kordies”
My old boss, Les Paul, was one of the premier Jazz guitarists ever known. He’s famous for his recording from the ’50s of “How High The Moon”, which mixes Jazz and pop, but this record, “Dance Of The Kordies”, released on 78RPM disc around 1947 (probably on Decca Records), is an original piece, and it showcases Les’s immense Jazz chops and technique. He’s playing a hollow-body guitar on this, as opposed to his later solid-body recordings.
When Les hired me to join his trio in 2003, he was seeking to restore his band to something musically closer to the sound of his group in the ’40s, such as what you’ll hear on this recording. Les had not used a pianist for some time when he hired me, but on this record, you hear the complex, weaving interplay between the pianist – a renowned player named Milt Raskin – and Les’s guitar, that characterizes Les’s early trio. Guitar-piano-bass….no drums. The bassist, who is excellent, might be a player named “Wally”, a midwest musician who worked for Les on and off through this period. I played in Les Paul’s trio from August 2003 through June 7, 2009, which was Les’s last performance. We toured and recorded, and we had a steady Monday night gig in Manhattan that was attended by throngs of fans, and the audience usually included prominent musicians and occasional celebrities. Backstage on any given night you might find people like the members of Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller, Paul McCartney, Merle Haggard, Olivia Newton-John, Jimmy Buffet, and others of similar fame hanging out with Les backstage at our gig. But for all his fame and pop star status, when you listen to this recording, it readily shows Les Paul as one of the top-ranking Jazz guitarists of all eras.
Art Tatum – “Flying Home”
Hank Jones – “Ruby, My Dear”
Hank Jones was a pianist who could really bring out the essence of a tune. He made the piano sing. On this track of Ruby My Dear, which is a Thelonius Monk composition, Hank plays with a lot of soulful feeling, bringing out Monk’s unorthodox, but lyrical melodic approach.
Monk’s music has a strong “urban” sound, even more than that of other jazz composers. It’s interesting to compare Monk and Hank Jones as players. Monk had a very firm attack, and brought out interesting dynamics and personalized chord voicings.
Hank Jones was a finesse player, loaded with pianistic skill and technique.They also have a lot in common the players, especially they are sense of swinging rhythm, although Hank could also lay down a very subtle groove.When I was a new player in the scene,
I competed in the Monk Competition, and this was one I had to play. Happy to say I won one of the cash prizes. Guess who the lead judge was? Yup – Hank Jones.
Hazel Scott – “Just Imagine”
Hazel Scott has that pretty touch common to the best female Jazz pianists. Like Hank Jones, she was a “pretty” player, but she could also get down and stomp. (check her out in the film “Sensations Of 1945”) This song, Just Imagine, is a ballad from the 40s-50s. She really sends me with her great phrasing and luxurious harmonies. Beautiful sounding rhythm section behind her, too. Very sophisticated – this is the kind of playing I once heard aptly termed as “East Side Piano”.
Willie Lewis – “Just a Mood”
Along with my various other musical tastes, I like hotel bands, society music, “sweet” music – the sounds that were popular in the early 30s. A mixture of Jazz, Pop, symphonic and musical theater elements. Orchestras and singers like Paul Whiteman, Rudy Vallee, Russ Columbo, Gus Arnheim, Ruth Etting, Ben Selvin, Ray Noble, Guy Lombardo, Annette Henshaw….It’s from what they call the “pre code” days. Before Swing bands took over. But sweet music is still around even today – its part of the American fabric of songwriting and orchestration, and you still hear evidence of this style in every kind of music.There were black bands that played in this style, too. Noble Sissle, Claude Hopkins, Don Redman,,,,and this band of European expatriate black Americans, Willie Lewis and His Entertainers. They were super-popular with the Parisian Montmartre jet set of the late 20s-early 30s. In this band Benny Carter played sax and wrote arrangements. Yup, that Benny Carter! He lived for a long time in Europe in his early career, playing Jazz and society music. Of course, we all know him as the modern Jazz composer and alto sax virtuoso, but in his early days he was a sideman. And, in that “sweet” style, he composed and arranged this loveable piece, “Just A Mood”. It’s Jazz, but it’s also a lot more. He’s such a good arranger, and the song itself is really nice. The piano solo is by Herman Chittison, an excellent stride pianist and elegant society style player.
Dizzy Gillespie – “Get Happy”
Monty Alexander is a demon on the keys. Some of the other soloists on this clip maybe can’t quite keep up with the tempo, but Monty tears it up all the way, soloing and “comping”. What can you say? He’s a bad a__! Dizzy Gillespie plays an excellent solo on here too. This tune, “Get Happy”, is one we do with the Trio.
Bill Evans Trio – “Summertime”
This is “tres cool”. Bill Evans is soulful and swinging on this clip. Very much captures the original spirit of Gershwin’s piece. Chuck Israels, the bassist, is fabulous (I had the pleasure of touring with him overseas). Good drummer too – Marty Morell.
Buddy Rich Doc Severinsen – “Well Git It”
Buddy Rich sitting in with Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Orchestra. Very exciting stuff.