The piano mastery of Nat “King” Cole


If you’re over 30, you’ve almost certainly heard Nat “King” Cole sing. Nat was born 96 years ago yesterday (March 17). Even if you’re under 30, you’ve heard this:

Now, if you’re a jazzhead, you probably already know that long before he became a famous crooner, Nat was one of the greatest jazz pianists who ever played. Nat’s trio — with Oscar Moore on guitar and either Wesley Prince or Johnny Miller on bass — sounded like proof of telepathy. They could play beautiful, flowing, intricate lines together as effortlessly as you please. Listen, for example, to the introduction to this classic standard:

The trio had no drummer (sorry, Scott!), but they didn’t need one to swing hard:

To my ear, this band is the gold standard of jazz trio playing. There are more famous trios (those of Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, for example), but none better. For tasteful, musical, swinging playing, make mine the King.

— Jason Crane is the host of The Jazz Session and the webmaster of this site.

“Getting” Bill Evans

(Note: This post was written by our blog administrator, Jason Crane, host of The Jazz Session)

everybodygroot Everybody digs Bill Evans. I mean, it’s right there in one of his album titles. Not me, though. As a teenager, I really tried. I listened to Bill Evans with his own bands, solo, with Miles and with Cannonball and with Oliver Nelson. I just didn’t get it. What was it about this guy that everybody dug? At that point in my life, I was into flashier playing, having gone through high school on a diet of prog rock like Yes, ELP, Rush, Genesis and King Crimson. Evans was too light, too airy.

In 1994 I moved to Tucson, Arizona, where I started playing music professionally. I also started borrowing armloads of CDs from the public library across the street from my tiny studio apartment. My apartment had a bed, a small table, two chairs, and the most important thing of all, a stereo system. I would sit for hours listening to music. One afternoon in early ’95, I brought home a copy of Sunday At The Village Vanguard, figuring I’d give Evans another shot. It was free, so I had nothing to lose.

I sat there on the floor in front of the stereo, soaking up the sound as Evans, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian played “Gloria’s Step.”

Suddenly, like the tumblers in a lock clicking into place, I got it. Evans’ touch on the piano, his chord choices, his phrasing, the almost telepathic interplay of the trio — it all hit me like a wave washing over the beach. I’ve never been the same, and now, like everybody else, I dig Bill Evans.

It’s the day after Mardi Gras: Let’s listen to some pianists from New Orleans


Yesterday was Mardi Gras, which here in the US is a holiday primarily celebrated in New Orleans and a few other southern cities. And there’s no better way to get in the spirit of New Orleans than to listen to some of that city’s great piano players, past and present.

Jelly Roll Morton
Any list like this is going to start with the man who helped give birth to jazz. Here’s an all-time classic, “Hesitation Blues.”

Professor Longhair
If Mr. Morton is first on the list, then most people would probably put the Professor next. In this clip, he talks about learning to fix pianos, and plays his most famous composition.

James Booker
James Booker was a giant with an extra helping of soul. The man could make you cry one minute and dance the next. Get up off your chair and check out “Junco Partner.”

Jon Cleary
A British pianist and singer who’s called New Orleans home for decades. In this video, Jon Cleary takes us on a tour of New Orleans piano playing.

There are so many more! Dig in and find your favorites.

The art of the ballad

I would say that as a pianist, Bill Evans approach to playing ballads had a huge influence on my own ballad playing. I think if you really want to get inside a ballad, you have to listen to singers. Lester Young stressed the importance of knowing the lyrics to a song. He used to say, “How do you know what to play if you don’t know what the song is about?” This is especially important when dealing with a ballad. Is the song a love song? Is it celebrating love or lamenting the loss of love? That should make a huge difference in the emotion you put into the song.

“Saudade” is a word I learned from my love of Brazilian music. It has no direct translation in English. It describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Brazilian musicians describe it to me as a sort of happy or necessary sadness. I feel this is a necessary emotion for a ballad, too.

When playing a ballad, I try to stay attuned to the emotion of the song rather than trying to play something that is pianistically impressive. I relish the challenge of the slow tempo and the space between the notes instead of consistently changing to a double time feel for the solos after the melody has been played. I believe ballads are a necessary part of any jazz performance but should be played sparingly. That’s not to say there won’t be an uncharacteristically abundant number of them in my performance this Saturday at Les Zygomates because after all it is Valentine’s Day.

He’s Leaving Home

yokoharvey Boston is such a transient place, people come and go here all the time.

Pianist Harvey Diamond is a local legend who has lived here for 50 years, even after all that time he too is leaving — relocating to Asheville, NC.

Harvey is one of legendary pianist Lennie Tristano’s last prize students. Harvey has been recorded thousands of hours by his students and fans yet has never officially released his own recording. I can safely say that not many have heard Harvey play piano as much as I have.

The house where I live used to be a recording studio, I moved into the house after the studio went out of business along with a group of other Berklee students. It was ideal for musicians since the studio left several soundproof rooms in which we could practice at all hours. The main room of the studio has always had a piano and has been the setting for many great sessions over the years, Harvey Diamond frequently played sessions at my house so I’ve heard him play on countless occasions.

He plays the “lines” Lennie Tristano played which are essentially alternate melodies to standard jazz tunes. They are melodically and rhythmically challenging. The most impressive thing is Harvey learned them all by ear, he never reads music when he plays them. This is especially impressive given the difficulty of the lines and lack of cliches which would make them easier to remember.

Harvey once told me Charlie Parker left his legacy even in just the melodies of his original compositions, he said the melodies themselves were an insight into the way he improvised. I think the same can be said about the melodies that Tristano re-wrote over standard jazz tunes. Harvey told me some great stories about Lennie, the main thing he always emphasized was Lennie’s love for Charlie Parker.

Harvey said Lennie used to lay on the ground underneath the piano while Bud Powell played and he couldn’t believe the sound he was getting was coming from wood and metal strings! Once during one of his lessons, Harvey was leaning forward while he played (like Bill Evans) and Lennie slapped him in the chest and told him to sit up. In case you didn’t know, Lennie was blind…how did he know Harvey was slouching? I think because he was that attuned to the sound of the piano.

I attended Harvey’s last concert in the Boston area in the end of January and took this picture with him. He played wonderful as usual. I will miss seeing Harvey walking around Boston, hearing him talk about Lennie and the cats, but most of all I’m gonna miss those lines.

Yoko talks about winter

Yoko snow

Living in Boston and enduring the long, cold winters makes me wonder
what it’s like to live in a place that’s always warm. As appealing as it
may be, I realize my behavior has some positive changes in the winter. I
compose music and practice piano more, I read more books and cook more
at home.

I used to do winter activities like skiing and ice skating, but
eventually I became less fearless and more worried about injuring my
hands. Instead, now I substitute going to the gym and running on
the elliptical machine and swimming in the indoor pool. It’s kind of
surreal floating in a warm indoor pool while looking out the window into
the frozen polar vortex.

The other special thing is our snowstorms called “Nor’easters.” It seems
to bring out a bad side of compulsive shopping combined with aggressive
driving in high traffic, but during the storm the city becomes a magical
place. It’s so quiet and peaceful — this is the only time the city is
like this. Everything looks beautiful covered in fresh snow and
everything has been canceled the next day, so even as adults we still
have the excitement of snow days!

Still I wonder what it would be like to live in a place that’s always
warm and hope to someday find out.

Spend Valentine’s Day with Yoko & the trio!


Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. If you’re looking for the perfect romantic evening for you and someone special, you should spend it with Yoko and the trio at Les Zygomates. Here’s a sneak peek at the menu:

*French Onion Soup* Gruyere & Aged Gouda Gratin
*Fried Oysters* Napa Cabbage-Chinese Sausage, Salsa Verde
*Little Gem Lettuces* Roquefort Dressing, Heirloom Apples & Hazelnuts
*House Made Smoked Salmon* Shrimp Salad, Caraway, Cranberry Sunflower
Bread & Pickled Beets
*Tuna Tartar* Sesame Soy Vinaigrette, Hearts of Palm, Melon, Cucumber & Gaufrette Potatoes
*Charcutrie Plate* (serves two)

*Roasted Lamb Rack*Mustard Crust, Gratin Potatoes, Mejoo Date Sauce
*Za’taar Spiced Duck Breast* Grilled Escarole, Pomegrante Gastrique
*Pork Milanese* Pureed Potato, Capers, Anchovy & Fried Egg
*Pan Roasted Salmon* Toasted Fregola Salad, Roasted Shrimp Vinaigrette & Satsuma Oranges
*Baked Icelandic Cod* Navet Gateau avec de la melasses & miel, winter greens

*Chocolate Gateau*
*Crème Brulee*

And here’s Yoko playing a ballad, perfect for an evening of romance:

“Sunshine Follows The Rain” at the Blue Note in NYC