James P. Johnson’s Harlem Stride Piano. Johnson was the father of stride piano, a style that requires the player to do it all (beat, melody and bass), and it is very hard to accomplish. Even Jazzy admits that is it impossible to play with her small hands. My jazz history professor said that shaking Johnson’s hand was like holding a bunch of bananas. One of Johnson’s stride masterpieces is “Carolina Shout.” It’s like a test for anyone who wants to play stride piano. Even Duke Ellington had to work hard to mater it. In addition to his contribution as jazz pianist, Johnson could also play classical music. His Victory Stride is a breathtaking example.
Fats Waller’s The Joint is Jumpin’. Waller was Johnson’s student and also a brilliant stride pianist. His “Numb Fumblin'” is filled with a variety of rich and imaginative tones. His rendition of “Carolina Shout” is no less virtuosic than his teacher. Waller even succeeded with popular tunes like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehaving.”
Count Basie’s The Complete Decca Recordings. Basie started out as stride pianist then developed into his own blues-inflected style. He was the master of understatement, and was famous for playing the spare keys because he had a solid rhythm section behind him. His version of “Honeysuckle Rose” is different from Waller because of the few tasty notes Basie tagged his name on it.
Theolonious Monk’s Criss Cross. My man Monk also came out of the Harlem stride tradition, but his style was full of angularity and outside standard sound of bebop. His stylistic tick was playing downward, cascading scale, and he loved the flatted fifths. He usually played clotted alter chords and was heavy into the beat. His rendition of “Tea for Two” and “Crepuscule with Nellie” were interestingly and intentionally fractured. Like his personality, Monk’s use of space in music was way out there. And what I love about Monk’s playing is the dissonant, disruptive and unpredictable variations.