There aren't too many jazz pianists left who can make you sit up and take notice. I'm talking about players like Barry Harris, Randy Weston and the late Eddie Higgins and John Bunch. What makes an exceptional jazz pianist? Swing, confidence, taste and invention. Swing, meaning an impeccable sense of time that allows the player to drop behind and jump ahead of the beat in places to catch the ears and feet. Confidence, meaning bold, risky moves executed with strength and determination. Taste, as in a splendid balance of chords and space. And invention, as in solos that say something rather than just fill space.
Hod O'Brien is just such a pianist, and chances are you've never heard of him. O'Brien, 77, played with many top artists in the 1950s and recorded on a bunch of swell albums. They include Three Trumpets (1957) with Donald Byrd, Idrees Sulieman and Art Farmer and dates with J.R. Monterose, Allen Eager, Joe Puma, Chet Baker, Herb Geller, Royce Campbell and Barry Harris.
On Have Piano...Will Swing (Fresh Sound), recorded in 1999, he was joined by Tom Warrington (b) and Paul Kreibich (d). The songs were all perfectly chosen: Passing Through, Dancing in the Dark, Lazy Bird, While My Lady Sleeps, Ecaroh, Red's Groove, Some Other Spring, Hod House, I'm All Smiles, By Myself, Last Night When We Were Young and Soon.
Throughout the album, O'Brien is in complete control, and there's no fudging. He's on the spot for the duration and bangs out songs exactly as you want to hear them. He's a bebop player but doesn't press everything he plays through that filter.
By 1964, O'Brien could read the writing on the jazz wall. According to his Wikipedia entry, he enrolled at Columbia University, where he studied mathematics and psychology, achieving his bachelor's in 1969. Then he took a position in computer programming at New York University from 1969-74, studying computer music under Hall Overton and Charles Wuorinen.
Fortunately for us, O'Brien returned to trio piano.
For more on Hod O'Brien, go to his site here.
JazzWax tracks: You'll Find Have Piano...Will Swing (Fresh Sound) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Dancing in the Dark from Have Piano...Will Swing.
And here's Will You Still Be Mine from So That's How it Is...