Lists: Underrated jazz pianists Michael Wolff, Hampton Hawes, Monty Alexander, Sonny Clark, Joe Sample

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by S. Victor Aaron

Piano records are tough to pick, because there’s always the temptation to include records by Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Bill Evans:

1) The Michael Wolff Trio; Jumpstart (1995)

Before this guy was twenty, he was already good enough to be playing in Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s band. For this session, he employs Christian McBride and Tony Williams and thoughtfully mixes Wayne Shorter’s classic compositions with a few nice ones of his own. An unbeatable recipe for a virtually perfect trio record.

2) Hampton Hawes; Four! (1958)
Forgotten West Coast jazz master fronts a combo consisting of Red Mitchell on bass and a peaking Shelly Manne on the skins. But guitarist Barney Kessel’s appearance on some tracks pushes this one over the top.

3) Monty Alexander; Yard Movement (1996)
Kingston, Jamaica-born Alexander worked extensively with Milt Jackson and other top American jazz artists before going back to his homeland to combine his Oscar Peterson-style piano with reggae, calypso and other forms of island music. This half-live collection of (mostly) originals is one of the more successful examples of the marriage between the music of these two countries.

Monty’s wonderful 1999 tribute to Bob Marley could have easily taken this spot on the list, but legendary reggae/jazz guitarist Ernest Ranglin’s appearance puts Yard Movement slightly ahead.

4) Sonny Clark; Cool Struttin’ (1958)
Clark’s various addictions inevitably ended his life before he had a chance to gain proper notice. But this album should have gotten it for him anyway. A hard bop session without any weak spots, even with two extra tracks added.

Jackie MacLean and Art Farmer add excellent support to Clark’s easygoing, confident piano style. Miles Davis band members Joe Chambers and Philly Jo Jones round out a strong lineup.

5) Joe Sample; Old Places, Old Faces
A surprise pick, given that Sample is better known for his pre-eminance in funk-jazz and later, smooth jazz. But JS always had the chops to return to the jazz of his youth. He has also always been an excellent songwriter and with his tunes presented in a stripped down acoustic setting, one can really appreciate them better.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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