You may have noticed my new poll, "which jazz pianist was the most influential." First a disclaimer: the obvious answer for any modern pianist should be none of the above--Bud Powell. However, knowing this, I go to the next generation of pianists after the bebop era and search for meaning there. I often think about this question, reflect on my own style and approach, and have a hard time answering. The first jazz CD I bought was kind of a random one, "Intermodulation" by Bill Evans and Jim Hall. The track "Turn Out the Stars" absolutely mystified me. Bill Evans recorded that original composition often with his trios of the late 60's and 70's, but no version of it means as much to me as the one on "Intermodulation" with piano and guitar duet. What is it about the track that makes it so perfect? I would have to say one word: "Melody."
For a long time, I have said I approach jazz through creating melodies, but didn't know what this meant until about a year ago. My teachers always told me "get to the point where tonally you are so secure that all you have to think about is rhythm." When I was younger, I said "ok" and subsequently took solos on eighth note lines that never breathed or went anywhere. It is Bill Evans who is the greatest piano teacher of melody and rhythm. I wouldn't say he swings the hardest, and some think he is a little too cerebral, but when it comes to beautiful melodies he is the master. Going through an apprenticeship with Lennie Tristano was no doubt an important part of Bill Evans career. Lennie encouraged his disciples, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, to play a little outside when it came to phrasing. Lee wasn't copping Bird and Sonny Stitt licks in 1950, he had an individual voice already. Just listen to "Birth of Cool." In fact, listen to "Live at the Half Note" volumes 1 and 2 for the best recordings of Warne Marsh ever, as well as beautiful performances by Lee Konitz and Bill Evans, who was sitting in for Lennie that night. Hearing Lennie's "stream of consciousness" bebop can inspire anyone to think rhythmically more often. Bill Evans certainly went off in another direction, but you can hear Lennie Tristano's piano concept in all of Evans' records through "Portrait in Jazz" in 1959.
Harmonically, we certainly would be nowhere without our "Bill Evans Voicings" in our left hand. But, when I think of harmonic influence, I have to think of McCoy Tyner. McCoy certainly was not a melodist, but he was a power pianist. The first jazz lesson I ever had was when I was in middle school and the guy told me to learn voicings based on fourths. I wish I had a little more guidance than that, but it was a good thing to learn right off the bat. After further investigation and more listening to the classic Coltrane quartet, I began to understand the quartal voicings that McCoy uses so often.
McCoy's angular approach to melody created approaches to "playing outside" the changes that pianists and horn players still use to this day. His understanding of pentatonics is outstanding. I often joke with drummers who are having trouble improvising on melodic instruments by saying "Listen, you can play anything you want over anything, as long as it has some kind of tonal integrity unto itself." Well, this is kind of bogus, but not too far off. Try playing a pentatonic scale a tritone away from the one you are supposed to play for a couple measures and you might be happy with the results. McCoy, perhaps more than anybody, innovated on these matters.
What of Chick and Herbie? Well I met Chick Corea and heard someone ask to his face if he copped every lick off "The Real McCoy" by McCoy Tyner and used/developed it for "Now He Sings, Now He Sobs." Chick totally avoided the question. There would have been no Chick without McCoy first. You can certainly argue that the style of Chick Corea is much more polished than McCoy, and that the Spanish influence is there, as well as the fusion innovation in the Return to Forever days, but on the onset of straight ahead jazz in the 60's, McCoy is the man.
You can argue there is a lot of Bill Evans and Wyn Kelly in Herbie's sound. I look at Herbie as a product of the past, but still he is one of my main targets for transcriptions. Herbie's use of mixolydian licks is unparalleled. Of course I love all the old Herbie stuff, but his newer jazz records (not so new now...) like "The New Standard" show fresh approaches to his style. Kenny Davis told me Herbie always harped on his sidemen to add new twists to the same tunes when going on a long tour. He'd yell at them if they played the same stuff every night. Herbie is personally an idol for me, for crossing over into so many styles without completely selling out (though coming close). Nobody does 70's funk better, he was always into using the new technology (as was Chick of course!...he owns one of the only 3 original prototype midi Mark V rhodes pianos!), and when he came back to straight-ahead jazz he still had the polish and innovation he possessed through the 60's with Miles and V.S.O.P.