We had a good time reading through the list and got responses that ranged from James Taylor to Reliant K to Aaron Copland. As I was driving home, I began to wonder how in the world I would answer that question. For sure the answer is an ever-evolving one, but for now, I have come up with ten names, in no particular order that I would consider among my favorites and the best musicians I've ever heard or studied. Here we go:
Bill Evans - [dead] It's hard to know where to start with Evans. I can listen to his stylings all day long. A true master of harmony and structure. One of my "most favorite" recordings of him is his this performance of "Here's that Rainy Day." Just about every beat has a passing harmony that is rich and intentional. His voicings are so efficient. Some day I hope I can play like he played. If you're into harmony, one of the most enlightening and revealing recordings is his appearance on Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. This, I believe was recorded just months before he died in 1980.
Oscar Peterson - [recently died] I was sad to hear that Oscar Peterson died recently. A truly amazing pianist, who I think lives completely on the opposite end of the spectrum from Bill Evans. As a pianist, he could swing hard. He was fluid and flashy. His technique was dazzling. One of my all-time favorite recordings is The Oscar Peterson Trio Encore at the Blue Note, and this is my favorite cut from that recording.
Rob Mathes - [very much alive!] I've had the privileged of meeting Rob. When you hear the phrase "consummate musician," picture Rob. He's a marvelous guitarist, pianist, singer, song writer, orchestrator, performer, arranger. He has done and continues to do it all. He has arranged music for "The Three Tenors" productions, the "Kennedy Center Honors" music for the last few years, and I believe he's also the current music director for Vanessa Williams. You've heard his string arrangements on Christian and popular recordings. I love that he is not a Christian musician, but a musician who happens to be a Christian, rubbing shoulders with a lot of people. This and this are two of my favorites from him.
Gustav Mahler - [dead] If you've ever taken the time to sit and listen to one of Mahler's expansive symphonies, you'll understand why he's on my list. I live his orchestral color. I love how he stretches harmonic expectations (non-harmonic tones one expects to hear resolve a certain way are prolonged unexpectedly until the harmonic context around them changes and in turn the context ends up resolving). Mahler lived from 1860-1911. He conducted the NY Philharmonic for a time and (unrelated) was obsessed with death. Mostly his own death. After completing his 9th symphony, he was really worried that "fate" would deal him the same blow it dealt Beethoven, his German predecessor of the previous 100 years, who died after completing his ninth symphony. He wanted to avoid his end desperately (so the story goes) so he began working on his 10th symphony. He died, however, well before he ever completed it. Still, he composed enough of a slow movement to give us a glimpse of where, had he lived, he might have taken tonality. You may find what appears to be a complete 10th symphony, but it was expanded upon by others based on his thematic sketches. Probably my favorite Mahler, which I find so beautiful and haunting, is the slow movement from his fifth symphony. Listen to it when you can do nothing else but sit and take it all in.
Darcie Roberts - [alive] Who? Yeah, I know. This may be unwise of me, but I was smitten by this girl's live recording for a radio show of Moon River. I first met her (figuratively) when Jason took us to see "Thoroughly Modern Millie." She was Millie. Great voice, great sound, great artistry. I downloaded the mp3 of her singing this song from her web site several years ago, but it is no longer available. If you ever get a chance to hear her, don't pass it up.
Stevie Wonder - [alive!] What a great writer, singer, and player! I love his music. So soulful and a blast to play. Several of his songs have migrated into the jazz standards book, and no doubt many more will be played as "American Standards" for generations to come. Some of my favorites: "Ribbon in the Sky" "You Are The Sunshine of My Life" "For Once in my Life" "Isn't She Lovely"
Roger Bennett - [dead] When I was a kid, like 11 and 12 (and a little older) I completely wore out a cassette of the Cathedral Quartet. "The Cathedrals: Live in Atlanta." I think it's out of print now. Roger was a really good pianist. To be honest, I never really listened to him much outside of this album. It was very recently, however that I realized that he influenced me far more than I knew. I hear myself imitating his fills and licks quite frequently. When I flip into "Southern Gospel" mode or even "Black Gospel" mode, some of the things I play are inadvertently what I imagine a good pianist would play. And those ideas are rooted in my memories of the piano parts from that album.
Johannes Brahms - [dead] I love Brahms' works. His music often is a convergence of metric confusion and grace, harmonic complexity and melodic simplicity, and always a mastery of orchestral balance. Two of my favorite from him are his second piano concerto in Bb and his piano trios. This one in particular resonates with me for some reason, No 1, Op 8 in B. I really like the voicing and the melodic material.
Miles Davis - [dead] Miles could say more with just a few notes than most players would try to say in an entire chorus. His music was always evolving and I like him because he never kept doing the same thing, even though many wanted him stay locked in to the 1950's era style. He kept pushing the envelope. Another thing to like about Miles is how many people he directly influenced by moving people in an out of his groups. Bill Evans, Canonball Aderly, Herbie Hancock (who should also be on this list!), Chic Corea, even Jimi Hendrix! Listen to this great recording with John Coltrane of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale." Now listen to a cut from one of his last albums, "Amandala." This is moving closer to what we would probably think of as "smooth jazz."
Van Cliburn - [alive] It was 1987 and I turned 15. My dad got me my very own CD player. And four CDs to go along with it. One of these CDs which was unknown to me at the time, was the classic recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto in Bb minor, and Rachmaninoff's 2nd piano concerto in C minor, both performed by Van Cliburn. Cliburn, it turns out was a bit of a celebrity in the 50's. He went to the Soviet Union as a kid--maybe 20 years old or so, to compete in the first ever Tchaikovsky competition. This of course was during the cold war and the competition, though international, was designed to show the cultural superiority of Russian music. The problem was that Cliburn was too good. He won it and was given a ticker tape parade in NYC upon his return, the only time this has happened for a classical musician. This was the first of many purchases of Cliburn's recordings for me. He is influential to me because not only do I think of his performances when I think of a work, but I know many works because of his performances. I listened a LOT to those concerti, Brahms (above), Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Listz, etc. It's a good thing you can't wear CDs out from playing them over and over because I surely would have have had to replace LPs or cassettes of these recordings by now. When I was 17 or 18, I got to hear him play some of these works with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Music Center. That was very memorable. He played several encores of Chopin Polonaises.
So those are my top 10, what are yours?