New Orleans staple Nigel Hall is one of the most talented keyboardists in the game. He makes the rounds with Lettuce, the Nth Power, Jon Cleary, formerly Warren Haynes and many others in the funk/jam scene. The guy is an absolute beast on the keys, so who better to offer up his top 10 keys players of all time? Check out some of Nigel’s greatest influences along with his favorite tracks.
***Where to catch Nigel with L4LM during Jazz Fest – 2017 Update***
5/2: NOLA Crawfish Festival: MVP (Jon Cleary, Tony Hall, Nigel Hall, Derwin “Big D” Perkins, Raymond Weber) @ Central City BBQ. Tickets
5/7: Michael Jackson vs. Stevie Wonder (Eric “Benny” Bloom, Nigel Hall, Wil Blades, Adam Deitch, DJ Williams, MonoNeon) @ Howlin’ Wolf. Tickets
10. Lonnie Liston Smith
Let’s get this straight (for those who don’t know). Dr. Lonnie Smith and Lonnie Liston Smith are NOT the same person. I can’t tell you how many times people have mistaken the two in conversation and I could not believe this was true. The Doctor in fact told me that they got mixed up in the 70’s so much that he would get very upset, hence the turban. Anyway, the reason I love Liston Smith so much is his simplicity. He was not a dude that could play circles around someone. But his ability to VIBE was amazing. In a sense, I feel I connect with him because if this were 1974 (which it usually is in my mind), I could have been him. Meaning him and I would have been best friends or worst enemies because we play the same way…
For those of you that have never heard of Lonnie Liston Smith, here is my favorite tune, “Expansions.”
9. Ramsey Lewis
Ramsey Lewis is a giant in the jazz community, but not really mentioned in these contexts. Kinda bugs me a little bit because not many people really know his catalog, nor are they hip to the musicians that he helped to launch their careers. For instance, Drummer Isaac “Redd” Holt and bassist Eldee Young was one of his first more successful trios and they went off to form “The Young/Holt Unlimited” … You still don’t know what Im talking about, do you? Okay… How about Earth Wind and Fire? Maurice White, leader and spiritual advisor of EWF was his original drummer. White constantly gives props to Lewis as being the one who taught him how to make meaningful music and have it impact ones soul. White later produced a record for Lewis, (which in my opinion is the best Ramsey Lewis record to date) called “Sun Goddess” in 1974 under the CBS label. Also, as a child it was the first time I was able to identify the sound of a FENDER RHODES piano. It has (to me) one of the best recorded RHODES solos of all time. Don’t believe me? Check out the title track to the album “Sun Goddess” below.
8. Jimmy McGriff
This “Fly Dude” should have been on a completely different list. To me being a keyboardist and an organist are two different things. But every now and then, people figure out how to bridge those gaps and merge the two together to make something unique. People like Cory Henry for instance. Don’t get me started on him. He will be on my next list: “Top 10 Psychotic Keyboard players that make me want to kill myself.” Anyway, Mr. McGriff is the only other organist that I will say is better than Jimmy Smith. Which can be mistaken for blasphemy. But it’s not. His timing is impeccable and he is able to make the FUNKIEST decisions in the jazziest of situations and vice versa. Listening to him helped me to understand the concept of Neal Evans’ playing a lot because of his knowledge playing bass, melody and harmony… It’s truly deep and I encourage all keyboardists who want to learn Jazz and Funk Organ to listen to him. Check out this clip from his album Fly Dude.
7. Donny Hathaway
Donny Hathaway is a STRAIGHT UP GENUIS. He, in theory should be number one. But alas, this is not the “Top Ten: Greatest Singers” list. I always say to singers that if they really wanna learn how to sing, they should study piano and learn how chords work. Which is why he would be No.1 on the singers list. Hathaway had a COMPLETE and THERAL knowledge of piano and chord structure. The dude wrote concertos, okay? The reason he is on this list is because of the way he could throw elements of classical in SOUL music. Which was UNHEARD of at the time. I honestly don’t think that when people first heard it they even noticed. But what they did notice is his soulfulness in EVERYTHING he did, which includes him eating a Wurlitzer ALIVE on the 1972 Atco Records release Donny Hathaway Live. Those are pianos you can’t beat on and apparently he got away with it. Which in my opinion DESERVES the number 7 spot on my list…
6. Chick Corea
Yes. Chick Corea is at number 6. Here’s why… My first introduction to Chick Corea was Return To Forever. As a child, one of the first records I EVER listened to in its entirety was The Romantic Warrior (CBS 1976), and I have never heard anyone rip keyboards like that. He is lightening fast! His concept of playing (at least then) was almost beyond vision. I think that comes from playing with Miles also. Anyone lucky enough to play with Miles when he did, should be able to tell very interesting musical story. Which Chick most certainly has. Through his time with Miles to Return to Forever, from the Elektric Band to Today. He is a TITAN deserving of the No.6 spot on my list.
5. Jan Hammer
Mahavishnu Orchestra. Have you ever heard of that group? FUSION ROYALTY! You have to have a certain type of mind to even sit through one song from them. But if you can get it, you will enter a whole new world understanding and you will see things MUCH differently as you did before you listened. Mostly because of Jan Hammer. His knowledge of synthesis, early electronic music, classical training, and his ability to VIBE (remember how important that is) gives him complete control of EVERYTHING going on in the music. But not only that… He is one of the most SOULFUL keys players ever. You would think that wouldn’t exist from a fusion power house like Mahavishnu. Dude, listen to a song call “Play with Me” from the 1976 Epic Records release by JEFF BECK called Wired. It is, by far, one of my favorite synth solos ever! If any of you have been lucky (or unfortunate) enough to have fallen down a rabbit hole with me, I’ve more than likely played this for you. If i haven’t, see below.
4. Joe Sample
I have never heard a dude so cool behind his RHODES like Joe. I had the pleasure of meeting him one day in Los Angeles while playing with Warren Haynes. And that dude was so COOL. I say all the time that you can most times tell the kinda of person someone is by the music that they create. The Crusaders music is some of the coolest music I ever heard. Joe was a huge part of that. Joe’s resume is as cool as he is too! He was a producer for a lot of Minnie Riperton records on the Epic able during his time with the Crusaders. He also was the keyboard player and musical director of the Marvin Gaye live band in the early seventies. In fact, I think he is the only one on this list that’s been on Motown records. Which is a feat in itself! If anyone has seen the movie “Jackie Brown”, The scene where they are robbing the store in the mall, his song “Street Life” is playing in the background. There is also a version of “Rainy Night in Georgia” that he produced for singer Randy Crawford. Man I’m telling you, if you wanna just cool out, put some Crusaders, Randy Crawford, Minnie Riperton, or Marvin Gaye on. And if the mention of those names don’t convince you, click on the link below and see what I’m talking about.
3. Patrice Rushen
In 1974 Herbie Hancock’s “Headhunters” was groundbreaking (obviously). Also in 1974, a lot of jazz musicians from the blue note label and others recorded music very similar to that because that’s all anyone wanted to listen to (rightly so). But, there were some musicians that were lucky enough to have some of the musicians (if not all) from that record “Headhunters”. Unfortunately, Herbie wouldn’t always do the gig, unless of course it was someone like Freddie Hubbard, or one of his old Jazz homies… So, who did they call? Patrice Rushen. Funny thing was nobody knew who she was. In fact, they thought SHE was Herbie! Because she was a “Chameleon” in her own right. Long story short, She was SECOND call to HERBIE HANCOCK. Her disco compositions and contributions to R&B and soul music are incomparable. And again… SHE WAS SECOND CALL TO HERBIE HANCOCK!!! She was also a soul train dancer in the early years of the television show. Did I mention that she was SECOND call to Herbie? Oh I did. Good. If for no other reason, her being SECOND to Herbie is why she’s 3rd on my list.
2. Herbie Hancock
Okay. There is not much really to say about Herbie because when you talk about other keyboard players/pianists, you talk about him. Real talk, EVERY keys player you have ever met has stolen something from him. Including me. Any keyboard player you have ever met that knows anything of Herbie’s most COLD BLOODED resume, will tell you that the bar of improvisational keys playing starts, and ends with him. Theoretically, he should be number one, but I think we all know what lies ahead…
1. George Duke
Okay. Let’s be real here. We all knew this was coming. I know I’m gonna get the question one day: “Nigel, did you just do this list as an excuse to talk about George Duke?” The answer is very simple. Yes. Here’s why:
When I was 9 years old, I inherited my dad’s old records. Then I always loved music. That was clear. But the way I would judge what I would listen to was by the album cover art. If you have ever seen the cover for “Feel” By George Duke, you will understand where this is going. Every musician has a record that just messed them up. The one that they would take on the desert island with them. For me this record is what started my path as a musician, a listener, a keyboardist. I still listen to this record today and hear something different EVERY TIME!
Now, the reason he is number one over people like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock is because he is the only keyboard player that I’ve ever heard that played with the right amount of everything. But mostly with ALL of his Heart and Soul!!! You could actually hear his SOUL speaking through these instruments. A lot of keys player either play with too much of one thing and not enough of the other(s). But he had the ability to play with the perfect amount of theory and soul that it made it easy for the soul to come through. Every musician has to be inspired by something. and my inspiration is George. From everything he did from Cannonball to Rachelle Farell and back, if you’re listening you can hear a man bearing his soul and leaving it all on the piano, while having a laugh along the way.
Before George died, I remember having a conversation with him and he knew how big of a geek I was, especially about his music because he kept asking me “Boy, how old are you, REALLY?” But his words to me have resonated longer and stronger than Rhodes tines. He said: “Despite the fact you love what I play, somewhere in that you must find your own voice and do things that I can’t do. Take me to the next star”… at first I found that hard to conceive but now I understand. It means to let inspiration dictate your decisions, but not turn into imitation. That’s when you really start to hear yourself. You allow yourself to continue to grow as a musician instead of hindering growth trying to be someone you aren’t. You start to see inside yourself more. And then YOUR sound starts to shine because you’ve used influence to make something of your own, rather than a relic of something or someone else…
Thanks George… Another reason why he’s on my list? …It’s MY list!!! and He’s George!!! Duh!!!
[Originally published on 3/23/15]