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I have to first mention a disclaimer. These were the first five I could think of. It gets too weird if I really think about it. I’m going to only mention instrumentalists, because the truly great ballad performances come from singers and there are just too many to list. Immediately, I think of Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra. Every singer, if they are worth their salt, can sing ballads because that is the human experience.
The first one would be “I Loves You Porgy” by Bill Evans from his album, Live at the Village Vanguard. It’s on my record, so I stole it from him.
John Coltrane’s “Naima” is just a beautiful song, period. Coltrane is so outstanding as an improviser and saxophonist that we forget about his compositions.
Jim Hall is the great ballad player of the guitar. His version of “I Should Care,” which is on Where Would I Be is a solo guitar piece and it’s stunning to me.
My own personal thing is playing ballads with Steve Swallow. The way he can play them on the bass has been such an influence on me. He made a record with a big band from Sweden called Swallow Songs. It’s all Steve’s music and it opens with a tune called “Away,” and his solo is a great example of how he can play a ballad.
I was thinking of something with a saxophone. Ben Webster is one of the greatest ever. His version of “Like Someone to Watch Over Me” from See You at The Fair is amazing.
Keith Jarrett. There’s a way to play fast, with a lot of notes, over a ballad and still keep it a ballad and he can do that. The example that always struck me is on this very obscure record from early in Keith’s career. It’s an album put out by Billy Martin, the drummer from Medeski, Martin and Wood, on his own label. It’s an album by the drummer Bob Moses called Animal Love. There is a version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and Keith is on that tune and his playing is just incredible. It’s a lesson for me about how you can play a lot of notes on a ballad.
I also wanted to mention Bill Frisell because I feel like he is one of the only people of our generation that can really do it and play beautifully. I couldn’t think of a specific example, but there’s a ton of them.
John Scofield’s Gearbox
1980 Ibanez AS200
Two-Rock Custom Reverb
D’Addario Round Wound .0115–.052 with a plain 3rd string