There aren't too many non-brand jazz pianists left who can make you sit up and take notice. I'm talking about players like the late Eddie Higgins and John Bunchplayers insiders knew. What makes an exceptional jazz pianist? Swing, confidence, tasteful voicings and inventive lines. Swing, meaning an impeccable sense of time that allows the player to drop behind and jump ahead of the beat in places to catch the ears and feet. Confidence, meaning bold, risky moves executed with strength and determination. Voicings, as in how chords are structured. And inventive lines, as in solos that create tasteful new melody lines rather than just fill space.
Hod O'Brien is just such a pianist, and chances are you've never heard of him. O'Brien, 77, played with many top artists in the 1950s and recorded on a bunch of swell albums. They include Three Trumpets (1957) with Donald Byrd, Idrees Sulieman and Art Farmer and dates with J.R. Monterose, Allen Eager, Joe Puma, Chet Baker, Herb Geller, Royce Campbell and Barry Harris.
On Have Piano Will Swing (Fresh Sound), recorded in 1999, he was joined by Tom Warrington (b) and Paul Kreibich (d). The songs were all perfectly chosen: Passing Through, Dancing in the Dark, Lazy Bird, While My Lady Sleeps, Ecaroh, Red's Groove, Some Other Spring, Hod House, I'm All Smiles, By Myself, Last Night When We Were Young and Soon.
Throughout the album, O'Brien is in complete control, and there's no fudging. He's on the spot for the duration and bangs out songs exactly as you want to hear them. He's a bebop player but doesn't press everything he plays through that filter.
By 1964, O'Brien could read the writing on the jazz wall. According to his Wikipedia entry, he enrolled at Columbia University, where he studied mathematics and psychology, achieving his bachelor's in 1969. Then he took a position in computer programming at New York University from 1969-74, studying computer music under Hall Overton and Charles Wuorinen.
Fortnately for us, O'Brien returned to trio piano.