Comparing Southern Gospel pianists is like comparing Cathedrals albums. Or Gaither Vocal Band lineups. (Or British actors, or Paul Simon songs, or… sorry, I’ll stop now. ) There’s such a wealth of talent, and the amazing thing is it’s so varied. Every pianist has his signature touch.
Last night I saw Kim Collingsworth live for the second time, and I was blown away all over again by her talent. The opening act was a young local pianist/music teacher named Darin Yoder. He was perfectly capable, but he just couldn’t touch Kim. Then I started thinking, “But what if I tried to compare Kim with Gordon Mote, or Tim Parton, or some other top-notch southern gospel pianist? Would that even make sense?” One thing’s for sure, I definitely don’t feel like I can say for certain “Well x top-shelf SG pianist is objectively more talented than y top-shelf SG pianist.” Not only is it often an apples and oranges thing as far as styles are concerned, but all these pianists are so talented that they can switch sounds at the drop of a hat. Gordon Mote is flashy and snappy most of the time, but he can play a good old-fashioned inspirational piano if needed. Kim Collingsworth revels in said old-fashioned inspirational playing, with lavish flourishes and big octave grabs, yet I’ve also heard her cut loose with jazzy improv (see her live work on the family’s encore of “I Know”).
One of the nice things about SG pianists is that they’re so modest they’re constantly giving place to their peers. In the course of dispelling a speculation that he might be the next Homecoming pianist, Stewart Varnado said that he wasn’t even in Gordon Mote’s league. Because I’m not an experienced pianist myself, and all I know is that all these pianists are phenomenal, I can’t tell whether this is just sheer modesty on their part or whether they’re actually totally accurate in their evaluations.
So, since I lack the ability to rank talent at that high a level, I thought it might be interesting to ask… if you’re reading, and you’re an experienced musician, how do you do it? When you’re presented with a whole slew of fantastic musicians, each a master of his instrument in his own way, how do you tell which ones are the best of the best of the best?