Joe Bonner died at age 66 last month, and if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve probably never heard his best-known song Impressions of Copenhagen.
There aren’t one-hit wonders in jazz, but Bonner was most-easily recognized by his beautiful song about a beautiful city.
The 1981 album of the same name sold 35,000 copies in its first printing, according to a piece on Bonner’s death at the blog westword.com, but good luck to anyone searching for any of Bonner’s other albums. I know, because I did, and I spent more nights in Copenhagen (two) than I found additional Bonner albums (one) in the bargain bins in the 33 years since.
Bonner is only the second-most famous pianist born in Rocky Mount, N.C., behind Thelonious Monk. It’s indicative of Bonner’s lack of fame and appeciation that Monk is listed as a notable resident on Rocky Mount’s Wikipedia page, but Bonner is not.
But the pianist Bonner was most often compared to was not Monk but McCoy Tyner. Scott Yanow’s allmusic.com review of Impressions of Copenhagen said Bonner’s piano playing was “McCoy Tyner-inspired.” Bonner’s admittedly biased drummer, Tom Tilton, even felt Bonner surpassed Tyner. “Joe Bonner has all the power of McCoy, he has all the capability of McCoy, but he’s so much more romantic,” Tilton said, according to westword.com. “I mean, I’ve been there time after time where there were tears running down people’s faces when he would play a ballad. He could captivate a room like nobody I’ve ever experienced before.”
Bonner did most of his playing over the last two decades in Denver, where he was beloved and appreciated. Even Gov. John Hickenlooper was a Bonner fan. “He was without question, the most talented piano player I’ve ever heard,” the governor told the website heyreverb.com in a remembrance of Bonner. “… I want people to know that I loved Joe Bonner.”
On the inside cover of the CD version of New Beginnings, is a poem by Devorah Major:
must echo through his dreams
while the wooden piano frame
creaks inside his belly
waking him up, demanding to be played
Below is a link to Bonner’s Impressions of Copenhagen. Wrote Yanow: “Bonner is an underrated talent, and this is one of his finest recordings,” and he’s right on both counts.