THE DOZENS: ART TATUM AT 100 by Ted Gioia

Art Tatum would be celebrating his 100th birthday this week. His death at age 47 back in 1956 is now a distant event, and only a small and shrinking number of fans are still around to testify what it was like to hear this prepossessing artist in person. Yet for all the talk of progress and modernity, Tatum hardly sounds old-fashioned nowadays, and much of his keyboard vocabulary remains unassimilated by today’s crop of players. I am not just talking about Tatum’s much-vaunted technical command of the piano. His way of working the changes was almost as difficult to imitate as those top-to-bottom piano runs at breakneck speed, and you could listen to a thousand jazz bands and not hear a single one that can replicate his magnificent way of slicing and dicing the progressions.

Art Tatum

Critics have often complained about Tatum’s baroque sensibility. But pianists have usually jumped to his defense. When Leonard Feather was compiling his Encyclopedia of Jazz in the mid-1950s, he polled a number of musicians about the players they themselves most admired on their respective instruments. More than two-thirds of the pianists surveyed put Tatum at the top of the list. Gene Lees conducted a similar poll thirty years later, and again Tatum dominated the results.

I’m not sure whether this artist is still widely heard by jazz fans today—the old scratchy pre-high-fidelity recordings may not satisfy the aural fixations of the new millennium. But I am certain that the keyboardists are still paying close attention. After all, no one has yet stepped forward to take Tatum’s place, and in any imaginary cutting contest the smart money must inevitably back the fellow from Toledo who, even with a century under his belt, looks pretty formidable against all comers.


Art Tatum: Sophisticated Lady (1933)

Track

Sophisticated Lady

Artist

Art Tatum (piano)

CD

Piano Starts Here (Columbia 501655)

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Musicians:

Art Tatum (piano).

Composed by Duke Ellington, Irving Mills & Mitchell Parish

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Recorded: New York, March 21, 1933

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Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Only five weeks after Duke Ellington recorded his version of this now popular standard, Art Tatum features it at the session that produced his debut solo 78s. Tatum is clearly attracted by the four-chords-to-a-bar hook that Ellington employs in the second and fourth measures of the main theme. Tatum adds further ornamentation to this part of the song—but it's like too much frosting on the cake. Tatum's technique is (as always) impressive, and even three-quarters of a century later remains the benchmark against which all jazz keyboard virtuosos are measured. But the master's music is sometimes haunted by a mechanical quality—like a player piano on steroids—and this early performance has more flash than flesh. Not enough sophistication to this lady for our taste. Tatum's later recording of this same composition as part of Norman Granz's Solo Masterpieces project is more nuanced, and a far superior performance. Even so, one needs to bow to an artist who is playing with this much confidence and dexterity at his debut leader date.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Art Tatum: Sweet Georgia Brown

Track

Sweet Georgia Brown

Artist

Art Tatum (piano)

CD

God is in the House (High Note HCD 7030)

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Musicians:

Art Tatum (piano),

Ebenezer Paul (bass), Frankie Newon (trumpet)

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Composed by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard & Kenneth Casey

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Recorded: Live at Monroe's Uptown House, New York, September 16, 1941

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Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Jerry Newman was a student at Columbia University with a passion for jazz and—even more important!—a portable disk-cutting recording machine that he brought to some of the most exciting jazz events of the early 1940s. His archive of amateur recordings is a treasure trove of historically important material, but his documentation of pianist Art Tatum's work in casual after hours sessions is a revelation. André Hodeir and other critics have accused this pianist of playing elaborate set pieces rather than improvising, and true many of Tatum's recordings reveal the rote delivery of set arrangements. Yet the artist captured here is a different one entirely. After hearing this music for the first time, New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett concluded that there must have been "two Tatums": "one was the virtuoso who moved with consummate ease through a world owned and run by whites, and the other was the secret genius who went uptown after his regular hours and played unbelievable music for his own pleasure in black clubs for black audiences."

Balliett thought that Tatum might have been parodying the beboppers in the opening passages of "Sweet Georgia Brown," yet it is just as likely that Tatum was simply showing that he knew more tricks than the new cats on the scene. Based on the amused laughter from the audience, I assume that some bop player had been playing the piano shortly before Tatum took over the keys. But even more ear-shattering is a passage at the 2:10 mark that can be only described as a taste of Free Jazz, circa 1941. Trumpeter Frankie Newton tries vainly to follow Tatum's solo, but Art doesn't make it easy. He throws out substitute harmonies from another dimension, sometimes four to a bar, and even reprises his avant-garde bag in the background. There is plenty more here worth hearing—indeed, a whole alternative piano vocabulary that you won't encounter on the better known Norman Granz recordings of this artist. At more than seven minutes, "Sweet Georgia Brown" ranks as one of Tatum's longest recorded performances, but it still seems all too brief.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Art Tatum: Elegie

Track

Elegie

Artist

Art Tatum (piano)

CD

Decca Presents Art Tatum: Solos (1940) (Decca-MCA 42327)

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Musicians:

Art Tatum (piano).

Composed by Jules Massenet

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Recorded: Los Angeles, February 22, 1940

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Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

This was the side of Tatum that drove his critics mad. Instead of trying to raise jazz composition to the next level, he was out there "ragging the classics" like the old stride players. And not even the serious classics. The numbers he favored, such as "Elegie" and "Humoresque," are more often played by clumsy piano students than real concert hall artists. But Tatum snubbed his nose at the highbrows, adding flourish after flourish in his grandiloquent reworkings of middlebrow parlor favorites.

Respect "Elegie" you must, however, since no one has ever topped this way of one-upping the virtuoso tradition of the classical world from an outside perspective. Tatum at age thirty was a monster at the keys, and his dynamics, tone control, and clarity of execution are little short of stunning here. The performance itself may be more a game than a serious attempt to grapple with the potential of jazz, yet even games have their masters and moments of profundity. If you want to understand Tatum, you need to sample this side of his multifaceted musical persona.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Art Tatum & Ben Webster: My Ideal

Track

My Ideal

Artist

Art Tatum (piano) and Ben Webster (tenor sax)

CD

The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 8 (Pablo 2405431)

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Musicians:

Art Tatum (piano), Ben Webster (tenor sax), Red Callender (bass),

Bill Douglass (drums)

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Composed by Newell Chase, Richard A.Whiting, and Leo Robin

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Recorded: Los Angeles, CA, Sept. 11, 1956

Tatum

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Many superlatives have been lavished on the so-called "Tatum Group Masterpieces"—Norman Granz's mid-1950s recordings of the pianist in a range of jazz combos featuring many of the leading players of the Swing Era. Yet much of this work strikes me as the musical equivalent of an abattoir tour. Too many of these guest artists decide that they will match Tatum's speed and technique with their own best virtuoso devices, and the result is all too predictable. Not only can the pianist play faster and wilder, but he often refuses to wait for his own solo to prove it. His comping takes over the performance, leaving the rest of the band rattled and the listener dismayed. Tatum may walk away with the bloody victory, but at the expense of group chemistry and cohesion.

But Ben Webster knew how to deal with this situation. He refuses to play Tatum's game, but sets his own ground rules from the start. The pianist takes the opening melody statement, but when Webster enters he plays the melody again, and his rendition is gorgeous, full of the whispering and lingering tones that were the tenorist's calling cards. His solo is more of the same, and gets deep inside the inner meaning of the song—the lyrics are a bittersweet pledge of love to an imagined ideal partner who may never appear, or might possibly be waiting around the corner. I was so moved when I first heard this recording, years ago, that I learned the words and music of the song and added it to my repertoire.

Tatum came to every session with plenty of ammunition, but Webster has effectively disarmed him. The saxophonist has established a level of emotional honesty that forces the pianist into a completely different frame of mind. Strange to say, Art Tatum comes across more introspective and subdued here than on any of the other group sessions, and reveals aspects of his own musical personality that rarely surfaced on record. His comping stays in the background—never a given with this artist—and when it's time for his own improv, Tatum plays with a light swing that seems almost Nat-King-Cole-ish. This is not a characteristic performance by the pianist, but it is, nonetheless, one of his finest.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


The Esquire All Stars: I Got Rhythm

Track

I Got Rhythm

Group

The Esquire All Stars

CD

Esquire All Stars: At the Met, Volume 2 (Arpeggio Jazz)

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Musicians:

Red Norvo (xylophone), Art Tatum (piano), Barney Bigard (clarinet), Jack Teagarden (trombone), Sid Catlett (drums), Oscar Pettiford (bass), Louis Armstrong (trumpet), Roy Eldridge (trumpet), Al Casey (guitar).

Composed by George and Ira Gerswhin

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Recorded: Metropolitan Opera House, New York, January 18, 1944

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Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

The time was January 1944, and the first bebop band (led by Dizzy Gillespie) had just been hired on 52nd Street. Meanwhile the masters of the old school were assembled at the Metropolitan Opera House, blissfully ignorant of the cataclysmic changes that would transform the jazz world over the next several years.

But let's forget the coming revolution for a moment, and instead enjoy the world that was about to end. The greatest soloists of early 20th-century jazz are assembled on a single stage, and engage in some gentlemanly one-upmanship on the most familiar jam session chord changes of the day, courtesy of George Gershwin. Everybody has a chance to shine, but I especially like Eldridge (who seems inspired by his chance to go toe-to-toe with Louis Armstrong), the drumming of Sid Catlett, who energizes the whole proceedings, and the lead-off soloist on the track, the underappreciated Red Norvo. And what a delight hearing Art Tatum, pulled out of the solo and trio settings where he could run roughshod over his accompanists and forced to adjust to a roomful of talents—and egos—as large as his own. If I could bring back one rhythm section from the era for a command fantasy performance, it might very well be this Tatum-Catlett-Pettiford unit.

I am reminded here of the claims of ardent medievalists, who will tell you that the waning of the Middle Ages was a time in which many great things came to fruition, and that the Renaissance spoiled much of the beauty of what went before. You could make a similar case for this final flowering of Swing Era majesty, put on display at this historic concert. Soon these same players would be considered passé, but you would never guess it by listening to this performance, which represents a type of perfection that bop and free and all the other later styles can never dispel. They got rhythm.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Art Tatum: Someone to Watch Over Me

Track

Someone to Watch Over Me

Artist

Art Tatum (piano)

CD

The Complete Capitol Recordings of Art Tatum (Capitol 7243 8 21325 2 3)

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Musicians:

Art Tatum (piano).

Composed by George & Ira Gershwin .

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Recorded: Los Angeles, July 13 & 25, 1949

Albumcoverarttatum-completecapitolrecordings

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

It's hard for me to pick between this studio version of the Gershwin standard and the live recording Tatum made of the same song a few weeks earlier at the Shrine Auditorium. The bottom line: both are dramatic, pull-out-all-the-stops performances. Just shy of his 40th birthday, this pianist was playing as well as at any stage in his career. His speed and clarity are the benchmarks by which future jazz keyboard virtuosos will be measured. The opening rubato intro is so crammed full of pyrotechnics that you can hardly imagine what Tatum will do to top it. But at the 1-minute mark he settles into a medium tempo Harlem stride that looks back to his own musical roots and shows that, in the Age of Bop, you could still top the youngsters with some old-school pianism. No wonder that the composer of this song, George Gershwin himself, counted himself among Tatum's admirers.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Art Tatum: Willow Weep for Me (live 1949)

Track

Willow Weep for Me (live 1949)

Artist

Art Tatum (piano)

CD

Piano Starts Here (Columbia 501655)

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Musicians:

Art Tatum (piano).

Composed by Ann Ronell

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Recorded: Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, April 2, 1949

Albumcoveratatumpianosh

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)


        Erroll Garner and Art Tatum at Birdland, 1952
                        Photo by Marcel Fleiss

Tatum's April 2, 1949 live recording at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles is a must-have CD for fans of jazz piano. He plays at top form, and seems invigorated by the move from smoky jazz clubs to the concert hall setting. "Willow Weep for Me" was one of his favorite songs -- at least a half-dozen recordings of Tatum playing it survive from the late 1940s and 1950s -- but he never delivered a better version than in this setting. Every last detail is perfect, from the rich harmonies of his classic intro, through the racecourse stride, all the way to the dramatic conclusion. Tatum owns this song, and any pianist who wants to tackle a solo version must operate in the expansive willow tree shadow of this memorable performance.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Art Tatum & Roy Eldridge: Night and Day

Track

NIght and Day

Artist

Art Tatum (piano) and Roy Eldridge (trumpet)

CD

The Tatum Group Masterpieces Vol. 2 (Pablo 2045-425)

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Musicians:

Art Tatum (piano), Roy Eldridge (trumpet), John Simmons (bass), Alvin Stoller (drums).

Composed by Cole Porter

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Recorded: Los Angeles, March 29, 1955

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Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Art Tatum had performed with Roy Eldridge back in 1944 at a famous concert by the Esquire All-Stars, but their paths rarely crossed afterwards until Norman Granz brought them into the studio a decade later as part of the producer's "Group Masters" project. The idea of matching Tatum with top-notch horn players sounded fine in theory, but with some exceptions, found the pianist playing over rather than with his colleagues. Yet his outing on "Night and Day" with trumpeter Roy Eldridge coheres better than one might expect. Eldridge was no stranger to battles on the bandstand, but here he focuses on sheer swing rather than try to match Tatum note-for-note. Simmons and Stoller are energized by his presence, and create a more supple pulse than one usually finds on the Granz-Tatum projects. The pianist is hardly chastened by this change of affairs, and continues to throw out his baroque runs and elaborate reconfigurations, but even he is infused with the groove. This may not quite match the impromptu give-and-take that Tatum achieved after hours in casual jams, but it comes closer than most of his studio sessions to capturing that ambiance.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Art Tatum: Have You Met Miss Jones?

Track

Have You Met Miss Jones?

Artist

Art Tatum (piano)

CD

Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 1 (Pablo PACD-2405-432-2)

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Musicians:

Art Tatum (piano).

Composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

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Recorded: Recorded between 1953 and 1955

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Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Has Art Tatum met Miss Jones? By the end of this five-minute track, Art has taken her uptown, downtown, out back, and round the block twice. He can even tell you if she has any sisters at home, and describe that birthmark behind her knee. Yes, he knows Miss Jones, and relates every detail in this keyboard jaunt. Here are all the Tatum trademarks: the effortless stride, the rapid-fire runs played with machine-like clarity, the modulations into the stratosphere and back, the "Look, Ma, three hands!" pyrotechnics. All well and good. But, after this, there isn't much left of Miss Jones for the next pianist.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Art Tatum: I Cover the Waterfront

Track

I Cover the Waterfront

Artist

Art Tatum (piano)

CD

The Complete Capitol Recordings of Art Tatum (Capitol 7243 8 21325 2 3)

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Musicians:

Art Tatum (piano).

Composed by Johnny Green & Edward Heyman

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Recorded: Los Angeles, July 13 & 25, 1949

Albumcoverarttatum-completecapitolrecordings

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Art Tatum covers the whole keyboard, as well as the waterfront, on this bravura ballad. The late 1940s were a fertile period for Tatum. He was at the peak of his abilities and had a seemingly endless variety of piano tricks up his sleeves. He follows his usual formula here, playing the opening chorus out of tempo, then slipping into a steady stride at the midpoint of his journey. But even if his approach is tried and true, the song never gets boring when Tatum is running the show. I especially like the harmonic games he plays here, with passing chords and substitute changes to beat the band. Well, there was no band to beat, since the band beat it when they saw Tatum walk into the studio. But Tatum alone is band enough for me any day.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Art Tatum: Sophisticated Lady (Solo Masterpieces version)

Track

Sophisticated Lady

Artist

Art Tatum (piano)

CD

Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 1 (Pablo PACD-2405-432-2)

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Musicians:

Art Tatum (piano).

Composed by Duke Ellington, Irving Mills & Mitchell Parish

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Recorded: Recorded between 1953 and 1955

Albumcovertatumsm1

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Art Tatum recorded this same piece at his first commercial session back in 1933, but this updated performance shows how much he had matured during the intervening two decades. No he doesn't play any faster than he did back in the Great Depression -- he was already at the Einsteinian limits of keyboard speed from his first appearance on the scene. But his rhythmic approach on the later version is much freer, and his harmonic inventions even more inspired. He starts with an out-of-tempo melody statement, but soon is pulling out all his patented tricks -- two-handed acrobatics, heavy stride, bluesy asides, dipsy-doodle runs, and those thick chords that sound like twelve or thirteen fingers are spread out on the keyboard. A very sophisticated lady.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Art Tatum (performance recreated by Zenph Studios): I Know That You Know

Track

I Know That You Know

Artist

Art Tatum (piano)

CD

Piano Starts Here: Live at the Shrine (Sony Classical)

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Musicians:

Art Tatum (piano),

Performance recreates Tatum’s live recording made on April 2, 1949 in this same location with Zenph Studio’s “re-performance” technology

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Composed by Otto Harbach, Anne Caldwell O’Dea and Vincent Youmans

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Recorded: Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, September 23, 2007

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Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Fats Waller once famously introduced Art Tatum with these oft-quoted words: "I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight." Well, this performance concocted by the tech wizards at Zenph Studios must qualify as the artificial intelligence equivalent of God. Richard Dawkins will be happy about that, but jazz fans have even more reason to celebrate. This recording takes Tatum's brilliant 1949 concert at Shrine Auditorium, with its murky sound quality, and recreates it with Zenph's proprietary and controversial technology in a crystal-clear modern digital version.

Purists have carped about this (don't they always?), but I find it hard to understand how any jazz lover can listen to this music and not be exhilarated. I have cherished the original Tatum performance since my high school years, but now I can hear nuances and aspects of this familiar track that were lost until now. "I Know That You Know" is impressive even by Tatum's high standards. This must be one of the fastest solo piano outings in the history of jazz, and there are points where the pulse reaches a defibrillator-charged 400 beats per minute. Even the uninitiated will be awestruck by the dexterity required, but I am just as impressed by the harmonic movement in the half-time section, and the odd displacement of the left-hand accents in the opening melody statement. This is Tatum the trickster at his trickiest, and anyone who is blasé about Zenph's miracle-making or the music presented here gets sent off for six months hard labor at Czerny and Hanon before they are allowed a second listen.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


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