Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Petrucciani, Michel

Pianist Michel Petrucciani's larger-than-life command of his instrument dazzled audiences, critics, and fellow musicians with harmonies rooted in the impressionistic work of Bill Evans and melodic ideas that were lyrical and provocative. In his short career, Petrucciani worked with, among others, Clark Terry, Charles Lloyd, and Wayne Shorter.

Petrucciani was born on December 28, 1962, into a musical family in Orange, France, a small agricultural town in the southeastern part of the country, known for its ancient Roman ruins. Petrucciani was born with a genetic bone disorder, osteogenesis imperfecta, which limits bone growth. Petrucciani was never taller than one meter, and weighed no more than twenty-five kilos through most of his short adult life. He died in New York City on January 6, 1999.

Petrucciani’s father Anthony was a guitarist and his brother Louis was a bassist. Michel’s first musical experiences occurred when accompanied his family on the drums. Michel fell in love with the piano at a very young age after hearing the music of Duke Ellington. Petrucciani took to the piano with ease, despite his physical condition.

Given his physical limitations, Michel had to be carried to the piano and used a mechanical device to manipulate the sustain pedals. Another major contributing factor to the young pianist’s musical ability was the music store his father opened called, Special Music. It would be here that Petrucciani gave demonstrations for customers on a variety of instruments including piano, organ, drums, and soprano saxophone.

Petrucciani performed professionally for the first time at age thirteen, at France's Cliousclat jazz festival. Trumpeter Clark Terry, who was also performing in the festival, asked the young pianist to sit in with him on a blues. Terry was blown away by the abilities of the young Petrucciani.

After this encounter, Michel ran into bassist Chuck Israels at a gig in southern France. Israels, also impressed by the skills of Petrucciani, introduced him to drummer Kenny Clarke. Clarke was also extremely impressed by the pianist’s skills, but they did not record together.

At the age of eighteen, Petrucciani was leading his own trio after recording the album Flash, which featured drummer Aldo Romano, who Petrucciani referred to as his guardian angel. This album was a critical and commercial success in Europe and soon enough the band was able to maintain a strong professional schedule.

Also that same year at the La Grande Motte festival, Petrucciani met his idol Bill Evans, who he credited as a major influence on his passion and drive to make music. Petrucciani, however, was unable to communicate with Evans at the time, because of his poor English.

In 1981, Petrucciani performed at the Paris jazz festival. His performance was extremely successful and increased the musician’s reputation even further in his home country. Also in 1981, Petrucciani recorded a solo piano album entitled Date With Time, but it was only released ten years later. Petrucciani allowed a friend who was facing economic hardships to release the album, although he stated publicly that he disliked the disc because he was, as he put it, ‘dead drunk’ at the time of the recording session.

In 1982, Petrucciani moved to New York City. After he met tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, he moved to California to join Lloyd’s new quartet. Petrucciani recorded prolifically with Lloyd and appeared with him on many critically acclaimed albums, including Montreux ’82, A Night In Copenhagen, and One Night With Blue Note Volume 4, which featured Petrucciani with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Cecil McBee.

This album captures the quartet’s performance at a show to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Blue Note record label. The quartet was a hit with the audience, playing tunes such as Lloyd’s most well known song, Lloyd’s most well known song, “Tone Poem."

That same year, filmmaker Frank Cassenti directed a documentary about the pianist, which premiered at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.

In 1985, record executive Bruce Lundvall signed Petrucciani to the revamped Blue Note label. The pianist released his first album entitled Pianism in 1986 for the label. In 1987, the album Power of Three was released for the label and it featured Petrucciani playing along side guitarist Jim Hall and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Petrucciani’s musical output during the late 1980s included other albums including 1987’s Michel Plays Petrucciani, which featured drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Gary Peacock, and 1989’s Music, all released on Blue Note.

By the 1990s, Petrucciani had established himself as a household name in the jazz community. He continued to perform and record with a slue of well-known musicians. In 1990, Petrucciani appeared on the album Manhattan Project with drummer Lenny White, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and bassist Stanley Clarke. The pianist was paid $26,000 for his participation on the album, an enviable sum for many jazz musicians.

In 1991, Petrucciani appeared on tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano’s album From the Soul and is featured on “Body and Soul." In 1994, Petrucciani recorded and released a duet album with organist Eddy Louiss called Conférence de Presse for the Dreyfuss label. The second volume featured the songs“Summertime ," and “Caraibes."

Continuing through the mid to late 1990s, Petrucciani released many notable albums including Promenade With Duke (1993), Marvellous (1994), Flamingo w/Stephane Grappelli, Live In Germany (1998), Both Worlds (1998), Trio In Tokyo (1999), and Solo Live, which featured the pianist doing a riveting solo rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan."

Unfortunately, these albums would be among his last, as he succumbed to pulmonary infections on January 6, 1999 at a New York City hospital. He was only thirty-six years old. Petrucciani was married to Italian pianist Gilda Buttà, and has several children, one of whom inherited his bone disorder. Petrucciani is buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.

Selected Discography

As Michel Petrucciani

Flash (Owl Records, 1981)

Pianism (Blue Note, 1985)

Michel Plays Petrucciani (Blue Note, 1987)

Music (Blue Note, 1989)

The Blue Note Years (Blue Note, 1993)

With Joe Lovano

From the Soul (Blue Note, 1991)

With Eddy Louiss

Conference De Presse (Dreyfuss, 1994)

With Charles Lloyd

A Night In Copenhagen (Blue Note, 1982)

One Night With the Blue Note Volume 4 (Blue Note, 1982)

With Wayne Shorter/Jim Hall

Power of Three (Blue Note, 1986)

With Lenny White/Wayne Shorter/Stanley Clarke

Manhattan Project (Blue Note, 1990)

With Stephane Grappelli

Flamingo (1996)

Contributor: Jared Pauley