Art Tatum: Elegie

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.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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

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.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fred Hersch: The Nearness Of You

Ned Washington's lyric to the Hoagy Carmichael song "The Nearness Of You" has always been a special favorite of mine. The thought of a person whose mere presence can be an inspiration speaks to the romantic artist in me. I suspect that Fred Hersch loves these words as much as I do. For even in his solo piano version of this song, the lyric's message comes through.

Hersch opens with an original introduction (not the original verse) and then he moves into the song with great tenderness, using a spare arpeggiated style in his left hand. While the left hand ideas grow in intensity as Hersch becomes more rhapsodic, they are never overwhelming, but are simply there to support the melody in the right hand. Hersch stays in a free rubato throughout the performance, but there seems to some underlying tempo as Hersch's ideas seem to ebb and flow in a rhythmic pattern. Early in his improvisation, he finds a wonderful little idea that he sequences through a number of keys before moving to another thought, which he also develops. He returns to the tune at the bridge and he emphasizes the end of that eight-bar section with held notes at either end of the piano followed by a dramatic pause, which reverts the mood back to that of the beginning.

So, how does all of this relate to the lyric? It's not easy to explain, but I get a tangible feeling that the passion found in this recording has extra-musical roots. The romantic intensity of the lyric is transformed into a spiritual feeling that breathes through every second of this music. Creative musicians live for moments like this, where all of the elements come together and the music is elevated to a higher level. Inspiration and complete mental focus are a big part of the equation, and it's nearly impossible to reach those heights by just going through the motions. Whatever Hersch's inspiration was, he created a very special musical moment on that October night at Jordan Hall. We are fortunate enough to share it.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charles Brown: I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)

Brown was one of the originators of the West Coast lounge or club blues style that was patterned after Nat Cole, but bluesier and certainly sadder and even a bit mournful at times. With his smooth, stretched-out vocal phrasing and hip, refined piano, Brown could really get under your skin. After a string of hits from the mid '40's to the early '50's, rock n' roll put Brown's mellow delivery on the back burner. Thanks to the PBS documentary All That Rhythm and Those Blues, and the encouragement and support of Bonnie Raitt and guitarist Danny Caron, Brown's career finally saw a major revivial in the "90's, resulting in numerous recordings and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation prior to his death in 1999. The best thing about many of his later albums may have been that they put an equal spotlight on his underrated, or certainly underappreciated, skill as a pianist.

For example, Brown recorded eye-opening solo piano versions of "Round Midnight" and "One Mint Julep" on a 1992 release (Blues and Other Love Songs), and this fascinating vocal-piano rendition of "I Got It Bad" on his 1994 These Blues. Brown's brief intro more than hints at a phrase from Bud Powell's "Parisian Thoroughfare." He then plays the theme with a blues-drenched sound and a semi-stride tempo. His attack, voicings, and overall emotional compass during his solo recall Mary Lou Williams as much as anyone. When Brown finally starts to sing, it's apparent that the resigned lyrics fit his sly, downcast vocal expressiveness to a tee. From this point on, his vocalizing alternates with more upbeat piano breaks (similar in mood to his comping), presenting an ingratiating contrast. Brown's purred handling of the words "My gal and me / we gin some / embrace some / and we sin some" is unbeatable, but then so is his eloquent keyboard work. If he'd never sung a note in his life, the classically trained Brown could still have easily succeeded as just a jazz/blues pianist.

September 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jaki Byard: To Bob Vatel of Paris

This version of “To Bob Vatel Of Paris,” from Empirical, is a favorite piece in my repertoire. I'm not sure who Bob Vatel is, but this is a lovely one on which to hear the unadulterated contemporary stride master. Jaki said his father sat him by the radio one day and said, “I want you to play like this guy.” "This guy" was Teddy Wilson. Jaki is big on history, and it's always evident in his sound. I love how his hands seem to roll through the phrases. Another piano student of Jaki’s, Eric Lewis, really has taken Jaki's techniques to new places. Jaki always talked about ways to make a song interesting, and one of the ways to do this was to modulate the piece. Jaki does this here before segueing into “Blues for Jennie,” a very slow blues. Then he returns to Bob Vatel briefly. The main thing I remember about Jaki and his music was that he always brought his joy to it. He wouldn't play it if he didn't enjoy it. And if he didn't enjoy it, he would let you know verbally.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jaki Byard: Willow Weep For Me

This solo piano version somewhat references the Art Tatum version. When Jaki hits his solo, it's so well paced and beautiful, it makes me want to go to the piano. He has a way of giving me everything I want to hear in a song when he's at the piano. I love the ending of this with the tremolo in the left hand; it's as if a ghost is still playing the bass line. This is a great way for one to approach solo piano. It's difficult, but it's a form that I am blessed to say that I learned directly from Jaki.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jaki Byard: Blues au Gratin

I have my students listen to this track. The humor in Jaki's music is always apparent, but he was not above putting a joke in his music. I remember seeing he and Greg Osby play a duet concert at the Brooklyn Museum, and as Jaki was taking a solo, an airplane flew overhead. He stopped, and stared at the airplane until it was out of sight and out of earshot. then he continued. He had the most wonderful laugh. Anyway, he really deconstructs this blues. I totally come out of his style of presentation. He lets his left hand really fly freely, before jumping into some heavy stride, before launching into a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” quote. The bit at the end sounds like Sam Rivers playing piano. He and Sam lived together for a while in Boston, and you can hear the similarity in their contrapuntal approach to the piano.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Henry Butler: Bourbon Street Blues

The New Orleans piano tradition is so rich that it is hard for the modern generation of keyboardists to live up to its demands, let alone earn a place alongside the legends of yesteryear. But Henry Butler has proven that he is a huge talent whose name is not out of place when mentioned in the same breath as those of the departed masters such as Professor Longhair, James Booker, or even the great Jelly Roll himself. Butler has, if anything, even greater technical command of the instrument than any of these predecessors, and there are few more enjoyable experiences in piano music today than hearing this artist attack the 88 keys. I prefer Butler unaccompanied, as on this tour de force performance of "Bourbon Street Blues." He has a deep idiomatic command of the full range of vernacular American piano styles, and you will hear bits of ragtime, stride, boogie and funk, all played with his characteristic thousand-watt touch. If his notes were any brighter, even the audience would need to wear shades. As this performance develops, Butler's piano concept becomes more noticeably rooted in the New Orleans tradition, less on-the-beat, instead bubbling and churning around the pulse, yet never loosing it. And always with oomph, or usually an oomph-and-a-half for good measure. If you think that great days of New Orleans piano ended before you were born, this is an artist you need to hear.

August 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jelly Roll Morton: The Crave

"If you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes," Jelly Roll Morton famously asserted, "you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz." Here Jelly Roll demonstrates what he means at the keyboard with his sultry and simmering habanera classic "The Crave." Latin jazz was still in its infancy, but on the basis of this performance alone you could have predicted a promising future for this mode of trans-genre cross-dressing.

The composition is a gem, one of Morton's finest efforts, and I wonder why it isn't played more often. You could serve it up as a stylish encore at a classical piano recital or let it rip at a juke joint—it works either way. The hook comes with the hesitation in the breaks. Let's turn again to Morton's own words: "Without breaks and without clean break and without beautiful ideas in breaks, you don't even need to think about doing anything else; you haven't got a jazz band and you can't play jazz." Again he lives up to his own standards. And exacting standards they were. Let me remind you that Morton was the bandleader who pulled out a pistol at a session when trombonist Zue Robertson didn't play the boss's tune the way he wanted. (Let it be noted, for the record, that the next time, Zue delivered it perfectly, note-for-note.)

At a time when swing bands dominated the charts and war was looming on the horizon, many jazz fans dismissed Morton as a pathetic blowhard, a stale leftover from a bygone musical era. The parade has passed you by, old man. But make no mistake about it: these final recordings from the New Orleans master, and this track in particular, reveal one of America's greatest musicians at peak form—showing the way with his clean breaks, beautiful ideas . . . and that Spanish tinge.

August 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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James Booker: Put Out the Light

As the story goes, 18-year-old James Booker was invited to play piano for the great concert hall virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein, who told the teenager afterward: "I could never play that." In all honesty, who - outside a small coterie of seasoned New Orleans players - would dare? The rolling, syncopated style of pianism that goes by the name of "New Orleans style" is hard to pin down. Sometimes it is reminiscent of boogie-woogie or stride, but never falls into the predictable rhythmic patterns of those idioms. The sound is less rock and more roll, an ebbing and flowing that always seems to move around the beat rather than sit on top of it. Booker is the master of this two-handed approach, and crafted one of the most persuasive keyboard styles of the late 20th century. This track also shows off his unconventional harmonic sense - when he shifts from A flat major to A minor, listeners with acute ears may feel their cochleas rebelling. But don't despair: Booker always makes it right in the end. Like Ornette Coleman and Son House, James Booker made up his own rules, and even if (like Rubinstein) you dare not imitate, you definitely need to listen.

August 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Michel Petrucciani: Hidden Joy

Story has it that Petrucciani at the age of four saw Duke Ellington perform on TV and demanded a piano. His parents mistakenly bought him a toy one for Xmas that he promptly destroyed, at which point they wisely got him the real thing. By 13, he was sitting in with Clark Terry at a French jazz festival. Fortunately, in a life tragically shortened to just 36 years by a genetic bone disorder, Petrucciani was given the opportunity to record a CD in tribute to Ellington (and Strayhorn). While he engrossingly covers expected tunes such as "Caravan," "Take the A Train," and "Satin Doll," it is his unveiling of two undeservedly obscure Ellington compositions, "Hidden Joy" and "One Night in the Hotel," that gives this program an added distinction.

Of the two rarities, "Hidden Joy" probably most begs for further revival to this day, although it's a close decision. Petrucciani plays the wistful melody with great sensitivity and emotional connectedness. Lustrous ostinatos, trills, and arpeggios, generous left-hand supporting figures, and sweeping runs are among the devices the pianist uses during his hearty improvisation to exhaustively explore the tune's appealing harmonies. Overall, Petrucciani's approach in the end might be characterized as being aggressively romantic with a more tender subtext, qualities that so often endeared him to listeners during his lifetime, and continue to do so today.

July 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fred Hersch: Insensatez

If a young pianist asked my advice about recording a solo album of Jobim tunes, I would strongly suggest the choice of any other composer—Scriabin, Zez Confrey, Billy Joel—in lieu of one more painful bossa nova nostalgia trip. Don't get me wrong, I am one of Mr. Jobim's most devoted fans, and he makes it into my short list of the five greatest songwriters of the 20th century. But his music has been butchered by so many cocktail pianists, wedding reception bands, and maple-syrup-in-their-veins arrangers that it is almost impossible to approach his songs with fresh ears any more. I remember living in Firenze years ago and trying to imagine what Ghiberti's doors to the Baptistry might like if you removed all the accumulated soot, tarnish and gunk. Jobim's songs are the same, but it would take a master to find the pristine beauty below the layers of noise piled atop them.

Fred Hersch is that master. Here he tackles one of the more familiar Jobim songs (often recorded under its English title "How Insensitive") and unearths the saudade below all the sludge. He brings to bear on this song his acute analytical mind, but while still retaining the emotional temperature of this melancholy reminiscence of a love affair gone bad. There is much to admire here: the harmonic movement, Mr. Hersch's touch, his phrasing. But the holistic effect (as so often is the case with Hersch) is more powerful than a mere list of ingredients can evoke. Any pianist who wants to study how an artist of depth salvages an over-played song should check out this CD, and this track in particular.

July 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Enrico Pieranunzi: Scarlatti Sonata K377 and Improv

The idea of "jazzing up the classics" is an old one, dating back to the rag and stride pianists of the early 20th century. At one time there must have been quite a bit of shock value when a pianist played a hot version of Chopin or Tchaikovsky, but not any more. Today it comes across as just another gimmick—and a tired one at that.

For that reason, you might be forgiven for dismissing pianist Enrico Pieranunzi's interpretations of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) before even giving them a listen. But you would be making a mistake. Pieranunzi is not a gimmicky player, and his best work has a profound rightness about it, an uncontrived immersion into musical essences and an almost tactile yet elusive sensuality. He brings these qualities to bear on his reworkings of Scarlatti, which both respect the integrity of the original compositions while finding in them a platform for contemporary improvisation.

This is not an small feat. Pieranunzi works a subtle transformation, and if you are not listening carefully you will miss that many gradual shifts in texture and tone that shape his interpretations. An even series of on-the-beat left hand notes evolves into a walking bassline. Eighteenth century harmony is hammered into twentieth century harmony through a series of granular level adaptations. Syncopations emerge from the counterpoint. The end result is penetrating modern jazz, but Pieranunzi arrives there as slowly and patiently as a sunset working its effects over the horizon. Few CDs these days sound so untouched by the expected and conventional—the wonder is that our pianist makes this happen with a composition that is 250 years old.

June 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Walter Davis, Jr.:Criss Cross

Walter Davis, Jr. had an imposing, physically intense presence about him, not to mention a schooled, totally absorbing bop-based piano style. Few could interpret Bud Powell or Thelonious Monk tunes better than he. He played and recorded with Charlie Parker in the early '50's, befriended both Powell and Monk, and had various stints in the bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey. However, Davis's promising 1959 debut album as leader for Blue Note did not lead to many others under his own name before his death in 1990 at age 57. Davis's tribute CD to Monk, In Walked Thelonious, was recorded in 1987 but was released shortly after his death. It remains one of the crowning achievements of his career.

The pianist claimed that he was visited by Monk's spirit, which offered him advice and encouragement during the process of preparing for and then recording the 14 Monk compositions he played at these sessions. When pianist Dwike Mitchell heard the resulting tapes, he commented, "What's on this tape is not Walter, it's Monk playing through Walter's hands." Be that as it may, Davis created concise, to-the-point versions of these Monk selections, including the trickiest ones like "Criss Cross." He begins "Criss Cross" by bluntly introducing the unorthodox, finger-busting melody. Davis uncannily captures Monk's semi-dissonant sound and whimsical undercurrent, but his tone, dazzling runs, and thumping left-hand accentuations all take on a definite Powell quintessence in his brief solo. By the time Davis is reiterating the theme, one realizes that while Monk and Powell are unmistakably present during this 2½-minute miniature, no one but Davis could quite capture those two pianists' styles so well in one piece and still bring so much of his own soul and personality to the mix.

June 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Paul Bley: So Hard It Hurts

Here's a short solo piano track which feels a bit more jarring and urgent than some of the meditative solo work that Paul Bley is often more associated with. This brings to mind one of the most amazing things about Bley: he cannot be pigeonholed. He finds a way to discover something new each time he comes to the instrument, and he is therefore never a prisoner of habitual playing. On this track, he seems to be fascinated with the extreme low register of the piano, and his use of it is very effective.

June 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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