Martial Solal: A Night in Tunisia

It's utterly impossible to predict how Martial Solal will play the most familiar standards. He's likely to start at the end, the middle, the second half of the beginning, put it upside down or play different sections with each hand. The man is totally unpredictable. He knows it, likes it, and so do we. From September 1993 to June 1994, France Musique, one of the French state radio channels, invited Solal to improvise every Sunday afternoon in one of their studios, in front of an audience, and these concerts were broadcast live and recorded. On this Dizzy Gillespie classic, Solal has all the fun he can get: heavily rhythmic chord clusters to begin, bits of melody among flurries of arpeggios, a true demonstration of piano pyrotechnics that would be overwhelming if the lightness of touch and the constant rhythm changes didn't continually keep our attention sharp. Then the theme becomes increasingly clear, the left hand maintaining a stride- like comping as the right frolics randomly. And we slowly realize that Solal not only does whatever he wants with whatever he wants, but has given us a lesson in jazz history by bringing the Gillespie theme backward to the prewar era, and forward to himself.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Keith Jarrett: Starbright

Jarrett's "Starbright" is a consummate example of stride being used by a post-1950 modern jazz pianist while not sounding like a quotation, anachronism, or stunt.

"Starbright" is from the masterpiece solo recital Facing You. Right from the beginning, the spacious chords in the left hand imply something more like Earl Hines than anything else; although above, the pretty melody in sixths is quite dissonant and bitonal.

Jarrett takes half the performance to work up enough steam, but eventually lurches into a convincing left-hand "oompah" as his right hand delivers the iridescence suggested by the title. It's a major success, and one well worth considering for those looking to take stride into the 21st century.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Thelonious Monk: Dinah

Monk was the consummate modernist of common-practice jazz. He was arguably the consummate historian, too. Consider:

Of his peers and followers, Monk showed the most interest in performing repertoire composed before 1930 ("Dinah" is from 1925). Pianist Herbie Nichols, in the first-ever review of Monk in 1944, wrote he would rather hear Monk play 'Boston' than anyone else. ('Boston' is more or less the left-hand 'oompah' of stride, but filled out and played by both hands behind a singer or band - Count Basie did it especially well.) Monk Plays Duke Ellington was one of the first and still one of the best tribute albums by a major jazz artist. And producer Orrin Keepnews reported that after listening to the playback of 1957's "Functional," Monk declared, "I sound just like James P. Johnson."

"Dinah" is the first, fastest and most Harlem-esqe performance contained in Solo Monk, the most stride-reliant album in Monk's discography. I wonder about two possible tributes: "Dinah"'s lyrics refer to "Carolina" - could that be James P., yet again, whose own "Carolina Shout" and "Carolina Balmoral" are key stride pieces? "Dinah" does lead off Solo Monk; I can see Monk saying, "Just to be clear, this is for James P." Also, the closing trill: Monk almost never trills otherwise, but he can't seem to stop himself from ringing that bell at the end of several striding tracks on this disc. Is that a hat tip to Fats Waller, who constantly trilled too?

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Art Tatum: Runnin' Wild

Any Tatum performance could be selected as the final word on common-practice stride. I chose this one because it is the title piece from the James P. Johnson revue that exploded "The Charleston" the world over. Tatum had tremendous respect for Johnson (and Fats Waller too). It is easy to hear this version of "Runnin' Wild" as a tribute.

One detail under-discussed in the Tatum literature is his swinging beat. It is almost too much: Not only is Tatum the greatest pianist technically, among the most advanced harmonically, and unrivaled when casually recasting a pop tune's melody as an improvised effusion - Tatum swings incredibly hard.

Occasionally I see reference to Tatum as a glorified cocktail pianist or a musician unconversant with the blues. These charges are ludicrous. Tatum was just the best, that's all: it may be hard to accept, but it's true.

I am not religious, nor even particularly spiritual. But when I consider the depth of accomplishment Tatum had from a youthful age, as a nearly blind, black man from Toledo, Ohio in Jim Crow times, I can't help but acknowledge that he must have had unearthly assistance. Fats Waller said it, when Tatum dropped by his gig: "I play the piano, but God is in the house."

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Joe Sullivan: Gin Mill Blues

Joe Sullivan was a powerful pianist associated with the other great white Chicago jazz players of his era. Like Waller's "Numb Fumblin'," "Gin Mill Blues" just saunters along without trying too hard. (There are plenty of trills here, too, including one in double thirds!) Especially charming is the ending, with a chromatic flourish wistfully resolving to a soft simple triad in the high register.

In Ross MacDonald's The Moving Target (1950), private eye Lew Archer gets hung up on this track while failing to successfully interrogate his suspect Betty Fraley:

But hot piano wasn't my dish, and I'd picked the wrong words or overdone my praise. The bitterness of her mouth spread to her eyes and voice. "I don't believe you. Name one."

"It's been a long time."

"Did you like my 'Gin Mill Blues?'"

"I did," I said in relief. "You do it better than Sullivan."

"You're a liar, Lew. I never recorded that number. Why would you want to make me talk too much?"

"I like your music."

"Yeah. You're probably tone-deaf." She looked intently into my face. "You could be a cop, you know. You're not the type, but there's something about the way you look at things, wanting them but not liking them. You've got cop's eyes - they want to see people hurt."

"Gin Mill Blues" is right: Sullivan, like too many of the other pianists on this list, sadly died of alcoholism. It was an occupational hazard, since standing the working pianist rounds at a convivial gathering is only the right thing to do.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Earl Hines: A Monday Date

The solo rendition of this Hines standard is even better than the famous Hot Fives version with Louis Armstrong. (Important note: I am discussing the 12/8/28 version timed at 2:53, not the one recorded the next day.)

Hines must have had enormous hands to play those big marching and striding tenths so quickly and authoritatively with his southpaw. His right hand grabs big clusters and chords, too: this is a hell of a lot of piano.

There's always something engagingly ragtag about a Hines performance. In fact, those signature weird stops and pauses - surely only Hines was doing this in 1928! - are really off the grid, sounding dangerously like moments of free improvisation. Hines always keeps the beat, of course, but not even Art Tatum is as fearless about pursuing the unknown - or rather letting the chips fall where they may. (Hines's piano break on "Savoyager's Stomp" with Armstrong - also 1928 - is the height of avant-garde.)

Of all the pre-bop pianists, Hines had the longest career as a solo pianist - his final recordings from the '70s are as interesting and provocative as his first 1928 sides.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Jelly Roll Morton: Grandpa's Spells

This was recorded after "Keep Off the Grass," but it was reportedly composed a decade earlier. (At any rate, Morton is usually considered the influence on James P., not the other way around.)

"Grandpa's Spells" is nearly a rag in feeling, except with a swing beat and a generally rougher feel. A lot of the time Morton plays overtones in the left hand (usually the fifth note up from the bottom) that imply drums while the brilliant graces on top imply New Orleans-style clarinetists. The F-major trio features a left-hand smash, a dark cluster tossed off casually like a whiskey bottle kicked under the piano.

The sheer strength of Morton's playing is remarkable. Sometimes I read that such-or-such stride or early jazz pianist has a 'delicate' or 'subtle' touch. There are complicated and refined elements in all the pianists on this list, but all of them also knew how to make the piano project: you could hear them even through a wild revel.

Morton is commonly considered the first great composer of jazz. He was also surely one of the greatest dance pianists in history.

January 12, 2009 · 1 comment


Brian Charette: Wu Wei

Does Brian Charette really draw on the different disciplines of chess and kung fu as inspiration for his music? I am told that "kung fu" translates as improvement through great effort, yet what I encounter here is a musician who plays effortlessly and with an instinctive sense of the musical. I suspect that Charette has a very discerning ear, since his performances seem to reflect what he hears in the cosmos, rather than any fashionable trends out there on the scene. His highest profile gigs have usually been in the company of those outside the jazz world (e.g., Chaka Khan, Joni Mitchell, Cindy Lauper), but don't doubt his jazz credentials for a moment. Charette is a first-rate organist (and needs to be heard on that instrument, too), but here he turns uncharacteristically to piano for a solo outing. This work is an exploration of tone colors, with the melody developing implicitly from the passing harmonies. Think of it as an "In a Mist" for the new millennium. This is jazz that is both pastoral and surprising: an odd combination, but one that reflects the fresh perspectives of this promising stylist. Charette is an artist to watch.

December 30, 2008 · 0 comments


McCoy Tyner: How Deep Is The Ocean

McCoy Tyner essentially adapted Coltrane's vision to the piano, and thus influenced countless young pianists in much the same way as impressionable saxophonists (and other instrumentalists) were inspired by the power, challenging technical mastery, and spirituality of Coltrane's playing. As the years passed after Coltrane's death, it appeared that Tyner was "mellowing," while in reality he was simply returning to a broader stylistic approach, one that was already evident at times during his early '60s stint with Coltrane. Examples would include Tyner's work on Coltrane's Ballads and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, as well as on his own Impulse albums such as Nights of Ballads and Blues and Plays Ellington.

For Tyner's second solo piano release, and his first since his Coltrane tribute Echoes of a Friend 16 years earlier, producer Michael Cuscuna wisely recorded him in an empty, acoustically ideal Merkin Concert Hall in New York. Thanks to the exceptional quality of Tyner's playing and the superior sound engineered by the esteemed David Baker, Revelations is a standout item in the pianist's vast discography. Tyner's version of "How Deep is the Ocean" is fascinating for what it reveals about his own influences as much as for how he can reinvent and refresh a well-known standard. He begins with some tolling dissonant notes alternating with cavernous chords, before entering the theme and embellishing it with jabbing phrases and potent left-hand figures. You are struck by how his penetrating sound seems to be fully resonating throughout the intimate venue in which he's playing. Tyner's solo mixes intriguing motifs and pounding chords with quick flourishes and runs, and he even takes his attack into exhilarating overdrive leading up to the final exploration of the melody, which he ends with a fittingly Monkish "trinkle tinkle." As you listen, glimpses flash by of Monk's quirkiness, Tatum's extravagance, and even Earl Hines's dexterous 2-handed unpredictability, all wonderfully endearing and gripping, if at times nearly overwhelming.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Barry Harris: All God's Chillun Got Rhythm

A vital keeper of the bebop flame both as pianist and esteemed educator, Barry Harris has always engendered great respect for his playing, if not the worshipful awe that the flashier Bud Powell or Phineas Newborn Jr. garnered during their all-to-short peak periods. Harris interprets bebop in a style that is thoughtful, crisp and confidently self-contained, similar his fellow Detroiters Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan.

Listening to Harris perform unaccompanied at the intimate and acoustically ideal Maybeck Recital Hall, one can focus on his artistry without distraction in probably his first recorded solo recital since Listen to Barry Harris (1960). Harris spent much time with Thelonious Monk at the home of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, and introduces "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" by saying, "I have a special tape of Monk, and the way Monk played 'All God's Chillun Got Rhythm' ... I'm gonna start it out like that and then I'm gonna play it fast." Maybe not as fast as Powell played this tune with Sonny Stitt in 1949 (who could?), but Harris does provide plenty of sizzle after the inventive and knowing Monkish intro. Without the safety net of a bassist and a drummer, Harris daringly goes all out, creating on the fly, lithe and flowing. His generous left-hand punctuations are in complete harmony with his fleet and lucid extended runs, and are perhaps even more pronounced than they would have been in a group setting. While Harris borrows from Powell's 1949 solo, overall this is a shining example of bebop piano at its sophisticated and communicative best.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Ray Bryant: Ain't Misbehavin'

Ray Bryant made his mark in the jazz world with some very soulful piano playing, mixing a dose of modernism with a double helping of blues. So it comes as some surprise to find him focusing on old-fashioned stride piano playing on his 2008 CD In the Back Room. Here he performs solo versions of songs by James P. Johnson and W.C. Handy, as well as five Fats Waller tunes, including this rendition of "Ain't Misbehavin'." Bryant proves that he is conversant with stride mannerisms, but his playing lacks the boisterous energy that the great masters of this style brought to their performances. This sounds the way stride might have been played if it had been transplanted from the Harlem rent parties to an academic setting. So it comes as no surprise to see that Bryant recorded this music at Rutgers University. Did the environment inspire a more subdued demeanor, Mr. Bryant? Some listeners may enjoy this more restrained approach to Fats Waller's music, but for my part I prefer a bit more misbehavin' in my Harlem stride.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Dave Brubeck: Memories of You

Listening to the first eight bars of this performance, you may think that Dave Brubeck has mellowed with the passing years. He plays the old Eubie Blake standard like a throwback to the Harlem stride school. Has our arch-modernist become a sentimental traditionalist? But by the second eight bars, Brubeck is already playing his harmonic tricks. The passing chords come thick and fast, and by the time we enter the next chorus we are flying over polytonal territory. Passengers, look out your left window and see if you can recognize the changes below. For a moment, Brubeck dips back into his stride bag, but can't keep from tossing out those super-sized chords. Welcome to the world of Dave Brubeck, where even a stark miniature such as this keeps a few Wagnerian reminders hidden in the corners.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Bob McHugh: Jitterbug Waltz

There's just something about that lovely series of descending notes in "Jitterbug Waltz" that gets to me. Though I'm known to be a kind of nostalgia freak, I have no history with this particular tune, so what gives? The song has not provided backup to any of my so-called "romantic moments," nor has it painted the mood along with any of my favorite film scenes. So why the attraction? Like many things musical, it seems that I must be content to allow the emotions to remain coated in my own mystery glaze. Bob McHugh's approach celebrates the spirit of Fats Waller while avoiding cloying sentiment though I admit that such sentiment probably wouldn't bother me in the least.

December 09, 2008 · 1 comment


Dave Frank: You Stepped Out of a Dream

When I first heard Sarah Vaughan sing this Gus Kahn & Herb Brown song, it immediately became one of my favorite renditions of the standard. Later I was exposed to the idiosyncratic texturing of the same tune by the inimitable Anthony Braxton, and despite the vastly different approach I was equally hooked. Like all great vehicles of expression, this song can be used to great effect in many different ways.

Now comes a version by pianist Dave Frank that gives us a whole new take. He starts off with his relentlessly walking left-hand variations, slowly introducing the melody with imaginative musings on his wildly frenetic right hand. Frank clearly demonstrates the influence of his one-time teacher Lennie Tristano as he plays with an inventive, machinegun-like technique. After a carefully placed break, he employs a completely different left-handed approach that plays contrapuntally to the masterfully fluid improvisations of his blindingly quick right hand. With this offering, Dave Frank has created a rendition of this timeless song that will remain a member of my select elite.

December 09, 2008 · 0 comments


Dave Frank: Snow Falls on 5th Ave.

Solo piano recordings are daring endeavors. Without a supporting cast, few musicians can generate both the harmonic interest and rhythmic variation necessary for sustained listening. With a nod to the notable players who preceded him in such efforts, pianist, composer and educator Dave Frank explores the nuances and complexities of solo piano techniques to create his own approach on this album. In his beautiful composition "Snow Falls on 5th Ave.," Frank shows his reflective side with emotive playing and a penchant for a fine melody in all its simplicity and timelessness. The sensitivity that swells from this song is inspiring and delightful. While other songs on the CD showcase his formidable technique, it is the simple beauty of this not quite 4-minute song that speaks volumes of what this pianist can communicate to the listener. Pure magic.

December 09, 2008 · 2 comments


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