Sunday, December 7, 2014

Art Tatum - Sheer Brilliance [From the Archives

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Tatum is the greatest Jazz pianist of all time, the songs he chose the very finest of a much-maligned but nonetheless sublime repertoire. That is why these performances are immortal, because they show the best player interpreting the best material in the best conditions….”

“Art Tatum was one of the major American creative artists of his epoch, not just in the Jazz context but in the sense of the arts generally. The claim may still seem a shade bombastic to those unaccustomed to searching for the muses in saloon bars and nightclubs, but it is true for all that. The wise fool takes his art where he finds it, and when Tatum was around, he found it in any number of small rooms whose only significant item of furniture was a piano.”

- Benny Green, Jazz author, essayist and critic [emphasis, mine]

“The enormity of Tatum’s achievements makes approaching him a daunting proposition even now.”

= Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

I know that it may be hard to believe, but I didn’t know who Art Tatum was.

He died in 1956, just about the time that I stumbled into the world of Jazz by listening to a bunch of 78 rpm records that my parents had stashed the away in the basement [called a “cellar” in new England].

The closest I unknowingly came to Art’s approach to piano was Teddy Wilson’s playing with the Benny Goodman trio.

I discovered Art Tatum through a Norman Granz Clef LP that I found in a record store discount bin.  The record sleeve was in pretty bad condition which may have been why it was on sale for 25 cents, a hefty sum for me in those days as you could see a double feature at the local movie house for that price.

The David Stone Martin cover art of a bust of Art’s head was intriguing to me so I thought I’d give it a try. Perhaps, Art playing would help me “see out a little,” to use pianist Barry Harris apt expression for expanding one’s view of Jazz.

Despite the record store owner’s reassurances, the LP was in horrible condition.

Listening to it was the aural equivalent of eating Rice Krispies cereal when the milk first hits it – all “snap, crackle and pop.”

I could have cared less as what came through immediately was the magnificence of Art Tatum’s piano playing. I’d never heard anything like it [nor have I ever heard anything like it since].

The sheer brilliance of Art’s piano interpretation literally took my breath away.

His technical command of the instrument and his effervescent improvisations are astonishing, so much so that I can only take his playing in limited bursts.

I simply can’t absorb anymore.  It’s an exhausting pleasure to listen to his work.

Fortunately, for all of us in the Jazz World,  there is plenty of it to listen to because Norman Granz, who did so many important things for the music and its makers during his lifetime, brought Art Tatum into the recording studio in the early 1950’s.

The rest is history as described in Benny Green’s insert notes to the eight volumes of Solo Masterpieces that Art recorded for Norman’s Clef label and which have all subsequently been reissued to CD on the Verve.

“In 1954, Art Tatum (1910-1956) began recording a series of performances for Norman Granz's Verve label which were to occupy the rest of his life. This series included 121 piano solos,* all of which were committed to tape without rehearsal or preamble or reference to stopwatch; Tatum simply sat at the keyboard, the machines were switched on and the marathon began.

It was, of course, a marathon for which the artist had inadvertently been preparing all his life, for Tatum's repertoire was as stupefying as the art he brought to it. As there is no such thing as a specialized Jazz repertoire, the Jazz musician has been obliged to commandeer for his own purposes a quite alien repertoire, originally conceived for the musical comedy or vaudeville stage, the song-plugger's booth, the celluloid charade. For which reason Tatum's marathon was a watershed in the history of popular music, for it represents the confluence of the two great indigenous streams in American musical life, Jazz and the Art Song.

Tatum is the greatest Jazz pianist of all time, the songs he chose the very finest of a much-maligned but nonetheless sublime repertoire. That is why these performances are immortal, because they show the best player interpreting the best material in the best conditions. There is a greater preponderance on this disc than on some of the others in the series of what might be called conventional Jazz making, always remembering that in the context of a musician like Tatum, a word like conventional is no more than comparative. Sweet Lorraine and Sunny Side of the Street are fairly straightforward examples of improvisations on a standard 32-bar theme, without recourse to many orchestral effects like key-changing or switches of tempo, although in Sweet Lorraine a few of the quotes are facetious.

Obviously the same comments do not apply to the ballads and the more ambitiously-structured songs, one of whose most revealing passages comes in the bridge of I Won't Dance, where Tatum's baroque harmonic ingenuity is confronted by the equally baroque stratagems of Kern's creative patterns; the result is an exercise in subtlety, the beautifying of an already beautiful composition. The variations in These Foolish Things are of quite a different order. As the performance gathers creative momentum, it becomes clear that Tatum sees this song as one of those whose contours suggest not so much an improvisation as a fantasia based on the original.

As early as 1933 Tatum had recorded his famous version of Tea for Two, in which the innocent structures of Vincent Youmans were made to perform dizzying modulatory cartwheels; something similar occurs in the last eight-bar section of the first chorus of These Foolish Things; by the end of the track we are faced with a sort of series of variations on a theme. Some of the very best Jazz moments of all come in In a Sentimental Mood, one of Duke Ellington's most sumptuous ballads, and in the altogether more direct piece She's Funny That Way is so great a piece of out-and-out ja// playing that if anyone else but Tatum had been responsible for it we would all have been running round frothing with excitement. It is interesting that on this track Tatum, restricting himself more or less to only three of his effects, crotchet-triplet runs, occasional flurries of semi­quavers, and the contrasting measured tread of Stride left hand, still produces a solo rich and complex.

And as the final cadences of the final chorus of the final number of the final track fade away, marking the end of the most ambitious undertaking by a major Jazz figure, something remains to be said of the musician who rose to the challenge so triumphantly.

Art Tatum was one of the major American creative artists of his epoch, not just in the Jazz context but in the sense of the arts generally. The claim may still seem a shade bombastic to those unaccustomed to searching for the muses in saloon bars and nightclubs, but it is true for all that. The wise fool takes his art where he finds it, and when Tatum was around, he found it in any number of small rooms whose only significant item of furniture was a piano.

Tatum's piano solos reappear at a moment in social history when the fortunes of popular music are problematic. The age of live performances would seem to be in eclipse; now is the winter of our discotheque. For that reason Tatum's art is more vital than ever it was before, because it is a living proof that the artist of genius laughs at the limitations of his environment and sometimes even takes a truculent delight in brushing them aside. Tatum is a jewel in store for posterity, which might sound a little unfair. After all, as a cynic once asked, what has posterity ever done for us? In the case of Tatum, posterity has much to do. It has to come to terms with the greatest baroque musical artist so far produced by American culture. Tatum's day of reckoning will come. In the meantime, there remains this set of superlative piano solos. They will unquestionably prove to have been the outriders to his belated recognition.”

—Benny Green

[*Four additional solo tracks were recorded by Tatum at an August 1956 Hollywood Bowl concert. The long available material is included in Volume Eight.]

Art Tatum in Retrospect:

Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz – The First Century

“… if Tatum was a product of jazz, he was by no means a conventional jazz pianist and disdained the tag. He was too prolix to be an effective accompanist, and he was diminished rather than emboldened by collaboration. Although best known to the public for his piano-guitar-bass trio, which was modeled after Nat King Cole and inclined toward unison riffs and jokey juxtapositions, he was — like Chopin or Scriabin — a creator of sui generis piano music.

Tatum has always mystified jazz fans. … Too many jazz lovers are seduced by and dependent on the beat, which Tatum withholds and reshapes. What is most astonishing in his music is not the digital control, but the shifting harmonies and rhythms that he modulates and controls as no other musician has. His unequaled knowledge of chords profoundly influenced Coleman Haw­kins, Charlie Parker, and Charles Mingus, among others, but he used it as only a pianist can: in contrary patterns that demand parity for both hands, in rapid key substitutions, in entering and exiting chords at oblique angles. Oscar Peterson has speed, but his arpeggios are harmon­ically dim and therefore predictable. Tatum is as a rainbow, his music glimmers and cascades.”

Whitney Balliett, American Musicians

“Tatum did not fit comfortably in jazz, for his playing, which was largely orchestral, both encompassed it and overflowed it. He occupied his own country. His playing was shaped primarily by his technique, which was prodigious, even virtuosic. Tatum had an angelic touch: no pianist has got a better sound out of the instrument. He was completely ambidextrous. And he could move his hands at bewildering speeds, whether through gargantuan arpeggios, oompah stride basses, on-the-beat tenths, or sin­gle-note melodic lines. No matter how fast he played or how intense and complex his harmonic inventions became, his attack kept its commanding clarity….

Tatum was a restless, compulsive player who abhorred silence. He used the piano's orchestral possibilities to the fullest, simultaneously maintain­ing a melodic voice, a harmonic voice, a variety of decorative voices, and a kind of whimsical voice, a laughing, look-Ma-no-hands voice. The effect was both confounding and exhilarating.

Tatum had two main modes—the flashy, kaleidoscopic style he used on the job, and the straight-ahead jazz style, which emerges in fragments from his few after-hours recordings and from some of the recordings made with his various trios (piano, guitar, and bass), which seemed to galvanize him. (Tatum did not have an easy time playing with other instruments; he tended to compete with them, then overrun them.) He offered the first style to the public, which accepted it with awe, and he used the second to delight himself and his peers.”

Len Lyons, The Great Jazz Pianists

“From roughly 1935 until the early 1940's most jazz pianists worked with some combinations of the elements heard in the playing of Johnson, Waller, Hines, and Wilson. Although the basic approach to playing jazz on the piano had reached, at least temporarily, a point of definition, there were many pianists who created original and influential styles out of these basic building blocks.

By all accounts it was Art Tatum (1910-1956) who cast the longest shadow among them. There has been no more complete master of the instru­ment, and to no other pianist does the cliché ‘a legend in his own time’ apply more readily. Born in ToledoOhio, Tatum played in local clubs and on the radio until he went to New York in 1932 as the accompanist for singer Adelaide Hall. The cornerstones of his music were the harmonies of Hines, the driving left hand of Waller, and the flowing, legato melody and moving left-hand tenths that he heard in the playing of young Teddy Wilson.

The most obvious difference between Tatum and the other pianists was his conspicuous virtuosity. Despite his extremely limited vision in one eye (to the extent that he was judged legally blind), Tatum seemed to play everything twice as fast as his peers, while increasing the level of swing and harmonic variety. His influence on other pianists was profound, if not devastating. It is said that he intimidated many of them into taking up other instruments. But Tatumesque passages are evident in the music of many undaunted pianists who followed him, especially in the music of Bud Powell (in his ballads), Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, and Hank Jones, though these are only a few of the most obvious examples.

Tatum's repertoire was vast but not otherwise unusual. Some of the songs he played early in his career-such as Tea for TwoTiger RagSomeone to Watch over Me, dozens more standards, and a few light classics-he con­tinued to record in the 1950's. Yet he rarely repeated himself in his treatment of the material. His harmonic variations were startling, especially when he soloed. Where another pianist might go directly from one chord to the next, Tatum's left hand would walk crablike through a cycle of four to six new chords between the original two. Meanwhile, his right hand would spin out a web of interconnecting lines of thirty-second notes. Tatum could keep up these magnificent circumlocutions for eight bars or more and never drop a beat. Jazz pianists idolized Art Tatum….

During the forties Tatum worked frequently with a trio that included Slam Stewart on bass and Tiny Grimes on guitar. The group was celebrated for the intuitive communication among the players as well as for Tatum's blister­ing speed, as they achieved a unity of sound that was rare at any tempo.

While Tatum was virtually without deficiency as a pianist, his improvising sometimes amounted to ornate, if not rococo, interpretations of his material. There was no doubt that those ornaments were gorgeous, but they were at times more decorative than creative. Most of Tatum's music, however, is gen­uine artistry amplified by awesome virtuosity. Moreover, those who knew him claim that he played best of all beyond the reach of recorded history and without the inhibiting presence of the public or recording microphones, at private, after-hours parties.”

 It is impossible to have a favorite Art Tatum recording, but if, mind you IF, I had to chose just one, it would be the version of Sweet Lorraine that accompanies the following video montage.

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