Saturday, April 27, 2019

Michel Petrucciani - Pianism

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

“He… [is] a romantic with a taste for lush voicings, high-drama soloing and bouts of introspection, while steadily refining and nurturing a rhythmic vigor and flair for melodic invention and forceful bass lines that contribute in setting him apart.”
- Fernando Gonzales, Jazz critic

With this feature, I wanted to pick up on a thought that Bill Evans expressed in the Universal Mind of Bill Evans documentary that Louis Carvell produced for Rhapsody Films in 1966 and apply it to the late pianist Michel Petrucciani’s evolution as a Jazz artist.

“It ends up where the Jazz player, ultimately, if he’s going to be a serious Jazz player, teaches himself. ...

You cannot progress on top of vagueness and confusion. It is true of any subject that the person that succeeds ... has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning, knowing that the problem is large, and that he has to take it a step at a time, and he has to enjoy this step-by-step learning procedure."

Still a few days shy of his 23rd birthday, on December 20, 1985, Michel Petrucciani on the Blue Note label along with Palle Danielsson on bass and Eliot Zigmund on drums recorded Pianism [CDP 7 46295 2].  With this recording, Michel achieved the distinction of being the first French-born Jazz musician offered a contract by this famed label. He would record seven albums for Blue Note during their nine-year association.

Somewhat ironically relative to the statement by Bill Evans that motivated the development of this piece, with Pianism, Michel begins to move away from Bill’s influence and more towards an expression of his own individuality.

Pianism [which means the technique or execution of piano playing] was recorded after this group had finished a 6-week, 32-concert tour and Michel, Palle and Eliot approached the recording session as just another gig on the tour.

Michel is a two-handed pianist; he uses both hands while improvising instead of playing an occasional chord or interval with his left-hand to form an accompaniment for horn-like figures being played in his right-hand.

He has the technical ability to carry this two-handedness even further by employing improvisations with both hands at the same time or even using both hands to play two different tunes or even two different time signatures simultaneously.

Michel has a special way of practicing that helps in achieving this skill that he described to Mort Goode in the insert notes to Pianism as follows:

“I play a song with my left hand in the original key. Let’s say it’s in ‘C.’ My right hand plays the same song a half-step higher in ‘C sharp.’ Then I improvise on ’C sharp’ and comp [accompany myself] in the original key so it sounds like a kind of study. It sounds terrible.  It’s wrong but interesting, because when you change melodies it’s completely different. That teaches me to have two different brains, to keep my hand actions separate.

My technique goes where my mind would like to go. Sometimes I don’t have the mental agility to get there. That’s why I’m an instrumentalist. That tool (the piano) helps me go further than my mind might go. This practice helps me reach there.

Incidentally, Mort was to later discover that Art Tatum also practiced by playing a half-tone higher in his right hand than he was in his left hand.  It is doubtful that many others Jazz pianists would have the discipline and the perseverance to practice in this manner.

Michel’s nine years with the Blue Note Label from 1985 to 1993 would find him on many new voyages of musical discovery.  On these recordings, he would play in a variety of musical settings involving an array of both young and seasoned Jazz musicians, experiment with electronic instruments and synthesizers, and compose a wide array of original compositions. All of these experiments would contribute to the creation of a style of his own.

Throughout his career, Michel was constantly altering his musical settings; this was particularly true of his choice of bassists and drummers.  In general, he simply enjoyed playing with as many good musicians as possible. Since his preferred group format was a piano bass and drums trio, one way to enhance the development of his own style of Jazz piano was to play with a wide variety of bassists and drummers.

As Michel commented to Mort Goode:

“I don’t want to get too intellectual about my music. My philosophy is quite simple. For one thing – too much intellectualizing is boring. Too much comedy is boring. Too much of anything is boring. We all need to know when to get off, to simply stop.”

In many ways, Pianism is a breakthrough album for Michel in terms of the evolution of his own approach to Jazz piano for with, and perhaps because of, the concentration of original compositions, the Evans-Jarrett-Tyner influences are hardly discernible this recording is an expression of Petrucciani’s Jazz conception.  

And what a conception: improvisational ideas that seem to flow limitlessly, punctuated by a forceful attack and encapsulated in a variety of constantly changing tempos and rhythmic displacements.  

With Michel playing more Petrucciani and less his influences, his music not only reflects Whitney Balliet’s “Sound of Surprise,”more and more, it becomes The Sound of the Never Heard Before.

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