Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton: Paving the Path to Modern Drumming

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

“One night late in the fall of 1933, a lanky youth with a mop of dark hair entered a night club on Chicago’s north side and asked the waiter for a table near the band. He sat down took out a stick of gum, popping it in his mouth as he watched the show. He drummed on the table with his fingers.

The dancers were running through a routine based on Liszt's First and Second Hungarian Rhapsodies. To watch the dancers and watch the conductor, too, in show work, everything depends on the drums.

Gene Krupa stayed late that night even though he had to get up for a rehearsal the next morning. Like many of today’s great drummers, Krupa was serving his extra-curricular apprenticeship with Baby Dodds.

Baby won’t actually claim that he taught any of them. “Drummers just get pointers from each other, that’s all,” he says, “and I don’t want to go claiming that I taught them. I got that in the back of my head and if they want to ask for it, I give it to them.”

Among the drummers who have asked for that stuff are Dave Tough of the Eddie Condon Band, George Wettling with Paul Whiteman; Ray Bauduc, Wally Bishop and Ben Pollack have all sat by his side.

When Zutty Singleton first heard Baby on an excursion boat out of New Orleans, he went home and asked his uncle: “I wonder if I could ever drum like that fellow on the boat?””
- Fred Ramsey, Baby Dodds, The Drums [Smithsonian Folkways FW02290 / FJ 2290]

Jazz drumming has come so far today in terms of technique and complexity that few listeners ever pause to reflect on those that started it on the path to modernity.

Horn instruments in the hands of Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden made possible examples of how to develop facility on the trumpet, tenor sax and trombone, respectively.

Earl Fatha Hines, Thomas Fats Waller and Art Tatum became beacons for those pianists who wished to bring their technical skills on piano to a higher level as did the work of string players such as Joe Venuti on violin and Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt on guitar.

Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich gained a large measure of public attention for the stylistic advances that they brought to Jazz drumming but, sadly, too few Jazz fans are aware of the foundation upon which their drumming wizardry is based.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be fun to reflect back on the careers of two drummers who provided the building blocks upon which early Jazz drumming technique is based: Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton.

We are indebted to a variety of sources for the following information including the Moderndrummer and Drummerworld websites and Len Lyons and Don Perlo’s Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters.

Warren “Baby” Dodds

Warren “Baby” Dodds was born in New Orleans on Christmas Eve, 1898 and died in Chicago on Valentine’s Day, 1958.

Dodds, a hard-drinking, hard-fighting musician in his youth, and is considered by many to be the Father of Jazz Drumming mainly because he defined many of the criteria by which future drummers would be judged. Although he was inspired and influenced by parade drummers like "Black Benny" and Mack Murray, and Creole bandleader Louis Cottrell, Sr., Dodds popularized the steady of the bass drum in ensemble playing, a style that persisted until 1940 and long after in traditional jazz groups.

Dodds also proved that tuning the tom-toms and snare to the other instruments in the band was essential. In addition to these innovations, he is credited with keeping an early form of the ride rhythm on the snare drum. During the 1920s, Dodds’ recordings with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, Louis Armstrong's Five and Hot Seven, and Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers made him the most famous and imitated of jazz drummers.

The youngest of six children, and bearing the same first name a father, Dodds was called "Baby" from his earliest years. Everyone in the family played an instrument, and Baby's older brother Johnny was a prominent clarinetist. Baby created his first snare drum from a lard can, removing the dowels from a chair for a pair of sticks; he kicked the baseboard wall to get a bass-drum sound. On this jerry-built kit, he first accompanied Johnny.

At sixteen, Baby worked as a butler and salad boy and saved to buy first drum. He studied music with a well-known local teacher, Dave Perkins, who taught a racially mixed class, an extraordinary arrangement even for New Orleans. Baby was soon playing for dances, at picnics, and on the band (advertising) wagons with Louis "Big Eye" Nelson, Bunk Johnson, Papa Celestin, Frankie Dusen's band, and other local groups. He was developing a longstanding rivalry, born of admiration, with Johnny, who worked with King Oliver and Kid Ory in more prestigious bands.

In 1918 bassist George "Pops" Foster got Baby a job in the riverboat bands, where the drummer befriended the young cornetist Louis Armstrong. Dodds's technique improved radically with the demands of constant performing, and he was soon known for his press roll and his ability to get varied tonal coloration from the trap set, which then included a good supply of novelty instruments, like whistles, wood blocks, triangles, and tambourines. During 1921 Dodds and Armstrong were notorious crowd pleasers in Fate Marable's band, but in 1921 they were dismissed from the riverboat line for their intractable offstage behavior. Dodds was known as "a real hellion" who would "fight at the drop of a hat."

In 1922 Dodds was invited to join King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, which had just returned to Chicago from the West Coast. When Armstrong was added as second cornet the next year, the group — which also included Baby's brother Johnny on clarinet — became the most influential small combo in jazz. Descriptions of Dodds's style emphasize its complexity, especially his use of varied tonal colors and sensitive accompaniment to whatever mood and spirit was struck by the band. Interestingly, Dodds resisted using wire brushes until later in his career, although he was able to play very lightly with sticks. He considered it imperative to fit in with the context. In short, Dodds was perhaps the first to demonstrate what has since been taken for granted: that the drummer could be, and must be, a full-fledged musician.

Shortly after Armstrong left the group to make his own name, Oliver's band broke up because of disputes over record royalties. During the remainder of the 1920s, Dodds's influence grew so that his dense sound, full of color and special effects, exemplified the state of the art for that period. Unfortunately, the famous disks that Dodds made with the Hot Five, Hot Seven, and Red Hot Peppers (1925—27) do not reveal how he played because the primitive recording techniques were unable to capture the drums' sound.

Until the 1930s, drummers were prohibited from using a bass drum and in general kept to the wood blocks, or one cymbal, sitting as far from the microphone as possible. Dodds's style, however, has been preserved by the descriptions of critics and the many drummers he influenced, a group that includes Zutty Singleton, Ray Bauduc, George Wettling, and Gene Krupa.

Dodds free-lanced for the rest of his career. His most important playing was done with his brother at the Three Deuces in Chicago and with the many white traditionalists for whom he was a major hero: Paul Mares, Mezz Mezzrow, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Condon, Jimmy McPartland, and Art Hodes.

By that time, there were younger drummers like Singleton, Big Sid Catlett, and Chick Webb, who were evolving the drummer's task as outlined by Dodds. Dodds worked with Jimmy Noone and Sidney Bechet in the early 1940s. In 1944 he was incorporated into the New Orleans revival as accompaniment to Bunk Johnson, and in 1946 he recorded drum solos and narration for historian Fred Ramsey in order to recapture the sound of jazz drumming in Chicago of the 1920s and in turn-of-the-century New Orleans (The Drums, Folkways).

Overweight and drinking heavily, Dodds suffered the first of several strokes in 1949. But he continued to play in the Chicago area until two years before his death, in 1959.

Arthur James “Zutty” Singleton

Arthur James “Zutty” Singleton was born in Bunkie, Louisiana on May 14, 1898 and died in New York City on July 14, 1975.

Zutty Singleton’s drumming served as a transition between the dense, heavy style of Baby Dodds and the lighter swing style of Jo Jones and Big Sid Catlett.
Singleton simplified not only drumming but the drum set itself, which was outfitted by most traditionalists with a colorful if cumbersome array of novelty percussives. Zutty also pioneered the drum solo, though on a modest scale, and the use of wire brushes to achieve a softer sound.

Zutty's interest in drums dates from his earliest years in Bunkie, where ke was drawn into music by an uncle, guitarist Willie Bontemps. His unusual nickname, acquired in infancy, is the Creole word for “cute.”

The family moved to New Orleans when Zutty was a boy, and he inevitably was drawn into the local music scene. He is known to have worked in the bands of Steve Lewis and John Robicheaux (1915—16) before his hitch with the navy (1917-18). Zutty had a close friend and bandmate in Louis Armstrong, with whom he was destined to make his historic contribution. The two were so close that Armstrong turned down a flattering offer to work in New York around 1920 because Zutty could not be hired along with him. Zutty later followed Armstrong into one of Fate Marable's riverboat bands (1921—23), where nightly performing and demanding arrangements radically improved | lis musicianship.

In 1925 Singleton moved to Chicago, where his most significant playing took place over a five-year period. First, he worked with clarinetist Jimmy Noone (1925—26), most notably at a club called The Nest in a trio that included pianist Jerome Carrington. To take the pressure off his colleagues, Zutty began taking chorus-long solos that were organized to reflect the song material. Although extended drum solos became commonplace a decade later thanks to the pyrotechnics of Gene Krupa, Singleton's emergence from a backup role to a soloist was boldly innovative.

The group at The Nest acquired a following that included a young Benny Goodman, the composer Maurice Ravel, and the poet Carl Sandburg. Next, Singleton replaced Baby Dodds in Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recording bands. With his lighter style and adoption of the new wire brushes (rejected at that time by Dodds), Zutty was able to contribute more fully to the recording process than drummers before him (Louis Armstrong—Earl Hines, 1928, Smithsonian Collection). On the earliest of these tracks, Zutty merely punctuates the music with a high-pitched cymbal, but by December of that year it was discovered that placing a mike under the snare, with Zutty on brushes. made the drums recordable. On some tracks he keeps time for a chorus on the large ride cymbal, a technique that few other drummers adopted until the 1930s. In two sessions with Jelly Roll Morton and Barney Bigard (1929), Singleton's neat, swinging brushwork and remarkably modern feeling is even better preserved (Giants of Jazz: Jelly Roll Morton, Time-Life).

From 1930 to 1935, Singleton was the house drummer at the Three Deuces in Chicago, perhaps the nation's first jazz club. When Art Tatum came into the club with his own drummer, Zutty moved back to New York. where his headquarters became Nick's in Greenwich Village. During the late 1930s, he accompanied and recorded with Sidney Bechet, Lionel Hampton, Roy Eldridge, Mezz Mezzrow, and numerous others. Shortly after the Goodman quartet broke the color barrier, Singleton was the drummer in another early racially mixed group, led by Mezzrow; it included Max Kaminsky, Frankie Newton, and Sidney DeParis.

Zutty's popularity drew him into the film Stormy Weather (1943), and after his trip to Hollywood, that became his home for ten years. As usual, he became the backbone of a local jazz club, this time Billy Berg's. Zutty helped arrange for Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to play there in 1945.

For the remainder of his long career, Singleton free-lanced in Los Angeles, Europe, and finally again in New York, where he lived with his wife in an apartment overlooking Birdland. In 1969 he suffered a stroke that left him unable to play. He died six years later.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Free Flight [From the Archives]

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

Through a mutual friend, I was introduced to bassist James Lacefield during the early 1980s.

Although some of the early giants and creators of Jazz were still active, by and large, the 1980s was a time for new blood, electronic instruments and lots of fusion.

Mainly a straight-ahead guy myself, I dug the fusion, crossover thing if it was done well. After awhile, I even got on with electronic keyboards and synthesizers if they weren’t played in poor taste [overplayed; too loud; too frantic and frenetic, et al].

So when Jim Lacefield hipped me to Free Flight: A Jazz/Classical Union [Palo Alto Jazz Records 8024], an LP which came out in 1982 on which he played both acoustic and electric bass, I thought I’d keep an open mind about it and see if its music had any appeal.

Classical themes set to Jazz rhythms are always fun because they offer a fresh orientation to the composition of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Paganini and many others. What’s more, some of these Classical Music heavyweights were the Jazz improvisers of their time.

In addition to Jim Lacefield, Free Flight was made up of Milcho Leviev on piano and keyboards with whom I had worked on a number of occasions in alto saxophonist Fred Selden’s quartet and drummer Ralph Humphrey, whose playing I was familiar with dating back to the Don Ellis Big Band of the late 1960s [Fred and Milcho were on Don’s band with Ralph].

The only member of Free Flight I was not acquainted with was James Walker, but since he was the principal flutist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I figured with that pedigree, he could handle himself in a musical setting that professed to be “A Jazz/Classical Union.”

Given the theme of Free Flight: A Jazz/Classical Union and the musicians performing on it, I was predisposed to like its music and I wasn’t disappointed.

I liked it so much that I went out and purchased two of their subsequent recordings: Slice of Life [CBS-FMT 4415] and Beyond the Counds [Palo Alto Jazz Records 8075].

Mike Garson replaces Milcho on these recordings and lends his particular skills and style to Free Flight’s approach which had broadened considerably beyond its Classical Music orientation.

The real revelation for me on all of these Free Flight recordings was how effortlessly flutist James Walker seemed to take to Jazz improvising, an adaptation that often causes some difficulties for musicians who primarily perform Classical Music.

But the even bigger surprise was that the whole idea of Free Flight was Jim Walker’s idea in the first place!

I found this out 30 years after I first heard the group when a recent internet search led me to the background information about Jim and Free Flight contained in the following, two essays.

© -  James Walker, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Free Flight: Eclecticism without Compromise

“Founded in 1980 by flutist Jim Walker as a jazz outlet from his career as principal flutist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Free Flight has managed to turn jazz fans into classical buffs and classical audiences toward jazz.

From Bach to Beethoven to Miles Davis to the Beatles, their "eclecticism without compromise" can be heard not simply piece by piece, but within each composition, blending together flavors of classical, jazz, new age and rock music into a palatable whole.

Whatever legitimacy the label "Crossover" holds for their sound, in performance Free Flight always encourages the crossover of audiences' tastes no matter what the setting. Walker says Free Flight has always been "Performance-oriented, reaching people above and beyond the style of music played."

And the proof is, they have never had anything close to a "mediocre" reaction to any performance. A critic may have put it best: "If you can sit still while listening to Free Flight, you're either deaf or dead." Their ongoing success comes as much from their personalities as from technical brilliance, improvisational flair and compositional density.

Audiences know, Free Flight is Fun! The clairvoyant interplay between Jim & Mike Garson — who joined the group in 1982 and now composes most of their original music — flows down into the crowd, uplifting and always entertaining.
An evening of Free Flight may possess the cool side of jazz, the tranquillity of classical, as well as rock's drive, but make no mistake: Free Flight doesn't distance itself from it's listeners with these, its personalities draw people in.

Garson says the technology of the 90's has allowed the group to keep up with the contemporary production standards, while relying primarily on the sonority of the acoustic flute, piano, bass & percussion. Walker believes his concept of a flute-led jazz/classical ensemble has a strong appeal to a musician raised on jazz, but who found his profession in world-famous orchestras for 15 years.

Eight recordings plus appearances on the "Tonight Show", Lincoln Center, and the Hollywood Bowl have justified that appeal. Free Flight's recordings always hit the top of the charts and remain listening gems for years.

Their newest releases are "Free Flight 2000" and "The Best of Free Flight." These CDs capture Free Flight's "live/concert feeling" combining past favorites with exciting new compositions, a treasury of the best of their work. Other signature Free Flight albums include "Flight of the Dove" (which Jim recorded with Mike Garson) and "The Jazz-Classical Union."

Two recordings made in the late 1980's — "Illumination" and "Slice of Life" — may also be available in the near future. For more information about Free Flight — including a comprehensive selection of audio samples — please visit the website of Jim Walker, the group's founder at: www.jimwalkerflute.com.

© -  Zan Stewart/Los Angeles Times, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Flutist Enjoys His Solo Jazz Flight - January 7, 1978

When Jim Walker walked out on the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he knew exactly what he was doing.

Walker, who had been with the Pittsburgh Symphony for eight years before joining the Philharmonic as co-principal flutist in 1977, wanted to focus his energies on studio work and the jazz/rock/classical fusion group Free Flight when he resigned his very lucrative post in August, 1984.
"After 15 years as a classical player, it was enough," Walker said. "In the beginning, I felt I was playing honest, wonderfully inspiring music. But after hundreds of repetitions, it wasn't so inspiring."

Instead of heading up a flute section, Walker, 42, discovered he wanted to be a soloist, as he is when he plays with Free Flight, which appears Sunday, on the Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, at the Mount Lowe Historical Museum in Altadena.

"I've found I have a soloist's instinct," he said, propping himself up on his couch in the music room of his Encino home.

"I do love to be heard and I've found that I want to play more than two-to-three minutes of solos during a two-hour concert. I like to be the guy who's really working out hard with two or three others. Plus, I like the challenge of improvising and playing with freshness and vitality."

Playing with a small band--Free Flight's other members are pianist Mike Garson, bassist Jim Lacefield and drummer Ralph Humphrey--and offering "contemporary crossover" sounds to predominantly youthful audiences gets a result that pleases Walker.

"I like the immediate involvement with an audience when you know that what's being put out is being actively, and enthusiastically received, which isn't always the case with a classical performance," he said. "I love those standing ovations. That's the bottom line for me. A check isn't that big a deal. I really thrive on that communication."

Though his recordings show Walker to be an exciting soloist, he thinks he still has some work to do before he'll feel completely at home as an improviser.

"I've always preached that 'the more you practiced and the better you got, the further you realized you had to go,' and I'm finding this to be true," he said. "I'm probably less satisfied in terms of how far I have to go, but I'm very happy that I'm working as a soloist."

Walker, who has a remarkable technical fluency, feels that if he has a weak point, it's that "I'm not as spontaneous as I'd like to be," he said. "A lot of times I'll play a lot of notes, when I should be playing less. So, my current campaign is to slow down.

"Technical playing can be a trap," he continued. "For someone with good facility, when you're under stress, the automatic reaction is to revert to wiggling your fingers and blowing faster and faster, as if to say, 'Well, at least something is coming out.' It's like a baseball player, when his swing goes off, to swing harder, because his timing is a little off.

"Basically, I want to put forth a buoyant, happy spirit from the stage, and I'm hoping that's what comes across to the listener, not some unbelievable coordination between four virtuosi. I want the audience to be uplifted, and the more I relax, the more that happens."

Walker--who describes Free Flight's music as alternately "high- energy new age, pop-jazz and classical adaptations"--calls himself an "American flute player." "I'm one of those guys that grew up exposed to a lot of different musics, and if I spent enough time playing them, they'd become part of my style."

Along with elements of jazz, pop, rock and the classics, Walker's style also prominently spotlights "the classical sound of the flute," he said. "A close listen will tell you I've had classical training. That's my strong suit, making a warm sound and playing warm melodies on the flute."

Though the major portion of his career has been in classical situations, Walker grew up "in an area of Kentucky where there wasn't an orchestra nearby and my parents didn't have a lot of classical music around," he said. "I was really raised hearing the great standards, like 'Stella By Starlight' and 'Stardust.' It was only later, when I was at music camps, that I found I had an attraction for classical music."
Although Walker has not appeared with a major symphony since he left the Philharmonic, he has not abandoned the classical realm. He makes occasional festival appearances, as at Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Ore., and Music From Angel Fire, near Taos, N. M.

While he makes the bulk of his living in the studios, playing on scores such as the recent NBC miniseries, "A Year in the Life," Walker says his heart is with Free Flight, which presently tours about two-to-three months a year and whose most recent LP is "Illumination"(CBS). "This music comes closer to the type of music I like to make and listen to than anything I've done so far."

The following video features Free Flight performing Bach’s Groove - Milcho Leviev’s arrangement and adaptation of J.S. Bach’s Badineire from Orchestral Suite #12.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

James Price Johnson and William "Chick" Webb

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

From time-to-time, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles likes to give a quick nod to some of those who made the music during its formative stages.

It’s our small way of remembering their contributions and it is a always great fun to compare what was happening in Jazz, then and now.

At times, even with the “distant” sound that characterized the audio of many of the earlier recordings, it can be quite startling to hear the improvised ideas and technical mastery of these early Jazz musicians.

Two such musicians that have always impressed us in this manner are pianist James P. Johnson, who died in 1955, and drummer Chick Webb, who died in 1939.

© -Len Lyons and Don Perlo, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“In the hands of James Price Johnson [1894-1955], ragtime piano developed into "stride," a more boldly imaginative style characterized by a left hand that constantly strides from the lower to the middle register of the keyboard. Johnson played in a looser, more blues-based style than the classically oriented rag-timers. Though he was always drawn to composing orchestral works, he will be remembered most for his solo-piano playing and for his timeless composition "The Charleston" (1923). He was a profound force in the development of jazz piano, tutoring Fats Waller and influencing the piano styles of Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, and countless stride players.

Johnson began learning classical piano from his mother. When the family moved to New York in 1908, he was exposed to ragtime and blues at rent parties and in Long Island resorts during the summer. He studied classical piano as well as harmony and counterpoint with Bruno Giannini and he developed a superb, almost athletic technique, which set a standard that other stride pianists were expected to emulate. He would often introduce paraphrased passages from the classics into his own blues, shouts, and rags. Johnson also learned the repertoires of the eastern ragtime players like Abba Labba (Richard MacLean) and Eubie Blake. Johnson was known for his playing at a club called The Jungle, where poor laborers from the South danced to his solo-piano shouts. One can easily imagine from listening to his recordings decades later the relentless rocking rhythms he must have generated in that environment.

In 1917, Johnson began recording rolls for the Q.R.S. company. His original “Carolina Shout” [1921 and the audio track to the above video] became a standard for the era for East Coast pianists: [Duke] Ellington and [Thomas “Fats”] Waller, for example, learned it by ear.” Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters [New York: William Morrow/Quill, 1989, pp.307-308].

© -Burt Korall, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Buddy Rich. ‘Until the mid-1930s, I had never been any place where jazz was played. I was in another world, a world called show business that really had nothing to do with music. I lived in Brooklyn with my family when I was becoming involved with jazz. One Wednesday night in '35, a bunch of my friends took me to the Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Harlem for the amateur night thing. That was the first time I dug Chick Webb.

He was the total experience on drums. He played everything well. A little later, about the time I joined Joe Marsala at the Hickory House in 1937,1 went up to the Savoy to check him out again. What I remember most distinctly was that he was different and individual—not like Cozy Cole or Jimmy Crawford or any of the other cats. Even his set was different. He had cymbals on those gooseneck holders, the trap table, a special seat and pedals made specifically for him because he was so small.

Chick was hell on the up-tempos. He kept the time firm and exciting, tapping out an even 4/4 on the bass drum. That was something in the 1930s. Most of the guys downtown could hardly make two beats to the bar; they were into the Chicago style— Dixieland.

Chick set an example. He was hip, sharp, swinging. You know, only about a half-dozen of the top drummers since then, including today's so-called "great" drummers, have anything resembling what he had. If he were alive now, I think most drummers would be running around trying to figure out why they decided to play drums. That's how good he was!

As a soloist, Chick had no equal at that time. He would play four- and eight-bar breaks that made great sense. And he could stretch out, too, and say things that remained with you. It's difficult to describe his style and exactly what he did. One thing is certain, though; he was a marvelous, big-band, swing drummer. Gene [Krupa] got to the heart of the matter when he said, after the Goodman-Webb band battle at the Savoy in '37, "I've never been cut by a better man."’ …

Webb in action made quite a picture. When swinging hard, he brought the entire drum set into play as he proceeded, moving his sticks or brushes across, around, up, and down the hills and valleys of the set. He choked cymbals, teased sound out of them, or hit them full; he played time and variations on the pulse on his snare, high-hat, cymbals, tom-toms, cowbell, temple blocks (often behind piano solos), and, of course, on the bass drum. He had facility to burn; fast strokes, with diversified accents, most often were played to forward the cause of the beat.” Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz – The Swinging Years [New York: Schirmer, 1990. pp. 19-21].

Glasses lifted to the early guys: no them – no Jazz.

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.