Thursday, June 10, 2021

Michel Petrucciani: A Career of Urgency - Jazz Pianist Extraordinaire

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For most of the year following the death of Michel Petrucciani in January 1999, somewhat reflexively, I played his music on a regular basis.

Over the past two decades since his passing, I noticed that I periodically return to it - particularly the solo piano recordings - and engross myself in them for long periods of time.

I guess I wasn’t the only one who noticed this tendency as one day, my wife asked: “Why do you like his music so much?”


The search for the answer to this seemingly simple question led to the multi-part piece on Michel that recently featured on JazzProfiles.


The problem with finding an answer to my wife’s question is summoned up in this statement about the evanescence and significance of Jazz by the esteemed critic, Gene Lees:


“Jazz, to a degree that depends on your ability and willingness to submit to it, gets you beyond the process of conscious judgment, of verbalizing, of observing yourself in the act of listening and thinking about your responses, which very act can make those responses evaporate. It opens, as it were, the doorway to the soul and gives the music direct access to the inner person.  At the same time Jazz combines a flowing rhythmic pulse with extraordinary emotional expressiveness and intellectual invention.”  [Foreword, Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 1994].


However, while preparing the multi-part piece allowed me another excuse to steep myself in Michel’s music, and notwithstanding Gene Lees’ caveat about conscious judgment and trying to verbalize the act of listening to Jazz, the time has come to attempt to answer my wife’s question.


Louis Armstrong once declared: “The music either speaks to you or it don’t.”  Louis’ declarative statement may be the ready answer to my wife’s question – Michel’s music simply “speaks to me.”  But why? Why is it that the playing of some musicians appeals to some listeners more than others? What about Michel’s playing and his music do I find particularly appealing?


 Perhaps a place to search out an answer to this more difficult question is with a recognition that as far back as I can remember, when listening to Jazz pianists I have always been fascinated with those that play the instrumental orchestrally.  My earliest favorite pianists - Erroll Garner and Dave Brubeck – approached the instrument as though they had a symphony orchestra at their fingertips.


The other quality that I have always found appealing in pianists is those who play the instrument percussively and with a flowing metrical pulse so that their improvisations have lots of rhythmic phrases and a very pronounced sense of swing; the kind that you can easily tap your foot to.


The music of Michel Petrucciani fits into both of these categories: it is at once orchestral and percussive with a heightened, unrelenting sense of swing.


One of my earliest recollections of Jazz piano being played in this manner was on the 10” Columbia House Party EP entitled He’s Here, He’s Gone, He’s Garner!  It contains an 8 minute version of Erroll playing The Man I Love that moves from a stately Brahmsian introduction, to a majestically slow representation of the melody before it moves into chorus after chorus of up-tempo, pulsating and original improvisations whose conclusion always leaves me exhausted from the excitement they generate in my emotions.


Erroll plays his usual four-beats-to-the-bar left hand self-accompaniment, but his right hand is all over the middle and upper register of the piano with block chord phrases, rhythmic riffs interchanged with drum fills and single lines that weave a powerful elucidation of bop phrases.


Pianist Dick Katz, in his splendidly instructive essay entitled “Pianists of the 1940s and 1950s” that appears in editor Bill Kirchner’s The Oxford Companion to Jazz [New York: Oxford University Press, 2000], provides this description of Erroll Garner:


“Unique is an inadequate word to describe Erroll Garner. He was a musical phenomenon unlike any other. One of the most appealing performers in Jazz history, he influenced almost every pianist who played in his era, and even beyond. Self-taught, he could not read music, yet he did things that trained pianists could not play or even imagine. Garner was a one-man swing band, and indeed often acknowledged that his main inspiration was the big bands of the thirties – Duke, Basie, Lunceford, et al. He developed a self-sufficient, extremely full style that was characterized by a rock-steady left-hand that also sounded like a strumming rhythm guitar. Juxtaposed against this was a river of chordal or single note ideas, frequently stated in a lagging, behind-the-beat way that generated terrific swing.” [P. 365]


Like Garner, and given his prodigious technique, Michel also offers what I think of as a complete piano listening experience in which the full range of the instrument comes into play.


Indeed, many of the qualities that Dick Katz ascribes to Erroll Garner’s style are also those that I find appealing in Michel’s especially the percussion phrasing [in this case, not the ‘strumming rhythm guitar’ but either bass lines or counter-rhythmic riffs] played in the left hand against which Michel “… juxtaposed a river of chordal or single note ideas ….”  Michel is one of the few pianists who, although formally trained and not self-taught, had the ears and the imagination to rival Garner’s creativity. 

To carry the analogy even a step further, Petrucciani’s often played, show-stopping treatment of Caravan may have had its inspiration in Erroll lengthy version of the tune that he performed on the Columbia album by the same name [CL 535].


I like the sound of Jazz piano that is played in a highly arranged manner.

Zan Stewart offers this perspective in his insert notes to pianist Bill Cunliffe’s Satisfaction CD [Azica AJD-72208]:


“Pianists and guitarists are indeed fortunate in that they play an instrument that can function both as a solo voice and as an orchestra. This of course allows for that most unusual of personal music expression to be realized: an unaccompanied solo statement embodied within the full harmonic resources of a large ensemble.”


Another pianist who plays in this style and who was an early influence on my tastes in Piano Jazz is Martial Solal. 


Turning to the previously cited Dick Katz essay, he had this to say about Solal:


“One of the most striking and original pianists in Europe is Martial Solal. He is revered abroad but has not achieved fame in the United States for a variety of reasons beyond his control. Solal takes elements of Tatum, Garner, Powell and Monk and combines them with his personal advanced harmonic and rhythmic concepts to achieve an unusual virtuoso style. He also has an acute sense of abstraction; and his work demands close attention to appreciate its nuances. Blazing speed is always at the service of real musical ideas, and he knows how to use both hands creatively. Solal can generate remarkable swing, even though his rhythms can be convoluted.” [p. 368].


And once again, my of the distinguishing characteristic that Katz ascribes to Solal style are also those that I find appealing in Petrucciani: “advanced harmonic and rhythmic concepts; his work demands close attention to appreciate its nuances; an unusual virtuoso style; an acute sense of abstraction; blazing speed in the service of real musical; convoluted rhythms; can generate remarkable swing.”  If the critic Whitney Balliett had not invented the phrase “sound of surprise” to generically describe Jazz, he would have almost certainly had to invent to describe Michel’s style.  When listening to Petrucciani’s music, I just never know what I’m going to hear next and often what I hear next I’ve never heard before.


For some inexplicable reason Martial’s debut LP on Capitol found its way into my Jazz record collection [to this day I can’t remember how it got there]. Dazzling displays of piano virtuosity abound on this Capitol recording simply entitled Martial Solal [T—10261], most especially the solo piano tracks which, coincidentally, include tunes that would become solo piano staples of Michel Petrucciani repertoire more than 30 years later such as Darn That Dream, ‘Round Midnight, Lover Man and Flamingo.


During my formative Jazz years, I seem to remember that a number of my musical mates more or less put down Martial style as “cocktail Jazz.”  I seem to recall that Ahmad Jamal was also lumped into this category at that time and, not surprisingly, many years later, Michel Petrucciani style was derided by some as too flowery and pompous!


And yet, in terms of what appeals to me in the piano stylings of all three – Solal, Jamal & Petrucciani – can be summarized by the following quotation from Max Harrison’s A Jazz Retrospect [New York: Crescendo Publishing, 1976]:


“What first attracted me to Solal’s music were dismissals of it as ‘not jazz.’ It may appear too easy a paradox, yet almost the best advice that one can offer people who want to find out about jazz is to attend to those whose work is supposedly ‘not jazz.’ Besides their music often being of high quality in itself, it may offer a rethinking of jazz essentials and even, in a few cases, indicate a new direction for the art.”

[Underlining mine, p.155].


Once he had evolved his own voice, Michel took piano Jazz “in a new direction” and this to me is where I derive my greatest satisfaction in listening to him play and is also part of the answer to my wife’s inquiry.  In over 50 years of listening to Jazz, I’ve never heard this before in the music.  What comes out of Michel’s music is new and takes the art in a different direction and I find a great joy in wondering what lies around the corner.


Trumpeter and Jazz historian Richard Sudhalter has noted:


“Jazz musicians are their music … the music can’t be subtracted; it’s the defining essence which sets musicians apart and makes them special and ultimately mysterious.”


I think that Sudhalter’s concept of mutual reciprocity is especially true in the case of musicians such as Michel who make an original contribution to the field of Jazz and help to shape it differently.  They absorb the tradition and their influences and take Jazz to a unique place in its continuing evolution.


I addition to his originality, Ben Sidran, in his NPR interview may have hit upon two other qualities that I find so appealing about Michel’s music when he describes it as “… a mixture of French élan and a New York ‘hipster.’”


And while these cosmopolitan elements from his time in both Paris and New York are easier to discern in his music, Michel also seemed to be never too far away from his provincial French roots.


To my ears the combination of these cultural influences are apparent in “Trilogy in Blois,” a piece that evolved over a period of time after Michel returned to take up residence in France in the 1990s.  It’s as though the evolution of the piece became a continual musical homecoming of sorts. And yet, there is nothing folksy or hokey about this musical suite; rather, it’s dramatic and romantic qualities seem to also reflect an overlay of New York sophistication.


Another appealing quality about Michel’s music is that it is full of humor, wit and charm; much like the man himself [another reaffirmation of Sudhalter’s premise of the inseparability of the two]. This funny side of Michel not only crept into some of his original compositions, but also into his naming of them for what else are we to make of “Even Mice Dance,” “Little Piece in C for U,” and “Chloe’ Meets Gershwin?”


Sometimes, when listening to Michel’s music I get the feeling that he’s purposely structuring his songs so that the impish, whimsical and playful qualities of his personality can find room to express themselves.


When I listen to music, I want to be entertained and without a doubt, Michel is entertaining. He loves to perform – “without a net” - in front of a live audience.  Francois Dreyfus “… encouraged Petrucciani to give interviews in many languages and to show the world his unmistakable charm.” 


As Pasqual Anquetil observed:


“He wasn’t one of those musicians who played only for his fellow musicians.  He knew that there is no such thing as a bad audience, only bad artists. ‘I always play for people. I hope that after every concert they go away happy and want to come back. My music isn’t intellectual; it’s sensual and full of song. Enchanting. I want it to beat with a heart and to be simple. … I’m just trying harder and harder to apply the lesson of the great masters – less is more.”


Power and speed are also attractively present in Michel’s playing. This power creates a percussiveness that I like in Jazz piano while the speed results in an enhanced pianism with notes flying by at a pace that few pianists can manage.  In other words, Michel can “really bring it” when he wants to through displays of amazing technique that leave me shaking my head in wonderment.


I know that I just heard it but sometimes I can’t believe my own ears. The never-ending inventiveness of his improvisations is a source of endless fascination for me.


Yet, his ballad playing is remarkably sensitive to dynamics with a softness and a gentleness that brings out the best in compositions whose intent is to inspire an emotional mood in the listener.


I also get pleasure from the Classical Music overtones that permeate many of Michel's original compositions and, occasionally, his improvisations.  While one might expect to hear allusions to Debussy and Ravel there are also many indirect references to Bach, Mozart and Bartok. I find Michel’s pianistic overlays of Classical Music into Jazz interesting as they seem to have a co-relationship to my preference for orchestrally played Jazz piano.


Yet, Michel’s playing is continually interesting to me because it is also representative of what the critic Don Heckman has labeled “… the more visceral elements of Jazz:


-         its rhythmic propulsion

-         its spontaneity

-         its passion”


As a part of his legacy, Michel also left us a fascinating body of original compositions that include up tempo burners like “Manhattan” and “Mr. K.J.,”  to medium tempo finger-snappers like “My BeBop Tune” “Training” and “Rachid” [played in ¾ time], Latin rhythm inspired masterpieces such as “Guadeloupe,”  “Brazilian Suites Nos. 1 & 2” and “Brazilian-like” and most of all, a bevy of reverie inducing ballads such as “Home,” “Colors,” “Hidden Joy,” and  “Love Letter.” These superb melodies constitute more of what I cherish about Michel.


Charles Aznavour once remarked: “We build our styles not on our abilities, but on our limitations.”


Perhaps, a corollary to this might therefore be – The fewer the limitations the bigger the style for this was certainly the case as far as Michel Petrucciani.


After reading my efforts in answering my wife’s question about why I find Michel’s music so enthralling, if you have no doubt concluded that he was a man of vast contrasts, you would be right.

Much about why I like the music of Michel Petrucciani so much can be found in this Pasqual Anquetil statement [from a translation by Charles Tobermann]:

“It is difficult to summarize a personality so rich and full of contrast in a few words. Like all great artists, he was everything and its opposite – at once joyous, cheerful, serious, tender, direct, available, attentive, charming, capricious, tolerant, violent, joking, crafty, festive, and bawdy – Rabelaisian in his enormous appetite for life. He was also incorrigibly sentimental who was never embarrassed to cry when emotionally moved. He was “Romantic, But Not Blue,” like the title of one of his last compositions.


Michel Petrucciani will remain one of the greatest lyrical artists of our day. Not just because he was a genius, but perhaps, because like nobody else, with his joy and pain, he knew how to get to the essence of sincerity and generosity with his trademark excess and truth. Francis Marmande clearly understood this in his article in Le Monde, ‘Perhaps because he was not like us, but rather as we should be – he played life’s game to the fullest.’”


During his solo recitals, Michel played a number of tunes in medley form before taking a brief break at which point he would ask his audiences in French: “It’s good?” As if, there was any doubt.


Yes, Michel, it is good.

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