Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Michel Petrucciani: A Career of Urgency - The Dreyfus Years

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

By the time Michel Petrucciani signed with Dreyfus records in 1993 there would be no mistaking his style for that of any other Jazz pianist.  The influences had been incorporated and he was his own man. In commenting about the 1994 release of Marvellous [Dreyfus Jazz FDM-36564-2]  Richard Ginell:

“Having untethered himself from the United States and Blue Note Records, Petrucciani returned to France and promptly zapped out one of his finest, most unusual recordings. By this time, Petrucciani had found his own stylistic groove, his technique sharpened to an enviable degree, his melodic bent fresh and inextinguishable.

To these assets, Petrucciani added two ex-Miles Davis sidekicks of some note, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Tony Williams, who provide a furious polyrhythmic kick for the pianist to groove on. And there is something else put together just for the session: the Graffiti String Quartet, a quartet of Frenchman who have mastered the elusive craft of swinging on the strings. 

Everything works: Petrucciani exploits his melodic gift and comes up with an attractive set of eight compositions (there is also one [“Why”] by Philippe Petrucciani and "Besame Mucho" is thrown in as a parting shot), Williams shuffles the rhythms up in his explosive manner, the string quartet fills the spaces without overloading the textures or interfering with the Williams/Holland machine. Furthermore, the impact of America is still very much present in tunes like "Manhattan," which is astonishing in its hard-swinging single lines, and "Charlie Brown," an apparent reference to the Peanuts scores with a definite Vince Guaraldi quality in the rhythm and left hand. 

The only melancholy thing about this splendid session is the realization that Petrucciani and Williams are no longer around, cruelly taken before the decade was out when they were still relatively young men.”

At Dreyfus Jazz Michel found a very motivated and sensitive production lineup and he was delighted by their doting attentiveness.  Francois Dreyfus and his close colleague and collaborator Yves Chamberland encouraged Michel to move back to France, move away from the slick production which had come to characterize his Blue Note recordings and to once again concentrate on exploring the more traditional and expressive sound of the acoustic piano.

As Michel explains it in typical Petrucciani-fashion in his insert notes to Marvellous,:

“The sweet and sour in music has always been my concern. Ying and Yang, melody and rhythm, complexity and simplicity.

After thirteen years in the United States and a seven year relationship with the record label Blue Note, I decided to return home to France and make a record that would be the result of my experiment with melody and rhythm, marble and crystal, both beautiful yet so complementary. I mean: like a man and a woman.

One year ago I met Francis Dreyfus and he asked me to be a part of his record label Dreyfus Jazz. So around Christmas time in my New York apartment, I proposed to Francis and his accomplice, Yves Chamberland, the idea of writing music for a string quartet that would have the element of both power and fragility. Easier said than done! But because he’s a man of challenge, he took me up on it and we decided to work together for a while.

I  knew that the approach to writing the music for this record was going to be different, being that the power of the string quartet gives force to the trio by its fragility.  I went to Paris to look for a quartet that was going to be capable of playing rhythmical arrangements. The cellist Vincent Courtois is a man that I met on the road, so I asked him to put together a string quartet. ….

I don’t think Tony Williams needs to be introduced. I thought of him for this project not only because he’s one of the best drummers in the world, but also because he has the perfect touch with his force and strength to lift the energy of the music to the highest level possible.

Last but not least, Dave Holland on the bass, with his musical sensitivity and his incredible knowledge of melody and harmony, brought together as one the string quartet and the trio. ….”

The juxtaposition of this powerhouse rhythm section with a string quartet works amazing and surprisingly well and Marvellous is a joyous creation of musical courage and skill.

The huge sound that Holland gets on bass creates resonating bass lines coupled with Williams’ commanding presence on drums with his periodic and always well-placed “artillery strikes” literally launch Michel to new heights of creativity.  From the opening refrains of the up-tempo original Manhattan, to the blistering one-for-the-ages romp through Dumb Breaks [another of the fascinating originals that Michel will continue to produce through the 1990s] to the dirge-like version of Consuelo Velasquez’s evergreen Besame Mucho whose melody is beautifully harmonized for strings, Marvellous could not have been a better debut album for Michel on Dreyfus.

And it was to get even better for both Michel and the label as the decade moved to its tragic end.

And it got better immediately as also in 1994, Dreyfus released an in-performance album that happily paired two of France’s Jazz institutions: Hammond B-3 organist Eddy Louiss and Michel Petrucciani.

Dreyfus’ associate producer Yves Chamberland explains the evolution of the recording Conference de Presse [Dreyfus FDM 36568-2]:

“For 35 years now, Eddy Louiss has been leading a very personal musical career, always with his own band and perhaps without ever working with other great jazzmen, apart from Stan Getz.

So on the night of August 11, 1988, when Andre’ Damon had the idea of programming a duo with Michel Petrucciani, the results were beyond his wildest dreams. The two great musicians met at the “Petit Journal Montparnasse;” picture the scene of a jam-packed hall, an oppressive heat and almost 300 disappointed people crowding at the door.

From then on, Francis Dreyfus and myself had an obsession and that was to repeat that extraordinary experience.

But traveling all over the world, Michel Petrucciani was always very busy.  In July 1993 however, Michel and Eddy finally got together at the Montreux Festival for a “Dreyfus Night.” And in the sumptuous “Summertime” that they played, the obvious complicity of the two great artists could be felt from the start.

The expected meeting finally took place on May 31, 1994, at the Maison de la Radio, in front of an attentive public of friends, musicians, artists and specialized journalists from all media.

After such a warm an enthusiastic welcome from all participants, Eddy and Michel wanted to keep track of their collaboration, which was recorded over three magical nights at the Petit Journal Montparnasse on June 14, 15, and 16, 1994.”

This recording finds both musicians inspiring one another and, at the same time, at their playful best.  I, for one, never knew that Eddy Louiss could play the HammondB-3 Organ so well, but the technical and creative display that he puts forth on this unwieldy instrument during this concert leaves no doubt that he is one of its major practitioners.

Michel sounds so loose and takes so many risks on Miles’ “So What” that you can audibly ‘hear’ people in the audience holding their collective breaths wondering if he’s going to escape from some of his single-line excursions or end up in a “train wreck.”  

Either through diversions into stop time, key modulations or playing bass lines [very respectfully] behind one another’s solos, Eddy and Michel inspire one another into a series of playful romps through standards such as “All the Things You Are” and [a rarely played at a medium tempo version of] “These Foolish Thing ,” as well as, originals including Michel’s “Simply Bop” and Louiss’ Les “Grelots” [Michel would play this tune in many of his later solo piano concerts].

The wait was worth it as this is simply put, a brilliant pairing of two of France’s most stellar Jazz musicians. 

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, in 1995 Dreyfus Conference de Presse Volume 2 [Dreyfus FDM 36573-2]. This recording contains a version of “Summertime,” the playing of which at Montreux in 1993 re-inspired Eddy and Michel to perform together again, but the price of admission for this recording is worth it for its wondrously breath-taking version of “Autumn Leaves.”

Also of particular note [no pun intended] on Volume 2 is another version of Michel’s continuing love affair with Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington’s Caravan.  Having made its first appearance in the Petrucciani repertoire on the Blue Note Promenade with Duke album, in this version, Michel introduces the tune with more pronounced the Middle Eastern tonalities and rhythmic motifs giving one the impression that the camels are just arriving in Cairo after their trek via The Silk Road.

About three minutes into the tune, he launches into a dazzlingly display of virtuosity with an single-line invention that spans a full chorus without a pause and leaves the listener with the impression that-even-though-I-just-heard-it-with-my-own-ears-I-still-don’t-believe-it!  This chorus takes almost a full minute of an 8 minute cut [from 2:56 – 3:56] because Michel ingeniously double-times the tempo so as to make the 32-bars of the song sound like 64-bars.

Guitarist John Stowell offers the following annotation about Caravan, a standard A-A-B-A tune usually played in G Minor: “The melody of “Caravan” has a lot of chromaticism that makes it fun to play. And because the A section is composed of only two chords, there are lots of possibilities for embellishments and extensions of the basic harmony. The tune is often played at a very bright tempo but also has some real charm taken slowly.”

And the bridge of “B” section is so much fun for musicians to play on because its harmonic progression uses a “circle of fifths” in an almost identical fashion with that of Sweet Georgia Brown.

Notably, Michel originals on these and subsequent recordings would henceforth be available on Michel’s ASCAP-approved music publishing house which he named “Mike P. Publishing” in honor of the nickname that Bill Evans had suggested for him!

These albums are easily overlooked by those exploring the Petrucciani ‘canon’ and the fact that “Conference de Presse Vol. 2” does not appear to have been released in the United States doesn’t help matters in this regard.


Yet, still in 1995, the motivated and sensitive Dreyfus team, now expanded to include in addition to Francois Davis and Yves Chamberland, Francois’ wife Helene, an enduring friendship with Bernard Benguigui and The Steinway Piano Company with Michel’s personal piano technician, Pascal Bertonneau, if you will, the Petrucciani entourage, Dreyfus Records issued the seminal solo piano recording – Michel Petrucciani Au Theatre Des Champs-Elysees [FDM 36570-2].

If ever there was a celebration of French Jazz in the last decade of the 20th century, it is proclaimed on these two recordings whose improvisations are brimming with inventiveness, skill and wit.  

Another packed house greeted Michel at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on November 14, 1994 and the concert he gave on that night was critically acclaimed by all the press in attendance.  Listening to the music on this double disc, it’s easy to understand why, as genius and greatness was on display that night.

As first presented on the Potpourri track on his American debut Concord album – 100 Hearts – Michel continued to favor solo piano recitals arranged as medleys and the one on Michel Petrucciani Au Theatre Des Champs-Elysees is a 40 minute plus non-stop, breath-taking, tour de force entitled Medley of My Favorite Songs.

It includes, in order of performance, Maiden Voyage, My Funny Valentine, Rachid [an original named after his adopted son], Les Grelots [I guess he enjoyed playing on it so much the previous year with Eddy Louiss that he incorporated into this edition of ‘favorites’], In A Sentimental Mood, Autumn Leaves, and culminates in a technically stunning version of Take the ‘A’ Train whose interpretation – replete with a rumbling train wreck - would have been the pride of any stride pianist!

In The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, its authors, Richard Cook and Brian Morton commenting Michel Petrucciani Au Theatre Des Champs-Elysees offer the following review:

“The opening  ‘Medley of My Favorite Songs’ might be a quintessential Petrucciani performance, 40 unbroken minutes of a piano master in full flow, lightning flashes of humor illuminating an otherwise seamless sequence. Maybe he will never capture the effortless excitement of the early discs, and to that extent the energy of his playing is mitigated somewhat by his sense of proportion; but there’s a great deal to enjoy across these two discs: a lovely, thoughtful ‘Night Sun in Blois’ [which would be expanded later into a 3-part suite], a finger busting Monk medley, and a beautifully distilled ‘Besame Mucho’ to close on.

A highlight of this concert is how Michel juxtaposes a tempo-run-riot playing of Thelonious Monk’s I Mean You, with a dramatic and poignant interpretation of Monk’s ‘Round Midnight.

His manner of combining these two tunes may be a way of saying to the listener, I, too, find it amazing that the same composer could have penned these startlingly different tunes, but when played this way, can’t you hear Monk in both?

As was to be the case with Caravan, Besame Mucho would become a frequently recurring part of Michel repertoire.  Reviewer Ken Dryden commented in AllMusic about Michel’s playing of this piece that the Champs-Elysees “… two-CD set closes with a dazzling rendition of Besame Mucho, which he restores to grace by bringing out the lyricism of this very sad ballad, which is often destroyed when played by less talented musicians.”

On June 15th, 16th & 17th, 1995, Michel joined with the legendary Jazz violinist, Stephane Grappelli and bassist George Mraz and drummer Roy Haynes at the Studios Davout in Paris to create Flamingo [Dreyfus FDM 36 580-2].  Released in 1997, this is Grappelli’s album built largely around standards long associated with him, but I think that Michel’s involvement in the project is a reflection of his homecoming to France’s Jazz culture. 

Authors, Richard Cook and Brian Morton while expressing some surprise at the pairing of these Jazz Giants had this to say about the recording in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD:

“Who would have ever expected to hear Grappelli in company like this? If at first glance it seems a startling engagement, it is immediately clear that these are players ideally suited to his light, swinging approach. … Rightly, for the most part, they stick to standard material. ‘Misty’ is the closest it all comes to hokiness, but it is done with such open-hearted delight and lack of self-consciousness that it runs no very serious risks. ‘I Can’t Get Started’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’ between them demonstrate a good change of pace, with Haynes and Petrucciani seeming to dictate the rhythmic course within each track, so that the former has an almost symphonic logic and structure. Very impressive indeed.”

Michel was quoted as saying: “I get bored quite easily if I don’t change. This need shows even in my daily life. At home, I keep moving the furniture around. It’s the same with music. I just have to create constantly.”

With this mantra in mind, more change was in the offing as Michel’s next album for Dreyfus entitled Both Worlds [FDM 36590-2] would have Michel performing his original compositions with a sextet! Recorded in 1997 and released in mid-1998, it featured two “young lions” from the Italian Jazz scene - Flavio Boltro on trumpet and Stefano Di Battista [a truly monster player] on soprano and alto saxophones – along with Anthony Jackson on bass Steve Gadd on drums.  Bob Brookmeyer did the arrangements and participated on valve trombone.

Les Line offered what I consider to be the most comprehensive and perceptive review of the album on

“I wish I could play ’Chloe Meets Gershwin’ for everyone who reads this review, because I guarantee that you’d head for the nearest store, real or cyber, to buy Both Worlds. It’s a charming – yes, that is the best word – 64 bar composition by the extraordinary French pianist Michel Petrucciani with a whisper of Gershwin’s ‘A Foggy Day’ and Johnny Mercer’s ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ and a dollop of West Coast Jazz. The form is unusual with three bridge sections (AABACADA), and the arrangement by valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer is a knockout, especially when the three horns swing the hell out of the song for 48 bars after the soloists have had their way.

‘We were striving for the feeling of a group as opposed to a leader-sideman situation,’ says the pianist, adding the bands of Oliver Nelson and Art Blakey and the ‘Birth of the Cool’ sessions under Miles Davis’ leadership served as inspiration.  ‘The rhythm section of Steve Gadd and Anthony Jackson keeps things from feeling old fashion and [provides] an end-of-the-century feel,’ he adds.

Both Worlds, as in ‘best of both worlds,’ refers to the collaboration of composer Petrucciani, who had hoarded his most polished compositions, and arranger Bob Brookmeyer who wrote some of the most advanced pieces played by Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra before moving to Europe and a more eclectic musical life. It is also a rare chance to hear Brookmeyer’s mellifluous and immediately identifiable valve trombone stylings. …

Before I forget, the rest of ‘Both Worlds” is terrific too.  Two poets of jazz vocabulary prove that in an Age of Retrobop, there are ways to create something new without resorting to deconstruction or the chaos of the avant-garde.”

On Both Worlds, it’s great fun to hear Michel’s solos coming out of structured unison lines or interposed between riffs as played by the horns.  A perfect example of both of these unusual occurrences can be heard in the arrangement of Chimes.

The contrast of Di Batista’s explosive solos as compared to more lyrical solos by Michel, the wonderful “in-the –pocket grooves laid down by Jackson and Gadd and Michel ‘comping’ behind the horn solos are also additional treats made possible by the usual [for Petrucciani] setting.

Ken Dryden, again writing in, noted: “Seasoned arranger and superb trombonist Bob Brookmeyer makes a major contribution, adding very different shadings than the leader would have chosen.”

Both Worlds affords us the chance to hear more of the elegiac beauty of Michel’s original composition as framed by Brookmeyer’s demanding and attractive arrangements.

1997 witnessed more progeny from the love-affair-in the making between Michel and DreyfusJazz with the release of Solo Live [Dreyfus FDM 36597-2] and Trio in Tokyo [Dreyfus FDM 36605-2]. The former was recorded on February 27, 1997 before a packed house at the Alte Opera in Frankfurt, Germany and the latter was recorded in-performance at the Blue Note in Tokyo, Japan on various dates in November of 1997.

The concert that formed the basis for Solo Live was to be re-issued in its entirety in 2007 on the two-disc set Michel Petrucciani Piano Solo: The Complete Concert in Germany [Dreyfus FDM 46050369062].

Although recorded in 1997, the single CD version of Solo Live was in preparation for release at the time of Michel’s death in January of 1999 and was not released until later that year.

Judith Schlesinger, writing in, offered this poignant review:

“It’s always sad when a beautiful jazz light goes out. We lost Michel Petrucciani in January of this year, just as he was preparing for the release of this album …. He was barely 37 years old …. A remarkable player and composer, classically trained, he produced …  [numerous] albums as a leader, … recorded with luminaries and toured … [the world]. 

This release is full of his wonderfully melodic originals and innovative versions of three classics. Arranged to flow naturally from one mood to the next, it displays his breadth of technique, his romantic spirit, and his humor (he was reportedly one of the wittiest people in jazz).

His powerful ‘Caravan’ is often so tongue-in-cheek as to border on hilarious; his ‘Little Piece in C for U’ is puckish and Monkish, spiced with Caribbean flavor and a hint of boogie-woogie.  Picking highlights is difficult when everything is so fine, like the seamless way he glides from the charming opener [Looking Up] into a lovely, subtle version of ‘Besame Mucho. ‘Home’ is simply gorgeous, and ‘Brazilian Like’ is just that with a lovely lyrical feel. ‘Trilogy’ [‘in Blois] is lush and nearly classical, in the sense of distinct movements woven together, ‘She Did It Again’/’Take the ‘A’ Train/’She Did It Again’ illustrates his mastery of time and prodigious, immaculate chops.

This is a richly varied collection of music, both soft and swinging, playful and profound. There are no liner notes, but the press calls Petrucciani ‘one of the last great romantics of jazz piano.’ I prefer to believe they’re still being produced, but there will never be another Petrucciani.

This may be the finest and purest album he ever did: ‘The unrestrained freedom and creativity afforded by the album’s solo format allows us a chance to appreciate the genius … in its undiluted, crystalline form.’ For those who do not know him, it’s a good way to say hello. The fact that it’s also goodbye is tragic.”

Again turning to Ken Dryden in

“Solo Live,” released shortly after his death, marks pianist Michel Petrucciani’s lasting solo gift to the jazz world. Though clearly a virtuoso on his instrument, his playing always seemed to reflect as much respect for the audience as it did for his own talent.  At its essence, Petrucciani’s music is remarkably buoyant, decidedly joyful, improvisationally aggressive, and, above all, intended to evoke an emotional response on the part of the listener.

His amazing reading of Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ is characteristic of this unique style. However, the pianist may best be remembered for his original compositions and three of his most memorable are included here. ‘Looking Up,’ as the title would suggest, is overtly optimistic and inherently hopeful. ‘Home’ is a clearly enunciated statement of warmth and comfort. ‘Brazilian Like’ is orchestral and melodic to the point at which the tune remains in one’s head long after its conclusion. 

Petrucciani closes the album with the medley of ‘She Did It Again’/’Take the ‘A’ Train/’She Did It Again’ – his original sandwiched around Strayhorn’s classic. A befitting set-closer for this extraordinary musician.

Trio in Tokyo [Dreyfus FDM 36605-2] finds Michel once again in the company of his rhythm mates on the Both Worlds sextet album. Pascal Anquetil as translated into English by Charles Tobermann offers these comments about Michel in his introduction:

“If there is a single quality that best sums up Michel Petrucciani’s personality and his music, it is generosity. Onstage, in the heat of the moment, close to the audience, in the heated intimacy of a club atmosphere, he expressed his passion for sharing most truthfully. ‘A lot of musicians have a playing style that is too egotistical,’ he said. ‘They play for themselves and an elite happy few. I play to give pleasure and to communicate. I’d like to think of myself as a very happy person. That’s why it is so important to pass along and give to others the generosity that is indispensable in art, music and life.

The proof is these magic moment caught live in Tokyo in 1997. Along with Anthony Jackson and Steve Gadd – two close friends with whom he had a musical relationship that was almost telepathic – Michel Petrucciani lines up a burning hour of piano, mixing standards and originals to unleash his unbounded generosity and give free reign to his own sensual sense of lyricism. Once again, we are struck by the solar clarity of his phrasing, the vigor and percussive rigor of his touch (he was a master of tempo who played ‘all the way through a note’), and the breadth of his long phrases in which you always distinctly hear each note. Michel brought accent and dimension to everything he played. Above all, he brought complete sincerity. His heart sang directly through the piano. This album is a most astonishing demonstration of it.”

It’s so good to hear Steve Gadd back and playing so well after so many struggles with his health in the 1980s.  Michel’s admiration and respect had a great deal to do with Steve’s willingness to tour again. Gadd has such an individual style of drumming, “elephant ears” that catch everything that’s going on around him in the music and an uncanny ability to make Michel swing even more than usual.

Michael G. Naxtos brought these thoughts about the recording to his review in

“Pianist Petrucciani was somewhat of a chameleon, inclined to go from mainstream jazz to more contemporary beats, which makes the rhythm team of electric bass guitarist Anthony Jackson and drummer Steve Gadd a good combination. They push and pull the pianist flexing their fusion-oriented muscles while providing a swing backdrop that Petrucciani can relate to, allowing him his unbridled lyricism. This is a live club date done at the Blue Note in Tokyo, and the crowd response is indicative of the kineticism flowing on the bandstand from these three outstanding musicians.

The trio swings hard on ‘Training,’ one of the seven Petrucciani originals. It’s a basic melody rivaling the best of Tommy Flanagan’s work. Gadd’s swing/funk informs ‘September Second,’ which sets the pianist on a melodic tear of modally repeated choruses as a basis for his startling improvisations. The lilting ballad ‘Home,’ with its slight samba inferences, goes into a disco shuffle and ‘Just the Way You Are’ tonalities. Then the trio cuts loose for Petrucciani’s flying bop number ‘A Little Piece in C for U,’ a showstopper no matter your preference. Gadd’s seldom-heard brushwork on the ballad-to-easy swing of ‘Love Letter’ has the band gelling nicely, while ‘Cantabile’ incorporates light funk underneath Petrucciani’s paraphrasings of snippets of ‘Blue Skies’ and ‘Without a Song.” A more rambling melodicism that can go anywhere – and does – accents the modal, pedal-point base of the funky lite blue ‘Colors’ with quotes straight from ‘But Beautiful’ and ‘But Not for Me.’ As an encore closer, the trio begins politely on the Miles Davis evergreen ‘So What,’ but grows energetic and animated halfway through. There is an emphasis on interplay, especially from Gadd on the latter bridgework.

This is another posthumous reminder of how wonderful Petrucciani could be in a spontaneous concert setting, playing his own music with capable musicians. …”

Concerts Inedits, [Dreyfus FDM 36607-2] is a surfeit of riches that was also released in 1999, the year of Michel’s death.  Not only does this 3 CD set contain a wealth of music by Michel in solo piano, piano and bass duo and piano-bass-drums trio settings, it also contains a booklet with a wealth of information about the artist and a loving tribute by Pascal Anquetil [author of the Both Worlds insert notes] . Charles Tobermann once again is the translator and he does an excellent job of capturing the love and the sadness in Anquetil’s homage – “Petrucciani: Un Messager du Jazz.”

The Solo Concerts Inedits  disc takes us back to July 27, 1993 the evening when this recording was made at the Antibes Juan Les Pins Jazz Festival and provides us the basis for comparing, in progressions of two years, the evolution of Michel’s solo style with that on display in Michel Petrucciani Au Theatre Des Champs-Elysees [Paris 1995] and Solo Live [recorded in Frankfurt, Germany, 1997].

Interesting, too, is that the solo repertoire does not change very much over this five year span as the 1993 Antibes Jazz Festival performance also offers performances of standards such as Autumn Leaves, In A Sentimental Mood, Take the ‘A’ Train, Besame Mucho, Caravan and ‘Round Midnight.  Compositionally, the only major difference in this earlier solo concert is that Michel only performs one of his original compositions – Hidden Joy – whereas, the later solo recitals would have more of his own work represented.

However, this being said, whenever Michel performed, especially in performances, there were always surprises from previous or subsequent performances.  Ken Dryden offered the following synopsis of Michel live performance on the Solo Concerts Inedits: [paragraphing modified]

“The 1993 solo concert starts off with a breathtaking improvised introduction to ‘Autumn Leaves’ that will fool all but the most attentive listener. He continues to tease his audience by adding a new vamp to ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ that adds to the dreamy atmosphere originally conceived by its composer, Duke Ellington. ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’ is played with an up-tempo boogie-woogie bassline with his right-handed improvisations played in his more familiar post-bop style.

‘Besame Mucho’ was one of the pianist's favorite ballads (he complained that few people realized that it was written as a sad ballad) … [and he offers it here in a] very poignant version …. The exotic introduction that he conceives for ‘Caravan’ slowly builds the tension before the audience is finally tipped off as to his path. ‘Round Midnight’ … he signals with the repeated tolling of a single bass note; his interpretation is quite lyrical and haunting.”

Over the remaining [too few] years of his life, Michel would continue to perform a fairly set program made of standards such as those he played on Concerts Inedits

and the original compositions highlighted on Both Worlds and Solo Live.


Deciding on a limited repertoire of standards and originals that are comfortable to play on seems to be an avenue for performance that many noteworthy Jazz artists travel down as their careers develop.

Take for example, this conversation with noted alto saxophonist Lee Konitz which appears in Wayne Enstice & Paul Rubin’s Jazz Spoken Here: Conversation with 22 Musicians [New York: Da Capo Press, 1994]. [paragraphing modified]

“PR: We’ve noticed that on some of your albums certain standards reappear ….

LK: Well, that’s simply a result of, I mean that’s basically my repertoire, that few dozen tunes. 

WE: So you prefer having a limited body of material to play?

LK: If we have a little short confessional here [laughter], I keep thinking that it doesn’t matter what tunes you play. The process is the same, and if it works, then it’s like a new piece, you know. And it is a fact that the better you know the song the more chances you might dare to take. 

Bird played a dozen tunes all his life, basically, and most of the people that were improvising [at that time] – Tristano played the same dozen tunes all his life.  And you know, it’s amazing what depth he got.  He wouldn’t have gotten that otherwise, I don’t think, in that particular way.

I think it’s something similar to Monet painting the lily pond at all times of the day, catching the reflection of the light.

I just feel with each situation I’m in, different rhythm sections of whatever, that ‘I’ll Remember April’ becomes just something else. And it is a very preferable point – that’s the main thing.

Everybody who knows that material knows that material pretty well – the listeners and the musicians.  So they know, you can just nakedly reveal if anything is happening or not; there’s no subterfuge. And that aspect of it is appealing to me, I think.” [p. 204].

I’m not certain that a similar question put to Michel would evoke a similar answer, but perhaps he would agree with some of the reasoning offered by Konitz as to why an artist might choose to frequently improvise on a limited set of tunes.

For this listener, it is quite enjoyable to have a number of versions of the same tune as played by Michel and to hear how his improvisations based on these tunes sometimes quite miraculously turns them into “… a new piece” and, to paraphrase Konitz, to be amazed on more than one occasion at “… what depth he got.”

Concerts Inedits-DUO finds Michel in rather stupendous bass company with the legendary Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen.  The recording was made in performance at the Copenhagen JazzHouse on April 18, 1994 which was also the date of its broadcast by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Jazz Department.

Don Williamson writing in had this to say about the first two discs in the set saving his emphasis for the DUO disc:

“Starting the listening experience with Petrucciani’s solo concert lets the listener understand how he develops his tunes with an underlying percussive feel, even without rhythm back-up, as well as his harmonic depth.  Yet, the appealing complexity of his music becomes even more apparent as Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen joins in, not for support, but as an equal in developing the music.  The bassist’s solos throughout the DUO album, or his sympathetic unison lines with Petrucciani to the tune of ‘Oleo,’ or the ease of sliding from one number to another bespeaks a mutual understanding of the music.”

And the following from Ken Dryden writing in about Concerts Inedits-DUO:

“… [Michel & Niels Henning]… inspire one another greatly with their playful opener, ‘All The Things You Are. Both the pianist’s lyrical playing and the bassist’s atypical chord substitutions to ‘I Can’t get Started’ [which are strummed by Orsted Pedersen in the style of rhythm guitar] make their interpretation of this classic ballad noteworthy. The very familiar ‘All Blues’ receives more of a loping, cowboy-on-the-range-like treatment that is rather refreshing. ‘Beautiful Love’ showcases both musician’s formidable solo technique in a fine effort. A fun-filled romp through ‘Billie’s Bounce’ cracks up the audience in several places, while “My Funny Valentine’ is a bop tour-de-force.”

Authors Richard Cook and Brian Morton caught up to both Solo Live and Concerts Inedits in their 6th Edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD and had this to say about both recordings: [paragraphs modified]

“Petrucciani’s passing robbed jazz of one of its most charismatic spirits, especially in performance, and these sets are reminders of how much an audience would respond to him. The three-disc set offers him in solo, duo, and trio settings: it’s somewhat patchy, since the solo disc has a rather hard and unattractive piano sound, and the trio set (with Louis Petrucciani, bass and Lennie White, drums, cut at a Japanese concert) doesn’t entirely benefit from the drummer’s energies.

But the duo record with NHOP is a delight, two virtuosos at the top of their game without overpowering the listeners with how much they can play.

Solo Live is a marvelous Frankfurt concert recording.  Michel warms up with a sequence of shorter pieces before stretching out on ‘Trilogy in Blois’ and ‘Caravan.’ He was always rethinking material: the ‘Besame Mucho’ here is entirely different from the treatment on Concerts Inedits. The final ‘She Did It Again’/’Take the ‘A’ Train’ is show stopping, but each note seems to matter as a part of the flow. This great communicator will be sorely missed.

As alluded to in the Cook and Morton review Concerts Inedits-Trio is somewhat adversely affected by the exuberant drumming of Lennie White [although some of this may be the fault of the fact that the drums are over-recorded]. In fairness, White’s is an accomplished drummer who drives Michel into very pulsating improvisations on the up-tempo “burners” such as the originals “Manhattan” and “Dumb Breaks,” which open and close the concert which took place in Nabari, Japan on August 14, 1994.  And, at times during the closer, it seems that Michel is the one rushing the tempo as he gets caught up in the thunderstorm of drums licks that Lenny is laying down behind him.

This concert does have its beautiful moments with the trio’s rendition of pianist’s Marcus Miller’s “Tutu,” a lovely musical depiction of [Michel guitar playing brother]  Philippe Petrucciani’s sambaesque “Why?” and, what I consider to be the highlight of the concert, an eleven minute medium tempo version of “On Green Dolphin Street” in which the trio comes together brilliantly as a unit. 

Although not particularly rated highly, in part, no doubt due to the fact that he was overshadowed by his super-star little brother, a close listening to the bass lines that Louis Petrucciani puts down on this recording is sure to impress the listener with the fact that this is truly an exceptional bass player.  His choice of notes with which to “frame the chord” are tasteful and germane and his bass lines are powerful and propelling.

As an example, at 4:47  of the track “On Green Dolphin Street, Michel moves his solo into lines played by both hands an octave apart in the lower register and one effect of this is to bring forward how superbly Louis is complimenting what he is doing in bass clef.

As Pascal Anquetil summarizes in his insert notes:

“Everything about the boxed set that you have in your hands is magical.  It accomplishes the miracle of reviving Michel as he really was – explosive, spontaneous, and fiery. First a solo, at Gould Woods in the historic setting of ‘Jazz`a Juan.’ Next, a duo with that devil of a Viking NHOP (bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen). Finally, in a trio with drummer Lennie White and his brother Louis on bass.  

It’s clear from listening to each of these musical moments that Michel was never so good as when he was in front of an audience, never so free as when ‘live.’

‘In the studio, there is always the microphone, “the snitch,” as I call it.  It’s a sword of Damocles.  It makes the pressure enormous.  You have to outdo yourself “on demand” because the tape is rolling.’

On the other hand, in front of an audience Michel was happy, liberated, finally free.”

The year 2000 witnessed the release of two quartet albums with Michel as an accompanist to two tenor saxophonists: Steve Grossman and Bob Malach [although, strictly speaking, the Malach CD was not released on Dreyfus, but rather on, GoJazz 6043-2].

The Bob Malach/Michel Petrucciani -  Conversations with Michel was actually recorded as an album in January 1989 with Jazz pianist Ben Sidran as its producer.

Aside from the wonderful music made by these two “old friends,” the disc also contains an interview that Ben, who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale, made with Michel when he appeared on the NPR radio program – “Sidran on Record.”

Michel's interview with Ben also appears in the CD’s insert notes in its entirety and all of the interviews recorded as part of Ben’s radio program were later published in Talking Jazz: An Oral History [New York: DaCapo Press, 1995].

Musically, the disc offers a fascinating musical study with the four different versions of Michel’s “My Bebop Tune,” a new original by Michel – “For all Time Sake” and a brief re-statement of his ‘Contradictions” which appears on both the Live and Playground Blue Note CDs.

To my ears, aside from the fun-filled interplay that Petrucciani and Malach display on the four versions of  “My Bebop Tune,” two additional bright moments on this disc are their melancholy [but not syrupy] versions of Theme for Ernie and You Must Believe in Spring, both of which have become classic Jazz ballads.

The total time on this CD is less than 40 minutes but it’s worth it just to hear the charming humor that Michel displays when talking about himself and his music.

Francois Dreyfus explains how Michel’s involvement in the Steve Grossman Quartet Featuring Michel Petrucciani [Dreyfus FDM 36602-2] came about:

“Paris – January 4th, 1998 – 10:00 PM. I’m having dinner with Michel Petrucciani. We’re talking about our projects and I tell him that I’m producing a new album by Steve Grossman. ‘Look no further for a pianist, I’m there! In fact, I’d really like to co-produce!’ All of the simplicity of his talent is right there in two sentences.

Michel came to the session with a special present, a new composition for Steve, ‘Parisian Welcome.’ We recorded it for the album. Beyond a rare and special rapport, and a friendship of fifteen years, I know that Michel had the kind of respect for Steve that he reserved for the truly great.”

And this from Steve Grossman’s point of view:

“I first met Michel Petrucciani in New York City in the mid-1980’s. I was fortunate to be a witness to his incredible talent and development from that time for many years to his last studio recording with me. At this session, he was always ready to give all he had plus more! He was always an inspiration. I will miss him.”

Grossman and Petrucciani are supported by Andy McKee on bass and Joe Farnsworth of drums and aside from the previously mentioned original by Petrucciani and one by Grossman entitled “Song for My Mother,” the recording features sensitive and warm interpretations of ballads including ‘Body and Soul,’ ‘Don’t Blame Me,’ and ‘Ebb Tide.” 

One would imagine that Michel suggested both ‘Theme for Ernie’ and ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ as these are both tunes with which he has a previous association.

A very pleasant compositional surprise on this recording is ‘Inner Circle’ an original by bassist Andy McKee that’s played in ¾ time with an AAB structure involving one chord for the first 8, a second chord for the second 8 and then the use of both chords each for 4 bars in the final 8 that makes up the bridge.  The ¾ time signature, the suspended sense of resolution caused by vamping on one chord and the unusual compositional structure come together to create an almost ethereal feeling while listening to the tune.

Released in 2001, although recorded in performance on November 10, 1992 at La Maison de la Danse, Conversation  [Dreyfus FDM 36617-2] finds an adoring Michel in the company of the man who made life possible for him and also brought music into that life – Papa Tony Petrucciani.

Since the editorial staff of Jazz profiles did not think that it could improve on the following, moving review of this recording Don Williamson wrote for it is shared here with  some minor alterations.

“While I don’t like to bring personal experiences into CD reviews, I may be forgiven for this one exception. Maybe not. When I listen to Conversation, I am reminded of watching Bucky and John Pizzarelli perform in a duo performance last fall … [in what was to become a] celebration of his father’s spirit [the concert] provided the greatest kind of public tribute possible. …. Music was a means for family communication and closeness. 

Obviously, this isn’t a review about the Pizzarelli duo. However, the same family connection appears to be present on Conversation, wherein father Tony and son Michel join in a performance that achieves more than the playing of notes or the accompaniment of one another or the entertainment of an audience. It puts on public display, and in public audio format, an understanding between the father who encouraged his son to play piano in spite of his serious physical handicaps—and who released his son to the world as the teenager joined Charles Lloyd half a world away. And the son reciprocates with love and appreciation during this concert in Lyon, France, in 1992. Even though the son is gone and the father survives, the recording exists as a documentation of their convergence of styles and similarities of spirit. 

With the lightness and vigor of his rhythm guitar, Tony not only follows Michel, but also on “Summertime” he creates a casual sophistication the belies the technical mastery that they both exhibit. Somewhat similar in feel to Nat Cole’s trio, the fact that the Petrucciani’s lack a bass doesn’t affect the movement of the performance. Michel slyly plays the bass lines himself as he improvises and alternates the chord changes with the left. This bi-dextral ability is most evident on “Billie’s Bounce,” on which father and son play the rippling bop lines in unison as Michel walks his left hand in reference to the double-bass function. Even as he solos, his single-noted left-hand accents never cease. 

Even as they respectfully comp behind the other and trade choruses on tunes like “My Funny Valentine” or “Someday My Prince Will Come” (a song perfectly suited to the sound of this duo), they allow the audience to hear each musician singly. Tony solos on “Nuages,” recalling the French lineage of guitar interpretations of Django Reinhardt’s tune. By the same token, Michel interprets Miles Davis’ “Nardis” on his own, wrapping twists and turns into the musical portrait that he paints, the final half tone resolution an insistent motive within the tune. 

In honor of the occasion of the father-and-son tour, Tony wrote “Michel’s Blues,” the structure of the tune serving as the basis for the familial interchange. Its complexity isn’t as important as the fact that it allows for them to have fun with it, one lick inspiring the other to pick it up and embellish it. 

A number of Michel Petrucciani CD’s have been released after his passing, including Michel Petrucciani: Concerts Inedits, with his brother Louis. Perhaps Conversation, though, is the most historically significant, relaxed and personally meaningful. 

Track listing: Summertime, Sometime Ago, All The Things You Are, My Funny Valentine, Nuages, Nardis, Michel’s Blues, Someday My Prince Will Come, Billie’s Bounce, Satin Doll” 

On January 21, 2008, Dreyfus Jazz releasedMichel Petrucciani: Non Stop Travels / Trio Live in Stuttgart” on DVD.

Once again, it is difficult to improve on the review published on, this time by Budd Kopman, so the Jazz profiles editorial staff brings it to you in its entirety below.

The phenomenon that was pianist Michel Petrucciani (b. December 28th, 1962, d. January 6th, 1999) is brought to life by this double-feature DVD from Dreyfus Records. Containing the hour-long documentary (Non-Stop Travels With Michel Petrucciani) that aired on many PBS television stations and a concert performance (Michel Petrucciani Trio: Live In Concert) in Germany, this wonderful DVD brings clarity to the person and musician that was Petrucciani. 

The single strongest emotion that keeps pouring forth as Petrucciani speaks and plays is his enormous talent and forever optimistic and humorous demeanor trapped in a body with a degenerative bone disease that would fail him before he turned forty. His mind, musical and otherwise, and hands were gifts from God, and everyone who knew him or heard him play simply felt a strong connection to something inexplicable though no less extraordinary. 

This DVD includes other musicians, and in the documentary, Petrucciani tells his familiar story of traveling to California when he was teenager in the early eighties and meeting saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who had been retired from music for fifteen years. Lloyd asked Petrucciani to play, disappearing after listening for a short while. Petrucciani thought he had bored Lloyd, but Lloyd had gone to the basement to get his sax, and they played together until the early morning hours, bringing tears to the eyes of Lloyd's wife. 

Subsequently, Lloyd began touring with Petrucciani, and credits him with his returning to the music business. The documentary brings them together again almost twenty years later as they revive their friendship sitting in the tall grass of Big Sur. 

Woven into the documentary is a solo outdoor concert and a rehearsal for the recording session for Flamingo (Dreyfus, 1996), with violinist Stephane Grappelli, drummer Roy Haynes and bassist George Mraz. Both performances reinforce the energy that Petrucciani channeled into his playing. 

While Petrucciani the man comes through vividly in the documentary, the concert with his trio of electric bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Steve Gadd displays his enormous musicianship. Filmed with crystal visual clarity and great sound, Petrucciani entrances the full house of the Kultur Und Kongresszentrum Liederhalle in Stuttgart, Germany. 

Barely being able to see over the piano, and needing a pedal extension invented by his father, Petrucciani plays with intensity that pours out of the piano. Most apparent is his gift for making every note sing, even in the fastest passages, while tying it to an unerring sense of swing and a strong forward propulsion. The viewer will notice that he is relentlessly humorous in person yet utterly serious at the keyboard, giving each note and phrase a bounce that scintillates. Another strong point of Petrucciani's playing that comes through on the disc is its unpredictability, which exists, however, within a strong melodic and dramatic framework. 

Those who know Petrucciani will find in this DVD a record of the artist at the height of his powers. For those who do not know this remarkable man, this is a fine place to start.” 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.