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“Jazz was once a spare, monosyllabic music.… By the sixties, soloists were going on for forty-five minutes, for an hour, for an hour and a quarter. Listening to John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor became an unselfish act: you gave up an hour of your life each time one of them soloed.
During recent years, this floridity has struck pianists particularly hard.
At first, the tiny, twenty-one-year-old French pianist Michel Petrucciani seemed the newest member of this group. He likes to show off his technique. He likes to rhapsodize and to wander through ad-lib meadows. He likes the loud pedal. But much of this is adolescent fat, for the more one hears Petrucciani the clearer it becomes that the improvisational horses he is driven by are tough and original.”
- Whitney Balliett, Jazz author and critic
The career of Michel Petrucciani, who was considered one of the great romantics of the jazz piano, flourished in spite of a severe physical disability. The pianist was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as ''glass bones,'' a disease that stunted his growth (he was only three feet tall and weighed barely 50 pounds) and weakened his bones. Michel had to be carried onto the stage, and he used a special attachment to work the sustaining pedal of the piano.
“People don’t understand that being a human being is not being 7 feet tall; it’s what you have in your head and not your body,″ he once said of his handicap in a 1994 interview.
Dead by the age of 36 [1962-1999], his technique and lyricism earned him comparisons with the great Bill Evans.
The following piece by Whitney Balliett appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1984 and was subsequently published in Whitney’s Goodbye and Other Messages: A Journal of Jazz, 1981-1990  which he describes in his opening note as “a collection of shorter pieces done during this period for those players who are gone, those who are here and those to come.”
Michel’s work in the 1980 was still something of a cognoscenti affair so it's nice to have something by the Dean of Jazz writers documenting Petrucciani’s first steps as it were.
“Jazz was once a spare, monosyllabic music. Improvisers thought in terms of individual notes, of bar lines, and of the twelve-bar (blues) or thirty-two-bar (standard) chorus. They grew up within the three-minute limitations of the ten-inch 78-r.p.m. recording, and they appreciated being given an eight- or sixteen- or twenty-four-bar solo. (Sometimes a slow number lasted only two choruses.) Such compression often resulted in beauty and high emotion. King Oliver and his protégé Louis Armstrong were wasteless players (Armstrong passed through a rococo period in his late twenties and early thirties), and so was Bix Beiderbecke, who hung his notes in the air like moons. They were joined in the thirties by Red Allen and Benny Carter and J. C. Higginbotham, by Lester Young and Ben Webster and Sidney Catlett and Jimmy Blanton.
Some improvisers developed telegraphic styles — what they didn't play meant as much as what they did play. These included Count Basie, Joe Thomas, Emmett Berry, Bobby Hackett, Johnny Hodges, and Pete Brown.
Then Art Tatum took hold. His travelling arpeggios, harmonic towers, virtuoso technique, and tireless desire to dazzle suggested that jazz could be a baroque music. Charlie Parker studied Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie studied Parker, Bud Powell studied all three, and by the time their countless students came forward jazz had become baroque.
Improvisers filled their solos with runs and with sixteenth and thirty-second notes. New multi-noted chords bloomed like orchids. Soloists, encouraged by the twenty-five minutes to a side of the new L.P. recording, became garrulous. Few ever knew what they wanted to say, because they had so much time to decide. By the sixties, soloists were going on for forty-five minutes, for an hour, for an hour and a quarter. Listening to John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor became an unselfish act: you gave up an hour of your life each time one of them soloed.
During recent years, this floridity has struck pianists particularly hard. In the manner of the great nineteenth-century rhapsodists, they envision their pianos as theatres. Consider their forefather, Dave Brubeck, carrying his immense Wagnerian solos from campus to campus in the fifties. Also Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Roger Kellaway, and Keith Jarrett. At first, the tiny, twenty-one-year-old French pianist Michel Petrucciani seemed the newest member of this group. He likes to show off his technique. He likes to rhapsodize and to wander through ad-lib meadows. He likes the loud pedal. But much of this is adolescent fat, for the more one hears Petrucciani the clearer it becomes that the improvisational horses he is driven by are tough and original.
He was born in Orange, and grew up in Montelimar, not far from Avignon. His father is Sicilian and his mother French, and he has two brothers. All the men are musicians. He settled in Big Sur a couple of years ago, and did his American apprenticeship with the tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Petrucciani first appeared in New York at the Kool Jazz Festival in 1983, and he made his New York night-club debut recently at the Village Vanguard. The girdling presence of a bassist (the Swede Palle Danielsson) and a drummer (Eliot Zigmund) helped bring his passionate style into focus. He has listened widely. He says that Bill Evans was "a god on earth," and he admires Debussy, Ravel, Bach, and Bartok — the idols of most big-eared jazz musicians.
Evans is at the heart of his work, and there are passing allusions to Lennie Tristano, Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk, Tatum, and Tyner. He has a strong touch. His hands are not large (he suffers from a bone ailment, and is just three feet tall), but they are steel. Petrucciani is a complete improviser, in the manner of Lester Young and Charlie Parker. He often plays his own compositions, and he rarely states their melodies. This can be confusing, since American listeners love the pleasant game of ferreting out an improviser's sources. Even when he does a standard, he disguises it, keeping his melodic flags in the far distance. Like most young improvisers, he has a great deal to say, and sometimes he tries to say it all at once.
Chords are piled on chords, arpeggios surge and vanish and surge again, complex single-note figures collide in the middle registers. He is an avid new reader telling you the entire plot of his first Dickens. But the next number will be open and uncrowded and breathing. He will play well-spaced single notes, placing them carefully around the beat and shaping them into beautiful new melodies. He will construct a ladder of octave chords, cap it with a two handed tremolo, go into a short, double-time run, and return to his single notes, three or four of which he will repeat over and over, changing them slightly each time. He may use an ascending staccato pattern, his hand rocking rapidly up the keyboard or he may rumble around in the cellar the way Eddie Costa used to.
The piano has no vibrato, its timbres are limited, blue notes can be only hinted at, there is no way to play a Johnny Hodges dying glissando. But the sheer vivacity of Petrucciani's attack carries him through these obstacles, as does his use of certain emotion-producing devices: dynamics, placement of notes behind the beat on fast tempos or ahead of the beat on slow ones large intervals, tremolos, and sudden forays into the higher register.