can’t see the forest

Schiff plays Bach, BWV 826

Posted in András Schiff, Bach, Classical Music, Music Videos, Piano by Curtis on 3/21/09

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From a 2000 performance at the Mozartsaal at Schloss Schwetzingen, Germany, pianist András Schiff performs J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor (there are a couple of small ‘blink-outs’ in the video, but no worries):

Part I – (Sinfonia, Allemande)

Part II – (Courante, Sarabande, Rondeau, Capriccio)

With the likely exception of the Goldberg Variations (Schiff’s take on those, b.t.w., can be found here), this particular partita is my personal favorite among Bach’s clavier works. It is in the rich, dark key of C minor that we might associate with Mozart’s Sonata K. 457, or Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3, Op. 37, but there is nothing mournful, angry, or ominous about the tonality in this instance. To me, it suggests perhaps the green abundance of summer on an overcast day, with bees buzzing all around.

While my first pick is Martha Argerich’s live recording for Deutsche Grammophon from ’78 or ’79, Schiff’s interpretation is superlative in several respects.  The balance and interaction between voices is handled with astonishing grace, Schiff makes excellent use of tone color, and the tempos are sensible and not romanticized. Schiff’s agréments in repeated sections are clever, creative, and cleanly executed. His reading of the Capriccio is a bit on the heavy side for my preference, but it is as texturally clear and as colorful as any of the other movements, so I don’t complain. All in all, a masterful performance.

It was the Capriccio, actually, that first drew me to this partita. It’s a complete masterpiece in miniature, and full of technical and musical problems for the performer, but also represents Bach at his most whimsical. Here’s an Argerich performance from Verbier last year.


Horowitz plays Schubert

Posted in Classical Music, Horowitz, Music Videos, Piano, Schubert by Curtis on 3/17/09

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The eight Impromptus (Op. 90 & 142, D. 899 & 935) of Franz Schubert represent the finest in early-Romantic character pieces for the piano. They are elegantly crafted, diverse in mood and expression, and they showcase Schubert’s unique sensitivity as a melodist. The title suggests music of an improvisatory character, and there are great moments of spontaneity, but the pieces are carefully structured and balanced.

From YouTube, Vladimir Horowitz (1903-89) here performs the Impromptu in G-flat major (Op. 90, No. 3). The video is a little out of synch with the audio, but it’s well worth the listen.

Horowitz could play the thunderous virtuoso very well. The depth of his artistry is even more apparent in intimate, lyrical music such as this. The command of tone color and the crystal clarity of the texture even at a pianissimo evidence amazing technical control. Horowitz’s imaginative and perfectly executed phrasing and shading–in which, at times, each note of the melody seems to simply melt into the next–identify him as one of the last of the great romantic pianists from the old tradition. The ability to sculpt melodies and harmonies in this sonically delicate but emotionally powerful fashion is a lifelong pursuit for many pianists.

Hallelujah and Happy Holidays to You

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(The choir Cantillation and the New Baroque Ensemble, Orchestra of the Antipodes (Sydney, Aus.), Antony Walker, cond.)

And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. –Rev. 19:6

And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever. –Rev. 11:15

And He hath on His vesture and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS. –Rev. 19:16

Although Händel’s Messiah was first performed in April 1742, not December, and though it in fact treats the entire life of Jesus, not merely his birth, still in Anglo-American culture the oratorio has become inexorably associated with the Nativity, particularly this most famous number of the work, No. 44, Hallelujah.

Legend has it that, upon completing this movement, Händel called for his assistant. The assistant found his master in tears, clutching a few pages of manuscript. Inquiring what was the matter, he was answered by Händel thrusting the papers at him and exclaiming, “I have seen the face of God!”

King George II is said to have stood when he heard this chorus performed for the first time, possibly to acknowledge Jesus Christ as his king just as subjects of the British king were required to stand when he did. An alternative theory postulates that his gout was simply acting up at that particular moment.

The performance above is the most credible I have found on Youtube. If you have a sharp ear, you may notice that the pitch sounds about a half-step low. This is because period instruments are being used, and in the Baroque period, standard tuning was significantly lower than it is today. Both the choral ensemble and the orchestra are small—today’s performances of Messiah tend to favor ever larger forces for grandiose effect, a trend that began as early as Mozart, who himself arranged the oratorio for a larger orchestra. But this performance is quite authentic and is the closest to how it might have sounded in Händel’s time as you are likely to hear.


Flowers and Rice

Posted in bluegrass, Music, Music Videos, Oregon, Photography, Tony Rice by Curtis on 12/20/08

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And no, it’s not a wedding.

A Youtube user has paired some original photography with a recording of “Manzanita,” my favorite tune by legendary flat-picker Tony Rice and his band, the Tony Rice Unit. It’s a modal newgrass melody that goes very well with the gorgeous flowers:

But this song will forever remind me of green valleys and brightly painted farmhouses overlooking the misty sea along Oregon’s northern coast, particularly near the quaint little town of Manzanita. As glad as I am to be home, sometimes I can’t wait to get back there.

View to Manzanita, OR

Teen Town

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In honor of the Shministim, and with Tel Aviv in mind, we post here a 1977 appearance on Saturday Night Special of the fusion group Weather Report, performing the Jaco Pastorius showpiece “Teen Town.” It was enough for me to learn to play this bass line on a keyboard; for a hearty laugh, you should see me attempt it on a fretless.

Wayne Shorter, saxophone; Joe Zawinul, keyboards; Jaco Pastorius, bass/composer; Manolo Badrena, Latin perc.; Alex Acuña, perc.

Death by Clarinet

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clarinetThere is something about the clarinet that kills. Behold the murder weapon.

Both Mozart and Brahms, two of the titans in the German Classical tradition, composed works for the instrument shortly before their deaths. Brahms penned his Trio for Piano, Cello, and Clarinet, Op. 114, the B minor Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, in 1891, and produced the famous Two Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 120, in 1894. These works were followed only by the Vier Ernste Gesänge and the Chorale Preludes for Organ before the maestro from Hamburg left us in the spring of 1897. Prior to them, he had composed no major works specificially featuring the clarinet.

We see much the same pattern with Mozart about a century earlier: the Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, appeared in 1789, and was followed by the Clarinet Concerto, K. 622, in 1791. A few months later, Amadeus was dead. Some say it was typhoid, some say cirrhosis. I say it was an especially acute case of clarinettitis.

In all probability, it’s just coincidence, of course. But regardless of the mood of the music, there is something about the reedy, expressive timbre of the clarinet which is decidedly autumnal. It is, I would venture to say, the most expressively versatile of all the wind instruments, owing to the ease with which the clarinet can handle technical passages, and the striking differences in tone quality between its various registers, from the sombre chalumeau, to the plaintive, slightly nasal timbre of the middle clarion, to the piercing, playful, somewhat exotic sound of the altissimo. Nevertheless, just as the flute infuses everything it plays with springtime, and the oboe and bassoon have always suggested to me the languid flourish of high summer, so the clarinet seems to invoke the falling leaves and first snows with every passage.

So it is only appropriate that, when Mozart and Brahms perhaps unwittingly finished their careers with some of their finest instrumental writing, they chose to devote it to the clarinet.

mozartMozart’s works for clarinet are the result of his collaboration with clarinetist Anton Stadler (1753-1812), a Viennese musician renowned for his expressive, voice-like tone. Both the Quintet and the Concerto were written with the basset clarinet in mind, an instrument very similar to the modern clarinet but with a longer body and extra keys allowing a significant downward extension of its compass. They are typically performed in slightly revised editions on modern instruments which cannot handle these extended low notes (as below), although, in recent years, ever more performances and recordings have been given on period-style instruments.

Here is the famous German clarinetist Sabine Meyer performing Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581, with the Hagen Quartet:

(1) Allegro

(2) Larghetto

(3) Tempo di menuetto

(4) Allegretto con variazioni

Those familiar with the Clarinet Concerto will note the striking parallels, particularly in the first and second movements: the figuration of the clarinet line in the first movement of the Quintet is almost identical to its analogue in the Concerto (for instance, in the use of arpeggiated dominant seventh chords), and the haunting, beautiful second movements of each work are extremely similar in form, content, and mood.

brahmsJust as Stadler spurred Mozart, so the Meiningen court clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (1856-1907) inspired Brahms a century later. In fact, Brahms had decided to end his career as a composer altogether with the String Quintet No. 2, Op. 111, until he heard Mühlfeld’s exquisite artistry! No greater complement than this can be given to a performer, methinks.

To mix it up a bit, let’s have a few different examples of Brahms’ work for the instrument. First, a very nice rendition from a young artist, Robyn Cho, with Greg Millar, pianist, of the first movement (Allegro amabile) from Brahms’ Sonata for Clarinet and Piano No. 2, Op. 120, No. 2. This sonata—and especially this particular movement—is one of my favorite works of classical music, representing the composer at both his most piquantly expressive and his most astute craftsmanship. Not only are the themes of rare and outstanding beauty, they are woven together brilliantly and capped off by a peaceful surprise ending that leaves listeners breathless. Notice that, rather than merely relegating the piano to oom-pah accompaniment, Brahms allows it to communicate as an equal partner with the clarinet.

Now, a performance from Hungary of the first movement of the Trio for Violoncello, Piano, and Clarinet, Op. 114. The audio quality is fairly good and the performance superb and well-balanced:

And, finally, just to keep Mozart on his toes, we close with the final movement of Brahms’ own Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115. This example—the artists are unknown, but good—represents the clarinet at its most autumnal.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding the composition of these masterworks, let us be thankful that their composers lived long enough to create such wonderful, generous music for the clarinet, and that they were inspired to do so by the work of fine artists. Music such as this was instrumental—my, what a terrible pun—in bringing the clarinet out of the orchestra pit to center stage, where its full powers in the hands of capable performers are best displayed.

Un peu de l’impressionnisme: la peinture et la musique (painting and music)

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Impressionism began in Paris during the 1860s, among a small group of artists who departed from the approved style of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. These breakaways–including Manet and Renoir–preferred to paint landscapes and scenes from everyday life rather than historical and classical themes, with emphasis on atmosphere, texture, light, and mood rather than realistic perspective and detail. Slowly and steadily, their tribe expanded and began to garner public attention. The term ‘impressionist’ was coined in the 1870s by an unkind critic, but the name stuck, and eventually applied to a larger group of artists of rather disparate styles.

The term was applied even more loosely among composers, particularly some of the more adventurous French composers of the very late 19th and early 20th centuries, among whom Debussy and Ravel are the best known. Debussy is the composer whose mature style could be most closely identified with that of a painter such as Monet, although Debussy never agreed with being called an Impressionist. In general, it can at least be said that, while Impressionism now means too many things to mean a whole lot of anything at all, it does at least connote groups of post-Romantic artists and musicians, primarily identified with France, whose works represent a significant step away from the historically grounded norms of their predecessors toward a more sensuous, abstract, and yet more immediate mode of expression.

[click pictures to view full versions]

Bazille - Paysage à Chailly

Bazille – Countryside at Chailly

Jean Frédéric Bazille (1841-70) came from a well-to-do French family. In 1862 he came to Paris to study medicine and fell in with colleagues such as Renoir, Monet, Manet and Sisley to form the original core group of Impressionist painters. With these students he honed his landscaping skills at Fontainebleu and in Normandy, but Bazille became best known as a figure painter.  He was killed in battle in the Franco-Prussian War, while leading a charge against a German position.

DebussyPrélude a l’après-midi d’un faune

Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was perhaps the most famous French composer of the fin de siècle, and certainly the most widely recognized of the so-called Impressionist composers. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11, and in 1884 won the prestigious Prix de Rome for composition from the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the same institution from which Manet and his crew had emerged. Debussy frequently disagreed with his elders, who disapproved of his headstrong, avant-garde style. Early Debussy shows the marked influence of Wagner and César Franck. His mature style began to emerge after approximately 1895 and is embodied by the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, a tone poem for chamber orchestra that earned Debussy momentous notoreity. A brilliant pianist and conductor, mostly of his own works, he endured a turbulent romantic life until his death of cancer.

Sisley - Ferry to the Ile-de-la-Loge

SisleyFerry to the Ile-de-la-Loge
Alfred Sisley (1839-99) was a French painter of English parentage who began painting in Paris in the 1860s chiefly after the model of Courbet. He came to consider himself an Impressionist, although his style is some ways more realist and conservative than his contemporaries. While influential among his peers, Sisley failed to achieve fame and fortune until shortly before his death.

Vaughan WilliamsThe Lark Ascending

Ralph ({rafe}) Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was an English composer, the son of a vicar and a great-nephew to Charles Darwin. He took up the violin at a young age, but did not begin seriously composing until after his 3oth year. He was a nationalist composer, inspired largely by English folksong, but his harmonizations and orchestrations are frequently Impressionist in character. Vaughan Williams was a favorite of the young Princess Elizabeth and enjoyed a good deal of popularity in his life; his 6th Symphony received more than 100 performances in its first year.

Renoir - Garden at Fontenay

RenoirGarden at Fontenay

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was one of the more famous French Impressionist painters. As a boy he worked in a china factory, where he was hired to draw designs on fine porcelain. Like so many of his peers, Renoir emerged from the studio of Charles Gleyre and achieved his first major success with the exhibitions of 1874. Predominately a figure painter, Renoir is known for his bright colors and candid scenes of daily life.

Delius – Irmelin Prelude

Frederick Delius (1862-1934) was an English composer of German parentage who spent most of his life in Florida and France. Delius’ music is preoccuped with natural and philosophical themes. Though little-known during his life and not faring much better today, he was a prolific composer whose music is full of color and drama, and he was a champion mood-setter, as the example above illustrates. Delius died following a struggle with syphilis which consumed much of his later life.

Cassatt - The Banjo Lesson

CassattThe Banjo Lesson

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was an American Impressionist painter and close associate of Edgar Degas who spent most of her career and France. Born into a wealthy family with a busy travel itinerary, Cassatt entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at age fifteen and was exhibiting in Paris soon after. She is chiefly known for portraying intimate moments in the lives of women and children. Late in life Cassatt traveled to Egypt, where the beauty of the native and ancient art stunned her so that she frequently felt incapable of working afterwards.

RavelMiroirs: III. Alborada del gracioso

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was a French composer variously described as an Impressionist and a Neo-classicist. He grew up in extreme southern France, where he was influenced by Basque folk music. A brilliant young pianist, Ravel concentrated almost exclusively on composition after entering the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with Fauré and befriended avant-garde composer Erik Satie. Ravel quickly became one of the very most popular French composers of his day, along with Debussy. Ravel could be Romantic, but his mature style combines the best of rich, vibrant Impressionist colorism with the formal elegance of the high Classical style. This is not to mention that he was to other orchestrators what Michael Phelps is to other swimmers—a complete master of almost supernatural stature.

Manet - Bar at the Folies-Bergères

ManetBar at the Folies-Bergère

Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883) was probably the most important early Impressionist in Paris. His earliest paintings, particularly Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon the Grass), were rallying points for the genesis of the movement. Manet’s parents were minor aristocrats, but Manet grew up to become anti-establishment to the core, especially in artistic matters. He was encouraged not only by fellow painters, but by literary figures such as Emile Zolá and Charles Baudelaire. Manet’s revolutionary brand of realism is sometimes credited with beginning not only the Impressionist movement, but modernism in painting more generally. Though renowned today, Manet was not viewed favorably by most critics in his time.

DebussyLa fille aux cheveux de lin

Monet - Haystacks at Chailly at Sunrise

MonetHaystacks at Chailly, Sunrise

Claude Monet (1840-1926) is today almost certainly the most famous and widely printed of the Impressionists. Best known for his plein-air landscape painting, Monet was intensely occupied with the subjective effects of lighting and mood, and frequently painted multiple works based on the same natural setting or theme, but each seen in different light, different weather, et cetera (such as the Haystacks Series, from which the above example is taken). As a youth Monet preferred to paint scenes from life rather than copying the works of the masters, as did more traditional students. Later he studied in England, where the landscapes of Constable and Turner were influential to his development. His 1872 work Impressions: Sunrise helped give the name to the Impressionist movement. Monet enjoyed considerable success in his old age, living in a beautiful estate in the Paris suburb of Giverny which provided the subject matter for much of his later work.

Ravel – String Quartet No. 1 in F: II. Assez vif – Très rythmé

The Brothers Wooten

Posted in Arts & Entertainment, Entertainment, funk, Music, Music Videos, R&B by Curtis on 1/21/07

Why would I travel a hundred miles to sit drinking beer for a few hours in a smoky Nashville bar, only to turn right back around and arrive home at 3 a.m. with an 8 o’clock class looming just over the eastern horizon?

Regi Wooten and the Wooten Brothers Band, that’s why.  This übermusical band-of-brothers has been entertaining audiences since childhood, racking up experience points with the likes of the great Curtis Mayfield before striking out on careers of their own.

Victor Wooten, the clan’s most famous son, is widely considered to be one of the foremost working bassists today or in any day, for that matter. With his incredible musical sensitivity and an eye-popping, failsafe technique, Vic can put on an astounding show with nothing more than his lonesome—and maybe a drummer. He credits his brother Regi and bassists Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, and Larry Graham as major influences, and his main gig in recent years has been with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, a challenging and rewarding (but quite danceable) jazz-bluegrass-fusion ensemble whose music you mustn’t let pass you by whether in the flesh or on record.

Joseph Wooten (“Hands of Soul, Voice of Gold”) is an astute keyboardist and a winsome vocalist whose touring credits include, among others, the Steve Miller Band. This gentleman is a master of all musical idioms with a warm and easy stage presence that defies description.

Rudi Wooten is the family sax-man, routinely defying the laws of physics by playing two saxes simultaneously and certainly unafraid to challenge Kenny G’s questionable record for World’s Longest Note on any given night. If that doesn’t get you going, just try frowning through his vocals on the Mayfield classic “Freddie’s Dead.” Just try. 

Roy “FutureMan” Wooten is a deft and spicy percussionist from far in the future, graciously taking time from his intergalactic schedule to stop by 21st Century Earth to enlighten us with his unique presence. He plays a mean set, but you’re most likely to catch him with his Synth-Axe Drumitar, a MIDI-driven guitar-like instrument through which he can amply lay down any and every groove imaginable. It’s a cliché but it’s the truth: you gotta see it to believe it.

The oldest wolf in the pack is guitarist-extraordinaire Regi ‘Arpeggio’ Wooten. He’s known as ‘The Teacha’ because, when the Wooten lads were young tykes milling restlessly around their home in Hawaii, it is rumored to have been Regi who started it all. Beginning on a brokedown ukelele and progressing to an electric guitar, Regi taught himself and then his brothers all about The Funk. A multi-instrumentalist and a musical genius, Regi opened the door through which would emerge a family of musical prodigies that is, in no uncertain terms, an international treasure. Regi’s signature style of guitar playing includes laying down accompaniments of smooth, silky, sophisticated chords; tunefully tapping out melodies and harmonies on the fretboard of his instrument as if it were a piano keyboard; rhythmically thumping complex patterns of pops and pings and bops and bings; and, on occasion, turning the volume up to 11.9 for a nuclear-powered wailing solo replete with classic Chuck Berry-esque licks and his own brand of hair-raising outer space noises. Enjoy the show, but don’t let him fool you—Regi is a musician of the highest caliber with knowledge and skills far deeper than hinted by some of the fantastically fun gimmicks that keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

The Wootens credit their musicianship, their diligence, and their infectious smiles to their parents, who always encouraged them to do their best and to be resourceful under any circumstances. If they can stop dancing for long enough, those good folks must be proud now.

Their busy independent schedules mean that it’s a tricky matter to catch all of the Wootens together on the same stage—but Regi and his band are at 3rd and Lindsley in Nashville, Tennessee practically every Wednesday night by 10 p.m. or so and the music doesn’t stop until the wee hours of the morning.  If you’re not able to catch them live, you’d be well-advised to check out their discographies (Live in America, one of Vic’s live compilations featuring several of the brothers, is a must-listen.) One of the best things about the Wooten Brothers’ shows is that you never know what’s going to happen—and there’s no telling who might stop by to pick a tune or two. I always leave the venue with two thumbs high in the air (and wishin’ for a third.)

For a taste of Wooten, check out the video below.  This is from a NYC performance featuring Regi and Vic (excellent percussionist unknown) and features a Wooten trademark—the “thump-off”—but I’ll let them explain that. Running time is about 11 minutes.

Texas Flood

Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954–1990) was an American blues guitarist, the driving force behind the 1980s revival of electric blues music and one of the most famous white bluesmen and electric guitarists in history. He brought American “roots” music back into the popular realm at a time when synthesizers and highly doctored vocals were topping the charts, drawing on influences such as Albert King, Buddy Guy, and Jimi Hendrix and inspiring a future generation of electric blues/rock artists like Derek Trucks and Jonny Lang. His work drew crowds to gritty live performances in the era dominated by superficially appealing, commercial-minded music videos.

Vaughan was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, but dropped out of school to pursue a career in blues music in Austin. His elder brother Jimmie Vaughan is a celebrated blues musician in his own right. Stevie played several club gigs weekly throughout the late 1970s, attracting the attention of David Bowie and Jackson Browne in the early 1980s and subsequently recording what would become the album Texas Flood at Browne’s L.A. studio. Vaughan and his backup band, Double Trouble, toured the US and the world throughout the 1980s. By 1986 Vaughan’s hard drinking and cocaine habit were severely detracting from his well-being and from his musicianship, but he later underwent treatment for these addictions and emerged as a hardcore teetotaler with decidedly Christian leanings. After an historic performance at Alpine Valley, Wisconsin in 1990, which featured an encore jam with several of Vaughan’s heroes including Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton, Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash. Already something of a living legend, the Texas bluesman’s tragic and untimely death robbed America of one of its greatest musical treasures but also cemented his reputation as an icon at the height of his musical powers.

Most often seen with a Fender Stratocaster in hand, Vaughan played with an intense emotionality and a searing-hot tone which were facilitated by his use of ultra-heavy strings stretched high above the fretboard. Playing in this way requires much more physical exertion than is the norm for electric guitarists, but also lends itself to a languid expressiveness not entirely achievable with a normal guitar setup. He used few effects in the signal chain between his guitar and his amplifiers, most notably the wah-wah pedal for tonal variation and an Ibanez TubeScreamer for extra overdrive. As a stage gimmick Vaughan liked to play blazing solos behind his back, and audiences were never quite sure if a given treatment of a tune would be a standard rendition or a vehicle for meteoric improvisation.

Stevie Ray Vaughan lived the blues, proving that this great American medium of expression knows no other color. As an artist he is an inspiration to many thousands of young musicians around the world, and he is widely respected for his victory over the personal demons that haunted him offstage for so many years.

The performance of “Texas Flood” below is from 1983’s Live at the El Mocambo in Toronto, Canada. (RT 9:45)

“God Is In the House”: The Mastery of Art Tatum

Posted in art tatum, jazz, Music, Music Videos, Piano by Curtis on 12/20/06

Art Tatum (1909-1956) was an African-American jazz pianist from Toledo, Ohio. Although largely self-taught, and despite his handicap of total blindness in one eye and near-blindness in the other, Tatum is widely acknowledged to have been one of the most astounding geniuses in the history of pianism. One of his solo performances reduced the great classical virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz to tears; and when Tatum stepped in to visit a Chicago show of Fats Waller, the idol of Tatum’s youth, Fats stepped off the bandstand, saying: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am just a man who plays the piano. But, tonight, God is in the house.”

Unlike most jazz musicians, Tatum rarely deviated from the melodic line of the tunes he played. Traditionally, jazz instrumentalists focus their improvisational whimsy upon the melody of the song being covered, but Tatum’s approach was to improvise new harmonies to support the existing melodies. While the amazing grace and rapidity of his technical execution seems the most prominent feature of his playing upon first hearing, his unique genius is expressed more eloquently in his harmonic inventiveness, in the extemporaneous manner in which he could completely change the character of a tune from one chorus to the next not by varying the melody but by adding complex harmonic structures and bouncy, asymmetrical rhythms to the underpinnings of a given song.

Because of his penchant for harmonic variation and for lightning-fast tempos, Tatum was not as successful playing in groups as performing solo. Many jazz listeners complain that his renditions are difficult to listen to because there are “too many notes” or because they lack the steady and overtly “swinging” rhythms of other performers of the period. While his work may not be to the taste of all listeners, Art’s original style and his meteoric but thoroughly playful execution will make him a pianist’s pianist for many generations to come.

Tatum recorded rather sparsely, and he developed his reputation not by touring and recording but by playing to packed small clubs in New York and Los Angeles. He was an extremely heavy drinker who preferred casual environments, and, sadly, he died at a young age from kidney failure related to his beer habit. Video footage of his performances is exceedingly rare, so a clip such as this performance of “Yesterdays” is a true treat.