For most of my life Art Tatum was just another name to me. I worked in a few record stores back in the 70s to make ends meet (during spells when my chosen field of work, creating music, didn’t) and he was just one on a list of long-gone artists who populated the jazz bins. It wasn’t until I saw and heard a brief snippet of him in Ken Burns’ excellent documentary on the genre that I got a taste of his piano wizardry. As I eagerly absorbed all I could of that in-depth history of jazz I was introduced to a myriad of great artists that I knew little about but none electrified me the way Mr. Tatum did. I simply couldn’t fathom what I was listening to and knew that I had to hear more. It took a while but I finally started my journey of discovery when my son gave me “Piano Starts Here” for a Christmas present. Let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed in what it contains.
I understand why this giant of jazz may not be familiar to you. Born in Toledo in 1909, he had everything going against his ever being successful, much less noticed. He was a black man, he was almost totally blind, he was overweight, he played strictly by ear and most of the time he worked solo in an era when jazz was still considered a novelty unless it was being presented in a big band format. But even before he turned 20, by word of mouth, Art was acknowledged as a genuine prodigy and luminaries such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong went out of their way to see him whenever they toured through Ohio. While backing singer Adelaide Hall he made his way to New York and, in 1933, recorded four tunes for the Brunswick label. After that what had been rumor grew to become an accepted fact among pianists from both the jazz and classical sides who knew a unique virtuoso when they heard one. Many concurred that Art Tatum was the greatest piano player who ever lived. I know that’s a lofty designation but it’s one confirmed by the likes of Oscar Peterson and Vladimir Horowitz. As respected music critic Leonard Feather wrote in ’68, “We are fortunate to have lived in a century that could produce even one Art Tatum.” Lend an ear to the 13 tracks on this CD and you’ll better understand the cause for his praise.
It starts with his first studio sessions from March of ’33. At first glance “Tea for Two” might cause you to smirk sarcastically but his rendition reminds me of a memorable scene in the movie “Amadeus.” Court composer Salieri toiled for weeks to prepare a short piece in honor of Mozart’s anticipated visit to the king’s palace but after hearing it only once the young man vamps on the simple theme grandly, elevating it into a much more complex and intricate etude on the spot. Salieri is floored in awe. I have no doubt that many proficient pianists felt likewise upon hearing his spectacular version of this old chestnut. During “St. Louis Blues” I detect no delay or interruption between what Art’s imaginative mind envisioned and what his nimble fingers produced. His jazzy, impressionistic intro for “Tiger Rag” throws you for a loop before he suddenly roars into the number with the ferocity and blinding speed of a fighter jet. His take on Ellington’s classic “Sophisticated Lady” is so graceful yet so inventive that if he’d been playing it in a restaurant you were dining at you’d never have gotten around to eating because you would’ve been so thoroughly entranced by his elegant mastery. It’s hard to believe that this brand of jazz was recorded in 1933.
The remaining nine cuts were taped live in the spring of ’49 at the “Just Jazz” concert held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. If anything he’s even more phenomenal! Opening with “How High the Moon,” he demonstrates that his smooth articulations had deepened, his harmonic daring was breathtaking, he was still quick as a spooked hare and his innate timing is beyond belief. When he performs Dvorak’s “Humoresque” he utilizes all 88 keys equally and I confess that I’ve never heard anyone else’s phrasing that can top his fluid approach. He could change the entire mood at the drop of a hat. Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” follows and his introductory flourish gives the impression that he’s either amusing himself or toying with the audience (or both) but what he does with one of my all-time favorite melodies defies description. On the gem “Yesterdays” his uncanny gift for dynamics is on full display as incidental trills, brisk runs and abstract intrusions come zipping in from all directions without warning. By the time you get to “I Know That You Know” it sinks into your brain that you’re experiencing the talents of a bonafide keyboard savant doing things effortlessly that 99.99% of his peers could never pull off on their best day. Of this number Feather commented, “He tears into the standard at a breakneck pace, later halves the time and finally doubles up again, with a tongue-in-cheek ending that shows the sly sense of humor that informed so much of his work.”
“Willow Weep for Me” is the next classic song to receive the Tatum treatment as he decorates this oft-covered ditty with unbelievable showers of glittery arpeggios. As if he’d gotten bored, he plunges headlong into his own “Tatum Pole Boogie” with its eight-to-the-bar and octave-jumping bass patterns that’ll make your head spin like Linda Blair. It’s speed-demon stuff, for sure, but one is struck by the delicate touch he applies that stands in clear contrast to the heavy-handed techniques of the boogie-woogie pioneers. The calmer “The Kerry Dance” is the shortest cut but it’s also the most humorous in that it’s like he was sharing an inside joke with the crowd. The liner notes relate that it was often employed as a playful encore for his club act when the patrons wouldn’t let him go. He ends with Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” wherein he stupefies all in attendance with cascades of notes that thrill and delight. His was an amazing artistry, indeed.
Feather told of hearing Art one particular night in the mid 40s at New York’s tiny Three Deuces packed with pianists. Duke Ellington was there and “declared himself too overwhelmed to express his feelings.” Eddie Heywood, one of the top piano names of the day, was quoted as saying “The more I hear him the more convinced I am that I’d better quit playing and drive a truck.” None other than Charlie Parker once took a job as a dishwasher at a joint in Harlem just so he could hear him improvise nightly. At one point Tatum tried to expand his visibility by forming a trio but found no drummer or bassist that could keep up with him so he resigned himself to being a one-man force of nature. Art died of kidney failure at age 46 but thanks to the preservation of recordings such as this one we can share in his genius. Feather put it bluntly. “The feeling then, and it prevails to this day among thousands of musicians, was that Art Tatum represented the apotheosis of jazz improvisation. He was the greatest soloist in jazz history, regardless of instrument.” Chew on that a while and then get this CD. You’ll probably find yourself agreeing with his assessment.