21 December 2009

Art Tatum - the John Coltrane of the piano

I've been struggling to get Art Tatum - the Pablo Solo Masterpieces onto my iPod in time for our annual Xmas cocktail party. I won't embarrass myself by recording how difficult it's been to master the control panel of iTunes. But I'll admit that because I didn't refuse duplicates, some of the 140+ tracks were recorded more than once. So I had to listen to repeat tracks on test playback via my new Bose docking system (which is pretty good).

What's to worry? Tatum is just pure genius - especially on his own. And it struck me tonight, listening to that huge repertoire of the Great American Song Book, that he treats the material just like John Coltrane.

First there's a deep appreciation of the basic melody - including the unstated lyrics. But almost immediately the theme has been expressed he goes off into improvisations which include variations in tempo and rhythm; changes in key signature which follow the harmonic structure of the song; bravura arpeggios which punctuate any available space; and mind-bending references to other parts of the same song.

Rather surprisingly for a great jazz pianist, he doesn't improvise in melodic terms, and he does't often quote from other songs. But what he creates is simultaneously a sincere homage to the original and a re-creation which is instantaneously recognisable as his own voice.

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