Tatum should be viewed as a highly experimental artist.

Verve (2 CDs) 531 763-2

Art Tatum (piano)

Recorded April 16, 1950 & July 3, 1955

Art Tatum is not the easiest pianist to listen to.  His playing is complex, sometimes over-elaborated.  Lewis Porter one time Professor of Music at Rutgers University and author of a book on John Coltrane has recently written a series of pieces on Substack arguing that Tatum should be viewed as a highly experimental artist who was confined by having to play standard show tunes all his life. Art frequently reharmonises, he plays at speed, his improvisations are stunning, his melodic embellishments are flawlessly executed, his rhythmic virtuosity has great structural complexity. He pulled pieces apart and recomposed them with different chords and rhythms. His lightning-fast technique and tempos made it difficult for even the most accomplished musicians. There is a compendium of styles: rent music, stride, church, ragtime and classical.

One of the great joys in jazz is listening to artists who have technical brilliance so that you marvel at what they achieve.  Louis Armstrong has that, so do Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Martial Solal and Lennie Tristano.Tatum’s playing life coincided with the era of the great American songbook and the majority of the pieces that he played came out of that era, the musical currency of his time and in some ways, it confined him.

Tatum has always had his critics; he did not write his own material., sometimes his arrangements verge on the formulaic. He embellished pieces with his technique.  He is accused of using the pieces just as exercises for his formidable technique rather than focusing on the emotional meaning.

Charlie Parker when he first came to New York took a job in restaurant so that he could listen to Art.  He confided to a friend that he wished he could play like Tatum’s right hand. Coleman Hawkins changed his style of playing after hearing Tatum.  Duke Ellington said that his piano teacher had advised him not to play immediately after Art Tatum!

Norman Granz who started Jazz At The Philharmonic and numerous record labels recorded such diverse artists as Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Lu Watters, Kid Ory, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins. Granz said: ‘I think, if I am ever remembered for any meaningful contribution to jazz it was presenting permanently for the future the incredible artistry of the greatest instrumental soloist in the history of jazz, Art Tatum.’ Granz eventually recorded Tatum between 1953 and 1956 with Tatum playing  total of 120 pieces.  These were released as the Pablo Solo Masterpieces on seven CDs.

Jazz writer Whitney Balliett said it best: Tatum’s style was notable for its touch, its speed and accuracy, and its harmonic and rhythmic imagination. No pianist has ever hit notes more beautifully. Each one — no matter how fast the tempo — was light and complete and resonant, like the letters on a finely printed page. Vast lower-register chords were unblurred, and his highest notes were polished silver. . . . His speed and precision were almost shocking. Flawless sixteenth-note runs poured up and down the keyboard, each note perfectly accented, and the chords and figures in the left hand sometimes sounded two-handed. Such virtuosity can he an end in itself, and Tatum was delighted to let it be in his up-tempo flag-wavers, when he spectacularly became a high-wire artist, a scaler of Everests. Tatum’s bedrock sense of rhythm enabled him to play out-of-tempo interludes or whole choruses that doubled the impact of the implied beat, and his harmonic sense — his strange, multiplied chords, still largely unmatched by his followers, his laying on of two and three and four melodic levels at once — was orchestral and even symphonic.’

The album ‘20th Century Piano Genius’ was recorded at private parties at the home of Ray Heindorf in Hollywood in 1950 and 1953. Heindorf wrote music for films and had a studio, a great piano, and first-rate recording equipment.  The small audience, you hear their comments, appreciated the pianist.  Tatum obviously enjoyed the atmosphere, the informality and the freedom to play. And it is one of the best examples of Tatum playing for a very appreciative audience and the occasion has an influence on the way that he plays.

One of the most startling pieces on the album is the incomplete track of ‘Makin’ Whoopee’. There is no intro and we are pitched straight into the middle of a blizzard of notes that is the improvisation.  Difficult to relate what you hear to the well-known piece.  This is Tatum bringing in abstraction, dazzling with musical thought and technique.

Tatum enjoyed his technique.  At one point he insouciantly combines ‘Tea for Two’ with ‘Honeysuckle Rose’.  He plays them together.  It is an astonishing feat, not because he did it, but because he makes them fit perfectly.  People often thought when they heard Tatum for the first time that they were listening to two pianists. But that kind of skill is the least that he does.  There are two versions of ‘Tenderly’ one from 1950, the other from five years later.  Both have a slow intro and both move into totally different improvisations. Throughout the improvisations there are rich chords and elaborate runs and yet Tatum maintains contact with the melody.

‘Body and Soul’ has a jaunty rhythm which he soon embellishes with a complex playful run.  Half way through Tatum introduces a quote from ‘No One Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen’ before he rushes away into another variation.  ‘I Cover the Waterfront’ opens with a rococo introductory run disguising the melody until it is gradually revealed.  There are dissonant notes before the jaunty Erroll Garner type rhythm takes over.  A soaring leap, almost but not quite, loses the theme.  The melody returns before there is a blistering run echoed in the left hand.  Again, the melody is almost lost before it is asserted before the finale.

The album 20th Century Piano Genius is a good place to start with Tatum.  It is Art at his most relaxed and inventive, playing before a very knowledgeable audience.  His interpretations are full of unexpected ideas. It is a good album to enjoy the wild but controlled unique arpeggios, the distinctive resolution of dissonances, the unusual use of pianissimo and fortissimo and the sheer joy.