On Jazz Piano Solo

Art Tatum

Nate Chinen recently wrote an article on NYTimes.com that is one of the best surveys of solo jazz piano I have read. I have been checking out pretty much everyone mentioned in this piece lately in an attempt to improve my solo playing.  Three lesser known solo piano albums I also really like are:

An Afternoon with Blossom

An Afternoon with Blossom

I’ve been listening to a lot of Blossom Dearie since learning of her death. What a loss.
I had the good fortune to do a recording with her a few years back. I was doing the sound and incidental music for a Children’s TV pilot for my friends Bob and Anniken. They had managed to convince Blossom to record I Wanna Be Loved by You for the theme song. I had been playing a lot of gigs with an excellent bass player (Nick Walker) and drummer (Matt Jorgenson) that year so I offered their services and my studio. On the afternoon of the session, the three of us rehearsed and recorded several instrumental versions of the song. My intention was to run the board when Blossom showed up and let my colleagues be her backing musicians. I was nervous and excited to have Blossom coming over to my humble home studio and found myself neurotically triple checking levels and taping down anything that could rattle. We had been warned that she could be somewhat quirky and demanding. Bill Read makes good mention of this aspect of Blossom in his excellent Blossom post. It was an extremely hot August day and I was going to be forced to turn off my clunking old A/C once we started recording in order to get a reasonable sound quality. Recording in 100 degrees is a lot ask of someone who isn’t quirky and demanding!

Blossom arrived and we ran through the song for her a couple of times with the air still on. She had never performed the song before and decided that she would prefer not playing piano and instead concentrate on the vocal. Yikes – I had not thought of that! Blossom has a refined and inimitable piano style that is perfectly matched to her voice and the idea of me accompanying her filled me with dread. Fortunately, the rumors about Blossom were false that day. She was kind, friendly and professional and she put us all at ease. She sat at the piano with me and showed me a some chord voicings that she felt would work and she came up with a charming arrangement on the spot. She seemed to get a kick out my jerry rigged studio and we all had a good laugh when I stumbled around trying to run from hitting record on the tape machine in the bedroom and playing the piano in the main room. We recorded three takes of the song and she was back in an air conditioned car before the room got too hot. It was just a throwaway session for Blossom but it was a real thrill for me and my mates. This was the result of our efforts:

Battling Butler with the BQE Project

Battling Butler with the BQE Project

Tom Nazziola conducts the BQE Project

Back when I was but a wee lad growing up in Rochester New York I used to play piano in a society orchestra called The Len Hawley Band. It was made up of a mix of local jazz musicians, down-on-their luck lounge buskers and top talent from Eastman School of Music. The band’s mission was to keep an audience dancing no matter what. We played an eclectic and often crazy mixture of styles from a vast heap of fake books that Len carted around. We did not take a lot of breaks and often did not get fed. These were not easy club date gigs for the faint of heart and the Eastman kids often had a hard time getting through them. Some would show up for their first gig, go outside for a cigarette after the first set and never return. One exception was a drummer named Tom Nazziola. He rocked those gigs. He could play anything on drums and also played a mean piano and was a very capable rock singer. He really knew how to spin gold from straw. Tom has ended up becoming a serious composer. He heads up The BQE Project – a chamber ensemble that performs original Film scores. I recently got to see them perform to Buster Keaton’s hilarious “Battling Butler” at Lincoln Center. Tom has composed a vibrant, carefully synced score that sounded both modern and thematically appropriate. It is a rare treat to watch a great old movie on a big screen accompanied by a live chamber band performing an original score. I would highly recommend checking out one of their performances if you get a chance.

RIP OP

RIP OP

Oscar Peterson Trio

Jazz piano has lost one its Jedis with the passing of Oscar Peterson on Sunday. Peterson was one of the pianists who really excited and inspired me about the potential of jazz piano when I was most at risk of giving up practicing the piano for sensualist teenage pursuits. Critics who have dismissed OP as merely a domineering master technician have clearly not spent a lot of time listening to the joyful and electric trio communication that is revealed on recordings like ‘The Trio’ [1973]. Peterson had such a huge technique that he could slip into cruise control and still wow a crowd but this is a ‘problem’ most pianists only wish they had. I intend to see the New Year in with Night Train on my turntable. There are albums where jazz pianists are being sorta bluesy and there are albums where blues pianists are being sorta jazzy … then there is Night Train. Tasty. Thank you for the music Mr. Peterson.

Spiders on the Keys

Spiders on the Keys

James Booker: Spiders on the Keys

Listening to James Booker, half crazy and in the final years of his hard life make spine tingling music on this horrible saloon upright takes the term ‘it is a bad craftsman who blames his tools’ to a new level. These recordings were taken from hundreds of hours of tapes from Booker’s ‘77-82 solo piano performances at the Maple Leaf bar. He dances effortlessly all over the style map from Chopin-meets-gypsy to Spanish influenced boogies and seems simultaneously possessed by what seems to be both demon and angel these performances. Booker is a master at setting up seemingly untenable grooves and making them work without letting them box him in a corner. He creates a sublime paradox of lightness and rock hard percussiveness that seems to defy the laws of piano physics. There is only a smattering of drunken applause at the end of a lot these performances. Many great moments in music come and go without anybody noticing. It is the curse of an art form that exists so stubbornly in present time. Recordings are often bad representations of what was happening in a room – especially a live performance with a personality of this size. Despite all of that, we should be grateful that someone set up a cassette deck on this particular mixing board.

Remembering Michael Brecker

Remembering Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker

My Highschool had was a music ‘listening room’ with a bunch of tapedecks, record players, reel-to-reels and library of jazz records and tapes. It was a hidden and underutilized place. Only me and a few other megamusicnerds ever used it and I was usually in there completely alone. I used to hide out in there to wearing headphones in the dark to avoid the wrestling unit in gym and anything else I thought was uncivilized and humiliating. One of my favorites discoveries from these secret escapes was Brecker Bothers self-titled 1975 album. What was this? Jazz? funk? I’d never heard anything like but I felt it was crazy cool music. I clearly needed to get to know these Brecker brothers. I was trying to figure out not only how jazz ‘worked’ as a language and, like any teenager. I was also trying to figure out what kinds of music I was into. I trusted my newfound Jazz idols to help steer me through the miasma. If a jazz musician that I liked was credited as a session player on a record, [ANY record] that was generally a good reason to buy it used and check it out. Michael Brecker was one my favorites for this game of musical treasure hunting. I would spend a lot of time at used record stores looking for stuff that he played on. It didn’t matter what the artist was – I was looking at the sideman credits. I found some great pop music this way – following the Brecker trail. Franz Zappa, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, the list is endless. I also discovered Steps. Steps served as proof to me that it was possible to create something like fusion that has some balls and didn’t sound like hotel lobby background music. I wore those records out. My adult relationship with Michael Brecker has been more focused on his own recordings. The quality of these records is almost universally phenomenal. If you have not any Michael Brecker albums, you really should pick one up. Start with this one and proceed. There is one final album coming out in a few months that Michael managed to record last summer even though he was pretty sick. Based on the little snippet I was fortunate enough to hear it is a thrilling and moving final performance and I am looking forward to hearing the rest.