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:

The Stark Reality and Hoagy Carmichael

Before American child rearing became neurotic and consumerist there was a time when we produced some really sophisticated, whimsical children’s television. Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop is one of these strange and charming experiments. Hoagy Carmichael shares the music with the excellent funk band  The Stark Reality and there is some seriously trippy animated musical notation and melancholy photographs of children playing. I find the whole combination very reassuring.

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:


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.

Colin Bates

Collin Bates
Pianist Colin Bates

A friend of mine recently forwarded me a few out of print records that his jazz pianist uncle, Colin Bates played on. Colin Bates was an Australian pianist who moved to the UK and played with pretty much everybody there during England’s postwar ‘swing renaissance’. Two of these records are George Melley recordings. Melley, who just passed away, was England’s version of a top Vegas showman and these recordings are very fun to listen to if you have any appreciation for the humorous, boozy side of Dixieland. The other is a trio recording entitled ‘Troubadour’ where Bates shows that he possessed a broad talent and could conjure up many styles in one song. His powerful and subtle musicianship would have surely put him on the short lists on this side of the Atlantic. Be on the lookout for these records. Meanwhile here is a great video of Bates performing with Bruce Turner’s jump band.

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.