[Monday Notes no. 7] There have been many virtuoso pianists in the history of jazz, Art Tatum, however, represents a unique and unparalleled case. Art Tatum mastered both the classical piano repertoire, from Chopin and Listz to Ravel, and the masters of the stride piano such as Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton. Let’s listen to his performance of Tea For Two.
His astounding virtuosity is emphasised in the speed of his cascades of notes, typically descending as is often the case in jazz and blues, whereas European music tends instead to conceive of melody in a predominantly ascending manner.
But to fully understand Art Tatum’s talent and skill, one has to listen to the chord passages that often accompany the right hand volleys in the middle of the keyboard.
Let us listen here to his classic Tea for Two, on one of his earliest recordings. Art Tatum loved harmonically complex pieces, and this was one of his favourites, perhaps because of the frequent modulations.
Particularly noteworthy from minute 1’53” onwards is the series of chords played by the left hand that creates an original line impeccable in its clarity and dynamics. In addition to his prodigious technique, it is also remarkable the originality of his daring reamonisations, which were a great inspiration to musicians such as Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker.
The recordings Art Tatum has left are all documents of exceptional technique, without exception. Numerous witnesses of the time, however, have recounted how his live performances were even more astonishing, especially those that were never recorded, at some private party and reserved for a very lucky audience.
Until next Monday!
This piece is part of the list How to learn 100 jazz standards