and embellished (jazz-style) versions of classic tunes in the
exact way that Art Tatum made famous.” Thus runs the rubric
that introduces this disc. It would take me several paragraphs
to unpick that sentence, from the concept of embellishing an already
embellished tune, through the nature of improvisation and its
application here through the use of the curiously old-fashioned
parenthetical phrase jazz-style to that perilous word “exact.”
A lot of conceptual baggage then before we get going. But let’s
not get bogged down. I will, in any case, have a few words along
the way about Mayer’s homage to Art Tatum, giant of 52nd
Street of whom it was always claimed - when he descended to the
basement depths – “God is in the House.”
Given that we all know the stories of pianistic
titans frozen in their tracks by Tatum’s coruscating facility
– doubtless the Abbé Liszt himself retired quaking
from a basement dive – we need to work out what Steven Mayer
is doing here. I’ve heard his admirable Ives – very
different from others’ performances – but this is
the first time I’ve encountered his improvisations. Tatum
is one of the few jazz musicians genuinely guaranteed to split
listeners down the middle. Errol Garner’s introductions
were teasing and often maddening but the locked hand swing he
generated overcame doubters; Earl Hines, a big influence on Tatum,
was a garrulous one-man band – but he was also an innovator
of incendiary brilliance whose single note trumpet style pianistics
gave the instrument a front-line imperative. But Tatum. Well Tatum
was prolix and technically astonishing and teasing and infuriating
and much more besides. Aficionados adore his harmonic complexity
and command; those less easily seduced pronounce his trademark
descending runs repetitious and predictable, that he lacks the
bon viveur warmth of Waller, the taste and subtlety of Teddy Wilson
and so on.
The fact is that Tatum was an adaptable band
pianist, as records show, but his solo work is the heart of him.
Mayer has been accorded a rather reverberant acoustic that tends
to highlight the higher end of the keyboard; there’s little
here, in the end – and perhaps there shouldn’t be
- of Tatum’s steak-rich tone, his meaty middle voicings
and the dark-as-teak depth of tone. The raison d’être
of the disc tends to elongate and prolong the original Tatum conception,
piling bravura on bravura to bursting point. In Tea for Two
we can hear how Mayer lacks Tatum’s razor sharp rhythm and
how he introduces just a hint of the Zez Confreys into the performance.
Similarly those volcanic Tatum dynamics are missing in Tiger
Rag and also something only an initiate could convey –
how Tatum utilises Harlem Stride and converts it to the medium
of his playing, whereas with Mayer it sounds like a stylistic
quirk or humorous appendage. Tatum’s musical arrogance was
colossal and Mayer doesn’t have the gall to follow him.
Tatum was also, whether it’s acknowledged
or not, a vulgar player – in the best sense. His St.
Louis Blues – the recording where he utilises (and
then ditches) Hines’ trademark boogie-woogie – is
a vortex of vulgarity; Mayer by contrast is slower and sleeker
and doesn’t make those Tatum runs organic. Repeated the
number of times he repeats them they sound just plain wearisome.
I’m sorry to say that the Tatum purist in me rebels against
Mayer’s Elegie (from Massenet and here misspelled Elegy).
Yes, he jazzed the classics and yes, he was not alone in that.
And no, I’ve no objection. But the thing about Tatum’s
recording was his warmth, his affection. With Mayer it sounds
rather too trivial. And acknowledging, as Mayer does in his notes,
that Tatum was a witty player of the classics perhaps Mayer’s
Humoresque could have been a mite more affectionate.
Clearly one can pose the obvious question –
what is this disc for? Why listen to Mayer’s homage to Tatum’s
improvisations when you can listen to Tatum? Especially a Tatum
shorn of excessive girth - concise and pithy. Still, Mayer is
a fine musician who has immersed himself pretty well in the virtuoso
Tatum style. It’s just that it doesn’t, in the end,
have much point.