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Art TATUM (1909-1956)
Improvisations:-
Tea for Two
St. Louis Blues
Tiger Rag
Aunt Hagar’s Blues
Humoresque
Sweet Lorraine
Get Happy
The Jitterbug Waltz
Tatum Pole Boogie
Cherokee
Lover Come Back To Me
Elegie
Hallelujah
Willow Weep For Me
Emaline
Yesterdays
I Know That You Know
Steven Mayer (piano)
Recorded at the Performance Arts Centre, the Country Day School, King City, Ontario, July 2003
NAXOS 8.559130 [62.00]

 

“Improvised 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.

Jonathan Woolf






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