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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf

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Century of Jazz Piano

Arbors Jazz ARCD 19348



CD 1
Group I: Ragtime: First Signs, Birth, Flowering
Group II: Ragtime: The Latin Tinge
Group III: James P., Father of Stride Piano
Group IV: Jelly Roll, Earl, Early Mary Lou
CD 2
Group I: George Gershwin as Published, Plus New Variations
Group II: Varieties of Novelty Piano
Group III: Ancient Blues and Boogie Woogie
Group IV: Fats and The Lion
Group V: Art Tatum: God is in the House
Group VI: Teddy's School of Swing
CD 3
Group I: The Duke and Sweetpea
Group II: Swingers: The Count, The King, Erroll and Dave McKenna
Group III: Beboppers
Group IV: Later Blues and Funk
CD 4
Group I: Monk Variations
Group II: New Directions
Group III: Lenny to Bill
Group IV: Improvs on Standards
CD 5
Group I: Unstructured Free Improvs
Group II: Spur of the Moment
Group III: With a Little Help from a Friend
Group IV: Keyboard Partners
Group V: Etudes for Jazz Piano ("In the Styles of the Great Pianists")
Hands-on Lessons
Ragtime, from Louis Moreau Gottschalk to Scott Joplin
Jelly Roll Morton
Boogie Woogie
Stride Piano
Earl Hines/Teddy Wilson
The Rhythm Section
Art Tatum
Erroll Garner
Bud Powell and Bebop
George Shearing, Block Chords and Orchestration
Another Look at Block Chords
Bill Evans
Nicholas Slonimsky to McCoy Tyner
Bonus Performances
Someone to Watch over Me
Variations on Heliotrope Bouquet
Variations on Elite Syncopations
Carolina Shout


Dick Hyman is a phenomenal pianist, and this set (formerly released a a CD-ROM) is phenomenal as well. Through five CDs and one DVD, Hyman traces the history of jazz piano and, in his own words, "the astonishing ways it has been varied by its practitioners". As Hyman's extensive sleeve-notes also explain: "I have grouped artists in reasonable historical or stylistic categories".

He starts, naturally enough, with ragtime - an undoubted precursor of jazz piano. I am glad that his first piece is by Louis Gottschalk, who I mentioned in my review of The Story of Jazz DVD as an even earlier progenitor of ragtime than Scott Joplin. Joplin is represented by his well-known Maple Leaf Rag, Heliotrope Bouquet (co-written with Louis Chauvin in 1907) and Pleasant Moments, with Eubie Blake's fidgety Charleston Rag interposed between the first and second Joplin pieces.

Hyman moves on to showcase "The Latin tinge" with several examples of the habanera - a Cuban style which probably percolated into New Orleans alongside the syncopations of ragtime. This is particularly notable in Jelly Roll Morton's The Crave. Dick then shows how ragtime developed into stride piano, using four pieces by James P. Johnson. This leads naturally into Earl Hines's combination of stride with an "instrumental" approach to the piano, illustrated here by A Monday Date.

The second CD focuses first on George Gershwin, who was a talented pianist who often improvised variations on his compositions. Dick Hyman cleverly adds his own embellishments to three Gershwin numbers. Next come five examples of "novelty piano" by the likes of Zez Confrey and Rube Bloom, although it is surprising to find Bix Beiderbecke's In a Mist included in this category, as it was not so much "novelty" as in a class of its own.

Five examples of boogie woogie follow, with Dick Hyman underlining the blues element in this category. It's back to stride piano with tributes to Willie "The Lion" Smith and Fats Waller. Another pianist who was based in the stride tradition was Art Tatum, although the two examples here typify his almost incredible technique. Dick Hyman miraculously reproduces the Tatum version of Tea for Two note-for-note, although Dick adds a two-note chime to close. This second CD ends with "Teddy's School of Swing", a title borrowed from the mail-order lessons which Teddy Wilson established when he became famous in the 1930s. This section pays homage to Wilson and two other pianists who played for Benny Goodman: Jess Stacy and Mel Powell. Hyman manages to combine the styles of Wilson and Powell in his version of Three Little Words.

Dick Hyman begins the third CD by reproducing the economical piano style of Duke Ellington in The Clothed Woman. This is followed by his interpretation of a duet between Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and freer versions of Sophisticated Lady and Lotus Blossom. Another pianist who recorded duets with the Duke was Count Basie, whose even more economical style is represented by a Dick Hyman composition called Basie in Brief, for which Dick brings in bass player Mark Neuenschwander.

The more florid manner of Nat "King" Cole is captured in a very short It's Only a Paper Moon. 16 For McKenna is a Hyman composition dedicated to Dave McKenna and his left-hand walking bass. In the sleeve-notes, Hyman admits that Erroll Garner never played Tchaikovsky's Song without Words but Dick serves it up with many of the Garneresque mannerisms, even including the repeated figures which Erroll often employed in his penultimate choruses. Dick obviously enjoys playing like Garner, as this track lasts for seven minutes.

And so we come to bebop, starting obviously enough with Bud Powell but also including Oscar Peterson, who was surely closer to Art Tatum and Nat "King" Cole than the beboppers. George Shearing was certainly influenced by bebop in his early years and Lullaby of Birdland starts with a transcription of one of his recordings of the tune. Shearing's block chords are illustrated further on the supporting DVD. Dick Hyman classifies Horace Silver, Wynton Kelly, Bobby Timmons and Red Garland under the heading "Later Blues and Funk". They might all come under the "bebop" heading but Hyman is justified in pointing out the way that they refreshed bebop with elements from the blues and gospel music.

Dick Hyman devotes the first five tracks of CD4 to the work of Thelonious Monk, although he tends to use the pieces as themes for improvisation rather than representations of Monk's very individual style. For instance, his reading of Well, You Needn't lacks the jagged edge that Thelonious gave it. Then come several other individualists, such as Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans and Chick Corea (illustrated by a sprightly but measured Spain). To represent Lennie Tristano, Hyman overdubs himself to create counterpoint in an original based on the chords of Fine and Dandy.

Two pieces recalling Bill Evans end, at least for a while, the sequence of tracks reminding us of different players' mannerisms. Dick improvises on three standards - Django, Giant Steps and What is This Thing Called Love? The sleeve-notes point out that the "rapidly changing chordal scheme" of Giant Steps "is not unprecedented" - and Hyman proves the point by bringing in some mischievous quotations from Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier before playing the tune in stride-piano mode.

The final CD starts with what Dick calls "free improvisations" but these are (blessedly) more structured than most of the "free improv" that assails our ears. The first four are "in the manner of" four different pianists. One wonders if the piece "in the manner of Keith Jarrett", which clocks in at more than eight minutes, might be poking gentle fun at Jarrett's tendency to self-indulgence. The three other musicians exemplified are McCoy Tyner (with those characteristic swirling passages which Hyman later calls "washes"), Chick Corea (in his quieter mood) and Cecil Taylor (as discordant as you'd expect).

The following five improvisations demonstrate Hyman's rich fund of ideas and imagination. After a rerun of Dick's 1968 success The Minotaur (with ostinato supplied by pianist Jack Fanning), the CD ends with 27 more pieces in the style of various pianists: from Roger Kellaway to Ralph Sutton, including some of the artists already featured on earlier discs. Many of these are vignettes, shorter than a minute, but most of them manage to encapsulate the different approach of each pianist. For example, just 36 seconds is enough for Hyman to catch the essence of Earl Hines. Like many of the tracks in this collection, they could be dismissed as pastiche but Dick's appreciation for the artistry in their methods makes them sincere tributes to the pianists pictured.

In a sense, this collection saves the best to last: a DVD on which Dick demonstrates various styles at the piano. He calls these "Hands-on lessons" and, as a non-pianist, I have never seen or heard the various techniques described and illustrated so clearly.

An introduction explores what jazz musicians have in common: "the tradition of rhythmic improvisation and obsession with the beat". The first lesson demonstrates how Gottschalk and Joplin developed ragtime, especially employing syncopation. The second lesson shows how Jelly Roll Morton reproduced on the piano the other instruments of the orchestra.

From boogie woogie ("Boogie woogie is piano blues", says Hyman succinctly) we move through stride piano to Earl Hines' "trumpet style" which used a forceful right hand to imitate Louis Armstrong. This may have influenced Teddy Wilson, although Dick compares his sound with a clarinet - "you might say more Mozartian". Dick exemplifies the pianist's contribution to jazz rhythm, a role which became less prominent as the rest of the rhythm section discovered "swing", leaving pianists like Count Basie the freedom to play more sparingly.

In the lesson on Art Tatum, Hyman usefully slows down the various devices that Art used - like the descending pentatonic scale, and in the section on Erroll Garner, he demonstrates how Erroll might have adapted the Tchaikovsky piece we heard on CD3. The lesson about Bud Powell notes that you can play bebop piano entirely with the right hand, imitating the single lines played by such instrumentalists as Charlie Parker.

The next two lessons concentrate on block chords - using both hands almost as orchestration, and particularly George Shearing's use of them. Hyman rightly praises Shearing for the delicacy of his touch. A section on Bill Evans describes how he was influenced by Debussy and Ravel: "his harmony seems to float in the air". The lessons conclude with a reminder of how Nicholas Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns opened the way for musicians like McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane to expand the vocabulary of jazz.

The DVD ends with four "bonus performances" which prove (as if we hadn't already grasped) Hyman's total mastery of the piano. The disc shows not only how Hyman has analysed all kinds of piano styles closely for our benefit but also his ability to reproduce them and elaborate on them.

This whole album is remarkable from several standpoints. It manages to convey the development of jazz piano with accuracy as well as enthusiasm, and Dick Hyman's ability to capture so many differing styles is frankly breathtaking. The collection also displays a healthy eclecticism: taking each style on its own terms and doing them all justice. The value of the set is magnified by Hyman's scholarly sleeve-notes, which are full of unexpected insights and connections. I was impressed with a set of 25 CDs called L'Histoire du Piano Jazz which I reviewed a while ago but, in their way, these five CDs and one DVD cover the ground more thoroughly than the 25 discs did.

No pianist should be without this set - nor should anyone who takes jazz as seriously as it deserves.

Tony Augarde

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