” data-original-title=”” title=””>Art Tatum. His legacy is that of one of the greatest pianists who ever lived: a free, fearless and stupefying improviser, an innovator well before his time whose talent has inspired elation and also a touch of despair in those who aspire to master the instrument.
His style has been described as sparkling by more than one jazz writer— his ornaments, runs, and filigrees burst seems from his fingers so fast it they overflow from his mind with persistence and indefatigability. Computational Musicologists (a new field to me!) named the smallest perceptible interval of measure within music the Tatum, in honor of his unbelievable speed.
Virtually any Art Tatum recording illustrates his genius; today we’ll listen to his rendition of
1891 – 1964
(Pablo Records, 1977), recorded in the early to mid 1950’s. What he manages to do in this is both flabbergasting and intoxicating.
The hairpin turns Tatum takes technically and stylistically in the four choruses of this standard tune are dizzying. He switches from Carnegie Hall grandiosity to pool hall stride in an instant, swinging and even boogie-woogie-ing as the spirit moves him. He calls the melody and responds with invention. Famous for his quantum runs, this track doesn’t disappoint. He trades off from right to left hand seamlessly, and if there were 176 keys I’m sure he’d find a way to keep going. Humor is a key ingredient throughout; even at breakneck speed he makes asides, as in his “Rhapsody in Blue” quote towards the end. At the finish, Tatum makes some unexpected angular movements, bringing the track into a marvelous jagged landing.
The level of innovation and technical mastery on display is outrageous, and it’s all rooted in a deep understanding of his instrument and the music he’s making. However ornamental some of his flourishes may be, they are all rooted in improvisational clarity and musical acumen.
Join me on the podcast where we get more up close and personal with bubbles, the theatricality of Art Tatum, and an exploration of how people have responded to his greatness. I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas for the column—