Not too long ago I heard a young Chinese keyboard hotshot rattle off Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine, as performed by the great jazz virtuoso Art Tatum in 1955 at a Hollywood private party. The pianist played it note for note and note perfectly, yet so fast and so loud that the music’s intricate right hand runs and complex left hand chords sounded nowhere near as effortless, offhanded, humourous, rhythmically focused and swinging as Tatum’s improvised original.
I asked him if he could similarly reproduce the work of other jazz pianists. He said no. That “no” explained everything. Here was a talented young classical pianist who could appropriate Tatum’s virtuosity for his own ends, yet had no inkling of style, sound, cultural context, and lineage so far as Tatum’s work was concerned. It’s not unlike someone pounding out a Liszt transcription of a Schubert song in the manner of an etude, without ever having looked at the original, or accompanied a singer.
To be fair, it’s good that more and more pianists, as well as patient transcribers, have unlocked and disseminated Tatum’s “kitchen secrets” including yours truly (Steven Mayer has recorded my Tatum transcriptions for ASV and Naxos), yet no one plays Art Tatum like Art Tatum. I had known Tatum’s name for years, but it wasn’t until October 1972 when I was 15 that I actually heard my first Tatum record, "(Back Home Again in) Indiana" from 1954. It took just a few notes for Tatum to inspire me to improve my own budding piano skills, and to take my instrument far more seriously than I had up to that point. It wasn’t so much Tatum’s astonishing facility and smooth execution that got to me as it was his extraordinary yet super-subtle harmonic imagination. How an ordinary chord might contain one unusual note that I couldn’t quite figure out even after countless listens, or, by contrast, Tatum’s sixth sense for leaving certain things out that nevertheless were present by implication.
Tatum resources abound online, including an excellent Wikipedia entry. If you haven’t heard Tatum, start with his 1949 solo Capitol recordings, which capture the pianist on his finest form, technically and musically, and in fabulous sonic quality for the time. The 1940 Decca solo sessions contain such tour-de-force showpieces as Get Happy, Tiger Rag, and a madcap reworking of Massenet’s Elegie, which I love to play on the piano myself. Some of the 1953-5 Norman Granz recordings ramble, but quite a few live up to the Solo Masterpieces imprimatur under which they first were reissued in the mid-seventies. I was pleased to transcribe a few favorites in this collection like Moonglow, and a particularly lofty, ornate rendition of Lover, Come Back to Me. But there are two bars in the aforementioned Indiana’s last chorus where the harmonic movement still eludes my ears. However, I resist trying to figure out these bars, in order to keep the magic alive and myself humble in front of a genius who, as Oscar Peterson so aptly put it, “had no respect for the impossible.