May 22, 2024

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CD review: Art Tatum – Jewels In The Treasure Box – 1953 – 2024: Video, CD cover

The discovery of nearly three hours of Tatum music recorded at the Blue Note jazz club at 56 W. Madison Street in the Chicago Loop is invaluable.

Towards the end of his short life, he died at 47 in 1956, Tatum’s recording sessions were not frequent, except for his work with Norman Granz. It is strange that a man who was recognised by practically every major pianist as simply without parallel should almost have been ignored.

Tatum is incomparable. It is fitting that Zev Feldman and George Klabin should have taken on the responsibility for curating and representing this new material. The music is surrounded by great materials. There is an essay by Columbia University professor and jazz scholar Brent Hayes Edwards; and remembrances and personal reminiscences

from Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Rollins, Monty Alexander, Spike Wilner, Johnny O’Neal, Michael Weiss, and Terry Gibbs. All the writings are aimed at deepening the understanding of the music of the great pianist.

The Blue Note Club has hosted the great names of jazz. Gene Ammons, Pee Wee Russell, Howard McGhee, Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong. It was a favourite venue for the Ellington band who usually had an extended engagement and considered the club as a home from home.

Jazz has never been sure where to place Tatum. One critic said that he had an excess of hyperbole., that he was above style, another said that if you gave him a brick, he would give you a house. Tatum is not difficult to listen to but he requires concentration. The shifting harmonies and rhythms are unusual as is the grandeur of his improvisation. The way that he incorporates stride, his understanding of chords influenced Mingus and Parker. Parker said that he wished that he could play like Tatum’s right hand. However, this is no Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, Paul Motian trio. Tatum is totally dominant.

Tatum is criticised for being excessively ornate. He is ornate and, according to Garry Giddins, ‘he raises embellishment to a plateau as high as anyone else has ever achieved by melodic improvisation…….’these magnificent arpeggios, rums and flurries, those supersonic turnbacks and contrary figures and thumb driven bass walks aren’t ornamental: they are the nerve centre of his art the jewels in his treasure box – an embarrassment of rewards.’

Spike Wilner in the notes explains the distinctiveness of Tatum. ‘Modern players take a melody and then discard it. Tatum takes a melody and then embellishes it. He doesn’t discard it at any time. His idea was developing within the context of the tune a rubato statement and then into tempo and then improvisation which is referencing the melody not referencing the chords and then the conclusion with a beautiful ending or cadenza.

Critic Lewis Porter has made the point that Tatum had more than avant garde tendencies, he claims that if you listen closely to Tatum that you might come away with the impression — that Tatum may have been a highly experimental artist who was confined to playing popular songs because of the era in which he lived, and the style of music that he specialised in. Porter points out that there are three aspects of Tatum’s playing to note the dissonance in his chords; his advanced use of substitute chord progressions; and his occasional use of playing in two keys at the same time. Tatum instead of just introducing a melody then veering off to improvisation, he retains it and embellishes the melody.

‘Art Tatum has influenced my music a lot.’ Sonny Rollins points out: ‘The fact that I’ve even tried to play as a trio has a lot to do with him, because Art Tatum could cover so much music. That’s what I try to do with a drummer, a bass and a saxophone. We want

to cover the whole spectrum like Art Tatum does. He inspired me a lot, and listening to him play inspires me a lot. Everything he plays makes me want to see if I can copy it on the saxophone. He’s such a part of everything I’m trying to do and at the highest level, I don’t know any musician in the jazz world who doesn’t just stop cold when you mention Art Tatum.’

Before the engagement in Chicago the Trio had toured extensively across the East Coast and the Midwest. The first Tatum trio was formed in 1943 with Slam Stewart (bass) and Tiny Grimes (guitar). There was a feeling that Tatum enjoyed working with other people and maybe he thought that a trio would offer different dimensions. Stewart pioneered the self-harmonising and bass vocals that mar many of the trio recordings. Stewart was intimidated initially. In an interview he said: ‘You could never depend on him to play a head arrangement the way we rehearsed it, and he would play in the most god-awful keys. We’d rehearse a song in the key of A. Then when we got on stage, he’d automatically play in the key of B. Sometimes he doubled the tempo of some of the more difficult numbers.’

Everett Barksdale joined the trio in 1951 and stayed until 1956. Like Stewart he was intimidated at first. Barksdale said: We didn’t rehearse. That’s the part that killed me. Everything was completely extemporaneous. And that’s why after the first night, I said, This is it! I can’t take it! I’ve had it! I’ll go back! I’m leaving tomorrow for New York. Tatum said don’t worry about it, everything will work out. Stay on with me and you’ll find out. What he did actually was ease up on his playing. Instead of playing so much and completely disheartening me. He began to play a little easier. When I would try to take what little solo I could take, he would try to take a little comp instead of just running in so much that what he was filling in sounded better than what I was doing as a soloist.’

Writers on Tatum argue that he was in essence a solo pianist. It is true that when he played for friends, he had fewer inhibitions. However, these recordings at the Blue Note, show that he could play with the trio without too many restraints. The Blue Note pieces show the joy in creation, the rhythmic vitality, the sheer generosity, the harmonic sophistication, the kaleidoscopic imagination, the dazzling skill. Many, more recent pianists seem etiolated in comparison to Tatum.

‘Tabu’ which Tatum plays solo is a potent mixture of styles and rhythms that sound fierce as well melodically adventurous takes on the original melody. The left and right hands compete and the contributing cascading arpeggios are almost bewildering.

‘After You’ve Gone’ has various rhythms and is one of the most exhilarating pieces by the trio. The speed and fluency of Tatum’s improvisation in the second part of the piece is impressive.

There are extraordinary things happening in ‘Just One Of Those Things’. Tatum leaves out the embellishments and goes for exuberant rhythmic invention that is breathtaking before handing over to Barksdale and Stewart. After their solos Tatum returns with even further explorations.

Late 1953, just a few weeks after these recordings, was when Tatum started the monumental marathon solo recordings for Norman Granz: he recorded 69 pieces in just two days.

Mark Lehmstedt in his biography ‘God Is In The House’ emphasises Tatum’s modesty. You can hear it in the announcements. The great pianist has to request attention from the audience. We hear him say: ‘Could I get your attention for just a couple minutes? I’ve had a couple of requests for to do a couple of solos. And if you’d be just a little quiet, I’d really appreciate it, because I’m going to play piano by myself and I’m not going to play loud. Thank you.’

CD 1 Aug. 16, 1953

1. Night and Day (4:03) 2. Where or When (5:40) 3. On the Sunny Side of the Street (3:23) 4. Don’t Blame Me (4:56) 5. Soft Winds (3:27) 6. These Foolish Things (3:25) 7. Flying Home (1:41) 8. Memories of You (5:33) 9. What Does It Take (4:16) 10. Tenderly (5:14) 11. Crazy Rhythm (3:21) 12. The Man I Love (5:26) 13. Tea for Two (3:35)

CD 2 Aug. 16, 1953

1. I Cover the Waterfront (4:39)

  1. Body and Soul (6:21) 3. Laura (5:42) 4. Humoresque (4:33) 5. Begin the Beguine (3:27) 6. There Will Never Be Another You / September Song (5:04)

Aug. 21, 1953 7. Just One of Those Things (6:03) 8. Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams (4:39) 9. St. Louis Blues (4:12) 10. After You’ve Gone (5:23) 11. Someone To Watch Over Me (4:58) 12. Would You Like To Take A Walk? (5:00)

CD 3

Aug. 21, 1953 1. Elegy (4:15) 2. Sweet Lorraine (4:40) 3. Out of Nowhere (3:48)

Aug. 28, 1953 4. Indiana (3:02) 5. Tabu (2:50) 6. Judy (6:05) 7. Lover (4:42) 8. Dark Eyes (4:34) 9. Stompin’ at the Savoy (4:35) 10. If (5:57) 11. Stardust (5:00) 12. Air Mail Special (4:12) 13. I’ve Got the World on A String (3:41) 14. The Kerry Dance (1:53)

16th to 28th August 1953

Art Tatum (piano); Slam Stewart (bass); Everett Barksdale (guitar)

 

Jewels In the Treasure Box | Art Tatum

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