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Art Tatum - Improvisations

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Album Review

Pianist Steven Mayer is either a very brave man or a very foolhardy man — or both. Even superstar classical pianists like Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff were dumbstruck when they ventured into the depths of New York City to hear Art Tatum, the most astounding jazz pianist of the 20th century. Undaunted, Mayer — who is one mean technician himself, with recordings of Liszt and the hugely difficult Ives "Concord" Sonata behind him — went ahead and recorded 17 numbers that Tatum himself cut, in what Naxos purports to be "the exact way that Tatum made famous." Um...not quite, for this is not a virtual Tatum album, literally or even stylistically. There is no doubt that Mayer has lots of dexterity and a better feeling for a jazz pulse than most classical pianists. Understandably, Mayer doesn't even attempt to replicate every note of what Tatum actually played; rather, these are improvisations on improvisations, which is more truthful to the jazz tradition. Yet they do not even begin to approximate the daring of Tatum's harmonic thought; his unpredictable shifts in rhythm; his barely reined-in outbreaks of wild super-stride; his outrageously rapid runs, classical quotes, and shafts of naïve humor. Mayer's rhythm tends to be quite regular in comparison to Tatum's, more in a traditional stride manner. Mayer's touch is heavier, and he applies some of Tatum's trademark flourishes in a self-conscious way. That said, listeners who can put the Tatum originals out of their minds briefly can find much attractive piano playing to enjoy here, and a few tunes (like "Yesterdays" and "I Know That You Know") do come closer than others in evoking the Tatum style. Moreover, an hour of Mayer isn't nearly as fatiguing to the ear as an hour of Tatum can be if you are concentrating on every passage. But you won't get the electric charge that the originals, when heard one at a time, can provide. ~ Richard S. Ginell, Rovi


Born: October 13, 1909 in Toledo, OH

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s

Art Tatum was among the most extraordinary of all jazz musicians, a pianist with wondrous technique who could not only play ridiculously rapid lines with both hands (his 1933 solo version of "Tiger Rag" sounds as if there were three pianists jamming together) but was harmonically 30 years ahead of his time; all pianists have to deal to a certain extent with Tatum's innovations in order to be taken seriously. Able to play stride, swing, and boogie-woogie with speed and complexity that could only previously...
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