Mike’s Monthly Musings – October

Playing the 88s
Looking through my record collect, items by piano players far outnumber discs by other instrumentalists.  Tenor sax and trumpet players are not far behind, but my piano records cover at least two metres.  And it is a fair representation of jazz masters, from stride pianists such as Fats, James P and Willie the Lion and later specialists such as Sutton, Wellstood and Hyman, via Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, into the great Detroiters such as Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris, and there is Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans to take into account as well as latter day Hancock, Corea, Jarrett, Meldhau and Hersch.  And one should not forget that Duke, Earl and the Count were no mean tinklers of the ivory keys.  And there were British greats such as Marian McPartland and George Shearing, or the lately departed John Taylor and Michael Garrick.  Most often heard as underappreciated members of a rhythm section behind a solo instrument or some other front line group, piano players come into their own either as soloists by themselves or at the head of a trio: Peterson made some great records under this format, either with bass and drums or with bass and guitar.  Art Tatum was and remains the master: practically blind, his technique and powers of invention have rarely been matched, though Peterson could run him close at his best.
Yet sometimes piano players fail to come up to expectations, as two recent acquisitions perhaps illustrate.  Brad Meldhau is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding musicians of the current crop, and has been ever since he first recorded his ‘Art of the Trio’ sessions.  An inventive musician, often featuring tunes drawn from rock music, many of his discs are full of interest, stimulating playing.  But his latest disc, entitled ‘Blues and Ballads’ with his usual supporting bass and drums, has disappointed me, largely because so many of the tracks are played at a very low tempo and over time begin to induce sleep rather than foot tapping.  By contrast, a live recording by Fred Hersch and his trio, less well-regarded perhaps than Meldhau, is full of invention from the opening track ‘One Eyed Optimist’ right to the solo encore at the end.  Maybe it is the fact that the Hersch disc is a live recording of a Sunday night at the top New York jazz club the Village Vanguard, whilst the Meldhau is a studio recording, is what makes the difference – or maybe Meldhau now needs other sources of stimulation outside the trio format – as reviews of his recent disc with tenor sax player Joshua Redman suggests.  However, one slightly disappointing disc is not going to stop me from turning to piano players time and again whenever I feel the need to hear some good jazz!  Mike Goldsmith.