Writings about Music

Tatum Revelations

My initial experiences with the music of Art Tatum were unremarkable. Spurred by effusive praise from prominent historical jazz artists, I went to listen with great anticipation, but found more embroidery than invention, and technique in of itself has never captivated me. But more recently, I heard a resplendent recording on the radio, not recognizing who it was, and after learning it was Art Tatum together with Slam Stewart and Everett Barksdale, I took advantage of YouTube to explore his output more carefully.

What struck me most of all with my newfound interest in Tatum’s playing was the recognition of how deeply he influenced both Lennie Tristano and Conlon Nancarrow. Tristano’s phrasing, which has sometimes annoyed me, being overly pedantic in his lesser recordings - his finest performances are phenomenally brilliant - is clearly an offshoot of Tatum, even if in an entirely different musical context. Regarding the title of this essay, I do seem to recall that Nancarrow acknowledged the influence of Tatum, but I don’t remember hearing about Art's influence on Tristano, other than someone relating how Lennie could play Tatum improvisations with uncanny accuracy by memory.

Coincidently, while writing liner notes for my new album, Viridian Seas, I reflected upon the keyboard artists I have loved the most because the title piece features a piano timbre for the main melodic voice. These include Glenn Gould, Bill Evans, Artur Rubenstein and Ray Manzarek. Even so, it occurred to me that on the technical surface, some of Viridian Seas might reasonably be more closely linked to Art Tatum than any other keyboardist.

One central aspect regarding my use of the meruvina has always been to utilize technical virtuosity in a purely musical context as opposed to display alone. My admiration for Art Tatum has grown, and I hope this trend continues, but I must confess to still being bothered by certain mannerisms that detract from his music, particularly swift arpeggios and scales up or down the keyboard, almost like a speaker who has the habit of saying umm to the point of distraction. I would prefer having such runs varied more in their precise pitches and shapes as opposed to being replicas. But I do love Tatum's tone quality and ability to make the piano sound perhaps more legato than anyone else, practically making it sound like an entirely different musical instrument all its own. I would even go so far to say that Art Tatum sounds like he is dwarfing the piano (eating and drinking it like coconut flan with a café au lait ), and I haven't had that impression with any other pianist ever.

- Michael Robinson, July 2017, Los Angeles


© 2017 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).