Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Jazz Piano

I heard the other day that Brad Mehldau was coming to town, and it got me thinking about jazz piano. What a great thing it is, and how many and diverse the styles that have developed. It isn’t necessary to reach back to the days of Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller to be amazed by it all. I began to wonder if a system of coordinates could be established upon which every pianist could be plotted, with a smooth-rough continuum running horizontally, and an earthy-celestial running vertically. A chart would appear on the cover of each recording with a star indicating what the tone of the music was—or a smear (a little Andromeda Galaxy) suggesting what range of moods we might expect to hear. Following this scheme McCoy Tyner would appear in the rough-celestial quadrant, counterbalanced by Thelonious Monk in the rough-earthy sphere. Bill Evans would appear in the smooth-celestial quadrant, with Mal Waldron across from him on the smooth-earthy side. A pianist like Kenny Barron, smooth-funky-gritty-celestial by turns, might appear somewhere near the middle of the grid.

All such systems are doomed to crumble, of course, though they still make for good cocktail conversation. Brad Mehldau himself is a brooding pianist, but is that brooding earthy or celestial? Bud Powell is definitely rough, when compared with such facile successors as Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson—but he also has a bright and energetic linearity. And where are we to put the expressive sloppiness of Don Pullen? The halting dignity and bizarre harmonies of Andrew Hill? It would appear that we need a three-dimensional grid, with the third dimension extending north-south harmonically from “far-out” at the top to down-to-earth at the bottom. This dimension might seem to echo the others, but Cecil Taylor and Jason Moran are far-out but not really celestial. Hank Jones is down-to-earth but not, perhaps, all that earthy.

Jazz pianists often make their mark first as accompanists on small-group recordings. We read their names for years without developing a clear idea of who they are or how they operate stylistically. Jackie Byard? Mulgrew Miller? John Hicks? The world of jazz is littered with striking, amazing, even shocking talents, and I for one have long since lost track. (I once heard Byard at the theater in the East Village and I could have sworn he was simply playing works by Darius Milhaud.)

Every so often I “discover” an artist that, to judge by the albums and accolades I run across on-line, has been a jazz commonplace for decades. I recently downloaded an album of solo piano music by Fred Hirsch and was flabbergasted by the sophistication and delicacy of his music. It were as if the haunting off-kilter simplicity of the Catalan composer Federico Mompou and the voice-leading sophistication of J. S. Bach were being put to the service of an energetic jazz vision. Wow. More “pretty” than driving, perhaps. Tending to remote harmonics in the French style. And speaking of France. Does anyone have bouncier style than Michel Petrucciani?

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