The jazz renaissance of the acoustic piano continues. The growing number of recordings showcasing the music of plain, unadorned Steinways, Baldwins and Bosendorfers should bring joy to the heart of anyone who has ever cringed at the sound of be-bop on a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer.
And with just cause. More than any other acoustic instrument, the piano--because of its orchestral range of timbres and sounds--provides a rich musical landscape for creative exploration. From Scott Joplin and James P. Johnson to Art Tatum and Chick Corea, it has elicited some of the most diverse jazz recordings ever made.
A random survey of current piano releases (as well as a reissue or two) reveals the remarkable surge of music that is being (and has been) triggered by the instrument.
The best of breed in this roundup is a pure pedigreed example of world-class improvising from French pianist Michel Petrucciani, "Conference de presse" (Dreyfuss Jazz) (3 1/2 stars). Ironically, it interfaces Petrucciani's acoustic piano with Eddy Louiss' Hammond organ (in effect, the first keyboard synthesizer). But there are no electronic glitches in this matchup, which was recorded last year in a live performance at the Paris jazz club Petit Journal Montparnasse. The diminutive Petrucciani and the bear-like Louiss may look different, but their music has the innate intuitive connections of a pair of fraternal twins. And they swing--from note one--with irresistible, foot-tapping drive on an impromptu blues titled "Jean-Philippe Herbien," and with rhythmically compelling balladry on "These Foolish Things."
Petrucciani seems to improve with every outing, with a virtuosic technical arsenal reaching from two-handed octaves and cluster-thick harmonies to forward-thrusting, right-hand be-bop lines. An exhilarating illustration of the joyous qualities of jazz at its finest.
In his own way, Erroll Garner could swing as hard as Petrucciani, and few pianists in jazz history better understood the instrument's facility for tonal and rhythmic contrasts. "Magician/Gershwin & Kern" (Telarchive) (3 stars), the latest in the company's program of re-releases from Garner's Octave Records, includes two complete LPs from the mid-'70s. This is vintage Garner, working over Bacharach, Legrand and several originals in addition to five Gershwin and seven Kern tracks. The performances are as fresh today as the day they were recorded--tunefully melodic, filled with radiantly exuberant rhythms. In Garner's unique fashion (with whimsical introductions, harp-style chording on ballads, off-balance left-hand rhythms on middle tempos, sudden dynamic shifts on up-tempos), each reading offers a strikingly new perspective of familiar repertoire.
George Shearing, a Garner competitor for a good part of his career, doesn't quite hit his stride in "Walkin"' (Telarc Records) (2 stars), recorded at New York City's Blue Note club in 1992. Accompanied by drummer Grady Tate and longtime partner Neil Swainson on bass, Shearing stumbles rhythmically here and there, and never clicks into the strong, flowing groove that characterizes his best achievements. And that's a shame, since he plays an unusually appealing set that includes Clare Fischer's lovely "Pensativa," Bud Powell's "Celia" and Lee Konitz's "Subconscious Lee."
First-rate live performing by McCoy Tyner, one of the major post-Shearing and Garner pianists, turns up in another two-CD collection, "Live at Sweet Basil" (Evidence Records) (3 stars). Tyner was in top form for the 1989 date, well attended by his regular rhythm team of Avery Sharpe, bass, and Aaron Scott, drums. It is classic Tyner, made even better by the inherent energies of a live venue, working his way through a group of tunes extending from a dense, textually lush reading of John Coltrane's "Crescent" to a colorful tour through "Just in Time."
The length of the performances (10 minutes, in some cases) allows ample room for stretched-out soloing. More important, it spotlights the powers of the Tyner trio in a way that has rarely been revealed in its studio recordings.
CDs from three lesser-known players--Lynn Arriale, John Colianni and Jon Weber--offer further views of jazz piano.
Arriale--"When You Listen" (DMP Records) (3 stars)--was the winner of the 1993 Great American Jazz Piano Competition, and justifiably so. Her most attractive attributes include an exquisite sense of touch and an understated but propulsive drive. The ballad phrases she spins out on the standards "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" are articulated with ravishing simplicity and underscored with Bill Evans-like harmonic qualities. On up-tempos such as "You and the Night and the Music," she uses long, soaring single note lines to build brilliantly paced sequences of tension and release.