Jazz pianist Art Tatum will return to the Shrine Auditorium on Sunday to perform the nine songs he recorded there in 1949, seven years before he died.
It won't be Tatum in the flesh, of course. But it's not him on Memorex either. Instead, a virtual Tatum will be on stage inside a computer the size of a dictionary, sending electronic instructions that will move the keys and pedals of a robotic, 9-foot-long Yamaha concert grand piano. Think of it as a player piano for the digital era, powered by software instead of paper rolls.
The point is to re-create one of Tatum's long-playing masterworks, "Piano Starts Here," which features the Shrine recordings and four tracks from his first studio sessions in 1933. Sony BMG (the record company that owns the copyrights) could have modified the original tapes digitally to remove the maddening hiss and simulate stereo sound. But it turned to Zenph Studios, the North Carolina start-up, for an exponentially more difficult solution. Zenph's software engineers analyzed the recording to determine not just the notes Tatum played -- no mean feat, given that his hands flew across the keys like a flock of birds spooked out of a tree -- but also how he played them. There are lots of different ways to strike a piano key: You can lean into it, jab it, tap it, caress it like a piece of fabric or pound it like a nail. Taking advantage of the Yamaha's extensively programmable robotics, Zenph's algorithms try to replicate what, exactly, Tatum's fingers did, and how his feet worked the pedals. The result, if all goes right, will be a new CD that replicates the original performance, in stereo and higher fidelity.