Sunday, September 13, 2009

September 13: Art Tatum, "1932-1934"

Artist: Art Tatum
Album: 1932-1934
Year: 1932-1934 (recorded), 1996 (released)
Label: Classics

Very few good things have come out of the urban wasteland that is known as Toledo, Ohio. However, nearly one hundred years ago, it gave the world one of the most amazing musicians in history, and many of his performances remain unmatched to this day. Easily one of the most influential piano players that the world has ever known, Art Tatum has a massive recorded catalog, and the stunning manner with which he plays continues to intimidate pianists in modern times. Furthermore, many of his renditions of traditional songs still stand as the definitive version, many approaching one hundred years since they were recorded by Tatum. Due to the era in which he played, there are virtually no full length albums to his name, and the only way one can experience his amazing playing is through one of the countless collections of his recordings. While there are countless retrospectives, there is one that stands high above the rest in terms of song selection, length, and sound quality. Focusing in on the two year period that many consider to be the high point of his musical creativity, the simply titled 1932-1934 collection that was released in the mid-1990's is easily one of the most phenomenal musical collections of any artists, and clearly shows why Tatum is undeniably one of the most stunning musical talents in the history of music.

In many ways, Art Tatum is the true definition of the term "prodigy" as it is nearly impossible to find anyone who had a significant influence on his sound and style. As he was a contemporary of Fats Waller, and more to the point, has a very different style, Tatum is one of the few pianists in modern music who was NOT influenced by Waller. Perhaps taking a bit of his sound and style from classical players, one can only deduce that Tatum's sound and style are some of the most pure and unaltered that the world of music has ever heard. The recordings found on present a complete and accurate representation of the various styles and groups that Tatum used during his career, and it also contains his most well known songs. 1932-1934 contains nearly exclusively Tatum instrumentals, through there are four collaborations with singer, Adelaide Hall. Though she is not very well known in larger circles, Hall remains one of the amazing, yet largely forgotten songstresses of the era. Having recorded with the likes of Duke Ellington and nearly every other big band, aside from perhaps Josephine Baker, there were few singers who were as popular as Hall in the years between the World Wars. Her work with Tatum is just as sensational as her other recordings, and the presence of these tracks on 1932-1934 helps to give a more complete picture of the range of Tatum's skills.

If one could only listen to one Tatum composition and need to grasp his greatness from that single track, it would without question have to be his studio recording of the classic song, "Tiger Rag." Tatum's take on the song is so absolutely mind blowing that there have truly been very few songs of any genre since that even come close in terms of musicianship, creativity, and musical execution. The song begins rather unassumingly, with what seems like Tatum almost getting a feel for the piano. However, he quickly jumps into the song full tilt and does not slow for even a moment until the end. Every moment of this performance is absolutely stunning, and it is one of a number of Tatum recordings that keep his name at the top of "greatest ever" lists to this day. Whilst listening to the track, it truly sounds as if there are at least two or three individual pianists on the song, yet the truth of the matter is, it is only Tatum and a microphone. As he does on many songs found on 1932-1934, he is playing a number of musical lines simultaneously, and it is often very difficult to comprehend that the sensational musical performance is being created by only one man. This is the true genius of Tatum, and his extraordinary ability and approach can only be fully appreciated when experienced first hand.

Simply put, there has never been another pianist who sounded quite like Art Tatum. With the ability to singlehandedly sound as if there are multiple pianists on the song, his playing is often nothing short of stunning to experience. While he is able to play slow and soulfully as well as anyone, it is on the faster tempo, more upbeat songs where the true genius of Tatum shines brightest. Tatum is not overly aggressive with his playing, nor does he venture into the more whimsical sound that was popular at the time, yet his playing is undeniably catchy and entertaining in its own, unique way. There are countless moments, often entire songs, where Tatum's fingers seem to defy what one thinks is humanly possible with the speed and accuracy with which he plays. Presenting lengthy, truly inspired and amazingly imaginative solos, Tatum's sound is immediately recognizable and absolutely peerless. The progressions he presents on his renditions of classics like "St. Louis Blues" and "Cocktails For Two" put all other versions to shame, as his unique sense of rhythm and the manner in which he fits an astounding number of notes into such a small space is nothing short of awe inspiring. Few other pianists can even come close to the stellar abilities of Art Tatum, and his distinct and unrivaled speed and style make his recordings some of the most wonderful moments in the history of music.

Though he does not have the name recognition of peers like Fats Waller or Duke Ellington, the truth of the matter is, in many ways, Art Tatum surpassed them both by leaps and bounds. Turing traditional songs on their heads and recording them in rhythms and tempos never before dreamed, Art Tatum is by far one of the most sensational pianists in the history of music. A quick listen to Tatum's mind blowing takes on songs like "I Would Do Anything For You" and "Tiger Rag" proves this point well beyond doubt and often leaves the listener struggling to get their jaw off of the floor. With unparalleled musicianship and an uncanny ability to play so brilliantly that is sounds as if there are multiple musicians, Art Tatum stands in a musical class all his own. While his recorded catalog is massive, as he was performing during the pre-LP era, his recordings are scattered across single sessions and 78's on a number of different recording labels. These loose songs have been complied countless times, yet few are able to capture the complete picture of Tatum's abilities and sound. Bringing together his greatest instrumentals as well as four brilliant duets, the Tatum compilation, 1932-1934 stands as one of the most important and superb musical documents of one of musics' most phenomenal and innovative legends, Art Tatum.

Standout tracks: "Tiger Rag," "I Would Do Anything For You," and "Cocktails For Two."

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