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  • Millie Watson

Art Tatum - Piano Starts Here (1968)

Despite having played the piano since the age of 5 or so I (somewhat shamefully) have never been particularly engaged with listening to pianists in their own right. I love Western Art music and listen to various composers, but rarely have I been consistent with performer preference. Jazz is obviously in many ways a different kettle of fish, but Art Tatum was the first pianist I ever cared about.

Art Tatum was the only jazz musician to “attempt to conceive a style based upon all styles, to master the mannerisms of all schools, and then synthesize those into something personal" Benny Goodman

In my second year of university I started with a new teacher who was truly an inspiration, whatever the music he can breathe life into it. I expressed an interest in getting a basic understanding of playing a chart, so we decided to do the standard ‘All of Me’ for my Technical and Repertoire exam – with stride. It was less of a stride and more of stumble... I wouldn’t say I pulled it off but I certainly learned a lot (having the hands of a 10 year old child made stride rather challenging for me, 10ths are strictly off the table). Alongside this we were pulling apart a Bach prelude to reimagine it with the full range of the modern piano and fleshed out harmony. It was a deep study, getting intimate with the spirit of a piece and revelling in that. The distinction between the standard and the prelude melted away as superficial dissimilarities became unimportant.

Then he told me to listen to Piano Starts Here.

Pass me the mic and let me wax lyrical for a moment. There is this primordial soup which is mankind’s common existential state, and as we struggle to articulate this state/experience we realise new ways of expressing (i.e.medium) and as we grapple ever more to refine and organise our thoughts, genres begin to emerge. Art Tatum grasped this vast and unspoken/speakable commonality, he was the Head Architect making use of the best ideas that came before to consolidate his unique voice, made truly irreplicable by the sheer skill required to play it.

I only play piano, but tonight God is in the house. Fats Waller

The first four tracks come from a recording session in 1933. The remainder of the album comes from a live performance at a ‘Just Jazz’ concert in 1949 and the collection was released in 1968. I’m not going to go over each piece, but just pick out






‘Tiger Rag’ is a mad feat of skill. How fast the fingers? But no matter how many notes he crams into a second, the melody and nature of the pieces is ever present. Art Tatum never loses sight of the primary voice and it is strong as an ox. It may have tonnes of flies buzzing around it, but this ox knows where it’s going.

I love ‘Sophisticated Lady’ obviously - takes one to know one… ‘How High the Moon’ is a wonderful conversation between phrases. He can be so flippant, joyously throwing away runs and having little tiffs between voices throughout. There is a real Puckish vibe to a lot of the tunes on this album, poking fun and running circles around the audience with his outrageous skill.

‘Willow Weep for Me’ is a wonderful change in pace, as it saunters languidly (but still with the offhand aside here and there). ‘Tatum Pole Boogie’ is the only tune Tatum composed on this album. It is a fantastic display of his technical skill, his sense of humour and insouciance.

Side bar: I read a review of an album of Tatum’s improvisations performed by Stephen Mayer - which according to this reviewer was surprisingly effective, although I don’t really understand the point of such a project… Anyway, the reviewer said it is nigh on impossible to recreate Tatum’s “speed, accuracy, rhythmic drive, fluency and insouciance” and realised that insouciant is the perfect word to encapsulate this performance.

I fell in love. How could any human possess this skill? How could two hands organically/seemingly casually create these independent and coherent voices, no moment left unexamined but also every note performed with the utmost taste? It’s daft for me to be singing Art Tatum’s praises, he’s known, but his music is family to me so this blog had to be writ.


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