Is It Tatum Or…?

In the 1970s, Red Garland told me about the pianists who influenced him when he was learning. He mentioned Nat Cole, James P. Johnson, Luckey Roberts, Teddy Wilson and Bud Powell. Then he said,

Tatum, of course was the master. He was Mr. Piano. The first time I heard a Tatum record–I think it was “Tiger Rag”–I thought it was at least three pianists.

Garland was far from the only listener who was convinced that Art Tatum’s 1933 recording of “Tiger Rag” was the work of more than one pianist–or the product of multiple recording. Seventy-five years later, “Tiger Rag” and other Tatum masterpieces are recreated with digital wizardry in sound exponentially more pristine than that of the 78 rpm shellac or the LP and CD reissues of later decades. They are no less astonishing, but I am not persuaded by the gee-whiz promotion surrounding the project that they are more so.

 Tatum 2.jpgZenph Studios captured four of Tatum’s 1933 recordings and his 1949 Shrine Auditorium concert on special software and processed them for reproduction on a Yamaha Disklavier concert grand piano. They played them back on the Disklavier on the stage of The Shrine in Los Angeles and recorded as if Tatum had been at the keyboard. The results are on a Sony Classical CD which, like the LP and CD of the real Tatum performances that preceded it, is called Piano Starts Here: Live at The Shrine, with a banner across the top of the cover: Zenph Re-Performance. Tatum’s notes are reproduced with uncanny accuracy. I have done A/B comparisons of the Zenph and the Columbia Jazz Masterpieces CD, which is still available, and been impressed with the Zenph folks’ victory over the shortcomings of the original recordings, including unfavorable ambient sound, inconsistent recorder speeds, scratches and pops. In separate tracks, ten of the thirteen pieces play again in binaural stereo versions meant to be heard on headphones, placing the listener as if he were Tatum on the piano bench. It’s quite an experience.

After decades of hearing the Tatum recordings with all of their flaws, I’m not sure whether I find the computerized versions too perfect, too smoothed-out. Maybe that’s simply a matter of experience having wired my brain to expect what my ears have always heard. My recommendation to anyone wanting to experience Tatum for the first time is to listen to him directly before you meet him channeled through the medium of the computerized piano. Either way, the first time you hear Tatum’s “Tiger Rag,” you may be as incredulous as was the young Red Garland.

For a review of a New York stage show inspired by the Zenph re-performance of Tatum, see Marc Myers’ JazzWax.

The Red Garland quote is from a chapter in this book.

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  1. says

    I don’t mind the scratches on old recordings or CDs when Furtwängler conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and I don’t mind them when Art Tatum plays either. Perhaps some of the magic may get lost in the “sanitized” versions.
    Can’t beat some of the superb tunes rendered in “The Definitive Art Tatum” to accompany other artistic endeavours, as shown here in

  2. Jon Foley says

    “Perhaps some of the magic may get lost in the ‘sanitized’ versions.”
    And perhaps most, if not all the “magic” was lost in the original recordings. I’ll paraphrase what I’ve written elsewhere:
    Do you think the audience sitting in the Shrine Auditorium that night heard Tatum accompanied by clicks, pops, crackles, and whatever other onomatopoeic words you can think of? I think not. I think what they heard was very close to what is on the new Zenph recording. And whatever version is closest to what Tatum sounded like that night, regardless of the way it’s reproduced, should be the standard we judge the recordings by. Seems simple to me.