I'm not sure where the line is when it comes to restoring legendary recordings by jazz giants. How far should a label go when cleaning up a recording made generations ago? Do you remove all the ambient noise? What about exposing notes that weren't heard on the original recording? And at what point does a recording become unrecognizable because all the sonic grime was removed?
In about two weeks, all of these questions will be dwarfed by a new, much larger one: Is a jazz album valid if the artist has been replaced by computer software?
Brace yourself, for that's surely the bone that will be chewed on furiously by jazz critics when Sony BMG Masterworks releases on June 3d the controversial Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here (Live at the Shrine). I'm just glad I had a chance to hear the recording before everyone else has a go.
What makes this new Sony Masterworks CD so contentious is how it was recorded. First, a little history: Back in April 1949, Tatum performed solo at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium [pictured], with nine tracks recorded, albeit poorly. The original recording sounds as if someone had poured sand onto the platter or tape heads revolving that day. Unable to do much with the masters, Sony decided to try something revolutionary (though some will say "heretical"). Let me quote from the Sony press release:
"Last year, Sony BMG and Zenph Studios re-recorded Tatum's 1949 concert at The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. They placed a state-of-the-art Yamaha Disklavier Pro concert grand piano on the same stage in the same spot that Tatum played and recorded a flawless re-performance on modern equipment before a live audience."
Who played the concert grand? Again, let me quote from the press release:
"Zenph's unique technique turns audio recordings into live performances that precisely replicate the original recording, but offer vastly improved sound quality. Listeners are transported back to the moment of creation and experience Tatum's playing as if they were in the room when the original recordings were made."
In other words, the piano keys moved by themselves, inspired by digital data. Zenph Studios is a company in North Carolina that builds software for recreating precisely how musicians perform. Zenph took the Tatum master, captured every note and nuance with its proprietary software program, and then ran the result through the Yamaha piano while Sony recorded the Tatum-less performance in front of a live audience.
Freaky, to say the least. Test-Tube Tatum.
But frankly, after listening to the CD 15 times, I honestly have mixed feelings about the album. On the one hand, it's a joy to hear Tatum's notes played with such clarity. On the other hand, I did have trouble shaking the image that I'm listening to Bizarro Tatum, the piano genius who wasn't there.
Which begs the philosophical question: Am I listening to an Art Tatum recording if Tatum's fingers aren't producing the notes? And is this project an insult to jazz or is it simply a high-tech tribute? I'm not sure. In some ways, I feel like the diner at a chop house who's just been told halfway through the meal that the lamb I'm eating was cloned. The mutton may taste great but you can't stop thinking about scientists in lab coats and the fate of your genes if you finish your meal.
Tatum certainly was superhuman. We know this from his clean recordings and film footage. You listen to his interpretations and you can't even imagine what it must have been like to hear him play live, let alone watch those fingers miraculously fly up and down the keyboard. Tatum was and remains jazz's most remarkable pianist. There really isn't a pianist alive (nor will there ever be) who is superb enough to sit down and sound precisely like Tatum. So it only figures that software would be needed to re-capture such a spectacular artist.
There's no denying that Piano Starts Here's fidelity is exceptional. And I did find myself forgetting that the piano was playing by itself. Each track, from How High the Moon and Tea for Two to Someone to Watch Over Me, bristles with Tatum's fleshy energy and stormy touch. The CD even has warmth, humor and dynamics—notes and chords are depressed with different, accurate strengths.
So what are we to make of Piano Starts Here? Is it a gimmick, a gross violation of nature? Or is this recording simply an opportunity to hear what Tatum must have sounded like if you were sitting on the piano bench with him back in 1949?
It would be so easy to dump on Piano Starts Here for being a wax museum piece or the start of some horrible trend toward musician-less jazz albums. But that reaction would be unfair given how good the CD sounds. Besides, Zenph used the same technology in 2006 to reperform Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations, which long suffered in mono.
Clearly, this isn't an Art Tatum album. For it to be such a disc, Tatum obviously would have to be sitting at the keyboard. But is it a jazz mockery, the musical equivalent of a Monet forgery? I don't think I'd go that far. Technology allows for many things these days, and this just happens to be one of them. Fortunately, the result is both entertaining and illuminating. You finally get to hear what Tatum must have sounded like if you were in the front row that day. It's eerily intimate.
So, all things considered, Piano Starts Here is fun to hear and addictive. If Supersax could pose as five Charlie Parkers and Dave Pell could recreate Lester Young's solos with his Prez Conference, a Yamaha grand running down Art Tatum solos isn't the worst thing in the world, especially given how much love, care and respect went into the recreation.
Piano Starts Here just has to be considered for what it is: A clear, enjoyable and virtually perfect recreation of Tatum's perfect live performance. This CD doesn't erase or replace the importance and significance of the original recording. It merely provides us with an audio document detailing Tatum's sound and technique if today's digital wizards could go back in time and do that 1949 concert some audio justice.
JazzWax tracks: The original Art Tatum Shrine Auditorium concert can be found on Art Tatum: 1949 on the French Classics label. The CD is available here used for about $16. The sound is, however, coarse and a bit distant.
Piano Starts Here from Sony will be released on June 3d and will be available here and likely at iTunes. In addition to the nine tracks that Tatum recorded at the Shrine, the CD includes his first four commercial recordings issued on 78-rpm in 1933 by Brunswick. When listened to with headphones, the recording replicates what Tatum would have heard from the piano bench at the Shrine, with the music seeming to come from directly in front of you.