Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here - JazzWax

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May 21, 2008


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Michael Steinman

Jazz listeners have always had to grapple with this, although I confess there are larger moral dilemmas. Having spent my life listening to superb creativity -- often in rotten sound -- the Crypto-Tatum bothers me. It is -- to coin a nasty analogy -- the difference between making love with a real person and watching a porn DVD. I also wonder who the CD producers were trying to appeal to. Is there a huge market out there for Tatum in ANY form, I wonder? The people who couldn't listen to Tatum, foggily recorded -- will they clamor for this disc? It doesn't even seem like a good idea to make some easy money off a dead artist who couldn't protest what was being done with his work.

Greg Lee

It's a conundrum all right; the great novelist Philip K. Dick (who was a big audiophile) once had me going in one of his interviews when he maintained that any audio recording of any sort was only a facsimile of the in-person auditory experience of a performance; i.e., no one ever really listened to Beethoven's Fifth via record, but only an analog (or in this case, digital) representation of such a performance. Now I'm going to have to go back into my library and look for the actual reference! But that was the essence: that any recording of ANY artist -- jazz, classical, folk -- wasn't really the same as hearing them without a go-between, the LP was merely a recreation of what you think is the sound of Handel's Messiah or "Waltz For Debby".

Jon Foley

A couple of thoughts: Phil Dick was right on the money (I knew Phil for a while in the 60's and I can definitely imagine him giving the above opinion). A recording is only an approximation of the live performance. When you hear the original "Piano Starts Here," you're hearing, not the real Art Tatum, but AT, poorly recorded then poorly reproduced. Do you think that people sitting in the audience heard a distant piano sound, accompanied by hiss, crackles and pops? Of course not. So when (if) you listen to this new digital recording, the thought that you're not really hearing Art Tatum live should cross your mind, but then, think which recording is closest to what Tatum must have sounded like that night? Both recordings are Art Tatum's live playing, modified by many electronic devices. The new one, I'm sure, comes closest to what the audience heard that night in '49. That's all that should count, in my opinion.

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of a Song" (Grove) and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax is a two-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Association's best blog award.

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