Last night, about halfway into the first act of Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here, a one-man show at New York's Apollo Theater through Sunday, the nightclub owner played by actor Paul Butler tells the audience that Tatum's motto in life was "Expect more." In many ways, Tatum's mantra summed up the evening's attempt to leverage a fascinating album into a two-hour play about Tatum's life. Sadly, the result was a bit of an overreach.
The play comes just weeks after Sony's release of a CD by the same name. For those unfamiliar with the CD or the technology behind it, a quick update: Software company Zenph Studios last year teamed with Sony BMG to re-record Tatum's 1949 Shrine Auditorium performance. The original recoding was a mess, making it virtually impossible to enjoy. Zenph performed a miracle by capturing all of Tatum's percussive notes and tender nuances on special software. Then the software was fed into a Yamaha Disklavier Pro concert grand piano and digitally recorded at the Shrine by Sony. The result was a sterling, life-like recreation of exactly what Tatum played on stage, without the audio scars.
Taking the digital show on the road, so to speak, Zenph has now integrated its Tatum-less piano into a bio play written by Jeffery B. McIntyre, Tre Garrett and Eric Hirsh. Actor Paul Butler [pictured] plays Doc Hanley, a Harlem club owner and friend of Tatum's who reminisces about the blind pianist's rise and rise and eventual death in 1956 at age 47. The piano, a Steinway this time, plays 12 songs from the album at different points to illustrate Doc Hanley's recollections.
The fundamental problem with this "techumentary" of Tatum's life is that it's dull. The CD works because you forget Tatum isn't playing and marvel at the love that went into the recreation. In the show, you're painfully aware that Tatum isn't there, and the novelty of the spectral piano wears off fast. Most seats can't see the keys move, so what you wind up looking at is a grand piano in a showroom. The audience was never told whether the piano you see from time to time on a large backdrop screen with its keys going up and down is indeed the piano on the stage or footage shot earlier. Regardless, piano keys going up and down magically have little appeal or value unless you're a pianist and can interpret what Tatum was doing.
The thrill of any live performance is the tension that exists between the talent and the audience. Like the man on the flying trapeze, there's always suspense and the risk that a performer is going to make a mistake or might not pull off what he or she is attempting to do. That electricity didn't exist last night. The player-less piano is perfect by definition, so there's no human struggle going on before your eyes. By Act II, you could hear the yawns.
Despite Butler's fine, earthy performance, the show also is a bit haunting, like attending a seance. As the piano plays, you start to feel like the cartoon characters who learn that Casper is a ghost, albeit friendly. Equally odd was listening to the audience applaud the player-less piano after each song. One assumes they were expressing thanks to Tatum, yet the sight of humans mechanically applauding machinery pretending to be human was somewhat surreal.
When I first wrote about the CD (May 21, 2008), I had misgivings about its validity. But the more I listened to it, the more I found that the recording was a fabulous tribute to a brilliant artist. I also praised the technology used to recreate the original notes, saying it was performing a valuable service, not undermining art.
The show is an entirely different matter. On stage, the technology hogs the show and offers little in the way of drama. The producers would have been better off taking the audience through the fascinating process Zenph used to capture Tatum's notes and how exactly those notes became cleaned up and restored. Now that would have been fabulous. Technology, in and of itself, simply isn't art. It's technology, which has a shot at being interesting if explained artfully. A piano playing by itself on stage isn't much different than watching the footlights go on and off without assistance.
Toward the end, I couldn't help feeling as if I had been looking at a still life while listening to a recording of someone eating a peach.
Fortunately, the CD remains remarkable, and proceeds from the show go to a
good cause—the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here is at the Apollo theater tonight and on June 22. Tickets are available at the Apollo Theater box office or Ticketmaster.
JazzWax tracks: Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here remains a splendid way to enjoy Tatum's music. To hear Tea for Two, I Know That You Know and Too Marvelous for Words among others in all their recreated glory is a joy, and Zenph and Sony are to be commended. The CD is available at iTunes and as a CD here.