16 March 2006

Jazz pianists in their own words

By Tapani Lausti

Alyn Shipton, Handful of Keys: Conversations with Thirty Jazz Pianists. Equinox 2004.

Alyn Shipton's collection of interviews offers fascinating insights into the way jazz pianists experience their chosen instrument.

The late French pianist Michel Petrucciani told Shipton that the thing which drew him to the piano as a child was its very completeness as an instrument: "You can be percussive, you can be harmonic, you can be melodic, and I really love the physical aspect of playing the instrument." Petrucciani in his later years wanted to play so clearly "that you would be able to sing every note". (p. 129)

Whilst not being able to play during his 18-month illness in 1996-97, Keith Jarrett used the time to listen to his own records and noticed this: "... sometimes I sounded like a horn — a saxophone or a trumpet. I'd always been on the piano's case for not having a voice that sang in that way, capable of sustaining a sound as a wind instrument does, and I used my time to reconnect to that horn idea." (p. 76-77)

Of John Lewis, Shipton has this to say: "One thing that seems to have got even more refined over the years is his ability to allude to ideas without ever making them completely explicit." (p. 95) Lewis discusses his CD Evolution, which I don't have, but the sequel, Evolution II, is one of my favourite albums.

Those familiar with Horace Silver's playing will find it interesting how he experiences one of his trademarks, or as Shipton puts it: "... in which his left hand grumbles along playing repeated notes, alternating notes or repeated chords." Silver didn't have an explanation: "My left hand thing, that's something that came to me very unconsciously. I can't tell why. I just started playing like that and it happened. It was like I had no control of over my left hand, it just went crazy and took off by itself. All of a sudden. I didn't consciously programme it to do that." (p. 133)

Hank Jones is not among the interviewees but his presence is felt throughout the book. Oscar Peterson tells how he learned many secrets of accompaniment by listening to Jones playing with Ella Fitzgerald. Shipton writes: "... talking to a number of other pianists recently from Tommy Flanagan to Junior Mance, Hank Jones's importance to modern jazz piano and the art of accompaniment has been stressed by all of them." (p. 122) Flanagan and Mance are also interviewed in this book.

Of younger pianists, Shipton talks to the Swedish piano jazz star Esbjörn Svensson. He tells Shipton how he listens to famous jazz pianists from Teddy Wilson to Keith Jarrett: "... and although I didn't exactly check out everything they did note for note, I was listening to their atmosphere, their colour." (p. 147)

Of younger generation of jazz pianists JoAnne Brackeen has this to say: "Today, with my students, I find it difficult to get them to develop their own individual sound, however good they are, but it's something I have myself as a result of coming through the bebop era. All of us who were active in the sixties and seventies have arrived at our own sound: Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock. I think Herbie was without doubt one of the strongest sounds of our era, with wonderful feeling in his playing and when he focuses on jazz these days he still has it." (p. 10) All three pianists mentioned by Brackeen are interviewed in Shipton's book.

The book is full of interesting observations and fascinating anecdotes told by the pianists themselves. Having read the book I have added several piano jazz CDs to my shopping list, not only Lewis's Evolution. Some CDs are mentioned in the interviews and at the end of the book Shipton lists selected recordings.

Let me finally list the pianists, not mentioned above, to whom Shipton talked: Carla Bley, Dave Brubeck, Uri Caine, Alice Coltrane, Sylvie Courvoisier, Michael Garrick, Benny Green, Andrew Hill, Abdullah Ibrahim, Brian Kellock, Diana Krall, Jacques Loussier, Marian McPartland, Billy Taylor, John Taylor, Butch Thompson, Mal Waldron and Gerald Wiggins.

I list some good recent CDs and all-time favourite albums at Books & Jazz CDs. You will find there also a list of recent jazz books. Visit also the Music pages of the archive.

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