The role of jazz in our culture is so ambivalent that artists with special talent can sometimes hide in plain sight. Based on the evidence of Solotude, Eyran Katsenelenbogen, originally from Israel, now on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, is one.
Granted, Katsenelenbogen’s career has not been designed for wide popular appeal. He gives solo-piano recitals, and he plays vintage tunes such as “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and “Jersey Bounce.” But his technical command is so imposing that often he does not so much allude to Art Tatum as channel him. The over-the-top extravagance of “Lady Be Good,” with its supersonic ornamental runs and tempestuous arpeggios, will make you laugh out loud.
Katsenelenbogen is most interesting when his classical education, his instinctive historicism and his astonishing chops all collide with modernity. On “Take Five,” Paul Desmond’s famous hook is overwhelmed and transformed in vast, dense, dramatic decorative detail. On “Rhythm-A-Ning” and “Blue Monk,” Katsenelenbogen fearlessly exposes Monk’s stride roots and civilizes his jagged seventh intervals, while his own private embellishments fly everywhere, all relevant. On “You Must Believe in Spring,” his precise percussive fingering and crushing dark chords and obsessive elaboration erect a towering architecture. But in the final two of its 10 minutes, he concentrates Michel Legrand’s theme to a delicate single line.