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September 2006

Bernd Lhotzky
Piano Portrait
Arbors Records

Louis Mazetier’s highly informative liner notes assert that the making of Stradivarius violins is a lost art, and that without musicians like Bernd Lhotzky stride piano could be, too. Certainly the case of Lhotzky reveals how infinite the jazz-piano vessel is. Lhotzky is a 36-year-old graduate of the Munich Conservatory, but his spiritual home is 1920s Harlem.

The point isn’t that Lhotzky’s chosen destiny seems quixotic in this age. Nor is it that the “oompah” left hand of stride piano—even in refined versions here like the Teddy Wilson-style 10ths of “Ghost of a Chance”—can sound corny to the modern ear. The point is how Lhotzky functions within his valid art form.

He is a monster.

Very few living pianists could sustain the velocity and density of James P. Johnson’s “Caprice Rag” and still make music. Hoagy Carmichael’s “Jubilee” is also both manic and artistic, with its sinuous single-note bass line invincibly concurrent with right-hand treble torrents. “Jitterbug Waltz” is often done by modernists as a retro/hip exercise. Lhotzky’s version is faster and richer and much more complex, even with limited improvisation.

The best places to start with Lhotzky are ballads from the ’30s like “Old Folks” and “I Cover the Waterfront,” where his classically balanced symmetries make the songs sound charmingly old, but newer than “Caprice Rag.”

Originally published in September 2006
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