Player Piano Man

The magnificent Art Tatum album, Piano Starts Here, which combines his first four solo recordings from 1933 with a slightly abridged version of his 1949 Shrine Auditorium concert, has been chosen as the second “re-performance” release in a series created by Zenph Studios for Sony Classical. The most prosaic question it raises is this: In what end-of-year awards category can you vote for it? It is obviously not a new performance, because every note (save two minutes that Columbia cut from “Gershwin Medley,” rendering it as “The Man I Love”) has been available for decades—on 78s, 45s, 10- and 12-inch LPs and CD. But neither is it a reissue, because it is entirely unconcerned with transferring or improving old records. Zenph goes beyond the recording process in an effort to recreate the performance itself.

If this sounds like science fiction, join the club. I’ve interviewed two Zenphians and spent many hours with the Sony disc, now called, inaccurately, Piano Starts Here: Live at the Shrine (the 1933 solos are still included), along with computer-generated transcriptions of four performances, and I am still in the technological dark. But let me, as a semi-reformed Luddite, try to explain.

Zenph digitizes recordings to learn precisely how every note is played—in the words of project manager John Q. Walker, “how the note was touched and released, the dynamic range, how and when the pedals were used, and so forth.” Tatum’s playing was turned into high-resolution computer files, which, through solenoid-driven electronics built into the hardware of the piano by Yamaha, manipulate the piano’s hammers. On the most basic level, they have created a reproducing player-piano of unparalleled sophistication and nuance.

But that’s just the beginning. While Walker and his team will admit to no guess-work in reclaiming the actual notes, which are timed to within 200th of a millisecond to the original, they concede to speculation in re-creating the performance. No one, for example, knows what kind of piano Tatum played at the Shrine—though the timbre, as conveyed by the recordings, suggests a six- or seven-foot Baldwin. So Zenph took a state-of-the-art concert grand, the Yamaha Disklavier Pro, voiced it to replicate the Baldwin, and placed it onstage at the Los Angeles Shrine for a September 2007 concert before an audience.

The new CD is a recording of that 2007 concert, not a restoration of the 1949 recording. They used two discrete microphone designs, both included on the disc: The 13 selections are offered first as a concert performance, with the microphones placed in accordance with modern recording techniques rather than in an attempt to replicate the microphone placement in 1949, and then in a “Binaural” version. At the concert, Zenph put a Tatum-size dummy at the keyboard, with microphones in each of its ears. The “Binaural” recording, which is meant to be listened to with headphones, is an attempt to recreate what Tatum heard while he was playing.

Is the “re-perfomance” any good? Is it necessary? Well, it has proven necessary, even if you hate the result, because in the course of analyzing the performance, the Zenph team—which had no prior familiarity with Tatum as an artist—discovered that Columbia had been issuing this music at incorrect pitch: everything is slightly flat. As a Zenph analyst, Anatoly Larkin, points out, it is not impossible that Tatum used a slightly off-pitch piano (only someone who attended the concert and has perfect pitch can testify to that). Yet that seems unlikely, knowing what we do know of Tatum’s phenomenal sense of pitch and of the professionalism of Gene Norman, who produced the Shrine concert. Zenph has restored the correct sequence of Tatum’s program, which was accurate on the 10-inch LP, but not on the 12-inch or the CD. With the help of Tatum discographer Arnold Laubich, it also restored the missing two minutes from “Gershwin Medley.” All of these corrections ought now to be high on Sony’s to-do list for a reissue of the Tatum album: The Zenph recording is by no means a replacement for it.

But it does offer a new way of enjoying Tatum’s music. My own response wavered for a few weeks, beginning with instant elation, modified by increasing trepidation as I compared the Tatum record (which, notwithstanding the issue of pitch, is acoustically sound, eminently listenable and ultimately irreproducible) to Zenph, before settling into a mildly qualified enthusiasm. Serendipity played a part in my conversion. For some reason, the NAD player in my office cannot read the Sony disc, so I listened to it on a computer and iPod. Eventually, I took it home and played it on a much better rig, usually reserved for vinyl, and it blew my socks off.

At first, I considered the Zenph a Tatum aide—the clarity of recording and the differences in microphone set-ups, pianos and vintage recording equipment repeatedly focused my attention on details that seemed new to me, sending me back to Tatum for a comparison. Using Zenph as a way of getting closer to Tatum, I sometimes found it lacking: Is the second note Tatum plays in “The Kerry Dance”—a D natural—really the same as the note sounded in Zenph? Is the bluesy momentum of his intro to “St. Louis Blues” accurately captured by Zenph? Zenph insists that they are (“we slaved over every note,” Larkin says), though they acknowledge that other audio distinctions are inevitable.

Yet it’s a mug’s game to compare the two—that’s Zenph’s problem and not ours. What excited me about hearing Zenph on a good system was not the clarity it brought to Tatum, but the restoration it brought to the piano—the actual pressing and releasing of the keys, the extraordinary dynamic range, the ambient echoes, the overtones, the beauty of the instrument itself, all of which combined to put Tatum in the room. I wouldn’t recommend a recreation, re-performance or reproduction of anything over the original, but I do find this technological rapprochement with the past to be irresistible. I wish, though, that Zenph and Sony would avoid hyperbole on the order of “Tatum Lives, Seriously.” That goes without saying, with and without Zenph.

Piano Starts Here is the second of 18 projects Zenph has contracted to do with Sony; the first was Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I hope they continue to keep jazz in the mix—Teddy Wilson’s 1930s solos, for instance. John Walker says that in years to come they might be able to digitize all instruments; they have already begun on bass, working with an Oscar Peterson-Ray Brown performance, at Peterson’s request. They concede that the system they have is imperfect and there are things they’d redo; their software will evolve, as all recording techniques have. To underscore the point, they have scheduled a Tatum concert to be played on a seven-foot Steinway at the Apollo. I’ll be there.

Originally published in August 2008

Add a Comment

You need to log in to comment on this article. No account? No problem!