The Technicalities of Technique

In the throes of research, I recently chanced upon a 1941 story in Variety. Benny Goodman was set to play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto at Philadelphia’s Robin Hood Dell under the baton of Jose Iturbi. The once-popular Spanish pianist balked. “It would be beneath my dignity to conduct for him,” he complained, to which Goodman responded, “So we’ll get a good conductor.” The reporter noted that Iturbi’s dignity did not prevent him from trading laugh-lines on Kraft Music Hall. Nor, a few years later, did it keep him from playing boogie-woogie badly in a few of Metro’s most inane musicals. At the very moment I was reading that clipping, I was also listening to Tribute to the Greats, a 1970s Art Hodes solo-piano album released for the first time last year. Suddenly, Hodes’ laconic blues playing began to resound as a commentary on technique and jazz.

By any definition of orthodox mastery, Iturbi could play rings around Hodes. Yet Iturbi’s stabs at “popular music,” undertaken to show he was a regular guy, were laughable. Having no respect for the idiom, he displayed robotic virtuosity as a substitute for feeling and imagination. Examples of this sort of thing abound—it’s far easier to find convincing performances of classical music by jazz players than the reverse. Yet so powerful is the lure of pyrotechnics that even jazz has a history of disdain for unconventional skills. Think of Thelonious Monk. Or consult Oscar Peterson’s recent memoir, A Jazz Odyssey, for a rehash of the old saw about Bud Powell’s deficient left hand and a new grumble about his failing to complete phrases. (Read the book anyway for splendid portraits of Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald and others whom Peterson adores.) Hodes himself was not immune to such snobberies.

I met him once, briefly, as an undergraduate, when he toured with a Chicago-based package that included Lil Hardin Armstrong, Bunky Green, contractor Red Saunders’ band and others. Maybe he was having a bad day. Impatient with the handful of students who peppered him with questions, Hodes insisted that Basie and Ellington couldn’t play piano for beans (“Just terrible,” he snorted). I left the room, figuring I knew all I needed to know about this character. Years later I came to admire his essays in Selections From the Gutter (an anthology of pieces from the magazine he edited in the 1940s) and his records with Sidney Bechet and others. I could never understand how a pianist of his mettle could fail to appreciate Basie’s aphorisms and Ellington’s invincible attack. But evidently, he was testing us or changed his mind—in The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, he names Ellington as one of his favorites.

My favorite slow-piano blues is Jimmy Yancey’s 1943 recording of “How Long,” which I know only from an ancient Folkways LP, Jazz, Volume 2: The Blues. It is a marvel of metronomic control, daring economy, impeccably gauged dynamics and an exquisitely nuanced use of dissonance. Yancey had limited technique at his peak; this performance was recorded two years after he suffered a stroke that impaired his left hand. Yet it far outclasses his earlier and heartier versions. He plays nine choruses of the eight-bar tune, reserving the last two bars of each chorus for a repeated tag, and the entire performance is anchored by a simple five-note left-hand ostinato. In some passages he plays hardly anything else—just enough to suggest the stately opulence of the piano and the sad beauty of a Chopin nocturne.

Hodes, who usually recorded in small combos, captures a touch of Yancey’s understated grace on Tribute to the Greats (Delmark). Indeed, its pleasures are so delicate that I fear praising it too much; better to let it sneak up on you. He plays 15 jazz classics, many of them slow blues, his left hand patrolling the bass clef with a staunch, often impending counterpoint. He gets a poised, assured sound from the piano and you trust his fingers—the best of his readings are so deliberate you have time to consider things like trust. Not every track succeeds, but epiphanies mount up in a display of how saturated with melody the blues can be. Sometimes he leaves out the obvious note in a chord, yet you hear it anyway, cradled in intent; at others, he splays chords or calmly rolls out steady tremolos. On “Atlanta Blues,” he captures the lazy, sighing singing of Ethel Waters; on “St. James Infirmary,” he allows the theme to morph into “Nature Boy”; and the superb “Farewell Blues” is animated as a train song with a rock ’n’ roll vamp.

Virtuosity has its joys and primitivism its limitations, and you might say that by Iturbian standards, Hodes was a better musician than he was a pianist. In music, genuine feeling and wit go a long away in reconciling the two.

Originally published in December 2002

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