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January/February 1998

Art Tatum
Memories Of You
Black Lion

Whenever the subject of the roots of modern jazz piano is raised, disputation among informed theorists ceases upon the mention of Earl Hines, whose playing in 1928 set the ball in motion. However, after quantifying Hines' many contributions to the rapidly growing art form, both in solo and ensemble contexts, one must next confront the phenomenon of Art Tatum, a stunning soloist who emerged on record seemingly overnight in 1933, but who had actually attracted serious attention as early as 1926 or 1927, when he was but 17 or 18 years old. For it was then, in his native Toledo, that he was first heard by Coleman Hawkins, Rex Stewart and other members of the traveling Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Though he was a featured staff pianist on local and then network radio in the late 1920s, and from 1933 on continued to make solo recordings, Tatum did not become a big name until the mid-'40s, when, with Tiny Grimes and Slam Stewart, he formed one of the first piano/guitar/bass trios, a combo that, however great its popularity, actually served as an impediment to the full exercise of his genius. It is commonly agreed that Tatum thrived as a soloist, and it is no condemnation to say that his ever fertile imagination was occasionally restrained by the presence of others. However, on the recordings gathered here, we are only concerned with his excellences, not his shortcomings.

Memories Of You is a three-disc boxed set comprising three previously issued CDs-The V-Discs (BL 760114), Standards (BL 760143), and Tea For Two (BL 760192)-and, although the music is exemplary throughout, caution must be noted regarding the sound quality of the transfers. For reasons unexplained, Black Lion apparently did not avail itself of contemporary digital remastering techniques, so this version of the admittedly rare material still retains the stuffy sound and scratchy surfaces of the initial releases. Considering the quality of the music involved, there is no justification for the treatment it has received on this, the company's second chance at improvement.

The first volume opens with "Sweet Lorraine," which, unlike most of the other titles from the famous 1944 Esquire Metropolitan Opera House concert, which were recorded and released by V-Disc, remained unissued at the time. The next two selections, "Cocktails For Two" and "Liza," are by the trio, after which we hear the remainder of Tatum's solo work for that non-commercial wartime label. Since Tatum's repertoire consisted almost exclusively of well-known pop tunes from the '20s and '30s, Standards would at first seem to be a rather redundant title for one of his albums, but the word actually refers to the source material, Standard Transcriptions, for which radio service Tatum had recorded a number of solos in the late 1930s. Black Lion has selected for release 24 tracks out of a total of 61, but the entirety can be heard on Music & Arts 673, a two-disc set. From a collector's point of view, Tea For Two is the most interesting of the lot, for not only does it include many excellent solo tracks, of which several are previously unissued, but also two mid-'40s jam combo tracks of unknown origin that offer prime bits of Roy Eldridge and Ben Webster, among others.

Originally published in January/February 1998
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