20th Century Piano Genius
The 39 performances in this set were informally recorded on two occasions at Ray Heindorf's Beverly Hills home in 1950 and 1955. There is some party noise from privileged guests, but on the whole the recording quality is surprisingly good. Over two hours of Tatum playing solo on a good piano can, however, prove a bit indigestible, for he serves up very rich fare indeed. It is wise, I believe, to play only a few numbers at a time, and then maybe to go back and play them again to get the full message.
There is no doubt that Tatum is one of the few jazz musicians who deserve to be called "genius." For non-musicians, and even perhaps non-pianists, his music is too energetically complicated to be easily appreciated. Yet in this program, almost entirely of standards, it is amazing how often the composers' melodies emerge singing from amid the remarkable harmonies and glittering runs.
In this case, the listener is helped by James Lester's notes and a taped discussion with three pianists, Hank Jones, Adam Makowicz and Lou Stein. Jones remembers first hearing Tatum on a broadcast and thinks to himself that it was "a trick to make people believe that one man is playing this piano when I know that at least three people are playing it." The classically trained Makowicz was no less surprised on his first encounter: "It's hard to describe in words, but it was like music from heaven, angels' music." Even in the relaxed circumstances of these recordings, Tatum never lets you forget that he was a virtuoso, not even on "Mr. Freddie Blues." There are a dozen previously unissued tracks, ending with a fantastic "After You've Gone." (The artwork on the otherwise very commendable booklet makes it look as though the printers messed up and smudged some of the illustrations. Another time, Polygram, most customers would surely prefer bigger type and no artwork.)