Bernard Peiffer: Defining "Improvision"

A Rare CD Release From One of the Most Astounding Players in Jazz

Those who heard pianist Bernard Peiffer live or on record, studied with him or had the good fortune of knowing him were never the same afterward. You knew you were hearing – and if you were lucky enough, knowing--a genius.

And 36 years after his death, the master is finally getting the recognition that so eluded him during his tragically short life, due, in no small measure, to the efforts of his son, Stephan; and Don Glanden, one of Peiffer’s stellar students, now head of Graduate Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Without them, it’s pretty certain that Peiffer and his contributions, which were considerable, would be no more than a footnote in jazz history and scholarship.

It’s easy to simply say that Bernard Peiffer was likely the most technically astounding pianist who ever walked the face of the earth. But it’s what he did with that technique that is forever lasting.

“His extraordinary musical aptitude and tonal memory, which served him well when he was first introduced to the music of Waller and Tatum, helped him to assimilate contemporary approaches to the jazz idiom…But Peiffer dedicated himself early in his musical life to synthesizing his influences and establishing a style of his own,” says Don Glanden in his superb notes to the newly-released, two-CD set, “Bernard Peiffer: Improvisation.”

Son Stephan adds in part, “My father devoted his prodigious faculties plus unique creative styling to fuse the classical and jazz idioms and celebrate that the two musical expressions were undeniable musical-siblings, each with limitless improvisational potential.”

With the exception, perhaps, of the work done by John Lewis and Gunther Schuller, Bernard Peiffer was the only artist to effectively combine the genres of classical and jazz. Critics and musicologists called this amalgam “Third Stream,” and the master himself knew he was headed there early on.

“I already had the feeling you could introduce new forms to jazz,” the pianist said shortly after arriving in the states from France in 1954. “I’ve tried to broaden that material, and finally reach what today they call the ‘Third Stream.’”

“Bernard Peiffer: Improvision” is the second CD of Peiffer material to be released in the past several years, with the first being a solo album issued in 2006, “Formidable,” a project spearheaded in part and co-produced by Glanden. Stephan Peiffer was the Executive Producer of this current project, part of the “Jazz in Paris” series released by Universal Classics and Jazz France. Anyone who knows the slightest bit about putting out CDs like this is well aware that Stephan’s job wasn’t an easy one.

Released properly for the first time on CD and beautifully remastered, “Bernard Peiffer: Improvision” contains two, complete reissues of the pianists’ next-to-impossible to find LPs, “Bernie’s Tune” from 1956, “Modern Jazz for People Who Like Original Music” from 1960s, and some exquisite, privately recorded material from Peiffer’s incredible, 1972 and 1976 “late period.”

Listeners can clearly hear where the piano virtuoso was headed.

On the 1956 session, backed by the likes of bassist Oscar Pettiford and guitarist Joe Puma, the pianist uses his phenomenal technique to swing mightily and generally show his sympathetic accompanists a thing or two. The set is comprised mainly of standards, but to get a sense of who Peiffer really was, and where it was he was going is exemplified by his dark, atonal “Black Moon.”

The 1960 session, issued on a Philadelphia-based record label called “Laurie,” has Peiffer backed by two Philadelphians, bassist Gus Nemeth and drummer Jerry Segal. The leader is almost fully-formed on six, exemplary originals, including the every-haunting “Poem for a Lonely Child,” inspired by the death of his mentally handicapped daughter who passed away at the age of two.

The classical-forms-with-jazz-improvisation combination of Peiffer’s is almost, but not quite, fully fused on this very, very satisfying session. The contributions of bassist Nemeth, who spent some time in and out of the band of another Philadelphian—Charlie Ventura—cannot be disparaged (the notes say he rehearsed ten days for this session), but one can only imagine the heights of invention that might have been reached if the bassist was someone like Scott LaFaro.

With all due respect to Bernard Peiffer’s wonderful drummers of the 1970s, Jim Paxson and Billy Jones, Jerry Segal, who plays on the “Modern Jazz” tracks,” was, to these ears, the best drummer Peiffer ever had. It would have been so interesting to hear Segal grow and evolve with the pianist, whose playing in the trio even at this early date was loose but secure. Segal, by the way, played with a slew of modernists, including Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Mose Allison and the vastly underrated vibist, Teddy Charles.

The 1970s tracks feature Peiffer in full, evolved flower, having appropriately internalized influences of Bill Evans and others but, as usual, making these influences his own. He fortunately found the perfect partner and foil in bassist Al Stauffer, who somehow managed to simultaneously accompany the pianist and remain a full partner in the improvisational process. Technically, it’s agreed that Peiffer was astounding from the start. By the 1970s, he was beyond astounding. But he does what few technicians do: He applies the technique to the music.

Again, credit must be given to drummers Paxson and Jones on these tracks. Playing with Bernard and Al was not easy. There was no guidebook. But they did what Bernard did and what Al did. They let their hearts be their guide.

For more information on Bernard Peiffer, “Formidable,” and “Improvisation,” visit and/or

1 Comment

  • Apr 30, 2015 at 02:09PM Arnie Fox

    "Compendium of Over 2000 Jazz Pianists" by Arnie Fox was dedicated to Bernard & Stephan Peiffer. It contains an extensive discography of Bernard Peiffer & Jessica Williams. The cover of the book shows Bernard Peiffer and the photo was supplied by Stephan Peiffer Don Glanden wrote the foreword. Amazon gives it a 5 star rating.

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