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Bernard Peiffer: Formidable

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To spend time with this album’s music, together with its 16-page booklet of reminiscences and photos, is a moving experience. It represents a passionate labor of love by Stephan Jean-Bernard Peiffer on behalf of his father. Bernard Peiffer was a classically trained French pianist who emigrated to the United States in 1954 and settled in Philadelphia, where he died in 1976.

The central thesis of this project is stated in the liner notes by Philadelphia educator Don Glanden: “Of the great [piano] virtuosos active in jazz in the 20th century (e.g., Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Phineas Newborn), only Bernard Peiffer’s music has fallen into relative obscurity.”

The sources for this album are private amateur recordings. The sound is pale and distant, but the music burns through it and establishes that Glanden’s thesis has merit. Peiffer pushed his two areas of expertise-classical music and jazz-to levels of synthesis that had not previously been attained. Performances like “Voyage” and “Coccinelle” sound rather like Horowitz hearing Baby Dodds in his head. Very few pianists who ever lived would have been capable of the outrageous torrential cadenza that Peiffer lays on “Jitterbug Waltz.” Somehow, Peiffer’s examination of “‘Round Midnight” leads, believably, to Chopin.

Anyone interested in the history of jazz piano should begin a belated discovery of Bernard Peiffer with this album.