Despite the unqualified admiration of just about everyone who counts on the international jazz circuit, recognition that Michel Petrucciani had been perhaps the finest of all the young musicians who swept into jazz during the last 20 or so years was only really forthcoming after his death on January 6, 1999. This seems to be the way of things in jazz. Of its more recent fruhvollendet – “too early completed” – Jaco Pastorius, for example, had to wait at least a decade for the dust to settle around his troubled life for his achievements to be seen with the clarity they deserved.
Petrucciani, in contrast, presented no extramural stumbling blocks to reach his music. An early departure was not entirely unexpected of him he suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, which made him no bigger than the average four-year-old and such was his impetuously driven lyricism it often appeared he was intent on sharing as much of his great gift as he could with his audiences before it was too late.
At concerts he paused for people to gawp at his tiny frame and for photographers to photograph, his contribution to dispelling embarrassment and misunderstanding the disabled are still forced to struggle against, saying I just get tired of people saying this guy is three feet tall, weighs 50 pounds and plays like a motherfucker. I’m like anybody else. I may look different but I’m a normal musician. But as soon as he started to play, audiences, and perhaps even Petrucciani himself, lost any sense of physical handicap. A romantic at heart, his expansive imagination led him down unexpected improvisational byways with an open kinetic joy you could almost reach out and touch.
Arriving in the USA from his native France in 1982, he made three albums with saxophonist Charles Lloyd, whom he credits with kick-starting his “American career.” By then he had already recorded four albums under his own name in Europe, his first at the age of 16. When, in 1983, he signed with Concord Records he was just 21 years old. His first Stateside album, the solo 100 Hearts, revealed an almost naïve desire to simultaneously please and prove himself, but nevertheless earned him a prestigious Grand Prix du Disque award. While it allowed glimpses of his prime influences (principally Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett), he never lost sight of the bigger picture in striving for individuality of expression with a spiky lyricism and a sometimes angular approach to the ground-beat.
In 1985 he became the first French musician to sign with Blue Note, with whom he would make seven albums in a variety of contexts. But on his return to France in 1993 it was with Dreyfus Jazz that saw his brilliance, on record at least, take flight. Although he had performed with Kenny Clarke when he was 15, his confidence had grown immeasurably from his American experiences working with bassists of the stature of Dave Holland, Gary Peacock, Charlie Haden, Stanley Clarke, Eddie Gomez, Buster Williams and Cecil McBee, and drummers such as Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Steve Gadd, Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White, Billy Hart and Omar Hakim.
His debut album with Dreyfus was 1994’s Marvellous, which displayed his powerful lyrical invention and his love of strong melodic extemporization: “I am something of the Pavarotti of jazz,” he joked. By now the disparate elements that comprised his style had coalesced and it was clear that he was his own man and one of the most complete pianists in jazz. As much at home playing duo with organist Eddy Louisse as he was with veteran violinist Stephane Grappelli (their Dreyfus album Flamingo sold in excess of 100,000 copies), the ’90s also saw an increasing mastery of solo concerts, which he claimed was his favorite means of expression.
The three-CD Concerts Inedits comes from this period, when Petrucciani’s playing reached new levels of creativity, with a disc devoted to Petrucciani playing solo, duo and with a trio. The set opens with his show-stopping solo performance at the Antibes/Juan Les Pin Festival in 1993. This album, together with the highly acclaimed Au Theatre des Champs-Elysees from 1994 and Solo Live (both on Dreyfuss) from 1997, show how comfortably, and confidently, he inhabited this most demanding idiom. The ultimate display of truth, his playing bursts with joyful brio and also flashes of mischief that collapsed the ritual seriousness that often surrounds jazz. He reclaims “Autumn Leaves” as a French anthem (it was written by Jacques Prevert), and he wrings a profoundly moving performance out of “Besame Mucho” that is as intense as anything he ever recorded.
The 1994 duo date is taken from a broadcast from the Jazzhouse in Copenhagen, with Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass. Petrucciani would later refer to NHOP as a “monster of a bassist” and it is possible this session is what convinced him: the bassist stiffening his sinews in swirling dialogues with the pianist. As they thrust and parry through “Billie’s Bounce,” their dialogue ever intense through key changes after each 12-bar chorus, the level of creativity becomes hypnotic and compelling in a way few recordings from the last 20 years achieved.
Petrucciani’s percussive attack on a 1994 concert in Japan, with his brother Louis on bass and drummer Lenny White, reveals much inner detail within his phrasing: his melodic invention, his benevolent characterization of Bud Powell, his building and expanding on the former’s relentlessly energetic lines with soaring phrases, swirling energy and honesty. On “Manhattan,” his linear logic, melodic construction and rhythmic ingenuity take precedence over elaborate reharmonization, while his version of “All the Things You Are” is nothing short of a tour de force.
Taken together, this set captures creative jazz at its finest by a wonderful talent who almost visibly donned the crown of greatness during those last few years of his life.