Michel Petrucciani Trio: One Night in Karlsruhe (SWR Jazzhaus)

A review of a 1988 live recording featuring the late pianist with Gary Peacock and Roy Haynes

One Night in Karlsruhe by the Michel Petrucciani Trio
The cover of One Night in Karlsruhe by the Michel Petrucciani Trio

The SWR Jazzhaus label is sitting on a huge stash of unreleased live jazz recordings made for radio and television broadcast in Germany, going back to the early 1950s. Over 40 titles have appeared to date. One Night in Karlsruhe is especially good news. Only a few previously unknown Michel Petrucciani recordings have come to light since his death at 36 in 1999.

Great jazz players are respected but few have been loved like Petrucciani. To see him on his piano bench, his 50-pound body severely stunted and crippled by osteogenesis imperfecta, grinning with joy, his hands unleashing torrential piano romanticism, was to believe in the invincibility of the creative human spirit.

In this 1988 concert he plays with the best rhythm section of his life, Gary Peacock and Roy Haynes. They had made Michel Plays Petrucciani for Blue Note 10 months earlier. Petrucciani has been compared to Peacock’s regular employer, Keith Jarrett. His chops were close, even if he lacked Jarrett’s harmonic inventiveness. He also reversed Jarrett’s priorities: Petrucciani put passion first, intellect second. “There Will Never Be Another You” is an eight-minute ascent in piano variations that find ecstasy and catharsis. No one made the piano a medium of ecstasy like Petrucciani. Even “Giant Steps,” John Coltrane’s notoriously difficult set of chord progressions, is cause for jubilant celebration (and confirms Petrucciani’s virtuosity).

When he played a ballad, his natural fire was barely contained within his gift for lyricism. On this night the ballads are swept up and overwhelmed by energy. “My Funny Valentine” may be the fastest on record. “Embraceable You” is begun slowly by Peacock but Petrucciani smokes it. Only “In a Sentimental Mood” stays rapt. Petrucciani holds it back, hinting at it, touching its edges. It is a dawning revelation when Ellington’s melody gradually coalesces.

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Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.