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Book Review: A Natural History of the Piano

Jazz fans will find no major revelations in Stuart Isacoff's well researched timeline

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Stuart Isacoff kicks off A Natural History of the Piano with a recollection of a 2006 concert at Birdland by Oscar Peterson, the jazz giant whose style, according to Isacoff, was a synthesis of “the disparate strands that ran through the piano’s history.” Like Peterson’s music, Isacoff’s book attempts to consider all aspects of the piano, from its compositional mandates to the ways in which the instrument was used by the geniuses who carried it to the pinnacle of musical art. It’s a tall order for any one volume, but to Isacoff’s credit, he accomplishes the task with reasonable facility.

Given Isacoff’s background, which includes stints writing for Chamber Music and Symphony, it should come as no surprise that his emphasis falls heavily on the classical spectrum. The author takes the piano from its invention by Bartolomeo Cristofori to the parlors of post-Baroque Europe, where demigods like Mozart and the ever-tempestuous Beethoven plied their trade. The piano brought music into countless homes and launched professional pianists around the world in a sometimes literal daze (Isacoff recounts more than one story of pianists collapsing and even dying at the keys). The instrument made legends of towering virtuosos like Franz Liszt and idiosyncratic aesthetes like Glenn Gould. The piano’s very construction spawned unique innovations, from upright-stringed “giraffe” pianos to John Cage’s bizarre “prepared piano” percussion experiments.

Isacoff’s efforts to convey the entire sweep of the piano’s history are admirable, but it’s perhaps inevitable that certain chapters of the instrument’s story are less well served than others. Much of the book’s material about the lions of jazz piano will already be familiar to serious fans, and several major keyboard innovators are mentioned fleetingly; Errol Garner and John Lewis, to name just two, appear only in a one-page entry in the book’s appendix. Certain piano styles that played a major role in the gestation of jazz, especially ragtime and boogie-woogie, are likewise dispatched relatively swiftly.

The most enjoyable section of Isacoff’s book is his explanation of “the Four Sounds.” His theory is that piano performance can be categorized using four principal styles of playing, roughly analogous to the four elements that make up the universe. The fiery “Combustibles,” who played the instrument as if shooting off fireworks, include classical titans like Liszt, as well as jazz greats like Earl Hines and Cecil Taylor. The “Melodists,” whose emotionally expressive gifts reflect “the supple nature of water,” include among their ranks Brahms, Chopin and George Gershwin, as well as jazz stalwarts Teddy Wilson and, interestingly, Bud Powell (who, to my ears, could just as easily be classified as a Combustible).

Jazz is most comprehensively represented in the down-to-earth “Rhythmizer” classification; here, artists as diverse as Fats Waller, Dave Brubeck and Art Tatum give the music its inimitable “punch and bounce.” Isacoff classifies many of my own favorite pianists as airy “Alchemists,” whose emphasis on atmospherics can bring the listener to states of dreamlike reverie. Notable Alchemists include Claude Debussy, Duke Ellington and, arguably, Miles Davis’ two greatest keyboard men, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock.

Ultimately, A Natural History of The Piano will be most rewarding to classical fans looking to deepen their appreciation of their chosen music while receiving a rough introduction to jazz’s role in the advancement of the 88 keys. Jazzbos will find no major revelations, but if they’re new to the classical tradition, this book will broaden their knowledge considerably. Either way, this is a thoroughly researched and entertaining one-stop biography of an instrument we all love.

Originally Published