[10 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The story goes like this: In late 1953, Art Tatum headed into the Radio Recorders studios in Hollywood, sat down at a bench, cracked a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon (far from his last of the night), listened to some UCLA basketball on the portable radio he brought with him, and then turned it off and said, “Let’s go”.
After that quick comment, Tatum went on to knock out 69 master recordings over two days. They are nearly all first takes. If this story is a case of minor, curious mythology, it also shapes the sprawling, excellent recordings that fill up The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Volume 1. The set has been reissued by Concord Music Group as one of a handful put out to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Pablo Records, a fruitful jazz label started by Norman Granz, one-time owner of other labels like Clef, Norgran, and Verve. It was Granz who supplied the PBR for Tatum during those recordings, and hearing these takes now, you can’t help but be thankful.
These 16 tracks combine Tatum’s irrepressible sense of melody, his raucous style, and his knack for drifting far from that melody line only to heighten its effectiveness. These songs are both catchy meditations and wind sprints that can be tough to keep up with. “Moonglow” seems like it will ease us in with its lilting chord phrasings, until Tatum starts to fill in the gaps with breakneck-speed rundowns. The song is an eruption of clever piano, sometimes a duel between left hand and right, sometimes something far more complicated. The reason Tatum’s solo recordings stand out in the solo piano tradition is that sometimes just his two hands operate the way a band does, one hand laying back in the rhythm and melody to let the other solo before they reconvene.
It makes for a versatile delivery of these songs. “Love For Sale” is far more spacious than “Moonglow”, though no less playful. If the tempo is slower, the fills are still airtight, shifting from classical-leaning structures to impressive and expressive breakdowns. “Body and Soul” runs for nearly six minutes, shifting tempos and mood several times, but the track never tires. Without saying a word, Tatum has a massive presence on these recordings, each set of notes like a set of affecting, murky lyrics. They say so much, convey so much meaning, though the specifics may be vague. So it is with another epic piece here, “Everything I Have is Yours”. Some movements here, slower and more deliberate, convey some sort of nostalgia, or the wistfulness of love, while other moments punctuate that feeling with something more physical, more vital, more of blood and bone.
But it’s not just the big moments that feel, well, big on these recordings. Tatum takes recognizable tunes and gives them a facelift. “It’s Only a Paper Moon” sounds both joyous and chaotic, some sort of alternate take for Blanche Dubois in a version of Streetcar where her illusions aren’t destroyed or destructive. Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” has a rhythmic stomp to it, even as Tatum’s phrasings are as unruly as ever. And the Gershwin tune ‘Embraceable You”, which closes the collection, is a softer cut, not gentle or fragile necessarily, but more subtle in its energy, a nice counterpoint to the bright, zealous opening on “Moonglow”.
This new edition, which features seven takes not on the original LP, is a more complete account of these recordings, and a more thrilling collection overall. A complete box set of the Pablo recordings was released 20-plus years ago, but these cuts—remastered from the original analog tapes—may improve upon completism, instead giving us the very best of what those recordings offered. It may be a bit less controlled than the excellent Piano Starts Here, but the sheer glut of sound and variety of textures is what makes this collection worthwhile. Tatum said “Let’s go”, and then he let go. And this is the expansive result.