Michel Petrucciani: So What: The Best of Michel Petrucciani

Robert R. Calder

Michel Petrucciani

So What: the Best of Michel Petrucciani

Label: Dreyfus
US Release Date: 2004-06-08
UK Release Date: 2004-06-14

What does Steve Gadd play? What do Anthony Jackson, Bob Brookmeyer, George Mraz, play? The notes don't say. Has the producer been rendered absent-minded about such details (not provided here) by the depth of his feelings for this music and the pianist at its heart?

I suppose it's quite possible. Eddy Louiss plainly plays organ, for the tracks on which he appears are very individual duets on which even Michel Petrucciani (a major pianist, if you don't know! it doesn't say!) was in danger of being outswung. Tony Petrucciani is a guitarist and easily identifiable because his appearance too is in duet performance. The notes say he was Michel's father. He is, I believe, still proud of his son, who was grateful to him. If you can't, as I did, receive the Petrucciani père et fils CD for Christmas this won't discourage you from buying it.

Probably a lot of people will still know of and remember Stephane Grappelli, and the now not quite yet so venerable Bob Brookmeyer (about whom I am far from complaining, since for years I have heard too little of him). Flavio Boltro, though? Stefano di Battista has been playing well in the company of McCoy Tyner, as I have witnessed of late on European television. He is a saxophonist. Sr. Boltro has as pretty a trumpet solo as his mates' solos and Brookmeyer's arrangement deserves (he is one of the big jazz orchestrators -- as well as being a valve trombonist intelligently appreciative of older, broader stylists on the slide version of his horn).

Life-enhancing things happen on the title track, which is a rejoinder to the question, "so what?", since the man featured here was a figure of considerable consequence.

There's a rear view of the little man on the front cover, hatted with some curls dangling under the brim, perhaps standing or even walking unaided (would that he had consistently been able to and still could!) The left hand behind his back is holding a cheroot and looks vast in comparison with the size of the smoker. Like the hand not shown it sounds enormous, regardless of the physical disadvantages which beset this French virtuoso and musician. A bone disease stunted his bodily growth and rendered him prey to chest disease, which brought his life to a terribly early end in his middle thirties. He SWUNG regardless, and moved in a variety of jazz contexts from the debut in his teens until the end.

As he matured musically the early capacity to play a lot of notes deepened, and he came to do even more with the notes he played. Dreyfus signed him when he was at his best yet, and the impression one gets of this set is that there might well have been an entirely different "Best of" compilation. His best amounts to more than one CD's worth. I can't fault this selection, for the variety of settings and the breadth of his range represented, from the slow moving melodic to the racing and storming. He managed to do both very well solo, and like other pianists he delivered some of his best in company. The balance is about right.

I'm still very keen on his solo CD of Ellington on Blue Note, which isn't, of course, represented here. The spread of material does not favour any one of his Dreyfus CDs, so that this does serve as a sampler. There's not so much of any of his individual CDs as to discourage going for it on the strength of the one or two tracks you'd already have. The playing time is generous, but this is not simply a sifting out from the work of somebody over-recorded.

"Pennys from Heaven" (sic) is indeed the (here happily very appropriate) old tune under a mis-spelled name. The track seems not to be on the Flamingo CD with Grappelli's violin and the bass and drums of George Mraz and Roy Haynes, but a take from the same which the Fnac retail outlet issued on a single CD to promote Flamingo.

The one selection from that with-Grappelli CD here is a boppish theme of Petrucciani's on which he plays in a very economical bop style also featured on "Pennys" (boppish music can also be played in a way which doesn't amount to full-blown be-bop style). It's a lovely way to play piano, and seems even to have inspired the 86-year-old fiddler to time and phrase differently. He was in a wheelchair by then, and playing violin very quietly into well-judged amplification.

The nine live-recorded minutes of "Home" open with a lengthy meditative solo piano passage and proceed to a neo-bossa development all the more happily relaxed for the quiet bass playing and drumming. As Messrs. Gadd and Jackson start to strike out there's a wonderful sense of relaxation. It ends with sighs.

It's easily understandable why Francis Dreyfus was so pleased to have Michel Petrucciani on his books for that five-year period which ended so painfully early and suddenly five years ago. Is it five years already? Poignancy over a past and regularly reinstated happiness, it's exactly like thanksgiving for a child's brief blessing of life. What a lovely CD! If your budget is limited this stands out among today's massive production.

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