By Claudio BotelhoThe above is the title of the preface of Down Beat magazine newest issue (May/2.013). Its leitmotif is the arrival of the piano (and piano players, thereof) as an increasingly prominent instrument in jazz, today. As they say, one used to associate trumpet and saxophone as the premier jazz instruments and, so, the piano and other music counterparts used to go aside, as a kind of “second grade” music transducers. The magazine stands behind the statement that there is more talent in jazz piano world today than there has been ever before. This would seem sacrilegious to die-hard fans of classical jazz and could suggest the piano is superseding those musical instruments.
Today pianists can count on a much more diverse palette than Bill Evans ever could (as by that magazine) as there is now new rhythms and an endless variety of music styles unheard of three decades ago. Certainly, the Internet is an invaluable tool in helping to track down what happens around the world. Evans had a much narrower field to survey on those days. But, as much as this is true, in the past, it was much easier to distinguish an artist from another. Apart from innate singularities, each one was under influences unknown to the others, resulting in a palette of players much wider than we have today. The so called “globalization”, to a great extent, has “homogenized” the talents, as each one can know without much effort the work of others. You know, it’s some kind of “assembly line”…
The magazine makes clear we are living in a “golden era” of jazz pianism and justifies it by naming some stand out players such as Vijay Iler, Gerald Clayton, Robert Glasper and Dan Tepfner.
I don’t know if this is a piano golden era as the article suggests. For me, at least since I came across jazz music, the piano and their players were never out of the forefront of this art. Since the very beginning of the sixties, I’ve been living with the genial-rough playing of Dave Brubeck, the elegance of John Lewis, the intuition of Earl Gardner, the unexpectedness of Ahmad Jamal, the hyperrealism of Steve Khun, the latinism of Monty Alexander, the forwardness of Herbie Hancock, the classicism of Jacques Loussier, the proficiency of Oscar Peterson, the vagary of Thelonius Monk, the percussiveness of McCoy Tyner, The unpredictability of Cecil Taylor, the randomness of Paul Bley, the funkabillity of Horace Silver and the transcendence of Bill Evans, among others.
Later, the likes of Fred Hersch, Kenny Barron, Enrico Pieranunzi, Roger Kellaway, Denny Zeitlin, the revered Keith Jarrett and Gonzalo Rubalcaba were high on my list. Of course, this is far from being any comprehensive listing.
Certainly, theses masters are not of the look-alike kind…
The magazine’s foreword raison d’être is the abundance of applicants for best piano player of the year as attests the ballots rolling in for its 2.013 critic’s poll. Maybe the said profusion is more akin to the relevance of the cited new-comers than to the players’ numerical extent.
It’s a fact that players like Moran, Glasper, Clayton, Iyer (Vijay), Iverson (of The Bad Plus Group) have found highly personal styles of playing, but they’re not trend setters and, thus, will go on sporting their uniqueness without further influences. I feel the jazz scenery will keep on being the same and good and lousy performances will proceed striving to get the listener as ever.
I understand the point of jazz critics: They need to spot the novelties and can’t keep on just praising musicians who follow established cannons, at the cost of being repetitive and, by consequence, uninteresting. In this case, no news is BAD news… The problem is that, in the meantime, much typically “conventional” music of excellent quality – even, outstanding – is kept disregarded or, worse still, get underrated, while, in many instances, the new, or the different, or the unconventional are highly commended, just to fall into forgetfulness some weeks later.
Of course, these musicians have enduring qualities, real talent, but I’m afraid their uniqueness may obscure other musicians who, although outdoing themselves, may not receive the recognition they deserve. The new, the out of ordinary, the unexpected are not enough to justify high praise. Sometimes, they are just that: new, out of ordinary, unexpected, and, on the long run, don’t stand the test of time as it has happened frequently.
Meanwhile, in my view, the jazz lovers of this side of the Atlantic would be much pleased if they could have easier access to some piano players from across the sea like Dario Carnovale, Piero Frassi, Alessandro Lanzoni, Vicenzo Danise, Antonio Faraò, Claudio Filippini, Danilo Rea, Paolo Paliaga, Luca Manutza and many others. These names certainly deserve to be in the magazine’s mix and should be evaluated by its critics. I’m sure they have enough value to affect the final judgments and could certainly alter the order of things. Unfortunately, they’re still waiting in the wings…
I reckon there are commercial constraints which have been avoiding this from coming through, but the jazz community is a small one and some effort should be done to give these artists wider recognition. They’re recipients of sheer musicality and have been outputting music of the highest caliber, much deserving their due in this side of the world.
DB should find a way to give these artists a chance; this would noteworthy enrich the results of their critics’ task.
Now, allow me to take this chance and put my two cents concerning the piano as a musical instrument I came to love unreservedly.
I’ll start by saying first and foremost I find the piano the undisputable king of musical instruments, by any standards. As we all know, each key in a piano is an autonomous sound producer. So, in a single instrument, it’s possible to play different tunes at the same time, limited only by the disposed number of fingers and size of the keyboard. Certainly, the acrobats of the Cirque du Soleil could do wonders playing a single instrument. There are no chords to be plucked and pressed to the fretboard, for instance. This would take two fingers, from distinct hands, to play a single note…
Any comparison to wind instruments? I won’t bother you about. These can only play a note at a time. But, please, don’t take me wrong: this shortcoming is not, in any way, related to wind- instrument musicians. Actually, they have a harder task to make their statements, but it is no secret this is not an issue.
It’s not unfair to say that a piano is mostly limited by the chops of its player. It suffices itself as a solo instrument like no other.
In jazz, one can’t better state the importance of the piano than the Maybeck Recital Hall Series which, by the 90’s or so, recorded an innumerate number of piano solos from more than forty different jazz players. I witnessed the chameleonic richness of the same piano - in the same hall, in the exact same place, always in front of a small number of listeners -, sounds downright distinct from the day before as their guidance changed from one pianist to another. How come, say, Steve Khun could sound so different from Sir Roland Hanna in such a circumstance?
As you know, this extraordinary nonpareil experience was conducted by Concord jazz in its heyday and, alone, is proof enough of the piano superiority…
(Aside from these mechanical aspects which put the piano (and its cousins) apart from the competition, IMO, the sound of a good Steinway (or Bosendorfer) played by classically trained musicians, associated to the best music ever composed is a peerless experience. This winner combination exudes the best things music has to offer and, I have to agree, is unmatched by any player in any other circumstance if the sheer beauty of music sounds is the main cause. As much as I’d rather listen to jazz - as opposed to any other way of music expression -, I must concede no jazz pianism competes with their equivalents in the realms of classical music in extracting the utmost delicacy and beauty from that instrument).
It’s not by accident there is so many music for piano and orchestra!
The piano is “the man”, especially when played by hands which are not shy to go from its extreme left keys to the ones at the other end as do, for instance, Jamal and Kuhn -, not by coincidence two of my all time heroes…