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Looking Back and Looking Up

Michel Petrucciani’s music should be listened to and listened to. It must be understood, and that’s not the word either, rather felt through the heart. "Listen to that," is all that can be said about his compositions, at least by those who really hear it.

Michel attempted to reconcile the idea of capturing a moment of feeling and his supposition that all music contains a harmony of colors expressing his artistic nature. His method of composition captured the necessities of both philosophies. Like a painter, Michel used all harmonic lines and colors to represent a meeting point of reflection and reality between him and his Steinway.

Distinctive atmospheres that were explored by Michel’s meaningful nature of interpretation made way for a more impressionistic approach to his musical canvas. He laid in the major elements of his compositions with broad parallels, returning to it again and again, using an extraordinary range of interpretation.

His ability in creating compositions such as Looking Up, Memories of Paris or Brazilian Suite No. 2, spoke well of his appreciation for life. Not many could create such beauty, especially having lived with a physical disability, but some are born to greatness despite overwhelming odds. Michel was born with a bone disease called osteogenensis imperfecta, a genetic disorder known as "glass bone disease." Because he was only 3 feet tall, his piano had to be fitted with pedal extensions. Often he had to be carried to and from the piano bench because his bones were so brittle. His legacy is an inspiration.

"People don't understand that being a human being is not being 7 feet tall," he once said. "It's what you have in your head and not your body," said Michel. Still more remarkable, Michel credited his disease with giving him plenty of time to practice as a child, since he couldn't go outside and play sports.

Petrucciani was a child prodigy schooled in classical music as well as jazz. He was inspired by greats like Duke Ellington and jazz pianist Bill Evans, and by his father, jazz guitarist Antoine Petrucciani. "I could stay in front of the piano for five or six hours a day and it all adds up over the years," he said.

Michel’s gift developed early. He made his professional debut at the age of 13, at an outdoor jazz festival in France. By age 15, he was already playing with jazz artists such as Clark Terry and Kenny Clarke and put out his first album, "Flash," when he was only 17. Michel moved to the United States in 1982 and persuaded Charles Lloyd to come out of retirement and tour with his quartet. This proved beneficial for both of them.

Michel lived in Big Sur, California, but he moved to New York to form his own trio. He was the first European jazz artist to sign with Blue Notes Records and at age 22, he debuted on Blue Note with bassist, Palle Danielsson and drummer Eliot Zigmund. He recorded more than a dozen albums with Blue Note, including "Promenade With Duke" homage to Ellington, and in 1986 "Pianism" recorded at Montreux with Jim Hall and Wayne Shorter. Of course, "The Best of Michel Petrucciani - The Blue Note Years" (1994) compiles some of his finest work.

Michel was extremely popular in the United States and throughout Europe. "He was a warrior," said jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter. "He dared to go places that others never even think to go - and not just musically." "He's a totally natural musician," said guitarist John Abercrombie. "I just think he's one of the greatest piano players to hit the jazz scene in a long time. He's quite a figure, in spite of his size, much bigger than he appears," he said.

Michel Petrucciani’s solo piano concerts were brilliant. For some, it was difficult to sit in the audience and not applaud for 45 minutes to an hour, but Michel preferred his solo concerts to be applause-free until the end of the concert. He would blend a number of themes as easy as when night says goodbye to the morning:On Green Dolphin Street, I Mean You, and ‘Round Midnight.

His performance at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, Netherlands July 1998 was a most memorable one, especially not realizing at the time that he would be gone a mere five months later. Michel was joined on stage with Glavio Boltro (trumpet), Stephano Di Battista (sax), Steve Gadd (drums) and Antony Jackson (bass) and the interplay was truly outstanding. Beginning the set with two outstanding pieces, Duke’s A-Train and Michel’s composition Brazilian Like, only proved to intensify an appreciation of Michel’s genius at the piano. "Genius? I don't believe in genius," Michel once said. "I believe in hard work." Not many worked harder than Michel during his brief, but memorable life.

In a video filmed in Big Sur and New York City, Michel commented about his fear of dying. He said he had so much he wanted to do. That was three years before he died in France of a pulmonary infection on January 6, 1999 at the young age of 36. Three sons survived him, and the jazz world’s appreciation of the music he felt so deeply about and played so brilliantly.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Michel Petrucciani
  • Subtitle: Remembering Michel Petrucciani
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