As a wee lad in the '70s, at my local library, one could check out records for a week. The selection was mostly classical music (got me hip to Aaron Copeland, Harry Partch and Ed Varese) of which I partook, but at the time, I was interested in their jazz albums. Once I took home Piano Starts Here by this Art Tatum fellow (1909-1956) - four studio tracks from the 1930s & the rest, live tracks from '49, I liked it, but at the time, I was into fusion (when it still seethed with energy & excitement) and the avant-garde, so Tatum seemed "conservative" to me. Also, the sound quality seemed...muddy. Still, it sounded like no other piano music I’d ever heard, leaving a distinct impression on my jazz and rock-fueled psyche.
I still love rock & roll, but the older I get, the more I grow to appreciate jazz’s "established masters," hepcats such as Cannonball Adderley, Frank Morgan, Bobby Hackett, and, yes, Art Tatum. Listening to Piano Starts Here, I am amazed at how fresh and stunning it sounds, and how parts of it are almost, dare I say, avant-garde. "Someone To Watch Over Me" features dazzling speed and technique, abrupt & unpredictable tempo changes, changing approach (elegant ballad to jaunty boogie-woogie) and brief, but ominous, low rumbles. Ditto for "Yesterdays," parts of which remind this writer of the brilliantly berserk player-piano sounds of Conlon Nancarrow.
Tatum played the 88’s like no one before and few since - even classical pianists of the day came away impressed. He cooked, swung madly and smartly and possessed brain-blitzing agility, and he was one of the Swing Era players that embraced (even anticipated) bebop (jazz's avant-garde of the 1940s). Hard to believe in retrospect, but many musicians and critics majorly dissed bop - some said it wasn’t jazz and a few said it wasn’t even music. Sound familiar?
This edition of Piano Starts Here has been technologically upgraded from previous versions. The Zenph Studios folks call it a "re-performance," wherein computer software "replicates" on a piano what Tatum played back-when. Blasphemy? Who knows. If Tatum lived now, he might be utilizing electronics and samplers. It’s like the difference in classical recordings, where some are recorded with "period" instrumentation and others with instruments built this century.
Just going by the wonderfulness of musical content: Eight stars, three thumbs up! If you buy only one jazz solo piano disc this (or any) year, make it Piano Starts Here.