Time travel isn’t quite here yet, but a close approximation may be experienced in the Kennedy Theatre’s black box this month. In a performance piece titled Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here, we get as close as possible to hearing the long-dead jazz master play in a smoky Harlem club. Written and produced by Jeffrey B. McIntyre of Zenph Sound Innovations to showcase the company’s astonishing “re-performance” technology, the play features one actor and a beautiful Yamaha grand piano, invisibly computer-controlled, which plays Tatum’s unmistakable interpretations of several of early jazz’s greatest songs.
The sound quality is almost unbelievable. Through some alchemy of musical sensitivity and computer geek brilliance, Zenph takes old analog recordings and digitally rediscovers all the nuances of the original performance, playing back the music through first-class instruments like the Yamaha. The doctored piano plays the music — you see the keys and pedals moving — in the show, but the albums are also available on SACD. (See their website for a more technical explanation.) But if you only know Tatum, who died in 1956, from the old recordings, you will be ecstatic when you hear this re-creation of his great album.
Zenph would like us to think of Piano Starts Here as both a play about Tatum’s life and music and as a concert by him. However, as fascinating as it is to watch the piano at work, and as great as the music sounds, it is not a concert. The body of the artist cannot be replaced by projected images on the wall above. An essential heat is missing. An energy flow really cannot be developed between the audience and the unmanned piano.
This failing is made as inconspicuous as it can be by the strong energy generated by actor Trevor Johnson, working under the smart, light-handed direction of Jay O’Berski. Johnson plays the fictitious Doc Hanley, owner of a small bar with “the best piano in Harlem” and apartments above where — the story goes — Tatum lived once he came to New York, and where assorted other greats like Fats Waller would stay during an era when most New York hotels refused black guests. His great friend Tatum having died, and himself not getting any younger, Hanley is closing his club. On its last night, he regales the audience with memories and musings and pitchers of Tatum’s drink, Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Since the play is not a drama but essentially a series of anecdotes — very good ones — strung together with educational bits about the actualities of racism in the 1930s-'50s, O’Berski has wisely given Johnson lots of stage movement between the enforced stillness of the musical sections. That Johnson re-sparks our interest in his stories so quickly after each song is greatly to his credit. (Until recently, Johnson taught middle school: captivating an adult audience there by choice appears easy for him.) The stories themselves are lively and vivid, and in addition to his own well-formed character, Johnson mimics the people he’s talking about. He has a voice for Tatum and others for Fats Waller and others who cross his memoryscape. He also gets to do a fair amount of improvisatory playing with those in the audience lucky enough to be seated at the tables in the stage space — for instance, he kept a running flirtation going with my tablemate. Hanley’s stories are reinforced with wonderful images projected above the bar (projection design by Austin Switzer) and by Rebecca S. Buck’s excellent lighting.
Although not an immortal work of the drama, Piano Starts Here offers a fun and informative evening, and it does immortalize a musician who deserves to be remembered, in the best possible way — with a glorious rendition of his music.
Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here continues through December 19. See our calendar for details.