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Say what? Jazz great and Titan of the Treble Clef Art Tatum is playing live at Doc Hanley's? How is this possible? Never mind that Doc closed his basement club in 1965; Art Tatum, friend of Hanley and possibly the greatest jazz pianist ever, died in 1956. Nevertheless, viewers can actually hear a command performance of the jazz virtuoso in the Kennedy Theatre at the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh. This seeming conundrum is the result of the technology provided by Zenph Sound Innovations. In a program titled “Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here,” playwright and Zenph Executive Producer Jeffrey B. McIntyre stages and recreates Doc's basement jazz club in Harlem, where pianist Art Tatum often stayed and played during his lifetime. Using a beautiful Yamaha Disklavier Pro piano, Tatum's tunes, complete with trills, chord changes, nuances, and pedal work, are all lovingly recreated, just as Tatum laid them down half a century ago.
Don't be fooled into thinking this is some gimmicky recorded program. Granted, Mr. Tatum cannot be with us; nevertheless, this piano, using Zenph advanced programming, actually plays Tatum's original tunes. We are not even going to try to get into the hows and wherefores of the science. Suffice it to say you will be astonished at the virtuosity of this artist as you hear him play these ten songs just as if he were seated at the piano with you.
It must be revealed that this reviewer had never even heard of Art Tatum before this evening. But to hear this music is to marvel at the ability of the man, whose huge stature belied his lightning-fast reflexes and skill. Watching the keys on the piano play just as they would have if Tatum had been “tickling” them, we are astonished to hear the complexities of these compositions, most of which Tatum played from memory.
The New World Encyclopedia states that “Tatum played with the speed of light, adding complex chordal combinations to a swing that was exceptionally powerful, even without the support of a rhythm section.” His musical prowess baffled and confused his contemporaries, who would vainly try to copy his style of stride piano. But Tatum was a cut above, adding seemingly incomprehensible embellishments to simple tunes like “Tea for Two,” “Tiger Rag,” and “Some One to Watch Over Me.” We hear each of these tunes, and are agog at the tempo and virtuosity of the man. Subtle overtones and embellishments are his particular trademark; he often featured breakneck tempos that included hand cascades and crashing bass chords with astonishing dexterity.
We are introduced to Tatum and told of his life in New York and other locales across the country by William Andrew “Doc” Hanley III (Trevor Johnson), a local general practitioner for Harlem and owner of a basement jazz club. Hanley and Tatum would become the best of friends; Tatum stayed in rooms over the club whenever he was in New York.
Most of the tunes we hear are taken from the recordings Tatum put down on April 2, 1949, including Dvorak's Humoresque, “Willow, Weep for Me,” and “I Know That You Know.” This last, along with his signature “Tiger Rag,” were played during a summit meeting of jazz greats at the club, in a “cutting contest” designed to crown the best pianist of the night. While Tatum was in the house, there would only be one winner. Pianist Fats Waller often said when Tatum sat at the piano, “I just play piano, but tonight God is in the house.”
This solo performance played “live” in this fashion will introduce you personally to a man who has gone on to his reward; nevertheless, through the magic of Zenph technology, we can hear him play his music just as he did in the thirties and forties. It is a concert not to be missed, not only for the chance to hear Art Tatum and his fantastical piano; but also to learn of the life of a virtuoso and see for yourself the mammoth talent of the man. It is a concert that you will not forget– provided you remember to go.
This production runs through December 19. For details, see our calendar.