In the liner notes to the Original Jazz Classics remastered re-release of The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 1 from Concord Music Group, Tad Hershorn talks about Tatum’s stature as “the greatest pianist jazz has ever produced.” Now whether you agree with Hershorn’s assertion may turn on your definition of greatness, but however you want to define what it is that makes a jazz pianist great, there is no question that Art Tatum belongs in the conversation.
The collection of performances that make up this album from the Concord Music Group goes a long way to making Hershorn’s point. Define greatness in terms of effortless virtuosity at the keyboard, and Tatum can’t be faulted. Define it as inventive originality, define it as emotional honesty, and the man is nothing short of a giant. “Greatest” may be arguable; there is no question about great.
Whether Hershorn’s narrative of the December 1953 session that began the recording process has its roots in mythology as much as in reality. It is easy to be a tad skeptical. Yet, if it is myth, it is the kind of myth that you want to believe. Tatum, he explains, walks into the studio at 9 o’clock with a portable radio. Producer Norman Granz had provided a case of the pianist’s favorite libation. Tatum sits down at the piano, opens a beer, tunes his radio into the UCLA basketball game, and listens for a half hour or so. Then he takes off, producing 69 masters in two days, most on the first take. If it didn’t quite happen that way, it should have.
The Concord classic includes the nine tracks from the original Pablo album released in 1975, supplemented by seven tracks from The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 9. Beginning with a short and sweet reading of “Moonglow,” he then takes off on an exciting ride through Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” playing his signature games with tempos. He finds new ideas in classics like “Body and Soul,” “Embraceable You,” and “Sophisticated Lady.” He develops the themes of lesser known pieces like “Blue Lou” and “My Last Affair” with a sensitivity that suggests they should have been classics as well.
In some sense it isn’t worthwhile singling out individual tracks as highlights. This is an album of highlights. There are 16 songs and there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. Some may prefer the complex cascading cadences of his “Have You Met Miss Jones,” some, the melodic phrasing of “Stay as Sweet as You Are.” Some may favor the mellow bluesy “Willow Weep for Me,” some, the swinging “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” Most will agree that the better course is simply to prefer Art Tatum no matter what tune he is playing.
Of course, this album barely scratches the surface of Tatum’s solo work. In 1971, Pablo released Art Tatum: The Complete Solo Masterpieces, a seven disk box set. Fans, old and new, then, may have a lot of great music waiting for them.