Friday, September 11, 2009

Piano Starts Here by Art Tatum (Zenph Re-Performance: Live at the Shrine)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission.

Jazz pianist Art Tatum, over fifty years after his death, still has the power to impress new listeners and wow even the most accomplished pianists. Largely self-taught, Tatum's style was so original and his improvisational ability so seemingly boundless that few have even attempted to follow in his footsteps.

His classic album Piano Starts Here (never out of print since its release) is a compilation of four early recordings from 1933 and a 1949 live concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The playing is, of course, stellar on these old recordings, but the sound quality on my cassette copy is lacking to say the least. Having been a Tatum fan for over a decade, I was excited to hear of a newer, clearer version on CD.

Zenph Studios' "re-performance" process is an intriguing idea to say the least: Using the original master recording for best quality, every aspect of every note is loaded onto a digital file, which is then played back using a Yamaha Disklavier, an acoustic piano fitted with a computer. This reproduces the sounds exactly the way Tatum played them. Then, the songs are rerecorded with better quality equipment than was available back then, resulting in an amazingly clear performance. (Zenph first attained acclaim with their re-performance of Glenn Gould's classic Goldberg Variations. Next up is Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff.)

In this case, since the majority of Piano Starts Here was a concert, the rerecording was also done before a live audience at the same venue, in order to capture the same acoustics as far as possible. Thus, the "live" feel is still retained. This recording also restores material from the performance that was omitted from the original pressing. In addition, the track order has been fixed to more closely match the order played in the concert. So, as much as an old-fashioned fellow like myself objects to saying it, this "remake" beats the original in many ways.

The first thing you notice is the clearer sound. An informal side-by-side comparison with my cassette copy of Piano Starts Here shows just how superior the Zenph recording is. It allows the listener to hear every note of Tatum's signature speedy runs, where the original is often muddled. The high notes are no longer shrill, and there are some quieter notes that I had actually never heard before, such as the low note that ends the opener, "Tea for Two." In general, I feel that this album opens up the experience and should be embraced by Tatum enthusiasts, as it finally allows us to hear every note that was played.

Some will undoubtedly balk at the very concept of "recreating" the legendary Art Tatum's music, or will be concerned that Piano Starts Here will sound like a computer produced it. But the folks at Zenph have taken great pains to ensure that the fingering is Tatum's own. It's obvious they do it out of their love for the music and their desire to release it from the confines of inferior recording methods. Let go of the fact that a computer is playing the piano, and Art Tatum comes through loud and clear.

The tracks come in two versions: surround sound and binaural. The surround sound is of course best for those with a home stereo sound system. You will feel as if you were in the audience. But the binaural is the real ear-opener here; listened to with headphones, it is designed to sound as if you were on the bench with Tatum himself: the music is down and forward, and the applause comes from the right. If you ever imagined yourself a concert pianist, Piano Starts Here will make your dream come true, at least in your own head.
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