Friday, December 26, 2008

Art Tatum -- Trio Days

I was wrong. I like Art Tatum. But in a slightly different way.

My introduction to Art Tatum, many years ago, was a series of solo piano albums. They left me cold.

No question, the man was gifted beyond belief. He could play faster, more accurately and with a greater sense of fun and originality than almost any pianist between Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk. And yet his solo work never felt right to me. Something always seemed missing. In the end, it's a matter of taste.

Recently I picked up a discarded CD from my public library for the rock-bottom price of $1. It's Art Tatum's "Trio Days." It's a no-name compilation of Tatum's piano-guitar-bass trio from 1942-44.

This I like. And now I know why.

From the very first song, I thought, "Oh my God! He's taking Fats Waller's stride and taking it one step further." I love that. Then I realized something else. The trio sounds exactly like Nat King Cole's trio from the very same period, right down to the guitarist. In fact, I had to check the liner notes to make sure it wasn't the same guitarist. It's not. Cole played with Oscar Moore; Tatum played with Tiny Grimes. But they sound absolutely identical, in a very good way.

At first, I thought Tatum's trio was the missing link between Waller and Cole. I figured Cole was copying the master. Turns out it's the other way around. After reading the liner notes, I now know it was Cole who set the mark with his popular jazz trio and Tatum who came a couple years later with a very similar trio. Not that it's an exact copy. Clearly Tatum is the superior pianist. And his bassist sometimes bows his instrument. And Tatum never sings. Otherwise, their trios are remarkably similar.

Anyway, if the only thing you know about Art Tatum are his acclaimed solo works, you need to find his trio works, too. For me, it was an eye-opener.

For an excellent profile of Tatum on NPR, click here.

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