Michel Petrucciani: Piano Palle Danielsson: Bass Eliot Zigmund: DrumsIt is difficult to speak of Art. I would rather simply say "Please close
The French pianist Michel Petrucciani, who died of a lung infection at age 36 in a Manhattan
hospital in January 1999, was not only one of the most extraordinary mainstream jazz
musicians born in the 1960s but also the leading keyboard virtuoso to emerge from a
generation better known for having produced a bumper crop of talented trumpeters and
saxophonists. That Petrucciani had a professional career at all, let alone spent some 15
years at the forefront of the international jazz scene, is in itself remarkable given the
fact that he suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, a painful and debilitating disease
referred to in the vernacular as "glass bones" that stunted his growth, deformed his body
and severely limited his mobility.
That is, his mobility away from the piano. For despite the fact that he was only a yard tall, never weighed more than 60 pounds and had to be carried on stage where he used a mechanical attachment to work his instrument's pedals. Petrucciani possessed prodigious technical and conceptual skills as an improviser and, figuratively at least, stood head and shoulders above any other pianist to immediately follow in the footsteps of Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.
The son of an Italian guitarist who emigrated from Sicily to southern France, Petrucciani was born in Montpelier in 1962 and as a child played the drums in a band with his father and two brothers who played bass and guitar. Although he studied classical piano for eight years, his love of improvisation and his desire to create his own music eventually led Petrucciani to devote himself to jazz. His first major professional engagement was at a festival in Cliouclat when, at the age 13, he accompanied that year's guest, trumpeter Clark Terry. By the time he was 15 he was playing regularly alongside artists like drummer Kenny Clarke. In 1980 Petrucciani moved to Paris where recorded his first album, Flash, and soon became a fixture on the European club and festival circuit. Eager to make a name for himself across the Atlantic, he then wrote a rubber check, which his father later covered, to buy a plane ticket to the U. S. where he first stopped in New York and later, after having saved enough to make his way out to the West Coast, found a mentor in saxophonist Charles Lloyd whom he encountered in California in January 1981.
At that time, Lloyd had withdrawn from public life after undertaking an extended spiritual retreat and had not performed in years. He initially heard Petrucciani play over the telephone during a conversation with his wife who had called him in Santa Barbara to inform him about this phenomenal French pianist. Lloyd promptly drove to Big Sur, discovered that he and Petrucciani had the right of chemistry when playing together, and that February, organized a concert for them at the Natural History Museum in Santa Barbara before the pianist returned to France. When Petrucciani came back to California the following May they performed in Big Sur and San Francisco and in 1982 Lloyd assembled a quartet featuring Petrucciani, the Swedish bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Son Ship Theus that toured through 1983, performing at major European jazz festivals (the recording of their concert at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival won France's Prix d'Excellence that year) as well as in Japan. Although Lloyd eventually went back into seclusion, Petrucciani's exposure alongside the saxophonist catapulted him into the major leagues and he won a musical version of the Triple Crown in 1983 when The Los Angeles Times named him Jazz Man Of The Year, Italy's Culture Ministry named him Best European Jazz Musician and he won France's prestigious Prix Django Reinhardt.
The eight tracks reissued here, taped in New York during a March 1984 engagement at the venerable Village Vanguard and featuring Petrucciani at the helm of a trio featuring the rock-steady Danielsson and the imaginative if under-recorded drummer Eliot Zigmund, were originally released as a duble LP on The George Wein Collection, and now inactive imprint conceived by the veteran jazz promoter that was formerly distributed by Concord Records. The music is not only a superb example of how sublime that most fundamental of jazz formations - the trio of piano, bass and drums - can sound when all its components are in synch, but also definitively documents Petrucciani's power and prowess as a pianist in the early days of a solo career in the U. S. that would lead to his signing with Blue Note Records in 1986 for whom he would release seven albums through 1994.
This program is typical of the sets Petrucciani would perform over the next decade and a half - a mixture of standards, hard-bop classics and originals that showcased a formidable technique echoing that of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson or McCoy Tyner in its fluency, ferocity and facility and a harmonic inventiveness as a writer and soloist that revealed the influence of such classical composers as Debussy, Ravel and Bartòk and, particularly in ballads, of one of jazz's great romantics, Bill Evans. Evans is one of the threads binding together the three musicians heard here as Zigmund and Danielsson each performed in different versions of his trio while Petrucciani immersed himself in the pianist's music during his formative years and cited him as one of his first major jazz inspirations.
The recording opens with a fitting tribute to Evans, an exceptional interpretation of the Miles Davis composition "Nardis" which is indelibly associated with him. No sooner does the song's sinous Middle Eastern theme fade out, when the trio launches into a triple-time version of Sonny Rollins's "Oleo" which Petrucciani colors with some Caribbean Carnival rhythms and a solo that features counterpoint worthy of Bach and a cadenza that could have been conceived by Beethoven. "Le Bricoleur De Big Sur", an atmospheric impressionistic portrait on which Danielsson bows his bass while Zigmund's brushwork causes his cymbals to shimmer, invokes the spirit of Tyner. The mellow mood continues with "To Erlinda", a piece Petrucciani dedicated to his first wife that he performed as a solo showcase on his third album, Toot Sweet, a May 1982 Owl Records project he made with Lee Konitz, with whom he had toured France in a duo context in 1980. The trio then performs two other Petrucciani originals, "Say It Again And Again" and "Three Forgotten Magic Words", as well as the ballad "Trouble" before the recording concludes with a bluesy version of Thelonius Monk's "Round Midnight", a favourite work also featured on Petrucciani's Owl session with Konitz that the pianist would reprise often on record and in concert.
The Vanguard audience, as informed a jazz public as one is likely to encounter anywhere on the planet, responded enthusiastically to everything played on what was clearly a memorable evening. After listening to this recording by a 21-year-old Petrucciani approaching the prime of a career, one can't help but wonder if his being handicapped wasn't some sort of cosmic sacrifice he had to make to enable him tp flourish as a musical genius, as if his Life Force somehow succeede in transcending the limitations presented by the pianist's arrested physical development and channelled its energy into the metaphysical part of a human body that governs creativity, as perhaps had been the case a century earlier with a similarly challenged yet equally brilliant and original French artist, the painter Henri Toulouse Lautrec.
Rome, June 2002
Mitchell Feldman is an American writer living in Italy where he is a European correspondent for Down Beat Magazine and a contributor to the International Herald Tribune supplement Italy Daily. His articles on jazz have also appeared in Jazz Times, Schwann Inside, The Denver Post, The Atlanta Constitution, The Athens Observer and The Woodstock Times.