Michel Petrucciani - piano Palle Danielsson - bass Eliot Zigmund - drums
"Doing this album was easy, like doing another concert. Here we were in the studio, just a few days after a 6-week, 32-concert tour that began in Munich on November 3rd and wound up in Martinique, December 12th. And then, just as the session was starting, when Eliot said 'Why don't we just run through it as though it's another gig?' we were ready. It was not hard to do."
Michel Petrucciani was sitting in his brownstone apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn early in January recounting and expounding on the pleasures and the sense of accomplishment he felt about this, his latest album with his own band, Palle Danielsson (he's Swedish) and Eliot Zigmund (American). Michel was in a T-shirt marked 'Jazz Society of Philadelphia', the totally-relaxed host, discussing the luncheon menu with his lady, Eugenia, pouring the wine, mixing the salad, and, every once in a while, breaking out into one of his comedic turns. (He does a wild take-off on Piaf and her wide vibrato and put-ons of other famous artists.) The humor is inside, indescribable. As we should note, you had to be there, for it would lose something in the translation. Trust me, please. He's funny.
Luncheon stretched on and on into the late afternoon, then segued upstairs to his piano, his own Steinway grand, where he noodled, demonstrated, practised techniques, rambled on about his background and life and philosophy. It all added up to much more history and commentary that can be accommodated in the space here.
"Palle and I have been together since my days with Charles Lloyd. Eliot was one of the first new friends I made when I came to the States six years ago. He's been wonderfully warm and close. I'm living here in Brooklyn because of him and his help. He joined my band when we first went out on our own a couple of years ago. He's like a hero to me, for all the attention and encouragement and interest in my playing.
"So that day in the studio was a joy. Especially after that tough tour. It was like putting into a file the work that the three of us did together - all those years we've played together, after we left Charles Lloyd.
"We were on the road 10 months last year. It was the same the year before. That last tour took us to Germany, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Sicily, France, Belgium and Poland and we doubled back to some of those countries several times. Six weeks. We flew 32 times. Sometimes we made two flights a day. And to tell you the truth, I'm scared to hell of flying.
"Playing is the pleasure. Tours are awful. Hurry up and wait. You don't eat. I get nervous, so I'm always trying to calm down, even at six in the morning. I can't sleep on a plane so I probably averaged four hours of sleep a night. It was murder."
The band had gotten together to rehearse the day before the recording session. Michel and Mike Berniker, the producer, had never met face-to-face. There had been telephone conversations discussing plans, repertoire, aims, et al.
"I want to special credit to Mike. I didn't really know what a 'producer' was. It's not a clearly defined term. "When I finally met him it was interesting to see how much he helped me out, helped the band out. Really helped. Mike had critiqued my previous albums and had given me his reaction. He nailed me good, telling me I seemed to be playing too much for myself, giving him the impression I might be bored with playing the same things over and over again.
"When we started working together he helped change something in my playing by his attitude. He's the only one who could tell me what I had to do, the only one who said 'Maybe if you do it that way you can reach another step, another level." He was the only one able to do that.
"I never could analyse my own playing. Though I know hundreds of critics, etc. no one has ever told me what to change. He did. He opened my eyes, as a producer really should.
"Something magic happened on this album. There's definitely a year step in my playing, because of his guidance and because of my playing so long and touring with the band. It's different from all the albums I made before. Maturity is normal, expected, if you're a creative artist - the change from day to day. But it usually isn't this radical, this apparent."
The repertoire here has a bit of history, personal history. "I wrote The Prayer and Our Tune last year at Eliot's house in Brooklyn. He had loaned us his house and we took care of it for two months.
"Before that Eugenia and I had been living in Manhattan for a year, sharing a house with friends. It was difficult sharing the kitchen and other facilities. A bad house for that kind of set-up. And we had our Afghan dog with us all the time. The Prayer was kind of a thankful statement for the move to Eliot's place.
"Just before we tour I try to compose a couple of new songs to keep from playing the same things every night. Our Tune was written that same night, right after I finished The Prayer. I couldn't call it Eugenia for I'd written and recorded an earlier song for her. One day and we'd been together over a year by then, I was in a quite romantic mood and said 'We don't have our own special song, something we know is just for us.' That song I'd written that night didn't have an appropriate title so I suggested it was Our Tune. Is wasn't designed that way at first, but when we decided later it was appropriate for us.
"Then Eugenia said: 'You've written songs for me and for other people, how about Face?' That's how Face's Face was dedicated. Face was our pure-blooded Afghan, with a very, very individual face. He died soon after I wrote the song. It was last September 3. the same day Jo Jones passed.
"Regina was written for a fantastic Brazilian lady, Elis Regina. They called her 'The Queen' in Brazil. Palle is an old fan of hers. Told me to check her out. Fabulous. After I heard her music I was immediately inspired and decided to write a song to her. That's why I named it for her.
"Night and Day is a song I know, like a lot of people know it, from a long time ago. One night, on stage, the band complained about my playing the same songs over and over on one-nighters. We were beginning to bore ourselves, though we know so many other tunes.
"We talked about some Wayne Shorter songs. He's great, but for me he's a composer for horns. They often don't work for the piano. I think there are songs for piano and songs for a horn. And though many be-bop piano players try to sound like a be-bop horn, I don't think a piano can sound like a horn.
"One night I got into the intro of Night and Day and Palle said: 'Hey, that's one of my favourite songs'. I didn't know that. We kept it in. It's why we're playing it now.
"Mike suggested Here's That Rainy Day. He wanted a standard ballad. It's the first time I've recorded it, though I played it many, many times with Freddie Hubbard. He plays it so beautifully. It's almost like this theme.
Michel was born in Orange, France, December 28, 1962. The family moved soon after to Montelimar, near Avignon, where his family owned and operated a music store.
"I was raised in the streets. A wiseass. Pretentious. Thought I was the best. I even worked in my father's store, demonstrating the organ. I couldn't read or write until I was 9, but I was learning the basics of music. (She came to see me in Paris a few weeks ago when we gave our most recent concert there.)
"One day, when I was 9, a woman came into the store and I played the organ for her. She bought one immediately for her young son. The lady was back in the place a couple of days after she'd gotten delivery, complaining that her son, who was about my age, couldn't get the same sounds out of the instrument that I did. Dad had a difficult time convincing her that the problem was not the organ.
"I learned a lot early, out of my father's knowledge of jazz. He's now 50 and has been listening to jazz since he was 17. He had an album collection that was very selective. I picked up on him for that, because I'm the same way introverted, very narrow-minded, musically. I'm trying to open up a little.
"My repertoire is a bit limited. I know maybe 500 songs. Maybe. Mostly standards like I Hear A Rhapsody, Lover Man, 'Round Midnight. I don't relate the songs to special composers, just to the artists I heard.
"Dad's collection included Wes Montgomery, Wynton Kelly, etc. Tal Farlow, (Dad was aguitar player, so we had a lot of guitar albums), Red Norvo, Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Monk, Miles, (just about everything Miles did before Fusion), Bill Evans, Cannonball, Herbie Hancock. And so on.
"I learned Misty that way and used to copy as much as I could. Iused to copy all of the Peterson solos. When I was 12, 13 I could play exactly like Oscar. Just the right hand. I didn't have his left hand. I can still imitate him. I can do that perfectly, by heart.
"Oscar was more accessible to me. Tatum was too hard to pick up. But I play all the Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery licks.
"I left home when I was 16 to see the world. I was shy and scared but felt I was restricted at home because of my handicap. I had learned the basics of many things by myself. I speak 31/2 languages - French, English, Italian and Street-Talk (Of course, Italian, my ancestors' language, is the '½.') studied mathematics, etc. and was fairly well self-educated by then. I left to prove I could do things on my own.
Michel's most-prized personal possession is his 7' Steinway "B" Grand Piano. The San Francisco Opera House owned is first, then sold it to a doctor in Monterey, California. When the doctor turned to Rashneesh and dedicated to sell all his worldly goods he ran an ad that said a Steinway 7' "B" could be purchased cheap. Michel drove from Big Sur, where he lived, to the doctor's house and bought it immediately, for what M. says was "a hell of a bargain", and moved it up to his own place. When he settled in New York, he didn't have money enough to have it shipped East immediately. It's here now. The photo on the front cover of this album is clear evidence its beauty and appear for Michel.
Petrucciani has a very special practice exercise that is like none I'd ever heard before. He demonstrated and explained: "I play a song with my left hand in the original key. Let's say it's in C. My right hand plays the same song a half step higher in C#. Then I improvise on C# and comp in the original key, so it sounds like a kind of study. It sounds terrible. It's wrong but interesting, because when you change melodies it's completely different. That teaches me how to have two different brains, to keep my hand actions separate."
"My technique goes where my mind would like to go. Sometimes I don't have the mental agility to go there. That's why I'm an instrumentalist. That tool (the piano) helps me go further than my mind might go. This practice helps me reach there.
"I don't want to get too intellectual about my music. My philosophy is quite simple. For one thing - too much intellectualising is boring. Too much comedy is boring. Too much of anything is boring. We all need to know when to get off, to simply stop.
"There is an old Arabian proverb I subscribe to. I can't translate it exactly, but the meat of it says 'I'm happy being able to please you.' Don't thank me for my music. It's my pleasure and I'm doing it for myself, selfishly. Let me thank you for allowing me to make you happy. It's kind of egotistical, in a way, but it does make me feel good."
PIANISM: (as defined in the Oxford Dictionary) The art of pianoforte playing, especially in it's technical playing, execution on the piano.
Michel Petrucciani's pianism is astonishing, his technique extraordinary. And yet, as a reverent student of Beethoven once observed, Beethoven "would never for a moment subordinate the musical idea to mere 'pianism.'" Neither does Michel. His technique enables him to stretch out, to express his musical ideas, to move out of the ordinary.
There is nothing ordinary about Michel, no limit to his passion for playing and performing, no possible expectation beyond reach.
A couple of years ago, Leonard Feather foresaw the future for this gifted man. He wrote: "One concluding point, if this is the level of achievement Michel Petrucciani had reached at the age of 20, it is almost frightening to contemplate the heights he may scale in the years to come.
Michel is now 23. His progress here, on "PIANISM" is to be celebrated, to be enjoyed. It's filled with talent and exuberance. It's a revelation. He's an abundant artist. He even did a bit more of "Piaf" as we said goodbye. He's fun. He's an entertainer.
*RECENT INTELLIGENCE: Michel just learned he wasn't the first to use the technique. He found this Billy Taylor note in Ira Gitler's new book "Swing To Bop" about Art Tatum. Art was back in New York after his first trip there. He'd gone home to get "all this stuff together". He would play Massenet's Elegie, taking it far beyond the stride style gimmick of a popular pianist, Donald Lambert. A bit of the quote reads: "So this was his (Tatum's) way of saying 'Okay. Try this one.' And he played it four times as fast as Lambert, and he played a lot more interesting harmonies, and he did all kinds of juxtapositions of melodic streams - playing a half-tone higher in his right hand than he was in his left hand, things like that."