By Don Heckman
Trying to distract myself from a too-juicy cold yesterday that had me sneezing every five minutes, I put some Chopin mazurkas on the CD player. Aside from the lyrical melodies and the soaring harmonies, it’s always fascinating to me to hear how he adapted popular dance forms to his free flying imagination.
As I was listening, I was struck by the seemingly improvisatory current that flows through so many of his solo piano pieces, especially the mazurkas and waltzes. One can almost imagine, in some of them, Chopin sitting down at the piano among a group of friends, and improvising something on the spot. Which is probably exactly what he did, codifying them to manuscript paper after the fact.
All of which led me to a reconsideration of a thought that has often occurred to me. Why isn’t a recorded, improvised solo jazz piano piece by a great jazz artist – like Art Tatum’s “Elegy,” for example, or Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debby” or “Peace Piece” (to mention only a few of the myriad possibilities) — equally worthy of transcribing, printing and performing in concert?
The first answer I usually get when I mention this idea to anyone is, “Oh, well, but those were improvised pieces, and all you have to do is listen to the recordings to hear the real deal.” Okay, so there are two parts to that objection. I’ll deal with the second one first, by asking this: if we had recordings of Chopin playing his mazurkas and waltzes, does that mean that other, interpretive pianists would never want to play them? I don’t think so. And, insofar as the first part of the objection is concerned, isn’t all music improvised at the beginning, before it is committed to paper? Or are we dealing with some sort of unspoken subtext here that is based on the faulty premise that composed music (mostly by Europeans) is somehow more complex and more worthy than improvised music (mostly by Americans and frequently by African Americans)? I refer everyone who believes in that premise to any Tatum solo recording.
The second answer I get usually has to do with the principle of swing and jazz phrasing. Granted the fact that these are among the elements that make jazz what it is. But there is plenty of written music from different eras, with different performing conventions – ornamentation, dynamics, etc. – that require study and practice for an artist to deliver a convincing rendition. No one will ever have precisely the phrasing of Art Tatum or Bill Evans. Nor should they. What I’m suggesting is not a replication, but an interpretation. In which a talented contemporary interpretive artist, performing one of the Tatum or Evans pieces I mentioned above – as well as hundreds of other possibilities – provides his or her own reading. And bringing to it the same kind of personal perspective that is commonly present in the performance of pieces by Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann, etc.
French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s 1997 recording, “Conversations With Bill Evans,” tried something similar that was beautifully done, but diminished by his effort to reproduce too closely the original Evans’ versions, rather than invest the material with his own interpretive imagination.
It seems to me that there is a very large, very wonderful body of jazz works out there, waiting to be transcribed, waiting to be performed, waiting to affirm the self-evident fact that jazz has produced music whose quality and importance reaches far beyond its manifestation as the product of a single recording session. Who knows? Maybe the principle would apply to horn players, as well.
I’d love to hear from anyone who has any thoughts about all this, either pro or con.
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