Here, There & Everywhere: The Tatum Mazurkas?

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.

Frederic Chopin

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.

To read more “Here, There & Everwhere” posts click here.


2 thoughts on “Here, There & Everywhere: The Tatum Mazurkas?

  1. Why not simply play “Waltz for Debby,” or “Take Five,” or “Jitterbug Waltz;” whatever, and simply quote from Bill’s or Dave’s or Fats’ solo. That way, you acknowledge the source, but you’ve moved on at the same time. The fact is, the European classical tradition and the jazz tradition are two different things. The classical tradition defines a good performance partially as an accurate rendering of the score while jazz musicians often define themselves by the interesting ways they paraphrase the melodies that people already know – the standard tunes. When we’re learning to play jazz and rock, we do this: learn the melody as Bird played it or Clapton; sing the song the way McCartney sang it, or Sinatra, learn and transcribe the solo, then integrate it into one’s own style. Miles Davis, for one, often played around the melody of standards rather than playing the exact melody. Jim Hall and Lester Young have both been quoted that they thought it essential to state the melody accurately but were/are totally original soloists. BTW, Prez thought you needed to know the lyrics too, and I agree, and teach that. It provides another subtext.

    I don’t see any reason to slavishly reproduce others’ solos, except maybe for teaching purposes. I dunno – are the jazz repertory bands even successful – is there an audience for this? The various “ghost” bands – Miller, Dorsey, Harry James, Ellington, Basie, can draw a crowd, but the crowd comes to hear the themes – the songs – not the variations, i.e. the original solos. Except, of course, the sax soli in “In The Mood,” which seems to be sacred text. Anyway, these are primarily dance bands (even Duke and Basie were, at least originally, playing for dancers). We, as musicians, want to hear interesting solos, but most people just want to hear “Satin Doll” and ‘One O’Clock Jump.” Not sure, in jazz, that reproducing things is what we’re really getting at, y’know…Isn’t the idea to move things forward, while still standing on the shoulders of those who came before? Let jazz be jazz.


  2. Don,
    You are dead on! My teacher, Phil Cohen, Concordia U. Montreal has a pedagogy traceable directly to Chopin and is a judge at the Warsaw competition. He teaches inner game to virtuosi. I see him once a year or so when he comes out here He told me that Chopin was a one string Klezmer bass player who once told Lizst that if he didn’t “make it ” in town he would go back to work with the Jews! He also said that the blinding blaze of runs on the page, and much of the rest of what you see, was what Chopin played when the editor came over. He was a strong improviser. Phil told me that I should approach Chopin (I play
    most of the preludes some of the nocturnes, waltzes) just like I play jazz. I saw that in action (with most of the pianists in town slack jawed in the audience) at the Music Center when Martha Argerich played the Chopin piano concerto. I (and all the others) have heard the piece dozens of times but was hearing it for the FIRST time in the hands of MA. She was a student of Freidrich Gulda who taught her jazz as well as classical music.
    Didn’t the LeBeque sisters make a record like what you describe ?
    Up until 1850 or so you could not be a classical soloist if you could not “blow”. You would have to at least improvise the cadenza in a concerto. Then they started to write them out. And then getting other people to write them out. So by then improvising was an unnecessary skill. It is coming back tho, Gabriela Montero, the Venezuelan girl who played with YoYoMa at Obama’s inaugural devotes the 2nd half of her recitals to improvisation. Not exactly jazz, but then you could compare it to Brad Mehldau’s solo cd.
    As far as feel goes, try young Argerich (on Deutche Grammophone) doing the 2nd movement of the Ravel piano concerto. Feels and sounds like Bill Evans.
    There is a Lebeque Cd produced by the guitarist John McLaughlin who is married to one of them that, if I remember correctly, has very good feeling written out jazz.
    I disagree with Keith (about more than this) that the 2 touches are so incompatible. I like going back and forth. I did so in a solo concert at the Atelier last year. Playing Scrapple after the 5th Prelude from the Well Tempered Klavier was almost a medley.


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