You hear a lot about blind musicians – Amadou and Miriam, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder – yet none can claim such incredible ability and artistry as pianist Art Tatum. (Although he wasn’t completely blind, but close enough.) He pioneered a distinctive piano style, combining stride, jazz, and classical influences to create an incredibly diverse and well rounded sound – something unmistakably Tatum. If you watch him play, he stays entirely calm and controlled, yet performs with such immediacy and technical ability – it’s mind boggling. I mean, if there were an Olympic medal for fastest, most accurate piano playing, Tatum would win gold hands down. Disappointingly, today Art Tatum doesn’t receive as much acclaim as lesser soloists of his era, perhaps because he didn’t sing or have an eccentric performance style. In any case, you’ve got to be doing something right if Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Bernstein, and the jazz greats laud you, or when your audience consistently shouts “God is in the house!” whenever you come on stage.
His 1968 compilation album Piano Starts Here is as good an introduction as any into his fast paced, spirited approach to the piano. Tracks like Tiger Rag and Humoresque give every indication of being played by at least four hands. But no, it’s only Art. He was never much of a composer, choosing instead to reinterpret the works of his contemporaries and friends. In fact, on Piano Starts Here, only one track, Tatum Pole Boogie, is composed by his hand. The first four tracks were recorded in a recording studio in 1933, while the others were recorded live in Los Angeles at the Shrine Auditorium in 1949. The distinction between live and studio recordings is clear, and dissolves any potential cohesion between tracks. In any case, Piano Starts Here is an exceptional primer for Tatum’s body of work. Prepare to be blown away.