Thursday, May 8, 2008

Art Tatum, God Is in the House

Art Tatum, God Is in the House (HighNote Records, 1998)

Georgia On My Mind (Carmichael - Gorrell) 2:17
Beautiful Love (Van Alstyne - Gillespie - King - Young) 1:42
Laughing at Life (C. Kenny - C. Todd - B. Todd - N. Kenny) 1:03
Sweet Lorraine (Burwell - Parish) 3:03
Fine and Dandy (Swift - James) 4:07
Begin the Beguine (Porter) 3:53
Mighty Lak a Rose (Nevin) 3:35
Knockin' Myself Out (Green) 4:03
Toledo Blues (Tatum) 3:33
Body and Soul (Heyman - Green - Sour) 3:31
There'll Be Some Changes Made (Blackstone - Overstreet) 3:28
Lady Be Good (G. Gershwin - I. Gershwin) 4:30
Sweet Georgia Brown (Pinkard - Casey - Bernie) 7:18

Art Tatum (piano and vocal), with occasional support from Reuben Harris (whiskbrooms), Frankie Newton (trumpet), Ebenezer Paul (bass), Ollie Potter (vocal), and Chocolate Williams (bass and vocal)
Fats Waller, upon seeing Art Tatum enter the joint: "Ladies and gentlemen, I play piano, but God is in the house tonight."

I've been listening to this music for years — as an LP borrowed from the Hackensack Public Library, as a cassette made from that LP, as a CD — and it continues to delight me. God Is in the House is a gathering of 1940–1941 performances recorded by Jerry Newman, a Columbia University student whose portable recording equipment has given us a priceless supplement to Tatum's studio recordings. Cutting discs in his apartment and in Harlem after-hours clubs, Newman caught Tatum in congenial circumstances, in performances that are endlessly inventive and remarkably relaxed, with appreciative laughter in the background now and then.

Tatum is for me an enigma. The one biography that I've read let me understand that he liked beer and cards. The few minutes of filmed performances show a musician who seems to execute the impossible without strain or even evidence of engagement. Tatum's version of Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," for instance, became a set piece whose details might vary only slightly, if at all, from one performance to another.

But in the informal performances collected in God Is in the House, Tatum is inspired. On "Beautiful Love," for instance, a rubato statement of the melody is followed by a chorus that begins with an exhilarating lift, as if Tatum has decided to pick up this tune and make it swing. Here and elsewhere, the idiosyncratic resonance of an out-of-tune piano adds a strange beauty to the sound (and somehow makes it easier to recognize Tatum's influence on Thelonious Monk).

The most unexpected performances here are two vocals, "Knockin' Myself Out," with Tatum and bassist Chocolate Williams singing, and "Toledo Blues," with Tatum accompanying himself. "Knockin' Myself Out" is a tribute to reefer and its local supplier:
If you want to get high, get high kind of quick,
just fall on up to the Gee-Haw [nightspot]
and pick up on old Frank Martin's sticks
Williams sounds as if he is indeed "knockin' hisself out, gradually by degrees." On "Toledo Blues," Tatum acquits himself as a plausible blues singer, sounding like an older, tired version of Leroy Carr.

The most exciting music here comes in two performances by Tatum, trumpeter Frankie Newton, and bassist Ebenezer Paul: "Lady Be Good" and "Sweet Georgia Brown." Tatum's ability to play well with others often seems suspect: on the small group recordings he made for Verve in the 1950s, for instance, his accompaniments for soloists sound like Tatum solos with the recording level turned down. Here though he's fully engaged with his fellow musicians. On "Lady Be Good" he sounds like the Benny Goodman quartet riffing behind Newton. And on "Sweet Georgia Brown," he and Newton inspire and imitate one another in one of the most exciting musical performances ever recorded — by Newton, by Tatum, by anyone.

Operators are standing by: God Is in the House (Amazon)

All Orange Crate Art jazz posts (via Pinboard)

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