It's one thing to hear a pianist with absolute control, staggering technique, superlative soulfulness and unparalleled swing. It's quite another when that player was completely blind in the left eye and had almost no vision in the right. Somehow, the masterful Art Tatum not only overcame that handicap, but actually transcended it in being one of the greatest practitioners of his instrument, not just in jazz, but in any form of music. Notably, the great Vladimir Horowitz, one of the piano's legendary players in the classical world, and George Gershwin, the famed composer, were enthusiastic admirers--in a time when classical musicians looked down upon jazz players and, of course, white audiences did not, as a rule, accept black entertainers like Tatum in the way they would a white musician.
Piano Starts Here, first issued by Columbia in the 1968, when jazz was losing audiences and you'd think the last thing that would be accepted was music from thirty-five years prior, presents Tatum's earliest recordings, a quartet of sides from March 1933, including the mind-blowing "Tiger Rag" as well as a spellbinding version of "St. Louis Blues," a tune identified with another great jazz pianist of the time, Earl "Fatha" Hines, as well as the standards "Tea for Two" and "Sophisticated Lady."
The other nine pieces came from a Spring 1949 concert called "Just Jazz", held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and are filled with Tatum's trademark rapid runs in sixteenth notes, crystalline touch, boogie-woogie or stride playing and others. He also had the remarkable ability to rapidly and radically shift the time by halving the tempo or, alternatively, doubling it, while adding little flourishes that brought a playful humor to his playing.
In some ways, Tatum is an interesting comparison to Cecil Taylor, whose jaw-dropping technique is exhibited in entirely different ways, apropos of very distinct eras. Both seemed to be incapable of fluffing notes and were just unparalleled in their abilities to master the piano. Whereas Taylor, afer 1961 especially, moved further away from song structures with strong melodies and mined the percussive and harmonic potential of the keyboard, Tatum always worked within established structures and, it's important to note, the limitations of the 78 rpm record and its length limits.
Tatum died in 1956 and was only in his mid-Forties. He was never accorded the recognition he deserved, but he is still listened to and admired today and for very good reason. Maybe he was more of a dazzling technician than an artist like a Duke Ellington or Bill Evans or any number of other great pianists, but with his superlative abilities and crowd-pleasing technique, it would have been hard to envision him being any other way.
In any case, Piano Starts Here and a 1940 Decca album of solos, to be featured here someday, are among the greatest examples of the piano solo you'll hear anywhere, in jazz and beyond. Let's hope the great Art Tatum always has an audience and that it'll grow.