Thursday, February 2, 2012

Johann Sebastian Bach and Art Tatum - Parallels??

When one undergoes a consideration of J. S. Bach, arguably the most powerful composer of the past three centuries, the primary connection logically will take us to his unequaled polyphonic technique; that is, the magnificence of his works which contain multiple melodic lines, and how these lines mesh and meld, creating such indescribably evocative messages of beauty by way, through his genius, of that wondrous synthesis of spirituality and technique. Whether we hear his 2-part Inventions, marveling at the unparalleled ability this giant possessed in his choice of what notes to leave out, in these works for the keyboard, or works which contained four or five lines in simultaneity or in diagonalized poses - one tends to address and recognize Bach's contrapuntal facet first, more than not.
However, every bit as powerful as his linear language is, perhaps, the most important reason for the emergence of the so-called Classical Period; that is, the inculcation of relative simplism in single melodic lines and the resulting alterations in the manner of harmonic choice to enhance these melodies.
No furthering of Bach's language was possible, in the view of his successors, such as his genius son C.P.E. Bach - all one has to do is analyze the harmonic visions that Bach gives to us in so many of his chorales, with the realization that the powers this giant demonstrates to us are equal in both harmony and counterpoint. He stands out, perhaps, as the greatest of the composers, as regards the attainment level of the vertical and horizontal in Western music.
Well, perhaps we should think of the legendary pianist, Art Tatum, in the same light.
When we think of Tatum, our first thoughts, generally and logically, go to his fantastic technique, which continues to thrill us whenever we hear his recordings. Not only did he create awe in the other pop pianists of his day, let alone to this day, but the likes of Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff were enthralled by his gigantic pianism.
However, if we are to start concentrating on another aspect of Tatum, it should be his harmonic vocabulary. Along with his legendary playing is a reality that a torrent of harmonic choices ran neck-and-neck with those overwhelming designs that his fingers created. As a matter of fact, those of us who know the language of music are every bit as affected by his harmonic deftness as we are with his vaunted finger technique. Any knowing jazz pianist will attest to the reality that his harmonic ideas were the equal of the totality of the performances of Art Tatum.
So; strangely, whenever I think of Bach, the name Tatum quite often creeps in...

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