3 techniques every jazz pianist can learn from Art Tatum

Art Tatum is such a giant in the jazz world that most jazz pianists despair of ever trying to play like him. I remember attempting to play a Tatum transcription when I was in college and giving up after an hour or so, unable to play even a single measure. It was painful!

(By the way, if this is your introduction to Art Tatum’s playing, check out his recording of “Tiger Rag” HEREHERE.)

If you feel this way too, rest assured that you and I are not alone. In fact, the stylistic development of every major jazz pianist of the 1930s-50s can be understood through the lens of how they developed a style while knowing they could never play like Tatum. Think about this for a moment: at one point or another, every single jazz pianist from those decades had to face the fact that they’d never be able to play as technically fast or with the sheer amount of kaleidoscopically-shifting creative musicality as Tatum could cram into a 3-minute improvisation. Instead of bemoaning this fact, the great jazz pianists of that time took inspiration from Tatum and developed their own musical personality to its fullest potential.

Incidentally, this wide gulf between Tatum’s virtuosity and the rest of the jazz piano world is why never spawned a huge array of musical clones, the way Bud Powell and Bill Evans did. It’s simply too difficult to copy him to any real extent.

Along the way, though, many jazz pianists have picked up a few ideas from Tatum and played them their own way. Pianists such as John Lewis, Billy Taylor, and McCoy Tyner extracted the principles behind of Tatum’s style, and developed them is a highly personal way, without trying to copy him directly.

We can do the same. Here are 3 of Tatum’s techniques we can use in our own jazz piano interpretations, regardless of our current level of ability:

1. Reharmonization

Reharmonization, or changing the chords to a jazz standard, has become so common that Tatum is often overlooked as a pioneer of this technique. But my piano teacher Billy Taylor used to relate how he would sit and listen to Tatum and a pianist named Clarence Profit reharmonize tunes for hours. They’d play the melody over and over, challenging each other to come up with ever-fresh harmonizations. As Taylor explained, instead of improvising new melodies over a tune’s chords, they’d improvise new chords under a tune’s melody!

Tatum’s solo piano recordings demonstrate an all-encompassing interest in chordal reharmonization that has influenced entire generations of jazz musicians. Even the beboppers, who often considered Tatum’s style to be “old-fashioned,” were highly influenced by his harmonic concept.

While we may not be able to play as fast as Tatum, we can take an active interest in exploring new harmonic paths on our favorite jazz standards.

2. Left hand “non-jazz” textures such as trills

Tatum’s stylistic range brought together both jazz and classical techniques. His command of the keyboard included 19th century classical-style arpeggiation and the use of trills, etc. In Tatum’s hands, the use of trills could give the impression of “suspended time” and a heightening of suspense, to be soon relieved by the return of a swinging stride pattern or similar, steady beat.

We can distinguish our playing by using techniques like trills as well.

3. Breaking up the time-feel

Nobody is better at giving us “tempo-vertigo” than Art Tatum. At a moment’s notice, he’ll play a measure or two without any hint of where the underlying beat is, challenging us to keep tapping our feet. And them, just as suddenly, he’ll launch right back into the song’s melody to remind us that “all’s well that ends well!”

While these 3 techniques sound radically advanced under Tatum’s fingers, they’re actually very approachable for each of us, at any level of ability and experience. We just need to study each concept and gradually begin exploring how to put them “into action” in our own jazz piano playing.

To illustrate this, I’ve used all 3 of these “Tatum Techniques” in my solo jazz piano rendition of the classic jazz standard “I Can’t Get Started.”

I Can’t Get Started: Journey Through The Real Book #157

At 7:19 on the video, you’ll hear how to improvise over a sequence of chromatically-descending ii/V sequences, which is a technique the beboppers got from Tatum and applied to this tune.

You’ll also hear some very characteristically “Tatum” chords at 8:38, which I probably got more directly from Billy Taylor, who in turn was himself a student of Tatum’s.

I use left hand “suspended time” trills, inspired by Art Tatum, at 5:33. These are easier than they appear, and you can do them too with a little practice!

Finally, at 7:11, I disguise the underlying beat with some irregular phrasing, again inspired by Tatum.

Give these techniques a try; you may be surprised at how sophisticated they make your improvisations sound.

Enjoy the journey and “let the music flow!

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