Listening to the flow of ideas in Art Tatum’s music

Imagine that you’re sitting right next to a piano, about a few feet away. At the keyboard is a master jazz pianist who is eager to share the wondrous possibilities of jazz piano with you. You’ve explained to this pianist that while you’re pretty good at playing a song’s chords and melody and taking a decent solo, you often don’t know else to do. You want to know what’s truly possible so that when you play a jazz standard, your musical imagination can soar.

The pianist smiles and asks you to choose a song you know well. You name a well-known ballad which you’ve been playing for years.

Instead of launching into the tune right away, the pianist closes his eyes and thinks for a moment. After a full minute, he plays the tune’s first melody note, harmonized with a chord you’ve never thought of playing under that note. “Wow! What a great idea!” you think to yourself. That unusual chord choice makes you hear the melody in a whole new light! It’s similar to how stage lighting can affect how we hear an actor’s lines spoken in a play. Soft green lighting will produce an entirely different impression then, say, bright red lighting. Chordal reharmonizations are the same in relation to a song’s melody.

After this unusual opening chord, the pianist follows the circle of 4ths for the next three chords, which sounds very logical, and then comes back the tune’s original chord progression in m.3, which are the same ones you yourself play. Hearing this, you recognize the principle of contrast at work here: something unfamiliar is followed by something familiar.

At this point, the pianist pauses for a moment, to make sure that you’ve “taken it all in.” Then he begins embellishing the melody, in a way that reminds you of how an opera singer may add ornamentation to an aria. The melody is still very recognizable, but in a playful way. “Yes,” you think, “I can do this too.”

Now, the pianist feels that it’s time to simplify the harmony and melodic approach, so you don’t get overwhelmed by too much “information” all at once. So he launches into a stride pattern with his left hand, at a relaxed tempo while the right hand plays some simple “swing-style” riffs against the steady quarter notes of the accompaniment. You notice that the pianist is has a large left hand span, and can effortlessly play a full tenth with the 7th in between (C, Bb, E). Gulp! That’s a little intimidating, but the pianist pauses and says, “Yes, you can learn to do this if you have large hands like me, but 7ths or 10ths by themselves will work quite nicely too. In fact, most pianists take that approach when playing stride.” You’ve also noticed that the pianist had worked in a few chord substitutions here as well, but you’re not discouraged because you’re enjoying the music so much.

The pianist now resumes his arrangement by playing the fastest scale possible! Even “worse,” he begins the run with his left hand and seamlessly continues it with his right hand, which you’ve never seen before! After getting over the initial shock, you decide to practice that yourself. “Even if I can’t ever play it that fast,” you think, “I can have fun practicing it and besides, it’ll help me develop my left hand technique.”

The pianist takes a moment to ponder again, and decides to show you how to insert a temporary modulation as the music shifts up a half-step for one measure, only to slide back down to the home key again. He repeats this 3-4 times, to make sure you remember how it goes and can replicate it at home on your own piano.

This amazing piano lesson continues for a full 3 choruses of the tune, in which the great pianist shows you, step-by-step, what’s truly possible with a jazz standard. Each moment is a “gem,” and you watch and listen with wonderment as the new combinations of harmonies, melodic twists and turns, and alternations of simple and complex rhythms are revealed in turn. He ends his interpretation with a series of beautiful bell-like chords played in the upper register, each one perfectly voiced.

Yes, my friends, this is the how Art Tatum played, except that instead of slowing down and letting us fully absorb each new musical gem, he went rapidly from one to the next, in a mind-bogglingly fast procession of ideas. After all, that’s how fast his mind worked!

The “secret,” if you will, to listening to him, is to embrace this rapid flow of ideas. After all, we have no other choice!

When I first started listening to Tatum, decades ago, it just seemed like a big “mish-mash.” It sounded like a tidal wave of notes among a bunch of strange harmonies.

Now, however, I enjoy following the flow of his music, in exactly the same way I’ve described above. Except, of course, that he doesn’t stop to make sure we catch up with him. It’s up to us to follow him, not the other way around!

With Tatum, each measure or two is its own musical “gem.” He goes from diamond to ruby to emerald to sapphire very quickly and if we “tune out” for a second, we’ll miss something big. But each moment is magical in its unique way, and our persistence will pay off in big ways if we continue to study his music from this perspective as we listen to him play. This is especially true if we listen to Tatum play a song we already know very well, as I’ve described above.

Here’s a good place to start:

Art Tatum: Over The Rainbow

Have fun with your listening experiences, and always remember to enjoy the journey and “let the music flow!”

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