The Best of the Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces

Feb 11, 2004 at 12:00 am

Dear Brian: If things go well, music editor, this will be my last review. I’m taking the Tatum cure. Or, rather, I’m taking the Tatum cure again. Last time I relapsed. But I’ve been listening to this new Tatum best-of collection, and I think I know what went wrong. Here’s what happened last time: I woke up after a binge. I’d just bought a 10-CD player. I loaded it up all the way, the first time, all sorts of stuff: the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Fanfare for the Warriors, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, the Japanese cast album of Hair, a Ben Webster anthology featuring his doo-wop sessions, some field recordings from Bali, prison work songs, Sly and Robbie, Plastic Ono Band, … and woke up the next morning in a stupor on the den floor. No, I said, enough. Who needs all this? Who needs thousands of records and a lifestyle that revolves around waiting daily to see what new promo wonders the mailman is going to deliver? Who needs to apologize for CDs and vinyl spilling off their appointed shelves into every corner of the pad? “Hey, careful, don’t trip, sorry about the record mess.” Better to renounce it all, embrace simplicity and focus: Shouldn’t, for instance, the collected solo piano masterpieces of Art Tatum on Pablo be enough for a lifetime? Here’s the late Tatum captured alone at the piano, during five single-day sessions during the mid-’50s, dancing over-under-sideways-down on 120 tunes, drawing on a seemingly inexhaustible bank of inspiration for ad hoc variations in each chorus. He’s the summation of everything leading up to the great divide of bebopian abstraction. (As much as Joyce was the summation of all previous Western lit, argues the Tatumophile critic Benny Green.) He’s all about digging in, and cramming his wizardry into the tune at a modest length — no stretching out on choruses ad infinitum here. William Blake saw eternity in a grain of sand. Shouldn’t the Tatum solo sessions be sufficient for any music lover?

It didn’t work. I relapsed. Starting listening to every damn thing again. Searching out more thrills, more kicks. But maybe the problem was too much music in the cure program, not too little. Maybe the answer still is to give my listening life over to Tatum, but with more focus. Maybe the answer is the 20 perfect tracks in the new “best of” set rather than six times as many tunes in the seven CDs of the full collection. That’s my new Tatum cure. It’s been a couple of hours in the dizzying rapture. Whooping it up with “Makin’ Whoopee,” going crazy with the Tatumized “Crazy Rhythm.” You get the idea. Wish me luck.

W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].