Artist: Art Tatum & Ben Webster
Taken by itself, Art Tatum’s classically-inspired piano playing is somewhat emotionless. It’s a tad too technical. You might even call his music imposing. Oscar Peterson professed that “Tatum scared me to death.” He didn’t touch a piano for weeks after first hearing “Tiger Rag” as a young child in the ‘30s. But when coupled with the lazy saxophone of Ben Webster, Tatum’s indecipherable talent takes on new meaning.
Tatum is like the Keith Moon of jazz piano, filling up every ounce of space with ornamental frills and dexterous glossolalia. He synthesizes every influence imaginable, from Bach to Chopin to Fats Waller to James P. Johnson, yet his style is completely his own. Usually, his music requires a very concentrated listen, somewhere between Lennie Tristano and Bud Powell. However, this posthumous collection — commonly available as The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Volume Eight — is Tatum at his most accessible. It’s the pianist’s most relaxing and wholesome effort.
Webster grounds the music in bebop reality with his casual, melodic soloing. Meanwhile, Tatum strides away, playing at least nine or ten notes to Webster’s one. This unlikely combo works wonders—a slow foreground mixing perfectly with a non-stop commentary in the background. In fact, Tatum has very little regard for what’s going on around him. He just keeps soloing and soloing as if the rest of the quartet isn’t even there. Credit to producer Norman Granz for somehow making it work.