Friday, January 11, 2019

Michel Petrucciani in Karlsruhe in 1988

In consulting my archives I discovered that it has been over four years since I have encountered a recording on the German Jazzhaus label. This label presents audio and video recordings of live and studio performances from the archives of Südwestrundfunk (SWR, “southwest broadcasting”) in Stuttgart, Baden-Baden, and Mainz. Their products are often released through partnerships with other labels, including Arthaus Musik and SWR>>music.

Ironically, my last encounter with this label led to some unpleasant repercussions. Through Naxos distribution I had downloaded the tracks of the album Early Chet: Chet Baker in Germany 1955–1959, which, to this day, remains a valued jewel in my collection. Sadly, my article about this recording prompted an angry response from Baker’s son Paul, claiming that the recording was an “illegal production of my fathers [sic] music.” Fortunately, Naxos had a solid case of legality based on their relationship with Arthaus Musik and was kind enough to copy me when they notified Baker of their position.

As a result, I find myself approaching today’s release of One Night in Karlsruhe with a bit of trepidation. This was based on a live recording made by Süddeutscher Rundfunk, which is now part of SWR. The venue was the “Jubez” (the “nickname” for the Jugend- und Begegnungszentrum); and the date was July 7, 1988. The occasion was a trio performance led by pianist Michel Petrucciani with rhythm provided by Gary Peacock on bass and Roy Haynes on drums.

For those who do not know the background, Petrucciani was born in Orange, in the south of France, on December 28, 1962 with the genetic disease osteogenesis imperfecta (known more commonly as “brittle bone disease”). This led to a life of short stature (as well as brittle bones) and an early death at the age of 36 on January 6, 1999. Nevertheless, Petrucciani was determined to become a pianist at a very early age after having seen Duke Ellington on television and was ready for piano lessons at the age of four. This meant not only acquiring the necessary technical expertise but also overcoming physical limitations, such as the distance between the bottom of his feet and the pedals. Nevertheless, he gave his first professional concert at the age of thirteen and began to play in Paris at the age of fifteen with the likes of Kenny Clarke and Clark Terry.

By 1982 he was in California, where he visited Charles Lloyd. This was a time when Lloyd had retired because his playing was viewed as out of fashion; but Petrucciani inspired him, leading to a successful West Coast tour by the two of them. Petrucciani became a leading Blue Note artist, both with Lloyd (including the One Night with Blue Note series) and as a leader. By 1984 Petrucciani was living in New York and spending time in Europe only on tour dates. Nevertheless, after his death he was buried in Paris at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, where, according to his Wikipedia page, his body lies one tomb away from Frédéric Chopin.

Michel Petrucciani’s grave (photograph by Saruman, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

There is a good chance that many who know Petrucciani through his recordings had no idea of his physical limitations. As far as I am concerned, this is all for the better. His prodigious capacity for invention is evident in every track from this Karlsruhe date, whether it involves his own take on Ellington or John Coltrane (there is a certain irony in his decision to learn “Giant Steps” and then give that music his own unique interpretation) or the five tracks of original compositions. Indeed, Petrucciani’s inventiveness leads me to believe that the “subject” behind “Mr. K. J.” is probably Keith Jarrett (who had played with Lloyd prior to the saxophonist’s “retirement”).

Personally, I also enjoy the extent to which, on this recording, both Peacock and Haynes contribute significantly to the listening experience. It is not often that you hear a jazz bass sound lyrical, but that is definitely the mot juste for the way in which Peacock parallels the initial theme statement in the opening track, Petrucciani’s “13th.” Haynes, on the other hand, is discreetly low-key, holding back until there are a few critical moments when off-beat rhetoric is required to put a new twist on the tune. While the date itself may have been a matter of coincidence, I rather enjoyed the fact that this entire listening experience had been captured on Gustav Mahler’s 128th birthday. (Those who attach significance to powers of two should take note!)

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