Friday, July 9, 2010

July 9: Art Tatum, "Tiger Rag"

Artist: Art Tatum
Song: "Tiger Rag"
Album: Piano Starts Here
Year: 1933 (recorded)/1949 (released)

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In every genre, there are a handful of artists that stand as "the" influences, the early players who shaped the form into what it is today.  Depending on a specific musicians' style of playing, they can sight any one of a number of these pioneers as the one responsible for their sound, and this leads to the overall diversity within any given genre.  Yet as one moves back through the decades, these influences nearly all funnel back to one man, the performer who may very well be the most important piano player in the history of music: Art Tatum.  With a talent that was beyond astounding and an approach that was decades ahead of its time, it was largely due to Tatum's playing that the ragtime sound evolved into jazz, and the recordings he made during the 1920's and 1930's remain light-years beyond nearly everything that has been recorded since.  Furthermore, though he appeared slightly after Fats Waller, there is really no explanation for "where" or "how" he developed his extraordinary style and approach, and throughout his career, Art Tatum proved to be able to easily take on any style of music, and he himself "started" many of his own musical approaches.  From swing to jazz to boogie-woogie, one can find many examples of all of the fundamental musical styles within the Tatum catalog, yet there are few of his recordings that are as stunning as his take on the well-known jazz standard, "Tiger Rag."

Though Piano Starts Here was a compilation released in 1949, all of the recordings found on the album were made during or around 1933.  This fact makes the performances even more stunning, as the emotion and speed with which Tatum plays are clearly at least twenty years ahead of their time, and it is aspects like this that make the title of Piano Starts Here an extremely fitting name.  In reality, there has simply never been another jazz record that is as indispensable as these recordings, as the groundwork for nearly every offshoot of the genre can be found here, and it all flows from the absolutely genius mind of Art Tatum.  Pushing all opinion to the side, the fact of the matter is, "Tiger Rag" is by far the most covered song in the history of recorded music that is not a national anthem or "event" type song (like "Happy Birthday").  It is impossible to grasp, let alone name all of the performers who have taken a go at "Tiger Rag" across the decades, but conservative estimates place the number of different versions somewhere around two thousand.  Even with this staggering number of takes on the tune, there are only one or two versions that are even remotely worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the Tatum take, and this is due to both the style and speed with which he performs on the Piano Starts Here version.

In many ways, it is those two words, "style" and "speed" which make Art Tatum's take on "Tiger Rag" such a jaw-dropping moment in music history.  Truth be told, it sounds as if there are three different players on the track simultaneously, and this sound is the one that countless followers have attempted (and failed) to mimic.  Taking only a few moments to set the tone with the iconic, wonderfully melodic opening progression, Tatum almost instantly drops into the bulk of the song at a dizzying pace, and he seems to keep pushing to faster and faster speeds as the song unfolds.  The rate at which Art Tatum is playing on this recording of "Tiger Rag" is truly hard to put into words, and it is the sort of moment in music that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.  Tatum utilizes every key on the piano, as he is constantly jumping from end to end, as well as adjusting the underlying musical refrain throughout the song.  Taking only about forty-five seconds before reaching the songs' most well known progression, it is the unrestrained speed and emotion found at that point which made Tatum's take on the song the inspiration for countless cartoons featuring some sort of animated being seeming to play the song with reckless abandon.  In reality, Tatum shows amazing control throughout his playing on "Tiger Rag," and it is this juxtaposition that makes the performance one of the most breathtaking moments in music history.

Along with this astounding speed and precision that Tatum displays on "Tiger Rag," there is also a great deal of emotion and stylistic adventure to be found.  The ways in which he takes the initial theme and twists it into new sounds can be seen as an early jazz approach, while the work of his left hand keeps the stride-style firmly in place throughout the entire track.  Furthermore, the upbeat, danceable tone to the song links it to ragtime music, and yet there is a harder, almost unorthodox aggression to the music that is in many ways undefinable.  These two aspects, speed and style as why there are few musicians in history who are as important as Art Tatum, yet he remains largely overshadowed which is perhaps due to the early appearance of his recordings.  Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, Carl Perkins, and nearly every other one of the "founders" of music all owe music of their sound to the earlier work of Tatum, and one can find direct "musical quote" taken from Tatum in countless "seminal" jazz recordings.  Innovating on nearly every song he recorded, it is almost impossible to find an artist he did not impact, and yet it is almost equally impossible to find the people from where Tatum derived his own style.  The only deduction one can make is that Art Tatum was nothing short of a musical genius, and his catalog of recordings easily support this argument.  Though countless musicians have taken a shot at the 1917 composition, "Tiger Rag," there has simply never been a recording that comes remotely close to the stunning performance that one finds on the 1933 recording of the song made by the legendary Art Tatum.

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