August 2008

Art Tatum - Piano Starts Here, Live At The Shrine
Sony/Zenph SACD 88697-22218-2
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2008

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

Naming one person as "the best" at his or her chosen profession is usually the opening for a long and sometimes vicious argument, but not when it comes to naming the greatest jazz pianist of all time. One name leaps to mind -- Art Tatum. No one came close to matching all his skills: blazing speed, utter accuracy, and, most of all, unequaled improvisational abilities. So good was Tatum that he seldom performed with other musicians because few could keep up with him. The great tragedy of Tatum's career was that many of his finest performances were made before recording techniques became standardized, so it has been impossible to hear Tatum at his best in high-fidelity sound.

This is an interesting performance in a number of ways. Zenph calls it a "re-performance." The company's process "analyzes a recorded piano performance and separates its musical attributes (pitch and duration of notes, velocity of key strikes, key releases, etc.) from the surrounding noise, then encodes those attributes digitally to allow the performance to be replayed on a high-resolution computer-controlled piano [such as the Yamaha Disklavier] Pro." While we can’t hear Tatum live (he passed away in 1956), this disc brings us as close to this as possible.

How do the final results sound? Wonderful. The piano, which was recorded in the Shrine Theater (where part of this recording initially took place), is spread out between the speakers, so you get a real sense of the full size of the piano and how Tatum played it. There is even a good sense of hall space. Both the CD and SACD stereo layers are excellent, but the multichannel tracks are especially noteworthy for their sense of realism. This is also a binaural track especially for listening with headphones. It’s all quite a treat, let me tell you.