Robert L. Doerschuk

The 88 Giants of Jazz Piano

Backbeat Books

After The Lives of the Poets we are given the Lives of the Pianists, with some of the texts approaching poetry, too! Many of the 88 Jazz pianists portrayed here are dismissed in a couple of pages, cut to the essentials, one might say, and Martial Solal has been forgotten. But the longer pieces given to Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett (who wrote the extremely pertinent introduction to the book), Cecil Taylor, Bud Powell, Art Tatum and, of course, Thelonious Monk are more than commendable. Mind you, by the end of the Monk piece the book could thereafter have been called The Book of Monk because the man crops up in so many of the portrayals of the musicians who followed him.

Robert L. Doerschuk is a fine writer, and he is also a musician. He wastes no time on wordiness for the sake of it. His analysis of keyboard devices (sounds rather brutal, that) is always to the point and often revelatory. Moreover, the author occasionally gets into the minds of his subjects, which is a welcome bonus to enjoying the recordings and surely of interest to everyone. Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett emerge as spiritual soul mates, a such. Taylor is searching for the single note of the universe (perhaps echoing Schopenhauer's einzigen Gedanken). The philosopher also noted that "...before we think, we live." Maybe it's a tip for Jarrett who wishes to take the reduction further to the point where, presumably, his fingers run off the end of the keyboard. If he ever does stop playing, let it be said that yours truly is still grateful for his Too Young To Go Steady (okay, okay, I'm a throwback). Whatever the philosophy, however, we listeners still have the privilege of enjoying if a rendition hits us right. The two guys discussed may be interested to hear that John Coleman's book The Quiet Mind has been republished after a lapse of 30 years (Pariyatti Press, Seattle). It's the story of a man who sought enlightenment systematically (until that special point, of course).

The enigma that was Monk continues to elude expert analysis. I recently reran the Jazz On A Summer's Day video and if I'm not mistaken (it was a rear shot), while the rest of the musicians backing Chuck Berry are breaking up, there was Monk doing his shuffling dance. It suddenly hit me that what Monk was all about was straightforward, from-the-gut funkiness. Although he could be almost as fleet-fingered as Bud Powell on occasion, you hear it in the solo albums as he digs at a melody, wrenching it into a rendition from the gut. When Monk stopped playing and started dreaming, as Doerschuk notes, he produced the marvelous compositions that would impoverish Jazz were they no longer here. Monk was an extremely funky guy, methinks, a man perhaps trying to express JAZZ from the bottom end, and the raucous Charlie Rouse was his true soul mate.

Evans, Powell, Tatum, and Monk are otherwise given fairly routine treatments, with the occasional piece of gossip previously withheld from us. These are nevertheless beautifully written essays and should interest anyone with a leaning to Jazz piano, or Jazz period. Thus, an essential collection of Jazz writing. Buy and enjoy!

by Lawrence Brazier

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