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Artist Profiles

Bernard Peiffer: Formidable

By Published: April 4, 2006

Five tracks, "All The Things You Are," "Black Moon," "Private Concert Improvisation #4," "The Warm Up," and "Yesterdays" were recorded in 1971 at a small concert in someone's living room not far from Bernard's Chestnut Hill home. I was fortunate to have been in attendance, and the music sounds as fresh and contemporary now as it did when first performed. "The Warm Up" is a free improvisation that unfolded as Bernard familiarized himself with the Steinway Grand prior to the arrival of the small audience. "Black Moon" is based on Schoenberg's twelve-tone system; an earlier version appears on Bernard's 1956 release Bernie's Tunes, which features Oscar Pettiford and Ed Thigpen, making Bernard one of the first to introduce atonal improvisation to a jazz audience.

"Poem for a Lonely Child" and "'Round Midnight" were recorded in 1970 at a trio concert in New Jersey. "Poem for a Lonely Child" is a moving statement reflecting Bernard's heartbreaking loss of his mentally handicapped daughter Pascale. He said of the piece, "I wondered what kind of world those children lived in. I wondered what kind of emotions they had. I tried to express my feeling about those children, and especially about mine. It's almost completely written, and I intended it, in a way, to be like a short poem in music." "'Round Midnight" receives a beautifully lyrical treatment with a reference to Chopin's E Minor Prelude at the end. Accompaniment in the middle section comes from bassist Al Stauffer and drummer Jim Paxson, Bernard's talented trio-mates during the early 1970s.

It became somewhat of a tradition at Bernard's concerts for him to improvise a prelude and fugue based on George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland" as a finale. After a lengthy concert on November 11, 1971 in West Chester University's Swope Hall, Bernard said good night to his audience. The audience responded with cheers and requests for an encore, specifically "Lullaby of Birdland." "You dig it?" Bernard asked. "I hate it. Now I have to make up another one tonight to feel happy." And so he did.

"Foxhole Café Improvisation" and "Jitterbug Waltz Cadenza" were recorded in June 1975 at the New Foxhole Cafe in St. Mary's Church on the University of Pennsylvania campus. "Foxhole Café Improvisation" is a brilliant example of a virtuoso improviser developing thematic ideas and creating a complex formal structure spontaneously with intense emotional conviction. It's a stunning opening statement for this disc. Equally appropriate is the finale "Jitterbug Waltz Cadenza." It followed a rendition of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" performed by the trio (Al Stauffer, bass and Billy Jones, drums) and is Bernard's tribute to Fats. It was Waller's music that first drew Bernard to jazz during his early student days in France. He shows here that in 1975 he could still play some ridiculous stride piano.

The music presented on this disc will remind those who had the opportunity to hear him perform live of Bernard's brilliance. Many will be hearing him for the first time. His playing here should demonstrate to everyone his historical importance in the world of improvised music. Of the great virtuosos active in jazz in the twentieth century (Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Phineas Newborn...) only Bernard Peiffer's music has fallen into relative obscurity. It is our intent and expectation that this disc will reintroduce Bernard Peiffer to the world.

I want to personally thank Stephan Peiffer for inviting me to be involved in this wonderful project. The tapes that he and his mother Corine preserved since 1976 are a wealth of solo, duo and trio performances and are rich in possibilities for future releases. Stay tuned!


Tributes

I was an indifferent piano student when I first heard Bernard Peiffer play in Philadelphia with his trio. I was twelve years old and electrified by the music that I heard. Very soon after I became his student and Bernard was a wonderful teacher. He inspired his students to check out many different facets of music. He talked brilliantly about many subjects including the history of jazz, philosophy, and the need to work extremely hard to find your own style. He was very funny and saw the world through the eyes of an artist— rebelling against the conformity of the mainstream and living life on his own terms. His style embraced many different traditions. His students went to see him play at the Borgia Tea Room religiously where they witnessed Bernard's amazing virtuosity and endless invention. Bernard's music has been unjustly neglected but now has the opportunity to be heard again.

—Uri Caine



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