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Extended Analysis

Dick Hyman: Century of Jazz Piano

By Published: May 16, 2010
Dick Hyman
Century of Jazz Piano
Arbors Records

This intimidating, six-disc set (five CDs and a DVD) succeeds on two key levels. Rarely do we find a release that is equally effective in terms of its value as both an educational tool and a source of entertainment. Dick Hyman remains one of the most important figures in jazz today and—with this set—you soon find out why.

What makes Hyman so special isn't just his famous work on the soundtracks of various Woody Allen films or memorable concept albums like Themes and Variations on 'A Child Is Born.' With Hyman, we see a truly unique specimen of jazz. He has a brain that functions as a sort of comprehensive jazz encyclopedia. Along with that, he is a pianist with the skills to demonstrate perfectly almost every known technique and style to emerge during the course of the genre's 100 year-plus history.

Aside from a handful of tracks that find him in a traditional trio setting, Hyman explores the history of jazz piano via 100-plus solo performances. He begins with the little-known 19th century composer/pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the musician Hyman credits with being one of the very first artists to interpret the music performed by slaves in New Orleans circa the mid 1800s.

From there, no category goes unexplored; Hyman honors ragtime, stride, swing, bebop, free jazz and everything in between; he showcases the styles of the people whose talents collectively merged to create jazz as we know it today.

The first two discs might be the most enjoyable, as we hear expert renditions of the music created during the first 30 years of jazz. Hyman delivers a definitive take of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," along with a few more of the composer's famous works. Then there's James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Earl "Fatha" Hines and Mary Lou Williams...and that's just the first disc!

The second disc features the styles of George Gershwin via the rather obscure yet excellent piano rolls "Rialto Ripples," "Liza (All the Clouds'll Soon Roll By)" as well as the more familiar "Do-Do-Do." After that we hear the birth of Swing through the music and style of Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum.

Disc three includes the Swing Era's heyday, focusing on Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and—most memorably—Erroll Garner. For this portion of the program, Hyman provides a reading of a little-known Tchaikovsky work that the pianist describes as "a reasonable estimate of what [Garner] might have done with it." The result so closely resembles Garner's signature, cluster-laden style that you won't believe it's indeed Hyman playing and not the late legend.

A survey of early beboppers like Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Horace Silver and Red Garland closes disc three, segueing nicely into the five-song tribute to Thelonious Monk that opens the fourth disc. Here Hyman examines the new directions and inclinations towards improvisation that characterized jazz in the late '50s-60s.

The fifth disc serves as an exercise in "unstructured free improvisation." Hyman plays four original explorations, each delivered in the manner of groundbreaking improv-oriented soloists like Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea and Cecil Taylor.

A series of brief 'etudes' played in the style of many of the respective surveyed pianists closes out the final disc, leading to perhaps the highlight of the entire set: an exhaustive DVD wherein Hyman provides on-camera demonstrations of the complex virtuosic techniques of history's greatest players.

If you ever wondered how Scott Joplin, Earl Hines, Erroll Garner and all the rest of the legends actually played the notes that made them famous, then this DVD will hold your attention for its nearly two-hour running time.

To say that this set is absolutely essential for students of piano jazz would be an understatement. Not only do you learn about the techniques behind the magic of jazz' greatest virtuosos, you get to hear the results of said complex, technical mastery. All of this is thanks to Dick Hyman, one of jazz' greatest living treasures.

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