Eyran Katsenelenbogen's solo piano work has received the highest praise that a jazz pianist can be given: he has been likened to Art Tatum
. Although Tatum is widely considered the most virtuosic piano improviser of the last century, players are hardly ever compared to him. To be associated with the man who Fats Waller
referred to as "God," one needs a perfect sense of time and an ability to entirely alter the harmony of a standard at lightning speed. Indeed, precious few musicians have been mentioned in the same sentence as this founding father.
But Katsenelenbogen merits the praise. On 88 Fingers
, he treats classics with jaw-dropping technical facility. His sound is a big one, with a Wagnerian range of colors and emotions. His use of the full keyboardin particular a gingerly handling of the lowest octave on the pianogives him a kind of gravitas distinct from the bulk of contemporary players. In order to view him as a modern-day Art Tatum, 88 Fingers
is the crucial documentation.
But the technique displayed here is too complicated to reduce to just one master, one model. Katsenelenbogen can be as playfully propulsive as Oscar Peterson
. At other times, a descending run or audacious phrase might make him sound more like Thelonious Monk
. And no matter how far out he goes, how much he allows himself rich tangents and wanderings on his melodies, he is always firmly locked into the essence of the song he plays.
Of the sixteen tracks on the album, three quarters are standard jazz repertoire, primarily popular themes and bebop classics. Perhaps most notable, though, are the two "Improvisations" on classical pieces. An edgy bass riff and fluttering right-hand lines augment the "Promenade Theme" from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." And over Chopin's famous "C-Sharp Minor Waltz," he layers a minor latin groove reminiscent of Chick Corea
. These super-impositions are truly stunning and a highlight of the album.
On 88 Fingers
, Katsenelenbogen's music is true theater, rich and full. He allows himself the full gamut of sounds and emotions that he can elicit from the instrument. But there is no lack of subtlety in this panorama. Close attention to his lines and arrangements evince the care he puts into every phrasing.
On "Do You Know What It Mean To Miss New Orleans," Katsenelenbogen sets up a fairly traditional foundation of stride piano, but then layers a flurry of frenetic lines and blistering reharmonizations over it. The hustle and bustle of the tempo creates an almost overwhelming palette of sound, until the extraordinary control the pianist exerts over every variation in the fabric of piece is realized. As the melody swells and goes farther out with each successive chorus, his project for the song becomes evident. This is homage to New Orleans not as a gutsy blues; instead, it combines Katsenelenbogen's urbane touch with a swagger and an incomparable sense of swing. 88 Fingers
is truly a virtuoso's work, wedding a profound respect for the canon of jazz standards to a hyperactive facility for innovation. Perhaps Katsenelenbogen is most in league with Tatum for this fact: he sets the bar towards which other pianists must strive.