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Effervescence: Art Tatum Meets Champagne


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This edition of Jazz & Juice comes with a warning: both the bottle featured and the musician spotlighted are explosive, and should be handled with care. Uncork and listen responsibly.


When something sparkles, literally or figuratively, it bursts with life. In liquid, there is a perpetual motion of bubbles escaping in a dazzling show of speed within a seemingly static glass. When we listen to effervescent music, we experience something that lifts us in delight and velocity buoying us in the hearing.

The higher we rise in a sparkling experience of wine or song depends on an equal dose of seriousness and technique. A great glass of sparkling wine, or a great piece of music that soars rather than fizzles, usually requires a great deal of serious, hard work.

The Juice

Champagne, the area of France that produces the world's finest sparkling wines, is famed for creating the most celebratory effervescence imaginable. For a wine so closely associated with frivolity and revelry, the painstakingly difficult process of its creation is often overlooked.

Our wine of effervescence is from Ployez-Jaquemart, a smaller Champagne house operating in Montagne de Reims. Laurence Ployez is the current winemaker, the third generation to be making this wine, which began in 1930. At every turn, this "extra quality brut" bottling over delivers from the high quality of grapes (all Premier Cru and Grand Cru) to the extra technical steps taken, in addition to the usual rigors of Champagne production (a list so long and technical it would take up the rest of the article and then some).

This wine is everything a Champagne ought to be, and more. Its style is clean and precise; a bright canary yellow punctuated by fine bubbles. It reveals the chalky minerality of the soils in which it grows, balanced with baked green apple and ripe lemon fruits. The persistent sparkle gives way to a piquant, dry finish. Every aspect of this wine has a lift and lightness that make its upward reaching bubbles a natural expression of its character.

The bubbles are our focus; a perfect illustration of technique and pleasure in motion.

Bubbles, in any beverage, are carbon dioxide escaping from liquid into the air. In the case of Champagne, the second fermentation which creates the CO2 happens inside each individual bottle (not in a tank, as it would with Prosecco.) The finer and more pure the base wine, the longer and cooler the secondary fermentation, the more pinpoint tiny the bubbles will be. Ployez Jaquemart's cellars are more than 80 feet deep, and this wine is aged for five years prior to final corking, thus the liquid is exquisitely embroidered with sparkle.

An estimate of several million bubbles emerge from a bottle of champagne. These bubbles produce a sensational, persistent effect. Effervescent displays emerging from technical excellence produce ascendent pleasures.

The Jazz

It is impossible to overstate the genius of Art Tatum. His legacy is that of one of the greatest pianists who ever lived: a free, fearless and stupefying improviser, an innovator well before his time whose talent has inspired elation and also a touch of despair in those who aspire to master the instrument.

His style has been described as sparkling by more than one jazz writer— his ornaments, runs, and filigrees burst forth from his fingers so fast it seems they overflow from his mind with persistence and indefatigability. Computational Musicologists (a new field to me!) named the smallest perceptible interval of measure within music the Tatum, in honor of his unbelievable speed.

Virtually any Art Tatum recording illustrates his genius; today we'll listen to his rendition of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" from Art Tatum Complete Piano Recordings Vol. VI (Pablo Records, 1977), recorded in the early to mid 1950's. What he manages to do in this is both flabbergasting and intoxicating.

The hairpin turns Tatum takes technically and stylistically in the four choruses of this standard tune are dizzying. He switches from Carnegie Hall grandiosity to pool hall stride in an instant, swinging and even boogie-woogie-ing as the spirit moves him. He calls the melody and responds with invention. Famous for his quantum runs, this track doesn't disappoint. He trades off from right to left hand seamlessly, and if there were 176 keys I'm sure he'd find a way to keep going. Humor is a key ingredient throughout; even at breakneck speed he makes asides, as in his "Rhapsody in Blue" quote towards the end. At the finish,Tatum makes some unexpected angular movements, bringing the track into a marvelous jagged landing.

The level of innovation and technical mastery on display is outrageous, and it's all rooted in a deep understanding of his instrument and the music he's making. However ornamental some of his flourishes may be, they are all rooted in improvisational clarity and musical acumen.

What's Next

Join me on the podcast where we get more up close and personal with bubbles, the theatricality of Art Tatum, and an exploration of how people have responded to his greatness. I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas for the column—contact me here!



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