Michel Petrucciani: Power of Three & The Manhattan Project


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When French pianist Michel Petrucciani finally succumbed, at the age of 37, to the debilitating illness that plagued him for his entire life — osteogenensis imperfecta, an illness that stunted his growth and caused his bones to be so brittle that they were all too-easily broken — the jazz world lost a player who, while contributing so much in such a short span of time, also had so much more to give. That he began playing professionally at the age of 15 and recorded his first album at 18 meant, at least, that there is a significant body of work to represent his sadly shortened life.

But the fact is that Petrucciani's playing can and should be considered separately from his illness. While his ability to overcome adversity is, of course, admirable, his considerable talents within the jazz mainstream would be worthy of attention regardless. And so it is good news that Blue Note, as part of their continuing efforts to reissue concert footage, previously only available on videotape, on DVD, have recently released two concerts with Petrucciani — Power of Three, a 1986 Montreux performance that teams him with guitarist Jim Hall and, on three tunes, saxophonist Wayne Shorter; and The Manhattan Project, a 1989 collective that found Petrucciani in a larger ensemble, again with Shorter, but also with bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Lenny White and, on synthesizers, Gil Goldstein and Pete Levin. Both shows demonstrate Petrucciani's inestimable talents, made even more vivid when one sees just how dwarfed he is by the instrument he played.

Michel Petrucciani
Power of Three
Blue Note 0777 7 40010 9 0
Recorded 1986; released on DVD 2005

When producer Mary Ann Topper teamed Petrucciani with Hall in late 1985, it was a truly inspired choice. Hall, the consummate accompanist and thoughtful soloist, is the kind of player who can work with just about anyone and find a way to gracefully inject his own gentle presence. And if the Petrucciani/Hall pairing was inspiration, adding Shorter for the final three pieces of the performance was pure genius.

Working together, on the strength of this Montreux performance recorded on July, 14, 1986, yielded the kind of incredible interplay that most musicians dream of. Hall's tone has always been warm, but blends an acoustic brightness that yields an incredible feeling of intimacy; regardless of where you are, you feel like you're sitting only a few feet away.

The set consists of three Hall compositions, one by Petrucciani, one by Shorter and Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood. Hall is, as always, the elegant player, with every phrase, every note considered, yet never sounding anything but natural. Petrucciani is the perfect combination of technique and taste; his ability to navigate the keyboard all the more incredible when you get to see him in action. And Shorter, a player who has been occasionally accused of being too cerebral, seems perfectly at ease here, with his own "Limbo, from the Miles Davis album Sorcerer, being a particular high point. These days it seems as though Shorter is more comfortable on soprano, but in this concert, his tenor work is strong and committed.

Guitar/piano duets sometimes run the risk of falling over each other. Pianist Marc Copland, when discussing playing with guitarist John Abercrombie in a recent interview, explained the challenge: "It becomes a question of, on an eyes closed, intuitive, listening kind of level, seeing where the other guy's going with his chord, and then saying, musically, with a chord coming back, 'that sounds good, let's continue there,' or 'wait, how about we go in this direction?' with the confidence that the other guy will come back and say, 'OK, let's do that.' Clearly Petrucciani and Hall share that kind of confidence and surrendering of ego.

The audio and video quality of the transfer is excellent. There are no special features to speak of, but this 60-minute performance is so strong it really doesn't matter. Power of Three is an important video document of an artist who, in his relatively short life, created a remarkable body of work, and Petrucciani's teaming with Jim Hall and Wayne Shorter, on this particular night, stands as an excellent example of his formidable talent and cooperative musical personality.

Personnel: Michel Petrucciani (piano); Jim Hall (guitar); Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone on "Limbo, "Bimini, soprano saxophone on "Morning Blues )
Track Listing: Beautiful Love; In a Sentimental Mood; Careful; Waltz New; Limbo; Morning Blues; Bimini

The Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project
Blue Note 7243 5 99859 9 2
Recorded 1989; released on DVD 2005

The Manhattan Project was the brainchild of drummer Lenny White, with the idea of taking a collection of known compositions, and painting them in a new light by augmenting a more traditional sax-piano-bass-drums with two synthesizer players to provide orchestration. Bringing in bassist Stanley Clarke, whose history with White goes back to their days in Chick Corea's fusion group Return to Forever, was no surprise. Neither was Shorter. But Petrucciani's inclusion may have raised a few eyebrows, even thought White had played on his Blue Note recording, Music. But given that, while The Manhattan Project would be more-or-less straight-ahead there was the potential of more than a taste of fusion, how well would Petrucciani integrate?

Based on the hour-long performance presented here, Petrucciani shows that he was versatile enough to fit into any context. The first piece, White's "Old Wine, New Bottles, is a straightforward blues, and there's little stretching involved. But that changes when the group head into the late Jaco Pastorius' "Dania, an up-tempo tune with orchestral padding provided by Pete Levin and Gil Goldstein. Here Petrucciani proves that he's completely adaptable, playing with an energy and intensity that some might find surprising.

But, of course, this show is not all about Petrucciani. Again, counter to his more recent work, Shorter seems to have a better balance between his intellectual and emotional sides. His soprano solo on "Dania is filled with rapid-fire exchanges and powerful flurries. As wonderful as his playing is today, here he appears more at ease and less considered.

Singer Rachelle Ferrell guests on a lightly swinging reading of "Autumn Leaves, which provides something of a breakpoint in the performance. With a deep and powerful voice, and a vivid improvisational flair, it's surprising that she hasn't attained the kind of recognition she deserves, in light of the onslaught of jazz vocalists flooding the market these days.

Following Ferrell's spot, Clarke switches from acoustic to electric bass, and here's where the show begins to dip. Clarke has often been accused of excess, and while he's able to maintain a strong groove with White on a surprisingly funky version of Shorter's classic "Nefertiti, he can't contain himself for long. That he has chops is without question; but so does everyone on stage; the difference between Clarke and Petrucciani, for example, is the difference between placing the song in service of the technique and subsuming the technique in service of the song.

When Clarke and Shorter enter a conversational mode in the equally funky reading of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, it's another demonstration of the difference between someone who aspires and someone who succeeds. And by the time of Clarke's double-time solo in the middle of the tune one has had just about enough. Yes, Clarke and White are in synch, but it's more about obvious and overblown melodrama, and less about surrender to the song. It's the kind of interchange that generates excitement, but somehow feels false.

By the time the group hits "Summertime — yet another funky arrangement — the last vestiges of good taste are gone. Yes, Petrucciani and Shorter are able to contribute strong and meaningful solos, but once again Clarke's domineering presence and overblown sense of self takes away from any sense of collective.

Still, despite Clarke's overbearing blatancy, The Manhattan Project is worth seeing, if only for the opportunity to see Shorter and Petrucciani in action. Despite the overblown arrangements and general excess of the second half of the set, they are both in fine form, with Petrucciani, in particular, demonstrating a side to his playing that was rarely seen. And, again, Blue Note has done a great job in transferring the show to DVD, with both the sound and image crystal clear.

Personnel: Wayne Shorter (tenor and soprano saxophones); Michel Petrucciani (piano); Stanley Clarke (acoustic and electric bass); Lenny White (drums)
Special guests: Gil Goldstein (keyboards), Pete Levin (keyboards), Rachelle Ferrell (vocal on "Autumn Leaves )

Track Listing: Old Wine, New Bottles; Dania; Nefertiti; Virgo Rising; Goodbye Pork Pie Hat; Summertime

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