Steven Mayer Channels Art Tatum, but Adds His Own Flourishes at Keyboard Festival
One of the most awestruck fans of the jazz pianist Art Tatum was the classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who heard the nearly blind Tatum play live in New York jazz clubs and collected his records. Like Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson, Horowitz was inspired and intimidated by the inventiveness and sheer virtuosity of Tatum’s playing: the intricate rhythmic riffs, the constantly shifting harmony, the hypercharged keyboard-sweeping runs. “I wish I had a left hand like Art Tatum’s,” Horowitz once said.
Tatum, who died in 1956 at 47, has another admirer from classical music in the pianist Steven Mayer, who has transcribed by ear, note for note, numerous Tatum improvisations and recorded them to acclaim on a Naxos Classical release. On Tuesday at Mannes College of Music in Manhattan, Mr. Mayer concluded a varied recital program, part of the school’s two-week International Keyboard Institute and Festival, with three of his transcribed Tatum solos.
Though you can question the point of trying to replicate Tatum’s ingenious improvisations, you have to be impressed by Mr. Mayer’s devotion to the music and his technically brilliant playing. Actually, Mr. Mayer adds his own touches to Tatum’s solos. Still, his renditions are amazing facsimiles. Tatum took the Harlem stride style of Fats Waller and reinvented it, pushing it harmonically, polyphonically and pianistically beyond anything imagined.
Yet, though Tatum sometimes repeated his solos almost exactly in different performances, the pieces emerged as improvisations and always sounded fresh. For all the ferocity of his playing, there was a devil-may-care quality to his style, a seemingly impossible mix of intensity and impishness. Though Mr. Mayer plays Tatum with admirable panache, inevitably his performances sounded somewhat practiced and dutiful.
Mr. Mayer is a musician with wide-ranging interests who has played standard concerto repertory with major international orchestras. He began this recital with a boldly expressive account of Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, followed by a rhapsodic performance of Schumann’s early Sonata in F sharp minor, a technically awkward, sometimes intractable yet noble, haunting and fantastical work that is too seldom heard.
He was at his best in Ives’s “Celestial Railroad,” an astounding essay in color, texture and energy that sounded more radical than ever in Mr. Mayer’s compelling performance. He also gave engaging accounts of two works by Gottschalk and, as a warm-up to the Tatum, more of his transcriptions of early jazz piano pieces: James P. Johnson’s “Blueberry Rhyme” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Frances.”
It’s reassuring to see classical pianists of Mr. Mayer’s accomplishment thinking outside the box. Still, even Horowitz, a renowned transcriber, never took on Tatum.