Reviews: Cy Walter, Bernard Peiffer, Kyle Gann

(For a few months in 2005 and 2006, I contributed reviews to DownBeat.)  


Cy Walter


The Park Avenue Tatum

Who was Cy Walter? Unless you used to drink at the posh Drake Hotel in the early sixties, you probably don’t know. However, a small group of devotees have kept his name alive, and they are why we have The Park Avenue Tatum, a collection of his 1940’s recordings. This is the first CD of Walter (1915-1968), and it firmly establishes him as one of the finest interpreters of the golden age of show music.

Walter’s art is far more advanced than any other cocktail pianist. In addition to a sophisticated harmonic language, his intricate arrangements exhibit an astonishing amount of counterpoint: the low, high, and mid-registers of the instrument relate in euphonious polyphony. Jazz pianists from this era always wanted to know, “How good is your left hand?” By any standard, Walter’s is very, very good.

It’s interesting to compare Walter and Art Tatum on “Begin the Beguine,” which they both treated as a virtuoso showpiece. Walter tells the song’s sophisticated story better than Tatum, who doesn’t follow the composer’s elaborate form. (“Beguine” has the longest form of any standard, closer to a rondo in classical music than a 32-bar pop song.) Tatum swings harder. I’d call the match-up a draw.

Jazz history has shamefully ignored Walter, but in his heyday he was well known among Broadway’s elite. Richard Rodgers preferred Walter to any jazz pianist, since Walter always honored the song instead of merely “blowing.” One of the finest things on The Park Avenue Tatum is Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” which Walter plays as a hushed reverie. Suddenly you understand why Kern hated up-tempo bebop versions of his music.

Walter is probably best understood not in the context of either jazz or Broadway, but in the tradition of classical composer/pianists like Leopold Godowsky and Ignaz Friedman, both virtuosos who loved to transfigure Viennese waltzes and other light fare into complicated piano music. Walter’s beautiful chorus of “All the Things You Are,” with the melody singing chastely in the middle-register, decorated on top and bottom with delicate slides and runs, sounds considerably like a Godowsky treatment of a Schubert song.


Bernard Peiffer



We finally have a proper document of the legendary Bernard Peiffer (1922-1976). Formidable…! is a collage of lo-fi tapes from different venues in the 1970’s, mostly solo, and it is a better representation of Peiffer’s talent than his early LPs.

A little spoken word on this disc has Peiffer praising improvisation, which was clearly his own greatest gift as a musician. The more conventional standards on this disc are fine… but when completely unfettered, he soars to the sky and plays the impossible. “Voyage” opens the album with a rocketing Ab minor scale idea. It seems like it is going to be a proper tune with a predictable blowing form, but Peiffer just rampages, both hands whirling, through a multitude of ideas: it’s free-form, but he carefully guides us all the way.

Peiffer displays sovereign mastery of the keyboard with a pearly, Tatum-esqe touch. (Indeed, he quotes Art Tatum quite a bit.) His hyperactive hands can hit a few too many random notes for comfort, and his rubato or non-jazz rhythms are more credible than when he hunkers down to swing (“Merry Go Round”). Far more credible is “Black Moon,” which has the kind of rhapsodic strangeness – almost gypsy in feeling – that really suits this provocative musician.

Thelonious Monk’s  “’Round Midnight” is quite beautiful during the solo intro, devolves into a merely adequate trio recitation, and then has a stunning solo coda with a wild Chopin transfiguration and an extraordinary amount of tone color lavished on a tolling major third at the close. George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” gets an overblown Busoni-style treatment as “Prelude” and “Fugue.” A comparison of this performance with the one on The Astounding Bernard Peiffer (1957) proves that Peiffer improvised a new version of this amusing baroque monstrosity each time out.

The liner notes say more Peiffer releases are planned. Like this disc, they will be major events for jazz pianophiles.


Kyle Gann


Nude Rolling Down An Escalator

Kyle Gann is best known as a critic who has supported the Downtown school of young, post-minimalist composers in the pages of the Village Voice for the past twenty years. Just about anyone involved in contemporary classical music in New York City has crossed either paths or swords with Gann, since his opinions are impassioned and occasionally a little scandalous. The surprising truth is that Gann is even more important as a composer than as a critic.

This jaw-dropping CD documents music written for the Disklavier, which is like a 21st century player piano that uses MIDI instead of a roll. (More about the Disklavier and some of the scores are at As in Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano music, the instrument has a metallic, brittle timbre. This sonority may become tiring in long stretches, but in small doses this CD is exhilarating, blowing apart preconceptions with such good-natured devilishness that the only response is a kind of horrified awe.

The compositions are all studies in rhythm, counterpoint and style. Jazz musicians simply must hear “Texarkana” and “Bud Ran Back Out.” The former is a rag gone haywire, churning with supreme nonchalance under the disquieting tyranny of a 29 to 13 polyrhythm. The latter is an astounding tribute to Bud Powell. (It’s troubling how a classical composer glosses the Powell style so well, but Gann did study with an excellent jazz pianist, John Esposito.) “Cosmic Boogie-Woogie” is an exotic scale layering exercise that makes Lennie Tristano’s “Turkish Mambo” seem naïve, and the long, lovely “Unquiet Night” features sophisticated harmony waxing and waning in polyrhythmic splendor. There are also maniacal Beethoven and Chopin tributes that made me laugh out loud.

Although it would be absurd to say any of this music swings or grooves in a normal human sense, the endless manipulation of time gives the computer some remarkable depth of feeling (try “Tango Da Chiesa”). The future beckons.