Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Zenph master

Zenph Studios, which I wrote about here, continues its "re-creations" of historical recordings. Re-creations is no exaggeration -- the old recordings, which can make it hard to fully appreciate the original performances, are made into computer programs that play modern instruments (so far, piano), in sound caught with today's first-class microphones and mixing boards. You are there with the player, and vice versa.

Except for a CD re-creation of Art Tatum in a 1949 recital, I've had trouble warming to the Zenph concerts. The Rachmaninoff playing Rachmaninoff disc is interesting, but it's hard to believe that what we hear is anything like his playing that made him one of the great virtuosos of his time. Glenn Gould's much-celebrated jazzy performance of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations is just not to my taste.
Now we have keyboard whiz par excellence Oscar Peterson in a collection titled Unmistakable. The label says the selections on the disc were recorded in the '70s and '80s and not previously released commercially. After going through the usual Zenph digital processing, the signal was converted back into analog and fed into a whopper of a piano -- a Bösendorfer, among the world's hugest and potentially loudest, a piano the liner notes tell us Peterson favored. The results were recorded in an Abbey Road studio.

No doubt about it, Peterson can wow you with his technique on the ivories. His legerdemain has an almost effortless air. In Unmistakable he switches tempos and styles often in the same piece. Want to hear nimble fingers?  Listen to him tear through "Back Home Again in Indiana" like a freight train whose engine's brakes have failed. Or "Take the A Train" and "Caravan" on the Ellington medley -- you hardly believe what you're hearing even as you are.
So what's to complain about? Maybe nothing unless you're a grouch like me. I seem to remember from his other, accompanied albums, that Peterson could play a ballad with warmth and sensitivity when the spirit moved him. It doesn't here. To be fair, he didn't realize at the time he was recording for posterity. Maybe these were just sort of warm-up exercises.

Still, sticking to Unmistakable, you'd hardly know any of these items are songs. They are just chord progressions on which he hangs flamboyant decor. Except for a few interior patches, they sound like mere excuses to show off his unquestionable dexterity. Virtuosity is of course important for a jazz musician, but it's not everything. Creating a mood, showing us some of the mystery of creation, drawing from us feelings we didn't know we had or haven't experienced for a long time -- those are equally important elements of jazz.
That's what I miss here, and often in this artist's playing. He's a finely tweaked, German sports car of a musician giving glossy versions of platitudes. At his wildest Thelonious Monk couldn't have played with the kaleidoscopic sparkle Peterson brought to his Bösendorfer. All Monk did was take us into new worlds that we could never have imagined without him.

To end on a positive note: The recording brings Peterson to life in a way not heard before -- the best contemporary recording is streets ahead of what was possible even in the 1970s. No fan of Peterson (1925-2007) should be without this. And many people who respond to music will enjoy hearing what the human mind and hands in close collaboration can produce in jazz pianism.

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