Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sir Thelonious of Coolsville

Oh, that Monk! Old Thelonious! Has anyone ever had the temerity to call him a one-handed piano player? Before me, that is? There’s a lot of it going around. Both things, actually, one-handed piano players and no one with the nerve to call them out on it.

I like Monk, he sure does repay the effort for anyone who dares to listen. But that left hand just jumps out sometimes and punches a chord, the right’s IQ is about eighty points higher.

McCoy Tyner, on all those ‘Trane records, one-handed. But man, could he ‘comp! That’s why old John had him around. Give him his solos, now get back to ‘compin’ so we can entertain the people. He set up the changes for the horns as good as anybody ever did, has or will, but he was hitting with one hand at a time. When the tempo slowed down he could do ok with two hands at once, the very nature of the piano, after all, to play it two times at once. Those ballads with Johnny Hartman show him off pretty good.

Chic Corea never even pretended to use both hands. He just put his left hand behind his back like he wished it’d go away. I saw that Return to Forever bunch, I thought I would scream, I’d never seen such a flesh monument to pretension before in all my life. Before they started they demanded complete quiet, no starting without it, some kind of meditative space, their Krishna friends were standing all around so they were showing off how cool they were. I was in the middle orchestra and I just started talking in conversational tones, fuck this shit, they’ll start eventually. They did, never having achieved total silence. Imagine the gall. All of their careers put together wouldn’t be as cool as Monk’s hat.

I’m just being a bitch, I suppose. All of these guys are justifiably famous, real musicians. But I do prefer my piano players to use both hands like they meant it. No afterthoughts. Two voices, melody, harmony and rhythm, a piano is a whole band in the right hands, two hands.

It can be done. Check out Tommy Flanigan. That shit is boss. Even better, Nat King Cole! Three voices! I won’t even mention the gods, like Oscar and Art, they’re playing with at least four hands at once or I’m a monkey’s uncle.

Pianos, that shit is mysterious. Just tripping little hammers that bang the strings, but it’s hard as hell to get the really good tone out of them. One thing, though, they can be kept in tune fairly easily, in a moderate climate anyway. Not like guitars, which by design cannot be successfully tuned to deliver true notes at all levels of the fret board, it’s impossible, if it’s in tune up here, it’s out down there, it’s true, inherently out of tune. Easier to carry, though.

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