The dazzling talent of the young pianist Michel Petrucciani
By George Goodman
It is a sultry summer night at the Casino de Montreux, on Lake Geneva. The house lights go down; a hush falls over the several hundred jazz fans packed into the sprawling basement amphitheater. At the piano, Michel Petrucciani fixes his eyes on the saxophonist‑leader Charles Lloyd, a tall, elegant man attired in black leather. Both musicians are waiting as the bassist Palle Danielsson and "Sonship" Theus, the percussionist, ready themselves to perform. Then Lloyd nods.
Petrucciani begins, closing his eyes, focusing his enormous concentration inward. Stretching long, graceful fingers a full ten‑inch spread, then shaping them closer together, almost cupping his hands, Petrucciani gently strikes the keyboard in slow, decisive movements. Increasingly daring, he splashes one handful of notes against another, setting off a clash of colors in the surprising manner of an Abstract Expressionist painter, say, a Jackson Pollock. Any chords will do as he searches for the right tempo, and the progressions begin to slip into place. A C‑minor seventh melds with a B‑flat seventh almost imperceptibly, as the new chord is overshadowed by an E‑flat major seventh. It seems only fitting that this melody, with its quicksilver changes, should be called "Very Early." It is a brooding waltz of melancholy beauty, typical of compositions by the late jazz pianist Bill Evans, Petrucciani's early mentor.
Fast, from out of nowhere, the young piano player serves up a rollicking line from "Honeysuckle Rose," Fats Wailer style. Laughter ripples through the room. Later, when Petrucciani plays an Evans composition or one of his own works, humor has a way of popping up unexpectedly, yet it never gets in the way of passion. Passion is always there, in his music and visibly contorting the features of Petrucciani's boyish face. Sometimes it surfaces as a groan of rapture. It can be infectious, too, filling a hall. Now, for instance, a cluster of black musicians at the bar in the back of the auditorium suddenly turns silent, shifting their attention to the stage. One of the men, Kenny Cox, a veteran jazz pianist from Detroit, whispers appreciatively to a friend, "Hear those chords? A youngish cat, but he sure knows where to find the blue notes." Further into another song, after the bass and drums have fallen in and Lloyd has finished a solo, Petrucciani returns for a dazzling display of the facile‑finger technique that musicians call "chops." Alone in the spotlight, he gives a novel twist to quotations from the music of everybody from Art Tatum to Charlie Parker, contributing some ideas all his own that provoke smiles from sidemen with whom he has been working almost nightly for several weeks. He keeps surprising them with his virtuosity, inventiveness, and emotional power. His range seems inexhaustible, drawing comparisons with Keith Jarrett as well as with Bill Evans and Tatum.
Amazingly, Michel Petrucciani is just twenty‑one years old and born not into the freewheeling American world of jazz but in France, and of Italian descent. To be fair, he has already put in years of apprenticeship as an unknown. But now he has more than half a dozen records to his credit and is beginning to receive a well‑deserved acclaim. His June 1983 Carnegie Recital Hall debut, a much‑talked‑about solo performance produced by George Wein, impresario of the Kool Jazz Festival, drew raves from the critics. Stephen Holden, of the New York Times, said Petrucciani "is an unabashed romantic who works in a predominantly chromatic style" and praised his "formidable mastery of the instrument and a distinctive musical personality." A few weeks later, Leonard Feather, the jazz critic at the Los Angeles Times, described him as a "phenomenon" and wrote that "he played without accompaniment some of the most profoundly moving music we have heard since Bill Evans died."
Then a CBS camera crew showed up to shoot a spot for "Sunday Morning," and later there was a televised visit with Dr. Billy Taylor, the highly successful jazz pianist and broadcast journalist, with whom Petrucciani chatted and played duets. While no one could be more pleased by the recognition than the subject himself, as always, he experienced a certain measure of agony. Petrucciani knows that with each interview he must recount the history of his childhood affliction, an incurable bone disease called osteogenesis imperfecta, which crippled him at an early age. Though he says he understands why the disease must be explained, talking about it is an ordeal.
"What bugs me most are those who talk about how I weigh only fifty pounds and have to be carried around by my wife, Erlinda, or my manager. To read this is a real drag. They jump right into my handicap even before discussing my music." Then, almost in the same breath, Petrucciani is explaining how his illness might even be considered a blessing, because it forced him to channel his energies toward music so early in life, stirring the ambition to win a place for himself in the top ranks of the jazz world. "Because of my disease, I have direction without the ambivalence that hinders some artists. If I were a religious person I would probably be a Buddhist because they believe that the spirit transcends the body and lives forever. The body isn't the most important thing. In my next reincarnation I will come back as a boxer or a football player‑but my spirit from this life will still remain."
Petrucciani was born in 1962 in the town of Orange, in an economically depressed area of southern France. His father, Antoine Petrucciani, was a part-time guitarist who worked at menial jobs to support his wife and three sons. (Petrucciani's brothers, Louis, twenty‑five, and Phillippe, twenty‑six, are also musicians.) "My father had a big record collection of American jazz players: Wes Montgomery, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, everybody. I heard them every day of my life. When I was four I saw a television program on Duke Ellington and wanted a piano myself." According to a frequently told anecdote, Petrucciani destroyed a tiny toy piano given to him by his parents. The story is embarrassing, he says, because his action hurt his mother's feelings. "They bought me a piano that looked like a dwarf and sounded like a dwarf. To make them understand how serious I was required something dramatic. Even though we were very poor, my parents were loving and generous; in less than a month I had a full-size piano and a teacher."
Unable to attend public schools, Petrucciani was educated at home with the help of a tutor paid for by the government. "But I had no interest in my schoolwork. I wanted to play the piano, and some days I did that for eight hours at a time, despite objections from my parents." Recognizing his son's talent, Petrucciani's father insisted that he study classical music. "He thought jazz was too much fun, and he was afraid if I played it all the time I would neglect formal knowledge of harmony, solfeggio, all the stuff you need to be equipped to work professionally. I like Stravinsky and Debussy, but not playing their work over and over. As for other classical musicians‑too bourgeois."
From time to time there were jazz "gigs" too, for Petrucciani père and his three sons. More important for young Michel was the encouragement of visiting American jazz musicians, including the percussionist Max Roach and Clark Terry, the trumpeter. Terry recalls Petrucciani as a "piano‑playing whiz kid" of about twelve. "I was in the south of France to play a gig and needed a pianist," the trumpeter remembers. "One night a guy in a club pointed out this little cat in a hat, about three feet tall. He introduces me to this elf and I say, wow, thinking they're both putting me on. Then somebody picks up the little cat and sits him at the piano. I see him there in that big hat, stretching out these long fingers, and I'm thinking to myself, umph. Then he plays this big fantastic chord that sounds like a dozen cats. He didn't have to play anything else. I walk over to him and say, give me five, man. If you want it, you've got a gig," Terry concludes, extending his palm for that resounding five‑fingered slap of punctuation jazzmen prefer to a period at the end of a sentence.
Paradoxically, just as Petrucciani's career was taking off, he was going through the worst years of suffering with his disease. His wife, the former Erlinda Montano, whom he met and married in California's Big Sur over three years ago, tells how Michel was easily prone to bone fractures from so minor a cause as an automobile bumping over a pothole, how he spent lengthy periods in hospitals. "It shortened his childhood and made him deal with pain in a way few people understand, and it made him cherish things others take for granted," Erlinda says softly.
At seventeen, Petrucciani struck out on his own. The immediate issue was his parents' insistence that he attend the Paris Conservatory of Music. But, above all, he realized he must start a life for himself, on his own terms. "I was thankful for their caring and the security, but I got to feeling stifled. Too much security and comfort can stifle creativity," he says. Petrucciani started "hanging out" in Geneva and Paris, where he worked with the drummer Kenny Clarke and others. Eventually, he flew to California at the invitation of a drummer with the self‑styled name of Tox Drohar. Drohar introduced him to Charles Lloyd, and a fast friendship ensued.
Still, there was no permanent work in America for Petrucciani, and he returned to Europe. In 1980 he flew back to the United States for a couple of weeks of scuffling on the New York scene. He arrived in Greenwich Village with little more than the phone numbers of friends. One of the first he called was Lee Konitz, the highly regarded alto saxophonist. Konitz helped him land a job at Bradley's, a Village bistro that features excellent jazz talent. "But nobody was listening to us," says Petrucciani. "I played four hours a day for twenty dollars a week and was grateful. My brother Louis was with me and together we starved. When I got paid we took our money and went to a store across from the club to buy a couple of eggs, some Coca‑Cola, and cigarettes; and then we were flat broke. I learned New York is not for me. Too many hassles and too many dangers on the streets."
Though at that time he could barely converse in English, Petrucciani learned the inflections and colloquial speech as easily as he absorbed the nuances of jazz. "Hanging around jazz players, I picked up on some special words, like the famous four‑syllable one that nobody told me can't be used in polite conversation." That led to a few embarrassments, which Petrucciani now remembers merrily.
More serious was the continuing plague of bone fractures. They became far less frequent as he grew older‑a characteristic of osteogenesis imperfecta‑ but they never quite stopped. Last year the pianist sustained some injuries in an automobile accident. Characteristically, he found a positive note in his recuperation. "At first I was bored to tears," he remembers, "but then I got into it, listening to tapes of myself and practicing cutting back playing so many notes, going for the simplest way of saying things musically. I've been meditating and having a good time with Erlinda, my wife, in the beautiful house we've rented in Big Sur."
Ready for work in March of this year, Petrucciani, accompanied by the drummer Eliot Zigmund, a former Bill Evans sideman, and the bassist Palle Danielsson, appeared for a memorable week at the Village Vanguard, in New York City. After the engagement, during which a recording was made, Zigmund, who is older and widely experienced, described Petrucciani's performance as "astounding. You feel his growth from one night to the next. He is passionate and hard‑swinging, yet in control. He is a musician constantly pushing himself almost to exhaustion."
The Vanguard date was followed by an equally successful solo performance in Boston, and plans are currently in the works for summer tours in the United States and abroad (see box) as well as for concerts with the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and the saxophonist Joe Henderson, two of the hottest players in jazz.
PETRUCCIANI ON RECORDS
Michel Petrucciani's first album, Flash, recorded when he was sixteen on the French label Bingo, occasionally turns up in a Paris record shop. Three LPs on the Owl label, distributed in the United States by Polygram, can usually be ordered through major record outlets in large cities: Michel Petrucciani Trio; Oracle's Destiny; Toot Sweet. That is also true of his new disc, 100 Hearts, from the George Wein Collection, distributed by Concord. The pianist can be heard, too, on Charles Lloyd Quartet, Montreux '82, Elektra Musician.
JAZZ ON A SUMMER NIGHT
Michel Petrucciani will appear in festivals here and abroad this summer.
June 8‑9: Blossom Music Festival, Cleveland, Ohio
June 18: Kool Jazz Festival, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
June 19‑24: Village Vanguard, New York, New York
June 23: Kool Jazz Festival, New York, New York
July 1: Jazz Festival, Montreal,Canada
July 2: Jazz All‑Stars, Ottawa, Canada
July 6: Jazz Festival, Wiesen, Austria
July 7‑13: Jazz Festival, Nice, France
July 14‑15: North Sea Jazz Festival, The Hague, Holland
July 16: Jazz Festival, Nimes, France
July 19: Jazz Festival, Vitoria, Spain
July 20: Capitol Radio Festival, London, England
July 23‑24: Jazz Festival, Molde, Norway
July 25‑31: Jazz Festival, Copenhagen, Denmark
George Goodman, a writer on the New York Times, likes to play the saxophone and flute in jazz bands in his spare time.