A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Sunday morning, wife at church, dog fed and walked, pot of hot tea at the ready, I begin the arduous and insurmountable weekly task of clearing the puddle of papers off my desk, and to distract myself from the effort pull a CD from a small pile of so-far unheard discs to listen to. It’s solo piano, Rossano Sportiello, a name I am unfamiliar with, and without looking at the contents I plug it into the computer. Some ballads with a nice touch, a well-executed stride tune for contrast and then, bang, something that at first sounds strangely out-of-place but something I know, note for note, poised and eloquent and, to my ear, achingly melancholy. It’s a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti – as it happens, K. 87, my favorite of the 555 or so he composed between the early 1700s and his death in 1757 (not that I’m intimate with all of them, mind you, but I’m still working on it). I check the song listings – the album, by the way, is It Amazes Me, on the Sackville label – and sure enough, there it is, tucked in between a wry Barry Harris tune (turns out Harris is one of the Italian-born Sportiello’s mentors) and a choice romp on Christopher Columbus that would have made Dick Wellstood proud.

And so I’m struck by several things. First of all, Sportiello’s is a “classical” interpretation, played as written on the page – although Scarlatti frequently did not include any tempo indication, much less expressive details like dynamics or nuances of phrasing, and so performers must make certain decisions on their own. Sportiello’s phrasing is not overly delicate, he balances the two hands evenly (as you’d expect any strider worth his salt to do), and doesn’t dawdle. His subtle dynamic effects and ever-so-slight rubato (pulling back on rhythm here, pushing it forward there) are keyed to the contour of the melody. There’s a telling difference between his phrasing and that of the noted “Baroque-jazz” specialist Jacques Loussier. Loussier’s version of K. 87 (on Baroque Favorites, Telarc Jazz) follows the notes as written for the most part, but the rhythmic accents are smoothed out to accommodate the acoustic bass doubling his left hand, giving the music more of a jazz feel – which segues into Loussier’s improvisation, now with drums, on a standard swing rhythm, inserted between the halves of the sonata. For his part, Sportiello does not even add any baroque-style (or improvisational) ornamentation to the written notes, a practice that seems to be going out of style among classical performers too – Igor Kipnis was one of the few who upheld the tradition, and if you’re curious about the differences you can compare this version with Kipnis’ on his 1976 EMI/Angel recording. The one idiosyncratic thing Sportiello does is repeat the first half of this binary sonata, but not the second half (there are repeat signs for both sections in the Longo edition of the score).

What was unexpected was not that Sportiello could play Scarlatti well, but the context in which he offered K. 87, without need of explanation. (John Norris doesn’t bother to mention it in his liner notes.) And that Sportiello didn’t “jazz it up,” as he did (a little subsequent research told me) striding exuberantly through Chopin’s “Revolutionary” etude, on People Will Say We’re In Love (Arbors) – perhaps at that moment inspired by Willie “The Lion” Smith’s waggish boast that he could play Chopin “faster than any man alive.” Of course, there’s a long tradition of jazzin’ the classics, with enough examples to fill several books, but Sportiello set me on a specific course of thought. In one regard, I was reminded of how false was that old prejudice that said jazz pianists chose to play jazz because they didn’t have the technique or the knowledge necessary to play the classics. Every generation of jazz pianist has chronicled how classical music was typically part of piano lessons in black and white communities. Whitney Balliett related how Ellis Larkins played Scarlatti at his all-classical recital, age 13, and this was far from an unusual occurrence. Certainly, The Lion and Donald Lambert, among so many others, had to know the classics inside and out to be able to adapt them so brilliantly to their own devices. And, though it’s a little off topic, I love the anecdote that Anthony Brandt documents in his liner notes to Mel Powell’s Settings (New World) – of how Powell, already well experienced after years of brilliant playing with Benny Goodman and others, went to Yale to study with classical composer Paul Hindemith. Powell was ready to play Scarlatti and Mozart when Hindemith stopped him before he played a note, saying “Fine, that’s enough.” Powell asked him what he did wrong, and Hindemith said, “Nothing. I could tell by the way you adjusted the piano bench that you are a musician.”

Jazz pianists have typically gravitated to their classical favorites, and borrowed whatever they could use. Bach’s influence is omnipresent, naturally. Even McCoy Tyner recorded his take on Chopin. Debussy, absolutely. Among younger pianists, Messiaen’s name seems to pop up on record almost as often as Monk’s does these days. There’s something about Scarlatti’s music in particular, however, that only a few jazz pianists have picked up on. It’s hard to figure why. His sonatas, based on the dance rhythms of his time, are more flamboyant than Bach’s keyboard works, and loaded with two-handed syncopation. Ralph Kirkpatrick (the “K” in K. 87), who catalogued all of Scarlatti’s works, has written of the “antics of his keyboard technique,” the irregularity of his note combinations, and deceptive harmonic practices – all of which sound perfectly adaptable to, for example, the early stride and boogie pianists. It may be easier to hear the similarities on a comparable instrument; though his sonatas have been widely adopted by classical pianists (and guitarists), Scarlatti composed them for the crisper, brighter, more transparent tones of the harpsichord. Listening to Meade Lux Lewis perform his four-part “Variations on a Theme” (recorded for Blue Note in 1941) on harpsichord, coincidental similarities to Scarlatti emerge with striking clarity – the leaping motives, rhythmic contrast between the two hands (such as the right hand trilling while the left hand bass line supplies the melody), the close knit harmonic voicings, the compacted and extended phrases, and the altered textures in succeeding choruses. (By the way, the repugnant custom of playing boogie-woogie on a tack piano, meant to simulate the metallic quality of the plucked harpsichord string, should under no circumstances be condoned.)

Conceptual and concrete connections to Scarlatti are much more apparent on Dutch pianist/composer Guus Janssen’s 1990 release Harpsichord (GeestGronden). The opening of “Preludium” is pure Scarlatti – if it’s not a quotation, it’s a dead-on imitation, that is, until Janssen’s off-beat humor kicks in with an atonal burst of chord stomping and twist (the dance) rhythms reminiscent of another Lewis, not just Meade Lux, but Jerry Lee, and the three frolic with abandon. Compositionally, Janssen shares Scarlatti’s penchant for episodic shifts and changes of mood. Not everything in this program refers to Scarlatti or the Baroque, but Scarlatti’s characteristic Spanish fanfares appear in “Ostinato I,” and tracings of his melodic figuration – the left hand leaping and striding as the right hand dips and pivots – can be found here, as well as in “PF” and “Vrij naar LT.” “LT” is probably Lennie Tristano, another Janssen icon, and he is wise to suggest a comparison between Tristano’s frisky, twisting lines and Scarlatti’s dazzling gambols.

The most literal tribute to Scarlatti by a jazz pianist is Enrico Pieranunzi Plays Scarlatti: Sonatas And Improvisations (Cam Jazz, 2008). A jazz pianist, yes, but a jazz album, no. There’s no denying Pieranunzi is a deft, imaginative jazz player who has collaborated with the likes of Art Farmer, Chet Baker, Paul Motian, Jim Hall, Charlie Haden, and Kenny Wheeler. But, like Sportiello (does their Italian heritage have anything to do with their respect for the music, I wonder?), he takes a purist’s approach to Scarlatti. He plays thirteen sonatas as written, from the flashy, impulsive K. 531 to the restrained, elegant K.9 and the dreamlike K. 208, with accurate, thoughtful phrasing; he’s obviously familiar with and comfortable in the classical idiom. And so, despite his wealth of jazz experience, his improvisations on the material remain in that same idiom. Unlike Jacques Loussier, he never switches into swing mode, nor does he loosen his rhythms enough to resemble free jazz. Rather, he remains in character, while making full use of modern harmonic maneuvers. For example, concluding the aggressive K. 531, he segues into a minor key, introducing a darker harmonic range and gradually building a chromatic fantasy, echoing details from the original sonata but transforming them back into his design. He introduces K. 159 with Debussy’s impressionist harmony before Scarlatti’s figuration and “hunting” theme come to light. The buoyant K. 492 morphs in and out of a dizzying Alice in Harmonic Wonderland, and the brisk, minor key shapes of K. 377 spin off into a dense chromatic thicket (with just a hint of boogie in that persistent left hand). It’s a fascinating conception, offering a contemporary response to Scarlatti’s discipline without distorting the style, merely modernizing it. It reminds me of something Paul Bley told me, twenty years ago, he wanted to do – record all of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, alternating between the individual pieces and an improvisation on each one. But in building a bridge from the 18th century into our own, Pieranunzi has achieved something all the more ear-opening, returning us, perhaps, to something closer to the improvisational origins of the music. It’s not jazz; it doesn’t have to be.

Art Lange©2010

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