Michel Petrucciani – Colors
(Dreyfus/BMG 538526830. 2-CD Compilation. CD review by Sebastian Scotney)
Pianist Michel Petrucciani died at the age of 36 on 6 January 1999. He had been born with osteogenesis imperfecta or “glass bones”. It was a condition which stunted his growth, made his bones brittle, and he was often in pain. He knew would not live long, and often told people, who tended not to want to believe him. That sense of being in a hurry led to a driven confidence about his playing. In Mike Zwerin’s New York Times obituary, he mentioned that even on his earliest recordings where he was not the leader, his playing was invariably the “focus” or “guiding force” of the music.
That huge musical presence meant that the 20th anniversary of his death on 6 January this year was a big event in the French jazz community. France-Musique’s daily programme Open Jazz, which starts every programme with a Petrucciani composition, September Second, as its signature tune, devoted an entire week’s output, five one-hour-long programmes, to mark it. BMG, who had bought the Dreyfus Jazz catalogue in 2013, three years after the death of the label founder, put out a 10-CD + 3-DVD release of his “Complete Recordings” on the label (there are also several earlier Blue Note albums which were issued as a 9-CD set in 2015). And on 11 January, in what almost looked like an afterthought, a two-CD compilation of compositions by Petrucciani, Colors, was also issued by Dreyfus/BMG, with a 32 page booklet.
Now, after an unexplained nine-month gestation period, the same recording, with different cover artwork and a slimmed-down 16-page booklet (the UK press release claims wrongly that it still has the original 32 pages) is being issued for English-speaking audiences. The booklet has short, affectionate tributes to Petrucciani from Charles Lloyd, Marcus Miller, Lenny White, Steve Gadd and Ahmad Jamal. There are some interesting notes which tell the stories of the origins of his tunes and of their titles.
The two CDs contain 18 original compositions by Petrucciani, of some 140 that are credited to him, almost all from previously released Dreyfus albums from the last years of his life, such as Solo Live, recorded at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, or his last studio album Both Worlds, recorded in New York, which consists of three-horn arrangements of his compositions by Bob Brookmeyer (who goes uncredited as arranger on this compilation). There are some very strong individual tracks. The opener, Colors, is the tune that Petrucciani says was his favourite among his compositions, and Brookmeyer’s arrangement is gentle and touching.
And then in the second track of this album, Looking Up, comes the problem. Petrucciani did not always go gentle. I was interested to go back to a fascinating conversation between Alex Dutilh and pianist Baptiste Trotignon in one of the Open Jazz sessions marking the anniversary. Trotignon talks about the sound that Petrucciani aimed for as not a “beau son” (lovely sound) but a “gros son” (big fat sound) and there are moments, when he did indeed play gratingly, uncompromisingly loud.
And the problem of the contrast between lyrical and that way of playing with understandable urgency, with the demand that every percussively struck note be heard, is exacerbated by the fact that we are evidently listening to different pianos in very different acoustics. In fact, for just about every track in succession, the sound quality and the instrumentation are different. And take the subject of endings: Love Letter, for example, fades out in an odd and unmusical place, whereas in other tracks there is a proper ending, and sometimes for the live tracks even a run-off of applause.
There are tracks which do work: I particularly enjoyed Home where the pianist does an astonishing intensity build, mostly creating tension and expectancy by setting 3-time against 2-time. The opener of the second CD, Cantabile, has an astonishingly potent sense of swing, not least because it offers the classic Petrucciani trio with Steve Gadd on drums and Anthony Jackson on bass. There is just one track from the pianist with a slightly scratchy Stéphane Grappelli, and one, the only previously unreleased track, in the piano/organ duo of Petrucciani with Eddy Louiss. Great drumming is not restricted to Gadd. Tony Williams pops up alongside Dave Holland (and a specially formed string quartet) on one track, so just the briefest of memories of Petrucciani’s first album for Dreyfus, Marvellous (1994).
Colors is an unpredictable whistle-stop tour of some of the things going on in the years when Petrucciani himself was living in overdrive – in his last year of his life, 1998, he performed around 140 concerts. Colors has been interesting to dip into, but as a continuous listen it was a distinctly uncomfortable experience first time round, and repeated listens haven’t diminished that feeling.
Colors will be released on 25 October