Art Tatum Lives through technology

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The idea of hearing an Art Tatum performance live, half a century after Tatum himself died, is certainly intriguing. You listen to those recordings of his from the 40s, and it’s clear that he was one of the greatest virtuosos of the instrument this country has ever produced. But that’s all that’s clear. The sound is not. So now a computer can replay Tatum’s exact performance, every gesture, every delayed entry, every unexpected grace note, but on a Yamaha Disklavier – a genuine grand piano with a small computer affixed to the underside which triggers the usual hammer-and-key mechanism on the strings.

This is not a new idea – Artis Wodehouse, who has studied Gershwin’s music and scores, had a Disklavier shipped into our studio back in the late 90s so that we could hear George Gershwin play his own music from beyond the grave. What IS new is that computers have advanced to the point where actual recordings of live performances can be analyzed and then re-created, live on a real piano, by the Disklavier technology.
Art TatumSo, what to make of all this? On the one hand, to hear a genuine Art Tatum performance, with the piano strings vibrating in the same room as you, is a very appealing prospect. It’s also a little creepy. I mean, the computer analyzes A live performance, not THE live performance. No human performer would, or could, play a piece the exact same way twice. But that’s exactly what the Disklavier will do. Of course, it’s the same problem with the recordings – it’s a document of how one musician played a piece in one studio or concert hall at that time. But bringing “Art Tatum” on the road with the Disklavier? Or Vladimir Horowitz or any other pianist? Would you want to see that live? Would you want the recording?