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So What: Best of Michel Petrucciani
Listening to Michel Petrucciani pound the ivories with fleet, dexterous precision, you'd never guess he was just a yard tall, weighed about 60 pounds, and was afflicted with glass bones--or, more formally, osteogenesis imperfecta. But in some important respects, Petrucciani's condition shaped his artistry. Until he died in January 1999 at the age of 36, he played with the passion, ego, and all-embracing brio of a person who knew his time was precious.
Although some critics begrudge Petrucciani his refusal to linger by decrying a lack of soulfulness in his work, I find his romanticism empathetically rich, almost never cloying, and infectiously joyful. So What, which culls 13 tracks from eight CDs he made for the French Dreyfus label during the last six years of his career, is a rewarding primer for the uninitiated. Petrucciani's early recordings for Blue Note and Owl were occasionally too much in thrall to the august modal motifs of his idol, Bill Evans. His bolder and more mature Dreyfus material also incorporates the sort of prancing single-note phrases McCoy Tyner throws between his rumbling chordal passages, plus a challenging yet accessible melodic imagination reminiscent of Herbie Hancock.
The intricate nuances of ensemble interplay that are so crucial to the bebop ethos are not Petrucciani's forte. He is not a particularly keen accompanist nor does he require much accompaniment, which is why So What's four solo tunes are all self-contained gems. A pair of duets with the burbling organist Eddy Louiss are distinctive and fruitful, especially a rendition of "Summertime" that gives the hoary standard new melodic innovation. The same thing happens on Miles Davis's oft-recorded "So What," in which the pianist deploys staccato vamps and ascending phrases to heighten and then swoop away the dramatic tension. The rhythm section on that marvelous track is formed by Steve Gadd and Anthony Jackson, who are often derided for their simplistic, fusion-oriented tendencies. But their "wet" (if still relatively restrained) approach works beautifully with the pianist. The trio also modestly shines on "Home," a Petrucciani original that takes you from the quiet contemplation at the beginning of a journey home to the eager elation felt as the destination looms into view. It's suffused in soulfulness, Petrucciani-style.