It is said, by those who believe that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, that good things come in small packages. In the world of jazz, talent doesn’t depend on size–witness Chick Webb on the drums–but the short of stature get no breaks either. Jazz is still the poor man’s classical music, and the accommodations that are available to Itzhak Perlman, the classical violinist who must get around on crutches because of polio he contracted when young, are for the most part not available on the jazz circuit here.
And so it is a tribute to the French, who must sometimes hold up for Americans to consider in reflected images what is best about our culture, that Michel Petrucciani was able to develop as a jazz musician despite a congenital deformity–osteogenesis imperfecta–that made his bones brittle and ended his growth when he topped out at three feet tall. (The disease is sometimes referred to as “glass bones.”)
Petrucciani came from a musical family–his father played guitar and his brothers played bass and guitar–and he was trained as a classical pianist from an early age. He considered his dimunitive stature an advantage for the typical youthful distractions it helped him ignore; he couldn’t play sports, so he played piano. His size was an advantage in other respects as well; his manager smuggled him into more than one hotel in a suitcase, thereby saving room charges.
He became an enthusiast of Duke Ellington–I won’t make the fatuous distinction between “classical” music and jazz as played by Ellington–and played in his first concert at age 13, when he was still quite frail and had to be carried on stage. He formed his own jazz group when he was 18, and moved to the United States where, although there is less prestige accorded to our native classical music, the competition is tougher. Petrucciani wanted to play with the best.
Once he reached the states, he persuaded fiery saxophonist Charles Lloyd to resume playing, and in a gesture that repaid the debt so incurred, Lloyd carried Petrucciani on stage at Town Hall in New York City and sat him down at his piano stool for the concert that was filmed as “One Night with Blue Note.”
Lloyd and Petrucciani made an odd couple, at least in this writer’s estimation, because in the shorter man’s world all aspirations were subordinated to the pursuit of beauty; the anger and chaos that marked so much of jazz–including Lloyd’s–during the 60′s and 70′s were never a part of Petrucciani’s repertoire. As a result, there is no such thing as a Petrucciani album that sounds dated. This is not to suggest that his music is imposing or unapproachable; on the contrary, it is highly accessible, but no word better describes it than “lush,” that charged adjective that Billy Strayhorn–another unlovely man–embodied in melody at the same time that he played on its dissolute overtones in his classic “Lush Life.”
Petrucciani died in 1999 at the age of 36–he was fated not to live long due to his disabling disease–but he left behind a catalog that an ambitious player twice his age would be proud of. One hesitates to make a recommendation, but for those who want a warm place to enter this particular tributary of the greater river of jazz piano, try Petrucciani with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz on “Toot Suite.”