Sharps and Flats: Michel Petrucciani

By Doug McLennan

Published July 18, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

there's a voicing pianist Michel Petrucciani got stuck on in his 1994 concert at Paris' Thibtre Champs-Elysies that sets my teeth to grinding. They're ordinary stacks of notes, really, with note doublings smushed out to the far edges of the chords. But they're clumsy and inelegant chords, the way the centers are hollowed out, the way they assert clashing tonalities without giving you a reason to embrace the ways the notes meet -- an unexpected stretch of gravel on a superhighway.

The live recording of the Paris concert is one of Petrucciani's usual mixes of standards and original musings. Often the two are one and the same. Most of the first disc of this two-CD set is filled with a 40-minute "Medley of My Favorite Songs" in which he threads through tunes by Herbie Hancock, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart and a generous assortment of genre pieces. While there's nothing startlingly new here, Petrucciani reaches often enough for the unexpected and unconventional that the familiar material sounds fresh. And some of the technical feats are nothing less than breathtaking.

Anyone who writes about Petrucciani can't help but note the influences of Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner; the Evans voicings and sensibilities are sometimes so baldfacedly direct they're spooky. But no phrase is allowed to get too comfortably familiar, because Petrucciani inevitably swerves sideways with an odd chord choice or a flash of unexpected notes, serving a crucial function -- he pays off his influences but never lets you forget he's the one calling the shots. Embedded in the elegance and polish of these arrangements are the hues of a less smooth existence.

Petrucciani sometimes presses out his melodies -- even the more reflective of them -- with an insistence that can be off-putting after a while. But then he'll rev up the tempo and set up an awesome counterpoint of voices so flawless and crystalline that you hear the tonal links between slow and fast.

A great moment comes in a set of variations on the second disc's "Even Mice Dance/Caravan." He improvises off the "Caravan" tune, getting denser and denser, until he's slapping away at clusters of notes that only resemble the general shape of the melody. Just when the whole thing collapses into swarming incoherence, he suddenly pulls back and recaptures control with a simple rhythmic figure. "Love Letter," the piece that immediately follows, is offered almost as an antidote, tender and embracing, with nary a hard edge in sight.

All of which is to say that Petrucciani understands that having ugly in your pocket helps you appreciate beauty; that blowing cacophony allows for the possibility of retrospection; and that the awkward voicing of a chord is the perfect frame for a smooth center.

Doug McLennan

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