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Art Tatum live, kinda sorta

Art_tatum I've been to some memorable concerts in my day -- U2 in a tiny Asbury Park club in May 1981, a ticked-off Elvis Costello at Princeton's Dillon Gym in April 1979 (he turned off the stage-right speakers because kids on that side of the gym weren't standing), the Fall at the Black Cat in Washington in Sept. 1993 (an unsteady Mark Smith careened off stage after two songs, never to return) -- but I don't think I've ever seen anything as odd as watching jazz piano legend Art Tatum play two days ago at the Shrine Auditorium.

Tatum, as you may know, has been dead for a long time -- almost 51 years ago, to be more precise. But his recorded work lives on, albeit not necessarily in high fidelity. Zenph Studios tried Sunday to remedy that for one of Tatum's best recordings, using sophisticated sonic analysis and Yamaha's advanced piano-playing technology (read this editorial from last week for a few more details on how Zenph does what it does). The company's software translated one of Tatum's releases, "Piano Starts Here," into data, identifying the notes Tatum played and how he played them. That data was used Sunday to operate a Yamaha concert grand piano outfitted with Disklavier Pro robotics, with the goal being to "re-perform" the LP and make a new live recording. Fitting under the piano, the Disklavier's solenoid-powered metal rods played the keys from the back, not the front, while a second set of controls operated the three pedals. From the audience, it looked as if the piano were being played by a ghost. Invisible hands swept across the ivories, and an unseen foot tapped the damper pedal (but not very often, as per Tatum's technique).

Unfortunately for Zenph, the small audience at the Shrine was almost as dead as the star performer. Tatum was a breathtaking player, blessed with amazing dexterity and imagination. I had the same reaction the first time I heard his work as I did the first time I listened to John Coltrane: how could he hear that? I found myself chuckling often during the show at Tatum's whimsy, but more often simply marveling silently at the unexpected shifts in melody and tonality. It felt silly to cheer; I mean, the stage was occupied by a piano, an empty stool, a bunch of microphones and a few video cameras. The star was hidden offstage, encapsulated in a few hundred kilobytes of data inside a computer.

Fittingly, two of the mics on stage were housed in what looked like the head of a crash-test dummy; their job was to record what you'd hear had you been standing behind Tatum as he played. A rotating feed from the three cameras was displayed on a giant screen above the piano, showing the keys, dampers and pedals moving as if by magic. But watching what amounted to a player piano wasn't nearly as compelling as it would have been to watch someone pound away at the keys; there was no body language to interpret, just the naked sound.

And technically, it wasn't Tatum playing. It was a simulation of Tatum. I guess the crowd could have applauded how well Zenph had captured Tatum's style, but it was hard to gauge the verisimilitude -- Zenph didn't play the original recordings before launching into the "re-performance." I'm confident that Zenph got all the notes and emphases right, and I'm persuaded that it has Tatum's style down, too. The CD that ensues will almost certainly be amazing. Yet it's one thing to revivify a style, and quite another to liven up an auditorium.


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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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