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Thibaudet Ain’t Got That Swing

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Here’s an interesting question: Let’s suppose that there were actual recordings of Chopin performing his Etudes. Would you prefer to hear one, or hear a live performance by a contemporary pianist?

That, in a sense, was one of several questions underlying the appearance by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet on Tuesday night at the Knitting Factory--an unusual element in his residency with the L.A. Philharmonic, in which he played various transcriptions and arrangements of the music of Bill Evans and Duke Ellington.

To answer the initial query, it indeed would be fascinating to hear versions of those Etudes performed by Chopin, as well as, say, Thibaudet. Although the interpretations would surely differ, they both, nonetheless, would derive from the same sheet of pre-composed, written music, based upon the same conventions of rhythm and phrasing.

In the case of a piece such as Evans’ “Waltz for Debby,” however--and even more so in the case of his improvised renderings of Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Here’s That Rainy Day” and Ellington’s “Reflections in D"--the sources were spontaneous, on-the-spot musical inventions. So when Thibaudet launched into these works, he was performing transcriptions (by Jed Distler) of existing improvised performances rather than renditions of composed music.

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The differences were immediately apparent. As Thibaudet noted in his between-numbers conversation with pianist-host Joel Silberman, the technical demands of the music were far more available to him than the more elusive subtleties of jazz rhythms, especially the indefinable characteristic known as “swing.”

Which raised the further question of how effective a performance of this nature can be if it largely lacks--as Thibaudet’s did--the propulsive rhythmic lift that is a fundamental element in the original pieces. (A bit, perhaps, like a reading of Chopin that is lacking in dynamics and articulate emphasis.) It was not surprising that a piano transcription of Ellington’s “Jubilee Stomp"--an early work in which the rhythms are uncomplicated and easily accessible--was the source for Thibaudet’s most convincing interpretation.

A final question: Was it a good thing that an audience that might not otherwise be drawn to jazz had an opportunity to hear the music of Evans and Ellington, regardless of context? Of course. Although, as Thibaudet would undoubtedly be the first to add, it would be even better if that audience was, as a result of his performance, now inspired to hear Evans and Ellington in their original recordings.


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