Jazz Michel Petrucciani Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Michel Petrucciani makes his entrance - all three feet of him, big bald head on a frame so tiny it looks like trick photography - beetling on crutches to the spotlit piano. He tosses the crutches aside, hoists himself laboriously up on to the stool, puts his right foot in a stirrup- like pedal-extension, and starts to play muscular chords, a melody hinted at but not yet recognisable; total assurance, and a big sound. Some cascading runs, a snatch of funk, another glimpse of that melody - then he's off again, patiently sketching in the musical landscape he intends to explore. When "These Foolish Things" emerges, it is with tender simplicity: now we have reached the beginning.

But the beginning of what? Nothing like the usual improvisatory ramble. This 34-year-old Corsican always knows exactly where he is going, and one follows the line of his thought with close attention. As with most jazz soloists, his performances consist of points of stasis connected by passages of transition: what marks him out is the endless inventiveness of the latter, and the massive strength of the former.

The tunes are from Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, and Rodgers and Hart. The elaborations sometimes directly echo Petrucciani's mentor Bill Evans, but most suggest a wider pantheon. The ghost of Art Tatum hovers; an acrid Thelonious Monk theme lumbers over a scurrying bass, then begins to scurry in turn. There are moments of lovely mellowness, but everything is braced by an underlying asperity. Petrucciani spent his sickly childhood playing Bach, Mozart, and Ravel, and that grounding shows through in both his technique (rock-solid) and even his harmonies. At one point we get a Bach- like fugue, which develops into something closer to Bach's 20th-century successor Conlon Nancarrow.

After 55 minutes of non-stop pyrotechnics he turns to the audience, and asks in quizzical, Gallic tones: "Um - is everything OK?" A gale of laughter, then he starts again, this time playing a medley of his new, more romantic compositions. "Glass bone" disease has not prevented him performing feats of endurance that would leave most "able-bodied" players prostrate with exhaustion.

He winds up with a ticklingly comic coda, snaps the piano lid shut, slides off the stool and looks at us with a surprised expression as we stand up and cheer. Then his minder scoops him up and carries him off into the wings.

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