Obituary: Michel Petrucciani
Friday 08 January 1999
Nothing unusual about that, one might think. But, since Petrucciani was an adult standing only three feet high and weighing 65 pounds, one might expect his ambitions to have been, so to speak, closer to the ground. Had he not aspired to achievements above his station, he might have chosen to play something more convenient such as the harmonica rather than the piano, and music would have missed one of the most powerful jazz pianists of the last two decades.
One of the many remarkable things about Petrucciani was not so much the fact that when he played he overcame his handicaps, but that one was not aware of their existence. He could do anything, and more than most of the best players of the day. He played across the full span of the grand piano's keyboard and, despite his tiny legs, was able to make full use of the instrument's pedals - the loud one was of particular importance to him.
He was one of the most passionate and extrovert of soloists and the aggressive hurdling of his up-tempo work established an exciting bond with his audience that pushed aside any thought that he might deserve sympathy. He certainly never looked for it. On the other hand, one could not regard as normal the sight of the half-moon of face peeping over the top of the instrument - which was all most audiences saw of him - and when the music carried him away his head looked like nothing so much as an apple bobbing in the ocean.
The son of the Sicilian jazz guitarist Antoine Petrucciani and his French wife Anne, Michel was born, in 1962, with osteogenesis imperfecta, more often known as glass bones disease. During his life he suffered literally hundreds of bone fractures. Raised in Montelimar in a jazz-filled home, he could hum Wes Montgomery solos as soon as he could talk. He played a toy set of drums in the family band, along with his brothers Philippe, who was also a guitarist, and Louis, who played the bass.
Petrucciani's ambition to become a pianist was fired when he saw a televised Duke Ellington concert when he was four. As a result his father bought him a toy piano but Petrucciani was so frustrated by its limitations that he smashed it with a hammer. "It was not the sound I had heard on TV," he said.
Antoine, who had a job at a nearby military base, brought home a battered piano left behind by British soldiers. "They were guys who had got drunk and poured beer in the keys, but the piano sounded real," said Petrucciani. When he was seven and his playing had improved, his father bought a better piano from a local doctor.
"When I was young," he said, "I thought the keyboard looked like teeth. It was as though it was laughing at me. You have to be strong enough to make the piano feel little. That took a lot of work. The piano was strictly for classical studies - no jazz - for eight years. Sure, I resisted the tuition, but it paid off. Absolutely. Studying orthodox piano teaches discipline and develops technique. You learn to take your instrument seriously. But I did get tired of contests and competitions. The classical milieu was a little too bourgeois for my taste."
Petrucciani once saw Arthur Rubinstein play. "His fingers moved so fast that it was like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I realised then that I'd never be as good as that, so I stuck to being a jazz musician." When he was 10 Petrucciani began to absorb the piano playing of Bill Evans, who became the major influence on the first part of his career. He also retained his love of the works of Bach, Debussy, Ravel, Mozart and Bartk.
His first major professional appearance was at the annual outdoor jazz festival in the French town of Cliouclat when he was 13. "That year's guest, trumpeter Clark Terry, needed a pianist for his set. Someone sent for me and Clark thought that I was just a kid and that someone must be playing a joke on him. So, kidding around, he picked up his horn and played mock bullfight music. I said `Let's play the blues.' After I'd played for a minute he said `Give me five!' and gave me a hug, and that was it."
Although he had to be carried on stage for his performances, Petrucciani had powerful, long-fingered hands. When he travelled he took with him an extender that his family had devised to enable him to work the foot pedals. Already playing jobs all over France and at European festivals, he moved to Paris when he was 16, and in 1980 made his first album, Flash, with a trio that included his brother Louis. By now a star, he toured France to play duets with the American alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and later recorded with him.
Musically Paris was an ideal city for a young jazz star. Petrucciani had problems there. "It was mostly to do with drugs and weird women, but I was lucky and got out safe." When he was 18 he left for New York. He didn't have the cash to pay for his air ticket, but his father later made good the bad cheque. When he had earned enough money from working in New York, Petrucciani left for California, where he met his wife, Gilda Butta.
He also encountered Charles Lloyd, a tenor saxophonist who had been in vogue during the Sixties when jazz and rock had first abutted. Lloyd had then led a quartet that had included Keith Jarrett and Jack deJohnette, but had stopped playing when his audiences decided that his band was more fashionable than he was. Now, 15 years later, he was to come out of retirement. Petrucciani went to Lloyd's house in Big Sur with a friend who was a drummer. "I didn't even know who Charles Lloyd was. He asked me to play the piano and decided he wanted to play with me." After generating rave reviews up and down the West Coast, they worked across the world together for the next two years and their appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, issued as an album, won them the 1982 Prix d'Excellence.
In 1983 the Los Angeles Times chose Petrucciani as Jazz Man of the Year and the Italian Government Cultural Office, who presumably knew about such things, selected him as "Best European Jazz Musician". The French, not to be outdone, awarded him the prestigious Prix Django Reinhardt. In 1984 his solo album 100 Hearts achieved the French equivalent of a Grammy award: the Grand Prix du Disque - Prix Boris Vian. The then-virtuoso trumpeter Freddie Hubbard invited the pianist to join his All Star band and Petrucciani also worked with the tenorists Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter and guitarists Jim Hall and John Abercrombie, all from the front rank of American jazz musicians. In 1986 he recorded at Montreux with Shorter and Hall.
From 1989 to 1992 Petrucciani worked with a quartet, often adding a synthesiser player, Adam Holzman. Petrucciani had retained his love of Duke Ellington, and his idea was that the synthesiser could bring the sound of a big band, Ellington's, to his quartet. Latterly he had worked as a soloist, moving beyond the Bill Evans influence to draw inspiration from the work of Keith Jarrett and to display an abundance of technique and power to match Oscar Peterson in his prime.
"I don't believe in geniuses," he said. "I believe in hard work. Ever since I was a child I knew what I wanted to do and worked for that. But I have so much to do. I've done albums and worked with a lot of great musicians and I've still got time ahead of me to do so much more. It's very difficult for me to talk about myself and what has happened; so many different events. Eventually, when I get to be 75, I'll write a book on my deathbed.
"Sometimes I think someone upstairs saved me from being ordinary."
Michel Petrucciani, pianist and composer: born Orange, France 28 December 1962; married (one son and one adopted son); died New York 6 January 1999.
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