POP / Dazzling solo flying: Michel Petrucciani - QEH, London

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The Independent Online
Like Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Paul Gascoigne before him, Petrucciani is almost too good for his own good. What do you do with such a talent? Team it up with others and it soon grows tetchy; even in a trio there's not enough work to do and, in any case, the bass and drums can't keep up. A solo performance seems to be the answer, but you then have to deal with the acrobat factor, where the temptation is to do tricksfor the sake of it.

The risk for the bravura solo pianist is of dazzling so brightly that the music disappears in the afterglow. Thankfully, Petrucciani just manages to escape this, but like his forebears, he is out on a limb. He's not part of any movement or stylistic tendency, and his own compositions lack a definable personal signature, but give him 'My Funny Valentine' or 'These Foolish Things' and he can play all night with a wit and vivacity that takes your breath away.

A little solo piano goes a long way and Petrucciani played for almost two hours without a break; indeed it was touch and go whether the audience would cheer for an encore or rush out en masse to the loos. They stayed and were rewarded by a version of 'Besame Mucho' done as a funeral march, one of a number of touches that bordered on parody. 'Caravan' came with a Yiddish interlude, and he even managed to interpoint a bit of 'Windmills of Your Mind' into 'Round Midnight'; a clear case of mixing the sublime with the ridiculous. If the rhapsodic Chopinisms were at times dangerously close to Richard Clayderman and you occasionally wearied of the quotes from children's rhymes, Petrucciani is so good that he can do almost anything and retain good will.

He was at his best on tunes associated with Ellington. 'Take the A Train' came with a left hand hammering out the train rhythm like a steam-hammer while the right took the railway line for a walk, in one of those endless improvisations that are his trademark, eventually resolving itself with a two-fisted paddle of the keys that led into a silent movie vamp that in turn became a grandiose Gershwinesque finale. 'Lush Life' began as just the melody and no more. But then a series of alternative line- readings gradually turned it into both the work itself and a simultaneous critical commentary, where phrases were elongated into new shapes and the co- ordinates of the original chord sequence were slowly turned through 360 degrees, before ending as it had begun with the ravishing theme intact. If there is a parallel to Petrucciani's genius for harmonic invention on the run, it may well be Stephane Grappelli; they share the same ability to operate at lightning speed on tunes so familiar that you despair of anything new being said about them.

It was a remarkable performance, but you wouldn't want to witness it every night. Exhausting to listen to, it must be hell to play. If you could only build a team around him.

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