Obituary: Tete Montoliu

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The Independent Online
Unlike the greatest jazz pianist of all, Art Tatum, who was born partially-sighted, Tete Montoliu was completely blind at birth. Having negotiated this handicap with extraordinary success, he was then stricken with deafness in his last years.

Because of the Civil War and the Second World War, Spain was practically a jazz desert from 1936 to 1947, the only oasis for the fan being the 78rpm records by American bands issued on the La Vos de su Amo label. Montoliu learned his jazz mostly at second hand from these. He listened to records by Art Tatum, Earl Hines and Bud Powell, the most challenging players of them all, and modelled his own style carefully from their performances. Throwing in a dash of Thelonious Monk and Wynton Kelly later on, he developed his playing into a unique and typically European interpretation of the great American music.

Montoliu's father was a professional oboist who played with the Barcelona Opera Orchestra and in the local brass band. He also led a dance band. Montoliu's mother was a jazz fan who played records by Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. The boy learned to read music in Braille when he was seven and began playing in local jazz groups when he was 12. He began classical studies at Barcelona Conservatory when he was 13. In that same year, 1946, he began playing locally with the expatriate American tenor saxophonist Don Byas, in those days a frequent visitor to Barcelona.

Like the Frenchman Martial Solal, and perhaps as a parallel to Django Reinhardt on the guitar, the European Montoliu developed into a much more extensively talented player than most of the Americans. Unlike Solal, he broke little new ground, but he had an almost superhuman technique and fashioned his Bebop improvisations at phenomenal speed. He used mostly standard material - superior popular tunes and jazz compositions, but contrived to make each performance fresh and sparkling. From time to time he made use of his native Catalan folk themes.

His career was boosted when, at the end of a 1955 concert by the Lionel Hampton band in Barcelona, he came up on stage and played a set with the vibraphone player. Hampton was so impressed that he had Montoliu play on an album he recorded for Spanish RCA a day or so later. The Spaniard began his own recording career in 1958, and a prolific stream of albums ensued until the early Nineties when he became ill.

He first left Spain in 1958 to appear at the Cannes Jazz Festival with an American rhythm section. Subsequently he played with the then free- form tenor sax player Archie Shepp in Copenhagen from 1963 to 1964, although Montoliu himself was dismissive of the idiom.

"Free jazz doesn't exist," he said. "It's just an excuse for musicians who don't know how to play the blues or even their instruments." However, in 1974 he recorded two more albums with the saxophonist Anthony Braxton, an enfant terrible at the avant-garde gate.

Before that Tete Montoliu had visited major European cities including London to play with American giants like Dexter Gordon, Kenny Dorham, Ben Webster, Lucky Thompson and Roland Kirk. He worked as a soloist at the Top of the Gate in New York in 1967 and from then worked often in the United States. His reputation blossomed further as he led a succession of potent trios which included the bassists George Mraz or Neils-Henning Orsted Pedersen and the drummers Al "Tootie" Heath or Al Foster from the mid-Seventies until the end of his career in the mid-Nineties.

Steve Voce

Vincente "Tete" Montoliu Massana, pianist: born Barcelona 28 March 1933; married Monserrat Garcia-Albea; died Barcelona 24 August 1997.