Miles Kington: An elf of the keyboard, still making magic at the age of 80

'I was comparatively withdrawn,' he said. 'When I did perform people got annoyed because I didn't smile. I enjoy being on stage now.'

Wednesday 08 November 2006 01:00

Yesterday I found myself saying what a wonderful pianist Dick Hyman was, and how I regretted not being in Germany last week for the last European tour of this unaccountably unknown great man, who is just coming up to his 80th birthday.

When you write a eulogy like that, you get a horrible sinking feeling afterwards. Have you gone overboard? Could Hyman really be that good? Have you just made a fool of yourself?

So in trepidation that night I sat down to listen to a CD called Dick Hyman in Recital and instantly I felt myself relax again, and apprehension turned to awe. This man wasn't as good as I remembered; he was even better.

An interesting solo programme it was, too. Being a one-man encyclopaedia of American music, he included songs by the great songwriters such as "Lover", "All The Things You Are" and "Tea for Two" and turned them effortlessly into virtuoso improvisations. He also played his own, rather moving version of "Shenandoah" and a straight version of "Odeon", a lilting 1905 tango by the Argentinian Ernesto Nazareth. On each number of this 1998 recording (made when he was a mere 71 years old) you can tell he is a jazz musician through and through, but you can also tell he is classically trained as well: he makes full use of his left hand, which few jazz pianists ever do, and he often drifts off into spontaneous quasi-fugal passages.

Not only was he trained classically, but it was at the hands of his mother's brother, a concert pianist called Anton Rovinsky. Rovinsky is forgotten now - I had never heard of him - but he was apparently good enough to give the premiere of some of Charles Ives's works such as "The Celestial Railroad", in 1928, and you have to be good to do that.

"He was my most important teacher," Hyman told an interviewer once. "I learnt touch from him and a certain amount of repertoire, especially Beethoven. On my own I pursued Chopin. I loved his ability to take a melody and embellish it in different arbitrary ways, which is exactly what we do in jazz. Chopin would have been a terrific jazz pianist. His waltzes are in my improvising to this day."

I myself have sometimes thought that Chopin's Berceuse is built like a great jazz performance (an increasingly elaborate right-hand chain of melody over the same recurring left-hand pattern), but Hyman is as good as his word on, for instance, a 1995 CD called Elegies, Mostly, a series of duo performances with the fine Danish double bass player Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen which opens with a light work-out on Chopin's Waltz in C Sharp minor. No sense here, either, that they are "jazzing a classic"; it's simply a case of two lovely musicians taking a lovely tune and having fun with it...

Hyman was buried in the studios for many years, making music for records, television shows and all Woody Allen's films, but strangely has become more public in old age. In the same interview he said: "I no longer make a big deal about the fact that I can play in various styles. What I can do most effectively is to improvise on American songs by composers like Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin, calling on all the strands from my past. It's frankly virtuosic presentation. I enjoy being on stage now. When I was younger, I was comparatively withdrawn. I preferred playing in a recording studio to doing it in front of people, and when I did perform people got annoyed because I didn't smile. I've learnt to smile; I've become more outgoing. I'm also playing better than ever before, and my playing is more emotional. You reach a point where you don't have to display everything that's in your command. People know you can play fast."

Looking at this balding, donnish, twinkling elf of a man, you find it hard to believe that at 80 he is still making all that magic. If you have never heard of him, make a note to look him out. You don't even have to like jazz to like him. Just to like music. Remember music? It's stuff we used to sit down and play. Nobody does it like him. And he won't be around for ever.

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