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Art Tatum musical show blends past and present

During “Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here,” a one-man theater and musical, fictitious jazz club owner Doc Hanley remembers the jazz heavyweights that once played his club, especially the legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum.
As Hanley muses, the audience will be able to hear performances of the pianist’s much-lauded album Piano Starts Here. In fact, the songs will be played exactly as Tatum plays them.

Which is a pretty impressive feat, considering that Tatum died in 1956.

The key to such impressive live renditions comes from the state of the art Mark IV Disklavier PRO piano.
Zenph Sound Innovations, the Triangle-based music technology company that is presenting the play, used this piano to replicate exactly the notes and style of Tatum’s playing.

“We studied all his performances and studied exactly how he plays the piano,” said Adriana DiFranco, director of brand and community at Zenph Sound Innovations. “So that includes the angle of attack with his fingers, how hard he presses down on the keys, how long it takes him to get from this note to that note.”

Performance analysts, consisting of professional musicians and professionals with Ph.D.’s in music, have logged extensive hours studying Tatum’s playing. That information is turned into a set of data, a sort of artistic DNA, and fed back into the piano. The piano can even be synchronized with a video of Tatum playing.

“The first time I heard the piano play itself with such charisma and personality, it gave me goosebumps,” said DiFranco.

However, Zenph isn’t satisfied with just analyzing piano playing. DiFranco says that Zenph plans to do the same with the saxophone, then the upright bass, then all other instruments. The company’s final challenge will be analyzing the human voice.

“All of this is not to replace musicians, but to give musicians more tools,” said DiFranco. “The software we’re creating is going to help people teach music and help composers create music.”

An added bonus is the ability to actually study the compositions of jazz pianists. Jazz music is built upon improvisation, and such note-for-note records of songs like Tatum’s, who often played a different version of the same song every night, have never existed before.

This would allow jazz students to learn from actual scores of improvised songs, as classical music students have studied the scores of Handel and Bach.

But you don’t have to be a jazz student to enjoy the theatrics and the music of “Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here.” DiFranco, who said she herself wasn’t a jazz fan until this project, likened the experience to a History Channel special on Tatum, except it’s a much more interactive lesson.

“He’s right there in the room playing with you,” she said.

“This is one of the most creative projects I’ve been lucky to be a part of due to the melding of fantastic musical technology with artistic visuals and a stellar actor,” said Chris Burzminski, director of operations at Zenph and drummer in The Pneurotics, a Chapel Hill band. Burzminski has also been involved in bringing Tatum’s music to the stage.

“This truly is ‘mixed media,’ in every sense of the term.”

Contact the Diversions Editor at dive@unc.edu.

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