Michel Petrucciani, the Tiny Jazz Giant
A vital lesson by Petrucciani: to fight not against oneself, but in favor.
Some say that on a given occasion, Michel Petrucciani was preparing to improvise with a new ensemble. As a warm-up piece (or as a cover letter, depending on how one looks at it), Petrucciani, who was roughly 3 feet tall, suggested playing Coltrane’s frenetic classic “Giant Steps”. Perhaps without noticing the subtle irony, Petrucciani asked the musicians if they knew it. Astounded, ashamed even, the sax players exchanged looks and shook their heads. “Oh, well. I do!” said Petrucciani, and handed over a piano soloist arrangement for one of the most intricate pieces in the history of jazz.
“Sometimes I think someone upstairs saved me from being ordinary,” said the French pianist, known as one of the greatest jazz composers of all time.
Watching his videos, we are also astounded by our political incorrectness: we question the abilities of someone so short (his evident baldness under that bullfighter’s ponytail, his enormous and powerful hands in contrast with his body’s fragility). But when we learn about his career, we appreciate the intensity and the coherency with which Petrucciani worked during the 36 years of his short life.
This virtuoso began to learn how to play the piano when he was 4 years old, since he came from a musical family. He had two guitarist brothers and signed over one hundred fractures under his belt before he reached his teen years. The diagnosis was osteogenesis imperfecta (a genetic disease that degenerates bones, and which in Petrucciani was embodied by the acute pain caused by playing the piano) also explains a certain sense of urgency.
Shy during his youth in Vaucluse, maturity truly hit him in California, together with a sense of self-pride that would never leave him. One day in 1982 Petrucciani knocked on the door of legendary sax player Charles Lloyd. He had the experience to put together a good winds session, as well as the drive Petrucciani needed to make himself known in the United States. Lloyd had played with Keith Jarret; he was no rookie when it came to playing with piano virtuosos. After hearing Petrucciani, Lloyd told him:
I was here planning to not play again. You triggered me. I heard this beauty in you and I said, ‘well I have to take you ’round the world cause there’s something so beautiful, it was like providence calling.
This led to a successful tour through the West Coast of the States that, as Lloyd had predicted, was followed by a world tour which culminated in the Prix d’Excellence of the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1982, and in the epic One Night with Blue Note concerts in 1985, at Town Hall in New York City.
Petrucciani thought that the shower of awards was due to the fact that people thought he would die at a young age. Osteogenesis imperfecta is a brief disease. In 1993 he cancelled his trio tours and devoted himself to perfecting his art in public, before everyone’s eyes, as someone who meditates on stage 140 nights a year.
I really believe a pianist is not complete until he’s capable of playing by himself. I started doing solo concerts in February 1993… I had a wonderful time playing alone, and discovering the piano and really studying every night. I felt like I was learning so much about the instrument and about communicating directly with an audience. So it was an incredible experience. I really loved doing that, and afterwards getting on stage with a group again and playing with other people was a piece of cake!
Petrucciani passed away after his 36th birthday due to a respiratory infection. He occupies a modest and well-deserved place next to Chopin’s tomb in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. On himself he said:
I’m a brat. My philosophy is to have a good time and never let anything keep me from doing what I want to do. It’s like driving a car waiting for an accident. That’s no way of driving a car. If you’re in an accident, you’re in an accident —C’est la vie.
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