Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here

Zenph Sound Innovations
At Kennedy Theatre, Progress Energy Center
Through Dec. 19

Calling Doc’s Club minimal is actually something of an overstatement.

Behind the bar in this dingy but not quite claustrophobic Harlem basement, two fixtures catch the eye, both bearing the name of Pabst. A weatherworn beer sign spans the countertop from above, while a partially painted Frigidaire sits to one side, a beer pull neatly set into the center of its door. All in all, it looks like the kind of place where it would be easy to get into a serious misunderstandingand difficult to get out of it.

But just as you’re concluding that neglect misrules this roost, you spot the concert grand pianopristine, perfect, all polished ebony and gold platingin short, a visual non sequitur to all that surrounds it here.

“It’s the best piano in Harlem,” a grizzled man croaks proudly before introducing himself as Doc Hanley, proprietor. And since you don’t know where you’re standing, he’ll have mercy, serve you a beer and fill you in. Besides, tonight he’s closing the club down for good, because by this year of 1965, the clientele for a Harlem piano room is drying up. But once, Hanley tells us, this was the after-hours center of the jazz world, a place where the greats would regularly come to duel.

It’s a juicy premise for a one-man show, and Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here delivers admirably. But this hybrid production is more accurately billed as a one-man-plus performance.

Under Jay O’Berski’s direction, Trevor Johnson digs deep and delivers some of his best stage work ever in the role of the good Doc Hanley, who is actually a composite character. But in this show produced by Zenph Sound Innovations, a musical software company in downtown Durham, Johnson shares the stage not only with a piano but also with the invisible hands that play it brilliantly throughout the performance, evoking standards that are part of the history of jazz. The hands are those of Art Tatum, the celebrated jazz pianist of the mid-20th century.

What the Zenph engineers do is take landmark jazz and classical recordings, analyze the performances with their software and then use their proprietary equipment to replicate the rendition on a concert grand. In Tatum’s case, the crew restored and analyzed the low-fidelity monaural tapes of a famous 1949 concert in Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, digitally recording the “re-performance” of it for a 2008 Sony Classics release.

The greatest misgiving I had when I first read the show’s press release was that the show was going to boil down to a glorified 90-minute product demo for a new computer app. Thankfully, that wasn’t what I saw. O’Berski’s staging places the audience ringside in a semicircle of nightclub tables surrounding the piano and bar, as Johnson’s Hanley, a more than able guide, holds court: flirting with the ladies, setting the gentlemen straight and regaling us all with a series of tales from the golden age of jazz. His performance and Jeffrey McIntyre’s original script are nearly as pitch-perfect as the musical interludes from the concert grand. Hanley’s accounts are made all the more vivid by Johnson’s acute vocal and physical mimicry of Tatum, who sounds here like a cross between Dr. John and that one-time outlaw DJ, Wolfman Jack.

I was unprepared for the bursts of physical energy coming off the piano in works like “How High the Moon” and “I Know That You Know,” and the capricious sketches of songs from Porgy and Bess in his “Gershwin Medley.” Hanley’s sharp reminiscences segue to Tatum’s equally sharp musical interpretations. The stories give the songs important context, while the music convinces us why these stories should be remembered. Neither lingered longer than was entertaining.

Ultimately the show had the feel of a night in an excellent and intimate jazz bar, with a witty, warm and knowledgeable host taking us on a different kind of tour. Strongly recommended.

Correction (Dec. 16, 2010): Zenph Sound Innovations is located in downtown Durham. See comment below.