Even Fats Waller was in awe of his fellow pianist Tatum. Legend holds that Waller was once reluctant to play in Tatum's presence, saying simply, "God is in the house tonight."
Thirty-four years after he died of uremia, at age 47, Tatum remains an enigma. He is considered by many to be the quintessential jazz soloist: a virtuoso who routinely made the piano sound like a complete orchestra. Though some latter-day critics have been inclined to dismiss him as a showboater, a potpourri of new reissues of Tatum recordings leaves no doubt that he was an original.
Decca Presents Art Tatum (MCA), a compilation of singles recorded in 1940, offers a glimpse of the majestic skills he developed as a young solo performer. On such standards as "Cocktails for Two" and "Begin the Beguine," Tatum combines powerful oompah stride-bass lines with five-finger chord changes and lightning arpeggios. His comic sensibility comes to the fore in a jazzed-up rendition of Antonin Dvorák's "Humoresque," during which he punctuates the melody with pratfall pauses.
Art Tatum: The Complete Capitol Recordings, Volumes One and Two (Capitol) captures the pianist at the height of his powers. Composed of primarily solo recordings originally made in 1949, the collection features stunning versions of such classics as "Willow Weep for Me" and "How High the Moon." The Capitol albums also include several trio selections recorded in 1952 with guitarist Everett Barksdale and bassist Slam Stewart.
Art Tatum: The V-Disks (Black Lion) features singles issued to military PX centers and radio stations during World War II. After a few words of encouragement to the boys overseas, Tatum is so dazzling on "Sweet Lorraine" that he leaves bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Sid Catlett breathing dust.
Luckily, on Art Tatum: The Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces (Pablo), a six-CD collection of various small-band performances recorded during the last three years of his life, the master intimidator finds himself in inspired company. Saxophonists Benny Carter and Ben Webster, trumpeter Roy Eldridge and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco all prove capable of keeping step and add brilliant highlights to his dense harmonies.
If anything, these collections encourage the thought that somewhere in heaven Tatum is right now parked at a piano, his fingers a blur as he coaxes sounds of ecstasy from the keyboard.