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Michel Petrucciani - An AppreciationCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Petrucciani, MichelThe death of Michel Petrucciani at the age of 36 has brought an untimely close to one of the most remarkable careers in jazz. Although his illness -- he suffered from the the calcium-deficiency condition osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as "glass bone disease" -- always suggested that he might not be destined for a long life, the pianist's death from a pulmonary infection had not been expected.
Petrucciani built a huge following for his concert appearances around the world, but a first exposure to seeing him play live could be an unsettling experience. Watching his diminutive, contorted figure wrestle with the suddenly vast-looking expanse of the piano keyboard, legs pumping at specially extended pedals, seemed almost a voyeuristic instrusion, a reaction which others have also felt.
Once past the initial shock, however, what really mattered was the fact that Petrucciani was clearly a master musician. Listening to his music was not simply an uplifting experience, but a genuine privilege. His playing revealed a wide-ranging awareness of jazz styles which emerged in knowing references and unlikely juxtapositions, but he was never constrained by his material.
His original and constantly surprising harmonic imagination could turn even the most familiar standards -- his remodelling of Autumn Leaves was a classic example -- into a fresh new adventure, and his physical touch at the keyboard possessed a variety which few jazz pianists could match.
Petrucciani was born in Montpelier on 28 December, 1962, into a musical family. His father, Antoine Petrucciani, was a jazz guitarist, and his brother, Louis, is a fine bass player. It is entirely typical of his attitude to life that, at the tender age of 4, he should have chosen to play perhaps the least likely instrument for anyone with his physical disadvantages. He often told the story of seeing Duke Ellington play piano on television, and deciding in that moment that it was the one for him.
"I told my father that I would like to play that instrument -- I didn't even know what it was, but maybe I thought it was something I could really attack! My father bought me a toy piano, but that didn't sound like Duke's, so I broke it up, and he bought me a real one! I love the sound of the instrument, but also the physical aspect of it, which makes it so wonderful to play. The possibilites with piano are infinite, and it's forever -- there is so much to discover that you could never get to the end of it."
He trained in classical piano as a child to please his mother (until, he said, he "grew tired of his teacher showing him off"), but grew up immersed in his father's jazz record collection. He made his inital reputation in France, including a famous debut in 1975, when trumpeter Clark Terry was looking for a pianist for a festival gig in Cliousat. He asked around, and was told that Petrucciani was the best local player. Nobody remembered to mention that he was only 13 years old at the time, and it is not hard to imagine Terry's initial reaction when his pianist showed up for the date, but his playing quickly dispelled any doubts.
Petrucciani eventually moved to the USA in the early Eighties, where he proceeded to lure saxophonist Charles Lloyd out of retirement, and played in his band for three years. His own solo career took off in the present decade, with a string of acclaimed recordings for Blue Note and Dreyfus Jazz in settings ranging from solo piano (perhaps his archetypal format) to string quartet and jazz sextet, and a busy international touring schedule.
Despite his infirmities, he retained an indomitable spirit which was reflected in both his music and his life. He fathered three children, and always refused to regard his condition as a reason for missing out on what life had to offer.
"People always talk about my size," he said, "but it's what you have in your head that's important. My philosophy has always been to have a really good time, and never let it stop me doing what I want to do."
That was a philosophy which he lived to the full, and jazz will be all the poorer for his passing.