Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase, May 3-8

Two weeks ago at the Jazz Showcase, the piano artisan Tommy Flanagan spent a few of the short silences between songs staring contemplatively at the piano. Most likely he was using these moments to ready himself for the next tune or to formulate some of the gently skewed humorous commentary he half-mumbled into the microphone moments later. But I’d like to think it had more to do with outright amazement–that he simply couldn’t believe his good fortune.

Flanagan had found a new piano waiting for him at the Showcase, not new off the factory line but new to the club–a seven-foot grand, and not just a grand but a Steinway, a piano that would list out at more than many of us make in a year. In other words, a serious piano. A marvelous piano. For those who have spent the last two decades straining to hear the cloistered notes of the previous instrument–let alone those who strained to wring music from that “sad old lady,” as another fine pianist recently described it–this development answers prayers long ago abandoned. Joe Segal, proprietor of the Jazz Showcase, is not a man of means; the fact that he had spent some of what little he had to upgrade the old instrument just a couple of years ago augured against a purchase of this magnitude. I suspect most of us would echo the comment of drummer Wilbur Campbell, who has performed with countless pianists on the Showcase stage, when he first saw the Steinway: “It’s a miracle!”

No art form depends on its environment and its tools more than music. A room’s acoustics can affect not only the amplitude with which music reaches different portions of the audience but also–by highlighting or dampening different sonic frequencies–which portions of the music reach any of the audience. And of course the instruments themselves affect the process: the differences range from the obvious, such as an out-of-tune violin string, to the subtle, such as the combination of wood, varnish, and craft that allows one violin to project with more power than another.

And no musical form knows all this better than jazz, thanks to its long history in acoustically unsuitable cellars and dives–most of them too impoverished or too cheap to offer a quality keyboard to visiting virtuosi. (That’s why the electric piano gained such popularity in the early 70s; for the first time, pianists could carry their own instruments, gaining a level of control that other musicians had always known.) Until this month, the Jazz Showcase typified the problem. Its piano, a Mason & Hamlin born the same year as Joe Segal himself, had become a travesty, the focus of complaints and the butt of jokes, and an embarrassment for the city’s best-known jazz club. It had no presence in any register, and its keys offered significant physical resistance: for the audience it was hard to hear, and according to the pianists, it was even harder to play. It prevented great musicians from sounding great and provided lesser artists with a ready excuse.

No matter who played it and how loudly, no matter how the microphones were placed around and inside it, the Mason & Hamlin never really projected its sound: it never “spoke.” It mumbled and whispered, swallowing as many notes as it sent forth. Its replacement does more than speak. It shouts, and sings, and every note rings clear to the back of the room. Its sound sits atop that of bass and drums, instead of muddying the mix of the three, and each note strikes sharply. It invites you to listen.

But the impact of the new Steinway will go beyond the way we hear the music. In any performance, but especially one that involves a high degree of improvisation, an artist depends on feedback to make each of a thousand instantaneous decisions. Great improvisers from Lester Young to Fred Anderson have suggested that what you play should descend directly from what you played the moment before. But if the moment before sounded bad–even if due to circumstances beyond your control–it has to affect what comes next. So Segal’s purchase doesn’t only mean that we’ll hear the music better; it means we’ll most likely hear better music. And that makes it worth every cent (some of which will come from some of us–Segal plans to stage a benefit, probably in August, to defray the cost of the Steinway).

Of course, it would be a mistake to discount Flanagan’s role in forming these impressions. I went to hear him several times, twice in the company of the World’s Greatest Tommy Flanagan Fan, who told me a relevant anecdote. After a recital, an admirer complimented legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz on his playing and his violin, a rare and spectacular instrument. “That violin sounds wonderful,” said the listener. “Really?” said Heifetz, slyly holding it to his ear. “I don’t hear anything.” Point taken: a piano could hardly have a better partner in sounding great than Tommy Flanagan.

The 64-year-old Flanagan represents the flowering of bebop in an almost literal sense–the opening up of the original idiom into a jazz style that retains the language and integrity of bebop but places it at the service of a wider range of emotions. Flanagan has two new albums out, one concentrating on the music of Thad Jones, the other dedicated to Ella Fitzgerald (with whom Flanagan played for more than a dozen years), and he played tunes from both at the Showcase, as usual producing one of the loveliest sounds in jazz. In the middle of his run, on May 5, he also played a version of “Giant Steps”–35 years to the day after John Coltrane’s original recording of the tune, which featured Flanagan at the piano.

Flanagan’s sound starts with his touch, of course–his actual physical connection with and transference of force to the keyboard. But it has at least as much to do with the spacing of his chords and the construction of his melody lines, which give the notes a gracious longueur even at fast tempi. As a result Flanagan’s lines have an extra presence, allowing one to enjoy his lapidary lyricism and the brainy allusions that dot his solos. When playing the Tadd Dameron composition “Our Delight,” for example, Flanagan managed to weave in quotes from three other Dameron tunes, making the one song call forth Dameron’s whole career.

Flanagan felt comfortable enough to forge such improvisations, and the audience could actually hear such details, and those two facts provide the most telling proof of the Steinway’s impact–just as Flanagan himself offered the most incisive comment on the instrument’s predecessor. “Since I was here last, Joe Segal has changed pianos,” Flanagan announced from the stage in his offhand way. “I only wish I could have been here for the burning.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.