The story of Kansas City native, pianist, and composer Dana Suesse (pronounced "Sweese") started out as a veritable girl-from-a-small-town-makes-good-in-the-big-city fairytale. Arriving in New York City with her mother in 1929, by 1931 Suesse's composition Jazz Nocturne was literally the toast of the town. Jazz Nocturne captured the essence of art deco, Algonquin round table sophistication, and chatty society banter while remaining technically solid and pianistically challenging; it earned Suesse the sobriquet "The Girl Gershwin," bestowed upon her by The New Yorker magazine. While Suesse was "in" to New York's society whirl and established herself as a force in Tin Pan Alley, composing standards such as "Whistling in the Dark," "The Night Is Young and You are So Beautiful," "You Ought to Be in Pictures," and "My Silent Love," she never successfully made the transition to high art music as she would have liked, despite winning the support of Paul Whiteman, a later course of study with Nadia Boulanger and her own industriousness in turning out ambitious, serious music.
E1 Entertainment's Jazz Nocturne: The Collected Piano Music of Dana Suesse features ace piano virtuosa Sara Davis Buechner -- who preceded this outing recording super-difficult Bach/Busoni transcriptions in one of the last discs for Koch before it was rechristened "E1" -- in a performance of 16 Suesse piano pieces, followed by four more by Suesse's close colleague Pauline Alpert. Suesse was advocated to Buechner by society pianist and bandleader Peter Mintun, who was once a student of Suesse and works extensively on her behalf. It takes a special sensibility to interpret this music, as Suesse incorporates a blend of relaxed, Fats Waller-like stride, some of the better aspects of parlor pianism and more ambitious elements derived from Debussy, MacDowell, and others in that strain. Buechner hits just the right balance; her playing is clean and elegant without being too showy and she clearly has the more devilish technical business under control. The inclusion of the four Alpert pieces is useful from the standpoint of clarifying what makes Suesse stand out from the genre of novelty piano; with Suesse, every transition -- whether abrupt or elaborate -- is scrupulously worked out, whereas with Alpert -- who was only a sometime composer, but a great elaborator of pre-existing material -- transitions are merely an expedient, a way of getting from one place to another. Interestingly, Buechner shows a special affinity for Alpert's breeziness and efficiency; clearly the darker hues and more complicated fingerwork in Suesse demands a different type of attention. E1's recording, too, is just right, airy but intimate and close, as this kind of piano music sounds best in a casual situation.
Suesse herself was not a conventionally beautiful woman, cursed with a pronounced overbite and a weak chin. Her music, though, is like the musical equivalent of her fellow Kansas City-ite, actress Louise Brooks, in its sophistication, street-smart savvy, slightly world-weary manner, and stunning beauty.