This seven-CD collection exhaustively documents Columbia Records' first attempt at niche marketing with the Piano Moods series. Born out an impromptu marketing plan by a small Columbia Records staff in 1950, the Piano Moods series was hatched from the marketing discovery that there were more pianos than phonographs (that's record players for all you kids who don't remember vinyl LPs) in the homes of postwar America. The 12" LP had been launched a scant two years before and few titles were available. The Piano Moods series linked 20 albums of the same general type, all of them produced and sequenced by George Avakian, who had created the jazz and pop catalog on LP for Columbia beginning in 1948 -- though they were originally released 33 rpm 10" discs to keep the folks with all those 10" 78 rpm discs happy when it came to storage. The sides were cut -- usually -- with no spirals (spaces) between tunes, giving the side a longer feel than its 17 minutes because the music was continuous. Most pianists preset their sequences and prepared introductions of the key of the preceding tune that modulated into the key of the next one. Some would cut the modes later and have Avakian splice them or, in the case of Teddy Wilson, he would play it straight through, and if he felt he flubbed anything, would re-record a tune and have Avakian work the tape magic. The series was wildly successful as a whole, and most homes had at least a few of these sides and some had many or all. The interesting comment here is that many of these pianists had little or nothing in common with one another. They ranged from the jazzers like Wilson, Art Tatum, Errol Garner, and Ahmad Jamal (whose album was released as a 12" LP) to stride cats like Ralph Sutton and Joe Sullivan -- who plays Fats Waller here -- to swingers like Earl "Fatha" Hines, Joe Bushkin (of Tommy Dorsey fame), and Jess Stacy. There are more than a few unknown jazzers as well, like Buddy Weed, Max Miller, Eddie Heywood, and Bill Clifton. Also included is the man who could -- and did -- play everything, concert virtuoso Stan Freeman.
The seven CDs in this set are divided up somewhat arbitrarily, and then given their catalog numbers at the back of the set. The first disc pairs Garner (with his original versions of "Long Ago and Far Away" and "It Could Happen to You") with Jamal (with "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and "Perfida" among his set) and therefore, the sides with Hines and Bushkin have trouble holding up, but not because the material isn't quality -- far from it. It's just that disc one sets such a solid mood it's impossible to play the jubilant swinging Hines and the '30s-ish swing of Bushkin next to what was modern jazz in 1950. Discs three and four fare better, with Sutton on one side striding his ass off through Waller's material -- truly the classics of the master's material played as only a well-versed acolyte can, from "Ain't Misbehavin'" through "Muskrat Ramble" to "Blue Turning Grey Over You" and "Take It From Me." Sullivan carries on the stride mood, and then we move into the more populist and bebop-themed material with Stacy and Weed, both of whom were monsters of technique -- especially Weed, whose hands tore up the left side of the keyboard while his right strided out elongated ninths and even 12ths to comp. On disc five there is a gorgeous symmetry between the pianism of Wilson and that of Clifton. First there is Wilson's pure notion of "Flight." His rhythmic patterns create the harmonic possibilities for runs inside the chords and key changes that further fatten the key signature and dominant chord. The fact that he is as likely to solo with his left hand as is right is another of his gifts. Many who knew him claimed even he didn't know until the inspired moment. Many of Wilson's signature tunes are here: "Honeysuckle Rose," "Just One of Those Things," "(I Don't Stand) A Ghost of a Chance With You," and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." Whether ballad, swinging stomp, or shimmering blues, Wilson rose to every occasion here -- and there are also the alternate takes that he rejected (evidence for the claim that there is no difference in quality except in the pianist's ear). Clifton, on the other hand, is a middle-register heavy pianist, using the same wide-bottomed harmonic structures in his voicings -- if not the same chords and the same method to arrive at them as Wilson. The difference is in approach. Wilson attacked the keyboard, however gracefully, where Clifton prefers to toy with it and seduce the secrets from it. His version of "Let's Fall in Love" would have been more at home with the West Coast jazzers than in New York, but it's a stunning rendition with a bit of two-handed counterpoint à la Brubeck in the bridge.
As for disc six, there is no doubt that Heywood and Freeman were gifted men; their technically tailored approaches make crystalline masterpieces of their chosen repertoires here, but they're too clean -- almost sterile because of their technical prowess. Finally, on the final disc listeners get the pure bombastic blockhead chord voicings of Miller, who played guitar and vibes before becoming a pianist. The bottom line: The guy murders everything he plays, with a distinct lack of any subtlety whatsoever. It's balanced, however, with the second half of the disc, which takes the set out with the sublime pianism of Tatum, recorded live at a concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1949, and features -- along with well-known gems like "Willow Weep for Me," "Someone to Watch Over Me," and "How High the Moon" -- two of the greatest performances of piano on record: "I Know That You Know" and Dvorak's Humoresque. Where Tatum took his inspiration from is unknown; where he took his improvisations to is the limit and further. He could stretch the balance of any harmonic configuration and then wrap it around another without missing a note. In all, seven CDs is a lot for pretty much solo piano works recorded with a marketing theme in mind. But there are more fine performances than mediocre ones, and only one bad one through and through -- and even it is offset by sheer genius. The worst you can say about the Complete Jazz Piano Mood Sessions is that there's just too much here -- even for fans of the Mosaic label. The best you can say here is that first, the sound is phenomenal (as are the notes by Avakian himself), and second, there's just too much. Either way, it's a win-win deal.