Last Monday, the French stride wizard Olivier Lancelot flew in from Paris for ten days of tri-state jazz immersion — a duet gig at Smalls with Dan Levinson, and appearances at the Hot Steamed Jazz Festival in Essex, Connecticut, with serendipitious sitting-in here and there.
Photograph by Lorna Sass. Coptright 2008.
When Olivier sat down at the keyboard at Roth’s Westside Steakhouse (680 Columbus Avenue at 93rd Street) only five hours after his plane had landed, he looked serene and cheerful. And he approached his four-hour gig with enthusiasm, playing nearly fifty songs in the course of the night, drawing on a huge repertoire. His musical standrads are high: thus, no “Feelings,” no “The Way We Were,” no “New York, New York.” Rather, he explored “Body and Soul,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “That Old Feeling,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Darn That Dream,” “Blue Moon,” all at a gentle jog reminiscent of middle-period Teddy Wilson. True to his reputation, he gave out with a few stride showpieces, most memorably “Handful of Keys” and a blazing “Song of the Vagabonds.” A very pretty “La Vie En Rose” reminded us of Piaf and Louis at once, a neat accomplishment.
But the unfamiliar material was even more intriguing: a song neither I nor the Beloved could place turned out to be “Somethin’ Stupid,” a Sixties AM radio hit for Frank and daughter Nancy Sinatra. Late in the evening, driven by some private whimsy, Olivier went into “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” once the tradmark song of Helen Kane, reprised by Marilyn Monroe in SOME LIKE IT HOT. Following that line of thought, he leapt into a jaunty “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” a song James P. Johnson would have loved — although who, besides Olivier, ever thought of it as worthy material? “Do-Re-Mi,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein, became a Donald Lambert fantasy.
Lancelot’s understanding of the music goes beyond his admirable facility at the keyboard. Many players who identify themselves as stride (or Stride) piano specialists narrow the style as a double handful of composed pieces: here’s “Carolina Shout,” here’s “Russian Fantasy,” here’s “Keep Your Temper.” Dick Wellstood, ever questing, extended this approach by playing Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and “Rubber Duckie” (from SESAME STREET) as they would have been done uptown circa 1934. Olivier has the technique and stamina to play ten or twelve choruses of violently athletic stride without strain, even though he pantomimed exhaustion (a giant wiping-of-the-forehead gesture) after his extravaganzas. But he didn’t restrict himself to such fireworks: as he told me during the evening, playing these pieces too often in a set blurs the effect quickly. Rather, he played stride patterns, casually and as a matter of course, remembering a time when that was the accepted way to play, at a variety of tempos — whether the song was an easy “Darn That Dream” or even “As Time Goes By,” suggesting Bogart and Bacall at Monroe’s Uptown House. His rhythm was impeccable, his time steady, his bass lines varied (not just a metronomic oom-pah). Combined with a light touch, he made it seem as if we had been invited into Fats’s living room to hear him play some tunes — informal and delightful.
The last word belongs to our waiter Chad, a gracious import from the South. “You know our regular pianist Ehud? He sent this guy in for tonight — he’s from Paris. Oh, this one’s great!”