Sunday, June 28, 2015

My favorite jazz pianist: Erik Satie

I love the piano. I can't play it, but I love both the classical and jazz piano repertoire, and they both form a large part of my music "listening" each week. Erik Satie (1866-1925) is a French composer who is probably best know for his Gymnopedies and Gnosseinnes.....incredible compositions for sure. Most people, even those who do not listen to classical music, have likely heard his works in film, TV or elsewhere. A few years I ago I stumbled onto his Tres Sarabandes. Composed in 1877, they instantly captured me and became my favorite of his works. Take a listen:

This music sounded more like Theolonius Monk to me than anyone else. The movement of the chords, the interesting, dissonant harmony, the varied rhythms, is wonderful and certainly FAR ahead of it's time. Satie was known as an eccentric during his lifetime, and he possessed a sharp wit. He was close friends of both Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. In fact, it was Ravel who helped propel Satie's music to widespread popularity, playing the second of Satie's Sarabandes at a recital himself in 1911. Ravel later said of Satie:

"Another significant influence, somewhat unique, and deriving at least partially from Chabrier, is that of Erik Satie, which has had appreciable effect upon Debussy, myself, and indeed most of the modern French composers. Satie was possessed of an extremely keen intelligence. His was the inventor's mind par excellence. He was a great experimenter . . . these experiments have been of inestimable value. Simply and ingeneously, Satie pointed the way, but as soon as another musician took to the trail he had indicated, Satie would immediately change his own orientation and without hesitation open up still another path to new fields of experimentation. He thus became the inspiration of countless progressive tendencies. . . . Debussy held him in the highest esteem" - April 27, 1928.

It seemed compelling to me that decades before "jazz" was invented, a Frenchman was creating what sounded like jazz to my ear. But I have never talked to anyone about this and it has remained a thought in my own head. But I constantly return to Satie's music, particularly the Sarabandes.
And then just a few days ago, I decided to Google "Monk and Satie" to see if anyone else heard what I heard. To my surprise, others had.

"There was always a playful quality of Monk's music, in a way reminiscent of Erik Satie, but deeply rooted in the blues." - Richard M Rollo-Straight No Chaser, 2008.


"Unlike the tritone (b5) in the blues scale, which, flanked by both a perfect 4th and a perfect 5th (F-Gb-G) produces a sensuous "blue note" sound, the augmented 4th, which actually replaces the normal perfect 4th, has a very bright clean, surprisingly contemporary sound. In Jazz it became very popular around the Bebop era (50+ years after Satie's experimentations) and famously used by the (also rather eccentric) Jazz pianist and composer Theolonius Monk." - Michael Furstner from his website


"Erik Satie, the talented French composer to whom just about everyone ends up applying the adjective 'bizarre, ' was in many ways the Frank Zappa of his time. Or the Theolonius Monk of his time. Or the Mark Twain of his time (although strictly speaking, Mark Twain was, I suppose, of his time)." - Michael Arnowitt, pianist, in "Big Fish," July,1990.

I have some friends who are jazz musicians and we sometimes play the game, "name your top 5 jazz pianists, or top 5 jazz trumpet players"  etc.....Here are my top 5 jazz pianists; 5) Dave Brubeck 4) Art Tatum 3) McCoy Tyner 2) Theolonius Monk 1) Bill Evans. Monk is a close second though. If you asked 10 pianists to play a C major chord, Monk's would sound different than any of them. Much like Satie, he heard music a different way than anyone else. But as it turns out, Satie was also a jazz pianist, so I will put him at the top of my list now (sorry Bill, Theolonius, McCoy, Art, and Dave).

Here is a video of Monk playing "Ruby, My Dear". See if you can detect similarities to the Sarabandes of Satie.

I hope you enjoyed both of these samples. Even the artwork for these albums is strikingly similar too! Both men have goatees and reflective eye wear! 

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