EDMOND—Two-time Grammy-winning jazz pianist Peter Nero performed in front of a crowd of 479 on November 6 at Armstrong Auditorium. Nero and his bassist of 24 years, Michael Barnett, played a nearly three-hour tribute to the late jazz pianist Art Tatum. This was the second event of the 2014-2015 Armstrong International Cultural Foundation concert series.
Nero opened with a few remarks on the evening’s program, “For Art’s Sake: A Salute to Art Tatum.” In the 1930s, Tatum introduced superior technical skill and a swinging, strong pulse to jazz piano and led the jazz improvisation movement. “He was the Vladimir Horowitz of jazz,” Nero said. “Horowitz used to pay to see him play in clubs.”
Nero then launched into the evening’s two-part program, which he dryly described as “part one and part two.” He opened with a foot-tapping improvisational jazz piece, then played “Willow Weep for Me,” a 1932 original which Tatum recorded in 1949.
Nero also played his own soundtracks from the movies, Summer of ’42 and Sunday in New York ; Tatum’s rendition of All the Things You Are ; Gershwin’s Banana Boat and I Got Rhythm , with written improvisations from the works of a handful of classical pianists; and a summarized score for West Side Story.
Throughout the evening, the 82-year-old Nero wowed the audience with his youthfulness, fingers that darted all over the keys in mere milliseconds and what the Palm Beach Daily News called “the energy of a 20-year-old rock-and-roll drummer.”
“He probably has the fastest fingers of anyone who has ever performed here,” Armstrong artist liaison Mark Nash commented during the first half.
Nero had the audience laughing from the start, after he walked onstage a minute or two late—and wearing mismatched brown shoes with his black suit. He explained that he’d been hunting for his black dress shoes, “but I cannot find them for the life of me.”
In between pieces, Nero chatted about Tatum’s influence on his playing style, recalled stories from his and Tatum’s careers, asserted that musicians are underpaid and discussed the musician’s obsession with perfection, cracking jokes all the while.
Nero commented on the outstanding quality of Armstrong’s Steinway piano, a Hamburg concert grand. Of playing a European Steinway, he said, “I have to speak French, German and Spanish to make it work.”
Nero said he performed three times at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, California, the building that was the inspiration for Armstrong Auditorium. He complimented the beauty of each hall, to which many in the audience nodded and whispered in agreement.
“People in Oklahoma have been very kind to me,” Nero said at the end of the night. “I feel like I should just come back here again and do nothing.”
The elderly virtuoso deserves some relaxation. Nero has recorded 68 albums since 1961. He has toured as a concert pianist for 55 years. He is known as one of the top interpreters of George Gershwin’s compositions and has played with notable musicians including Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Andy Williams and Ray Charles.
Bassist Michael Barnett attended Yale University and toured extensively with the late singer Pearl Bailey and the late jazz drummer Louie Bellson before going on tour with Nero.
The 2014-15 Armstrong International Cultural Foundation concert series continues on November 20, when classical pianist Sergio Monteiro visits Armstrong.