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New book says the piano is most important instrument of all

December 26, 2011 | 10:00 am

Piano hands

Stuart Isacoff’s entertaining new book, “A Natural History of the Piano” (Knopf, $30), begins with the Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. To the author, Peterson represents an ideal entrée into the wonders of “the most important instrument ever created.”

“It’s a coming together of traditions into one great artist,” Isacoff explained by phone from New York. “The fact that Peterson was classically trained gave me the opportunity to set up the story.”

Isacoff, a pianist who teaches music at SUNY Purchase, weaves together seemingly disparate voices and piano-related subjects. He also uses informative sidebar contributions from well-known pianists, including Alfred Brendel, Yundi Li, Gabriela Montero and Billy Taylor.

Despite its full title of “A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians -– From Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between,” the book is intentionally not encyclopedic. Its vignette-like structure conveys an improvisatory quality reflecting Isacoff’s own approach to the piano.

It was evident during a recital at Le Poisson Rouge last year, when Isacoff teased Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow" out of a Scriabin Prelude; while playing a Scarlatti Sonata, he suddenly segued into Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays."

Piano book“People may raise their eyebrows when I put Beethoven and Jerry Lee Lewis in the same chapter,” Isacoff said, “or when I play the opening of the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata and segue into ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ But I try to create marriages between the classical and jazz worlds. They’re not gimmicks; they just occur to me.”

During the three years of researching and writing “A Natural History,” Isacoff said he had fun discovering common threads running through different genres and centuries.

“In all kinds of ways, you see history repeating itself,” Isacoff said. “Liszt would throw his gloves on the floor, and women would tear them to shreds. Jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton did something similar. He would display his fancy silk coat, and wipe the piano bench with a large silk handkerchief before he sat down to play.”

And in the French Baroque composer, François Couperin, Isacoff found devices related to the advanced harmonies used by the so-called impressionists, Debussy and Ravel. “It was a French trait long before a class of composers we associate with being very French.”

For Isacoff, the journey from Liszt to John Cage is also not such a long one. Both were technical innovators who changed how the piano could be played. The author, who called Cage “fantastically creative,” holds his “prepared piano” works, which use bolts, cardboard and other objects artfully inserted inside the instrument to create the sound of a percussion orchestra, in high regard.

No doubt Cage would share Isacoff’s point of view in “A Natural History.” “When we put things in little boxes, we are really missing a large part of the story,” Isacoff said. “Music is music, and I don’t really understand some of the artificial walls people put up.”


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Piano credit: Los Angeles Times. Book cover: Random House