Article on Donald
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JAZZ PIANO ROOTS
D o n a l d L a m b e r t ’s ’s B Y RICCARDO SCIVALES
ast year marked the centennial of the birth of stride great Donald Lambert, Lamb ert, born on February 12, 1904 in Princeton, New Jersey. Variously nicknamed “Muffin,” “The Lamb” and an d “The Jersey Rocket,” he was the sort of piano legend unknown to wide audiences because he spent most of his career playing on out of tune pianos in obscure bars. In spite of this, Lambert was esteemed by such jazzmen as Count Basie, Art Tatum and his close friend, Jack Teagarden. Donald Lambert In his memoirs, Basie revealed that he avoided having piano contests with Lambert, and Tatum proposed forming a duo piano team with him (Lambert refused, claiming that Tatum merely wanted to steal his left hand tricks). Jazz pianist Jimmy Rowles considered some of Lambert’s recordings the most perfect examples of stride style, and saxophonist Ben Webster once said he went to bed while listening to Lambert, Tatum and Waller. The second theme of Waller’s famous Clothes Line Ballet was stolen from Lambert’s I Love You Madly (issued on the LP Meet The Lamb , IAJRC23). Modern stride giant Dick Wellstood got into the habit of duplicating Lambert’s wild and spirited up-tempo stride style on such recorded examples as Let’s Get Lost, I Concentrate On You and Paganini’s Thing (all on Chiaroscuro CR 139), transcribed in my collection Dick Wellstood: The Art of Jazz and Blues Piano, Vol. 1 (London, Soliloquy Music, available through musicbooksnow.com). musicbooksnow.com). Lambert took his first piano lessons form his mother, Alma, a professional pianist, bandleader and teacher. He refused to learn how to read music, however, and as a mostly self-taught musician, listened intently to James P. Johnson’s piano roles. Pianist Don Coates remembers an incident in the late 50s when Lambert entered a club where some young jazz musicians were rehearsing a new piece. After listening to a few choruses, he sat at the electric organ of the club and played the piece perfectly (complete with organ pedals, too). The piece was John Coltrane’s Giant Steps . His professional career began at age ten in New Jersey, where he worked steadily in a duo-piano team with the half-Indian pianist-xylophonist-banjoist Paul
Seminole (1904-1932). Lambert was deeply influenced by Seminole’s outstanding skills in ragging the classics, and in playing two different tunes (complete with accompaniment) at the same time. In the early 30s, Lambert settled in New York City and worked in Harlem clubs, but after his wife died he returned to New Jersey where he chose to work, inexplicably, in small clubs and taverns until the end of his life. From time to time he showed up in New York unexpectedly to challenge the other “piano ticklers” in “cutting contests.” He took pleasure in testing his skills against Art Tatum, who, recalled jazz pianist Billy Taylor, “could match but not surpass” Lambert’s stride. Lambert’s impressive technique, inventiveness and rhythmic drive during his heyday are manifest in his 1941 masterful rendition of Grieg’s Anitra’s Dance (available on the CD compilations Stride Piano, Saga Jazz-Universal Records, and Swing Piano Bar , Frémeaux Associés FA011), and in his 1940 informal trio recordings with Horan “Hot Lips” Page ( After Hours in Harlem , High Note HCD7031). Lambert’s outstanding up-tempo stride style was characterized by a relentless, implacable “oom-pah” bass, along with sharp, breathtaking right-hand runs and imaginative rhythmic displacements. He certainly had few rivals in this field. But this was only one facet of his artistry. When playing medium or medium-fast tempos, he developed various interesting devices, and, when playing two tunes simultaneously, gave the illusion of having three hands. He mostly accomplished this by including a theme or countermelody in his “oom-pah” bass, played by the left hand alone. A well-known example may be found in his recordings of “Tea For Two” (on High Note HCD7031, IAJRC23 and Storyville1018376), where the theme of the song is skillfully incorporated into the bass (see the first example below), while the right hand played other tunes or improvisations above.
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Lambert continued He was also able to extend short left-hand countermelodies through several measures, creating real counterpoint during a whole section of a piece. This is found in the bridge of the second chorus of “As Time Goes By” (reissued on Storyville1018376 and transcribed in my collection Harlem Stride Piano Solos , published by Ekay Music), where the upper notes of the wide “rolled” inter vals in the bass are cleverly linked together to form a sinuous, chromatic inner melody (also requiring a precise use of the pedal).
(all while the right hand plays a complicated arabesquelike figure!).
But left hand twelfths were not enough for Lambert, because in some circumstances he used “oom-pah” bass lines with even wider intervals. This can be found in “As Time Goes By,” as well as in bars 7-8 of the third chorus of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (on Pumpkin104), where he played a beautiful alternation of backward fourteenths and backward tenths in a circle of fifths turnaround.
Most of the stride pianists had very large hand spans, and their styles emphasized wide intervals such as tenths in the bass. Lambert’s hands could barely reach a minor tenth, but he refused to be handicapped by this limitation. So, he not only used “backward” and “rolled” bass tenths, but went beyond them by playing even wider left-hand intervals, such as twelfths, as one can hear in passages of his “Tea For Two.” See the following example, from bars 25-28 of the first chorus on IAJRC23 (notice the countermelody formed by the accented lefthand thumb notes in the middle range of the keyboard).
In bars 25-28 of the third chorus, the same bass line is varied with difficult “back beat” rhythmic displacements 24
In the second chorus of “Swingin’ Down The Lane/My Sweetie Went Away” (on JazzologyCDJCE59) he even used a contrapuntal bass line, mixing rolled thirteenths and twelfths, with a rolled minor sixteenth! Lambert’s skills in playing two tunes at once and in creating “three-handed” effects are also apparent in the piano solo transcribed in this issue, “Christopher Columbus,” a famous and happy song of the swing era (and a warhorse for Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman and “Fats” Waller). Performed live at the Newport Jazz Festi val in July of 1960 and never issued on record, this solo is a precious item kindly sent to me by a collector from his private recordings. Here, Lambert devises an ingenious musical architecture of great charm, characterized by a progressive building up of layers of sounds and expression. Also note that he plays this tune in the key of B Major, which was no trouble for him since he was a typical “black key player” who—like so many other early “ticklers”—favored the most difficult keys. The eight bar intro starts in a very simple, march-like fashion, with Lambert stating the original theme of the song with left hand octaves accompanied by a few right hand notes or chords. This thematic basis goes on as an ostinato bass throughout the next two choruses. In the first chorus the right hand plays a repeated and dissonant melodic cell (see bars 9-12) whose bluesy inflections are strong enough to distort the original harmonic progression of the tune. The climax of the piece is reached in the second chorus, structured in a gospel-like “call and response” pattern, with the right hand playing syncopated and chorale-like broken chords answering the repeated
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