Piano Jazz: Anat Fort

From the NPR archives on NPR.org

Originally broadcast in the fall of 2007

This is the first episode of Piano Jazz where I was completely unfamiliar with the guest of the show. I didn’t recognize Anat Fort‘s name when I saw it, and even after I looked up her work, I had no connection to any of the projects she had worked on. With the past episodes when I looked up Jack DeJohnette, I realized I had heard his work on Bitches Brew even though I was unfamiliar with his name. With Tim Ries, I didn’t know anything about him but I was very familiar with his co-guest Charlie Watts. So I was looking forward to learning more about Fort and her music.

Let me say that this episode was just a delight. There was something special going on between Marian McPartland and Fort. We get to witness two very talented jazz pianists, both women, one seasoned in her career and the other just releasing her second album at the time of the recording of this episode, playing and talking together. There is obviously a lot of mutual respect and admiration that gets shared in this episode.

The show opens with McPartland and Fort sharing a conversation about Fort’s upbringing in Isreal, moving to New Jersey and attending William Patterson University, and how her improvisational style evolved.

McPartland then asks her to play a song and Fort chooses “Just Now” from her album A Long Story. When she finishes, McPartland asks if Paul Motian played on the song with her. A curious bit of conversation happens here.

When Fort states that he was on the record, McPartland responds, “You really like him don’t you?”

Fort goes on to share that during her time working with him, he refused to practice prior to the recording sessions. McPartland somewhat jumps in and asks, “Did you make him practice?”

Fort then states that had she insisted, then he wouldn’t have recorded on the project. Instead, he would listen to Fort play the song solo and then they would start recording after that. To which McPartland says that he probably is just that good that he could play that way, but she expresses her frustration with the thought of asking someone to practice for a recording session and them refusing.

Fort shared how she approached the situation through preparation on her part and in a very knowing and caring voice, McPartland responds, “You’re obviously a strong girl. You’ve got to be to be in this business.”

That was the first moment in this episode that I knew I was hearing something special.

Then McPartland asks Fort to play something else. She chooses Thelonious Monk’s “Hackensack,” and she plays the hell out of it. They follow this up with another Monk tune, “Blue Monk,” this time done as a duet. This suits me well, as Monk was one of the players who led the way to my love of this music.

I remember being a teenager and my cousin Sylvia and her husband George came to visit us in Detroit. When George found out I was into jazz, we talked about jazz a lot during their visit. I learned that George used to play bass and that’s where his love of music stemmed from. I also remember us talking about Thelonius Monk. By the time we were done talking about Monk, I was more determined than ever to hear something from him. Shortly after George’s visit I bought my first Monk CD and I have been listening ever since.

Another moment that points to this episode being something more than what we are hearing on the surface is when McPartland asks Fort, “How do you learn the tunes?”

Fort answers and then turns the question back on McPartland and I found myself shouting, “YES! THANK YOU!”

Yes Marian McPartland, who has put out over 50 albums and seems to know every song that gets played on this show. Of course we want to know about you as well!

I hope other guests of the show turn the question back on her. She had such a storied career of her own, I want to know what her answers would be for a lot of the questions she asks her guests. Thank you to Fort for having the presence of mind to do it in this instance.

There is another moment in this episode where I thought, “Oh shit! Anat Fort is a true fan of Marian McPartland!” At one point Fort asked if she could make a request and said, “I know you play ‘Blackberry Winter.’ Would you play that? … Would you?” It’s that last, “Would you?” that really gives it away. She said it so diminished and small. It’s incredibly cute to hear because I can imagine that in that circumstance I would be thinking how can I ask this person who I have looked up to my whole life to play a song just for me. This is so awesome to hear!

The music industry is dominated by men. At any given time you can find recent articles wondering why it’s so heavily tilted in this manner. So if you are a woman who loves to play jazz piano, you will naturally look for other women who also play. You will inevitably run across Marian McPartland, and you will find that she not only played but she was prolific and considered one of the best in the art form. That has to be an empowering discovery.

So imagine one day finding yourself sitting in a room with her, being able to request a song and she plays it for you. I don’t know how Fort felt in that moment, but it was magical for me.

via GIPHY

This brings me to something I have started to wonder about as I keep listening to these episodes. What did it mean to be on the show for the musicians who were invited? I mean, I loved the show enough to be sitting here working my way through every episode of the show. Were the musicians as excited about being on the show as I am about listening to it? Was it confirmation of a career? For the musicians who weren’t as well known, did it lend the weight to their career that I imagine it would? I would think that it would lead to a step up – better shows, more opportunities, something.

If I ever get to interview any of the musicians who were guests on the show, this would be at the core of my questions for them. What did it mean to you to be on Piano Jazz?

As for Anat Fort, it’s amazing that there are people who are so talented and so good and I still somehow manage to miss them. This is what I miss about listening to radio shows where the hosts and DJs get to curate the music they play. Lucky for me that the Piano Jazz archive is out there for me to explore.

The next episode is with Max Roach and I can’t wait to get into it.

Roger

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