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The crystal jazz of Ellis Larkins

By MELVIN MADDOCKS / November 25, 1987



IT is a custom among journalists to justify their preoccupation of the moment by hooking it to an anniversary - then foisting the subject on the reader with the argument of timeliness. Very well. It is exactly 10 years since the pianist Ellis Larkins made an album in Paris called ``A Smooth One'' for the Classic Jazz label. Furthermore, it is exactly 15 years since he cut an album of duets with the cornetist Ruby Braff for Chiaroscuro Records in New York - ``Grand Reunion'' was the title.

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Does this satisfy the required news peg?

Of course if the man had just won a poll as Best Jazz Pianist of the Year - or even Best-Dressed Jazz Pianist of the Year - the cry would go up: ``Stop the presses!''

What nonsense! The good and sufficient reason to write about Mr. Larkins now, or at any time, is that he happens to be a superbly gifted musician, a fact that in the best of all worlds would command a headline now and then, year in, year out.

In addition - if you need an ``in addition'' - he belongs to a neglected field of music. The attention that jazz receives compared with rock is, alas, in proportion to the difference in volume of sound, it seems. Surely it is one of the duties of a journalist to unplug all those high-decibel rock guitars and redress the balance.

Moreover, in his neglected field, Larkins is not exactly a household name, perhaps because he constitutes as subtle a presence among jazz musicians as a musician does among heavy-metal rockers. Classically trained at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and later at the Juilliard School, he looks like a scholar at the keyboard - bespectacled, impeccably but soberly dressed, every inch not a showman.

The appearance is far from misleading. Larkins carries jazz to the brink of overrefinement. He feathers the keyboard as if it were a well-tempered clavier, striking the hammers with a gentle precision. The notes in his runs scatter like dazzling chips of crystal. His elegant style is made for whispering brushes and tinkling cymbals and bass strings that go quietly plonk! in the night. A listener's first impression may be of a control too absolute, too immaculate to be jazz.

But there is a velvet drive to Larkins, too. The first jazz piano he heard was Fats Waller, and a hint of Harlem ``stride'' asserts itself in his left hand - if the stride can be thought of as Larkins's fingers stepping out like Fred Astaire's feet. The gentleman practically boogies on ``St. Louis Blues.'' Nor is Mr. Waller's bearlike playfulness without its counterpart - perhaps on the scale of a Siamese cat in Larkins's case. There is an impish unpredictability to the way he lights upon a simple trill and repeats it - for a minute and 42 seconds straight in ``Rose Room.'' The insistent figure is, by turns, amusing, lyrical, and mock-suspenseful. But finally, like all Larkins's ideas, it builds its own momentum and packs an unsuspected wallop. When he wants to raise his voice - just a little - the pianist hits a firm, decisive chord.

Everything is so relaxed, even so casual, and yet everything is as clearly outlined as a copperplate etching. No wonder singers have sung Larkins's praises as an accompanist. For a flawless model of jazz-piano backing and filling behind a voice, beg, borrow, or steal an old Decca recording pairing Larkins with Ella Fitzgerald on ``Ella Sings Gershwin.'' What a complete act of grace the pianist creates from his 26-second break in ``My One and Only!''

Larkins has a modest sense of craft that makes him not only respect the singer he accompanies but ``hear'' in his own head the words even when he is playing a ballad by himself. More remarkably, by his own account he believes in the melody.

In short, he is sophisticated enough to dare to be simple. ``I always hope,'' Larkins once told Nat Hentoff. ``I am a believer in something - I expect you can call it possibility. I have 88 keys. I give them love, and they give it back.''

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