Jazz Bestament (Paris 2005)
a typo. This is a Bestament, not a Testament.
can call it anything he wants to call it. He has earned the right.
Johnny was playing jazz in Romania in the Fifties, when he claims
you could get arrested for whistling Gershwin. Revered as much
by his compatriots for staring down authority as for his legendary
performances, he played piano at a private audience for Duke Ellington
in the Sixties in Bucharest, reducing America's greatest jazz
composer to tears.
A rebel to
the core, Johnny, now in his late 70s, would have been a dissident
in whatever society or country he'd have been born in. During
the height of Ceaucescu's dreary reign, 1980 to be precise, he
yelled "Fuck the government!" repeatedly from the stage at Romania's
national jazz festival in Sibiu, with producers and camera crews
begging him to pipe down. (I know, I was there to perform as his
He used to
complain that the trouble with the Romanian Communist Party was
that there were no Communists in it, only dentists and goons and
bureaucrats. In truth, the RCP often seemed to be a sort of Shopping
Club run by the Sopranos. (It amazed JR to learn that just anybody
could walk in and join the Party in the U.S.)
that Raducanu is a Gypsy only made his unlikely career even more
of a high-wire act. During his heyday, practically nothing except
the occasional tennis player was getting out of Romania and coming
to the West. The audience that would have dug him the most had
no idea he existed. When I was in Bucharest, I couldn't find anyone
at the U.S. Embassy who had bothered to go and hear him play.
It may have
been just as well. The only thing that irked him more than his
own government was mine, and he'd have likely said so. I mentioned
Nixon to him once, and he replied, "Fucking Pepsi Cola." (Nixon
had visited Bucharest, to pose with Ceausescu the "maverick,"
and bottles of warm Pepsi had mysteriously appeared in his wake,
people lining up for blocks to drink them down and hand the bottle
I am quite
certain he's not giving Ceausescu's successors any easy time of
it, either. The thought of the trouble he'd have made in a corporate
world is exquisite, cancelled only by the awareness that he'd
have been too hip to get in the front door.
expected to be discussing Mel Lewis, Thad Jones and Bill Evans
in Bucharest, and certainly not with someone who knew far more
about them than I did. When I asked Johnny for some piano pointers,
during a visit to his apartment, he jabbed a finger into my chest
and said, "Monk."
actually his apartment, it was his ex-wife's. He claimed to live
nowhere, and I believed him.
I rode with
him in a train compartment once. Silent for long stetches, he'd
turn from gazing out the window to say something like, "Mingus."
That would be the whole conversation. He didn't have to say anything
else. The way he said the name told you everything you needed
a macaronic pastiche of Romanian, French, American hipster, and
Romani, with words from lots of other tongues thrown in when you
least expect them. I asked him once what his first language was.
"Bartok," he replied. When I pressed the point, he claimed not
to have learned any language, actually, but to speak them all.
he fronted some great bands, and was much-admired as a bassist
by anyone fortunate enough to hear him, he's always been at his
best as a solo pianist. On this recording, a lifetime's struggle
with a complex art is distilled into an almost unbearable simplicity.
The closest comparison I can make is to Monk's late-period solo
recordings for Black Lion, on which he seems to cast aside all
mannerisms and quirks, and play the piano, at last, like a child.
of these tracks you'd think, "Anyone could play that." Then you
listen a little more, and he drops a couple of chord bombs on
you, and you realize that, whether they could have or not, no
one else has, and that you are listening to one of the world's
link to Johnny on iTunes, the only place you can hear him right
link to a good article on Johnny Raducanu, in which he has this
to say about a hospital stay: "They
took my heart out and washed it in a pisspot."
David Vest can be reached through his web site at www.rebelangel.com,
or at http://www.myspace.com/davidvest