Marian Petrescu: The Next Great Jazz Virtuoso

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By Robbie Gennet

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UNLESS YOU’RE A FAN WHO FOLLOWS JAZZ AND CLASSICAL PIANO, THE name Marian Petrescu might be unfamiliar. Not for long. Petrescu has been causing a stir with his blazing technique and passion for performance. Growing up behind the iron curtain in Romania, Petrescu and his family escaped to Finland in the mid-1980s, where he began to build his career gradually. At age 19, he represented Finland in the Martial Solal competition, winning second prize and establishing himself on the international scene. In recent years, he has toured the world and visited the U.S. several times. Last year, he debuted at the Playboy Jazz Fest as the featured soloist in an Oscar Peterson tribute, raising his profile with a blazing opus of the technically difficult program.

Contrary to how some critics have unfairly tagged him as a Peterson sound-alike, Petrescu has a wide variety of styles in his grasp. “Though Oscar is a significant influence on my playing, he’s not the only one,” says Petrescu. “But even though I don’t like labels, I don’t feel it hurts to be compared to Oscar Peterson!” He also recognizes that all good musicians stand on the shoulders of giants: “We can know great players by how they phrase and the sound of them,” says Petrescu, “but everyone stole something from someone. You must have influences. Otherwise you can’t do it. You play all these different styles and draw them all in and make your own thing. On the other hand, nobody can be somebody else no matter how they try. We have different hands, so we can’t sound exactly like someone. We can play their style, but you never have to copy solos from the record. Play the style, not the notes.”

It’s the Harmony

Of all the wonderful qualities of Petrescu’s playing, it’s his exuberance and joy that always captivate his audiences. When asked how he keeps himself challenged, he says, “By living life, seeing new places, meeting new people, and keeping them entertained everywhere I go. I like the challenge of pleasing every person in my audience.” He describes his adopted home country of Finland as a great place with a thriving music scene full of very good jazz and classical musicians. After almost 25 years there, he considers its musical culture home, and is quick to point out other talents, such as Esa-Pekka Salonen, a conductor and musician he says is a worthy representation of Finland in the 21st century. As to his favorite composers of all time, Petrescu cites the great Romantics—Rachmaninoff , Chopin, and Liszt— the latter of whom he calls “the emperor of the piano.” It’s Rachmaninoff , though, who he credits for the harmonic foundation of his style.

“I like to use the harmony of Rachmaninoff a lot,” says Petrescu. “It’s how he constructs his chords. He was the biggest harmonist, in my opinion. Also Prokofiev, but he didn’t get as deep. In Rachmaninoff , you also find logic and beauty. Sometimes Prokofiev will go very far out and get very difficult rhythmically. But Rachmaninoff is full of soul. It’s beauty—everything he’s doing. He didn’t play a million notes, but every note is in the right place at the right time. Everything matters. He’d sometimes put the harmony in the bass, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes on top.”

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Petrescu emphasizes that the most important thing is not to copy anyone verbatim. “You can look at Charlie Parker solos, look to John Coltrane . . . but look to learn,” he says. “See what they use—what scales, what modes. The most essential thing is how you present your piece, the interpretation. You must have sound, beauty, conception, the melodic patterns between the written melody and any improvisation. This must all get you to the point to improvise logically. It’s much more beautiful to play logically than illogically.” That’s not to say that there can’t be beauty in the avant garde, but Petrescu insists beauty depends on harmony: “Your energy should go towards the harmony, not the difficulty. Go too far towards difficulty for its own sake, and you lose the beauty of the music. There are many kinds of pianists in the world. If someone wants to do something personal and make their own music, there’s nothing bad about that. But if I go to listen to a jazz piano player, I want to hear jazz. I want to see how he or she swings, how he or she combines phrases, how the piano sings through the hands.”

Performance Values

To Petrescu, a big part of performing with others involves using your most important piece of equipment: your ears. “It’s not about theory and mathematics,” he says. “It’s about how you hear another person onstage. You must be able to hear what you play and to concentrate with the other ear to hear what he’s playing. And you have to feel what he’s playing and you have to answer. It’s like a dialog. Music is like talking, like poetry. One of the most important things about playing with someone is what kind of telepathy you have with them.”

When playing jazz, Petrescu prefers modal exploration. “In free improvisation, I like to use a mode and grow in that same mode,” he says. “If I play free music, I don’t like to play everything that’s coming into my head. I like to choose a mode to grow from and come back to the same mode. It’s free, but with a limit.” Th at being said, Petrescu likes to leave some of his performance up to the mood of the moment. “I like to play in the moment. I never like to study what I’m playing. Play what you hear. Learn, close the book, and go play from memory.” And in order to have the chops, you need to put in the time, whether you pursue traditional lessons or not.

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“If you don’t have a classical background, then you still have to train your skills,” says Petrescu. “When you have good fingers, then you can command the instrument. But if you have a classical background, the instrument is easier. You can do everything that you’re thinking and that’s most important.” But you also must have a sense of dynamics. “The scale doesn’t have to be played mechanically,” he says. “You don’t have to push. When you play scales you have to be very gentle and let the piano sing. Don’t give everything away all at once.”

Petrescu seems like he never runs out of things to play and is never bored. “With the piano, you can never say that everything has been done,” he says. “You always find things.” That goes for both seasoned players and beginners. “Go listen to music first. Open your ear and your mind and let the heart sing what it hears. It’s singing in you, you never stop. I started jazz scatting to Ray Brown from the time I was eight or nine years old. I put Oscar Peterson on and scatted to every record with Ray Brown. This makes the music sing inside of you. Of course I want other people to enjoy my playing, but primarily, I have to love what I’m doing.”

Petrescu emphasizes the importance of connecting with the listener and laments the current state of live jazz. “In Europe, they’ll be onstage and they play for themselves. That’s why jazz loses the audience. You have to make the listener live with you, so that the music doesn’t stop at their ears; it comes inside their souls. Don’t just play for yourself. Play for the audience. Move them!” And don’t forget that without those seats filled, there’s no show. “I always think about what the audience says of it, not the musicians. As musicians, we’re never satisfied. Look at Erroll Garner. He was the most lovely piano player for the audience, even though he could play a lot of stuff that nobody can and was the only piano player that sometimes played with all ten fingers at once.”

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Above all, Petrescu feels that you shouldn’t stray too far from your chosen idiom, lest it become something else. “The most important thing in jazz is not to play something that has nothing to do with jazz,” he says. “You must sound jazzy—the swing, the chord voicings, all those things.” Populist fare like ragtime works well because of how it connects to the audience. “It sounds beautiful and it has a logic. It’s also easy for listeners. If it’s beautiful and funny, they come to listen to you not to concentrate; they come to enjoy it.”

Enjoy it they do, in ever-greater numbers. Petrescu has recorded two well-received albums on Resonance Records, a home for exemplary jazz pianists such as Bill Cunliffe and Donald Vega, and he is preparing his next recordings as you read this. And though Petrescu’s fiery chops delight and dazzle fans new and old, it is perhaps his heart that touches listeners the most. That a humble Romanian expatriate from Finland could make it to the Playboy Jazz Festival should inspire anyone with a dream to work hard and, in the words of Petrescu, let the heart sing what it hears.

Selected Discography

Thrivin’—Live at the Jazz Standard (Resonance Records, 2010)

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Resonance Big Band Plays Tribute to Oscar Peterson (Resonance Records, 2009)

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