Photos: Disques Dreyfus

Michel Petrucciani was born to Italian parents in Montpellier, France. His family was musical, and as a child he played the drums in a band with his father, Tony, a guitarist, and his brother Louis, a bassist.

Michel was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as "glass bones," a disease that stunted his growth (he was only three feet tall and weighed barely 50 pounds) and weakened his bones.

At the age of four he discovered the piano. One evening, seeing Duke Ellington for the first time on television, he pointed at the screen and said, "I want to play that." At Christmas that year his parents gave him a small toy piano. At once Michel seized a hammer and smashed the toy to pieces. "I want a real one," he said. His father bought him an old piano that was falling apart, and made an extension so that Michel's feet could reach the pedals. Michel studied classical music for eight years, then turned his attention to jazz because he loved to improvise and wanted to write his own music. Later on, when he was thirty, Michel paid tribute to the man who first inspired him to want to play the piano in a solo album called Promenade With Duke.  Much later, in 1992 he played a duo with his father on a tour called "Like Father, Like Son" to show his love and appreciation for the man who had helped him so much for all of his life.

When Michel was thirteen, he gave his first concert as a professional at the Cliousclat Festival. He had to be carried onto the stage, and used a special attachment to work the sustaining pedal of the piano.  This disadvantage didn't affect his hands, however, and, according to reports, he played with amazing vigor and enthusiasm.   Also performing at the festival was the American trumpeter Clark Terry, who needed a pianist that day. When Michel offered him his services, Clark thought it was a joke. "'Let's play the Blues,' he said. The minute Michel played, Clark embraced him, and that was where it all started.

A few months after the following concert tour with Terry, a decisive encounter took place in the South of France. Chuck Israels, a bass player who had played with Bill Evans, and Petrucciani's idol, appreciated his lyrical and energetic style so much that he decided to help him along, first by introducing Michel to the drummer Kenny Clarke. Kenny took to him straight away, and things started to look up for the young pianist. Shortly after, in 1980, Petrucciani was invited to a recording studio, where he found himself in the company of the drummer Aldo Romano, trombonist Mike Zwerin and his brother Louis on bass. Michel had first met Aldo Romano at a village fair when he was sixteen, and often referred to him as "my guardian angel." Together they recorded an hour of music. Entitled Flash, the resulting album was a hit. On the heels of this success, Michel Petrucciani was able to form a permanent trio along with Romano and the bass player Jean-François Jenny-Clark.

That year, performing for the first time at the Paris Jazz Festival, he was a sensation at the Theatre de la Ville. The following year, Michel decided, as a challenge, to set off for America. He landed in New York where a friend gave him the address of a musician living on the West Coast. When he arrived at Charles Lloyd's Californian retreat two weeks later, he wasn't aware that it was Charles who had first discovered the young pianist Keith Jarrett back in the 1960s. Once he heard that Michel was also a jazz pianist, Lloyd suggested that he should play something on his Steinway. After hearing a few bars Charles went and fetched his saxophone. For two days they played together non-stop. This shared adventure lasted five years and resulted in three albums. Charles Lloyd really opened every door for Michel—it could not have been a better start for his American career. Moving to California in 1982, he joined Charles Lloyd's new quartet. A solo performance by Michel at Carnegie Hall as part of the Kool Jazz Festival resulted in widespread critical acclaim.

Within a few years, Michel had worked with some of the best jazzmen and rhythm sections in the world. Among them were drummers Al Foster, Jack DeJohnette; bass players Dave Holland, Gary Peacock, Eddie Gomez, Stanley Clarke, Cecil McBee; guitarists  Jim Hall, John Abercrombie, John Scofield; saxophonists Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Joe Lovano, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, David Sanborn and Gerry Mulligan, not to mention the legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

In 1986, at age 21, he became the first French musician to sign with the prestigious Blue Note Label, where he recorded six albums. Michel continued to travel the world, with a youthful energy, forever changing his music groups and environment.  

He played and recorded with Lee Konitz. Out of the combination of Konitz's alto sax and Michel's piano came the album Toot Sweet, a duo still considered by European critics to be one of the high–spots of jazz in the 1980s.

Between 1986 and 1994, he made seven albums for Blue Note Records, including "Power of Three" (with Wayne Shorter and Jim Hall), and an acclaimed album of original songs, "Michel Plays Petrucciani" (Blue Note).  

In 1994 Michel was made a knight of the Legion of Honor in Paris.  

Michel toured Germany, Italy and France in 1997, playing at all the festivals. A sextet tour followed, featuring Anthony Jackson, Steve Gadd, Bob Brookmeyer with Flavio Boltro on trumpet and Stefano di Battista on alto and soprano saxophones. This group was one of Michel's most rewarding efforts, performing into the following year and recording Both Worlds for Dreyfus Records, released in 1998. The CD is entirely comprised of Petrucciani compositions, beautifully arranged by Bob Brookmeyer.

On January 6th, 1999, Michel Petrucciani passed away in Manhattan at the age of 36, from a pulmonary infection. At the time of his death Dreyfus Records were readying a release documenting Michel's 1997 solo tour of Europe. Recorded live in Frankfurt, Germany on February 27, the program featured a number of original compositions including the extended "Trilogy In Blois (Morning Sun, Noon Sun and Night Sun In Blois)" and the lyrical "Chloé Meets Gershwin". Michel also paid homage on Solo Live to a couple of his heroes with an expansive rendition of Duke Ellington's trademark "Caravan" and a medley of his own "She Did It Again" and Billy Strayhorn's "Take The A Train".

Michel Petrucciani was a national hero in France, and his records were best sellers in Europe. French President Jacques Chirac was among the many who paid tribute to him, praising his ability to "renew jazz, giving himself up to his art with passion, courage and musical genius." He called him an "example for everyone."

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