This Sunday marks 25 years since French jazz pianist François Rilhac took his own life at the age of 32. The tragedy seems all the more keen in contrast with what it silenced; Rilhac had devoted his career to music of sheer joy.
Rilhac’s metier was stride piano, ragtime’s unabashedly virtuosic progeny: waves of right-hand brilliance over a left hand leaping from bass to chord with precipitous, implacable athleticism. In the 1920s, such figures as Fats Waller and James P. Johnson perfected the style — with Art Tatum bringing it to a lavish, impressionistic peak — and it provided a foundation for musicians who ventured into other jazz realms. (Count Basie, for instance, leading his band from the piano, would, on rare occasions, garnish his laconic swing with a few phrases of long-dormant double-time stride.)
Rilhac reversed that pattern, cutting his musical teeth on bebop and straight-ahead jazz before embracing stride. It proved an uncanny fit, fully engaging Rilhac’s talents: his unflappable rhythm, his sharply creased sound, and his breakneck precision, fluently tossing off Tatum-like cascades. He crested the old masters’ steepest summits — Tatum’s version of Rudolf Friml’s “Song of the Vagabond,” for instance, or Donald Lambert’s exigent jazz version of the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Richard Wagner’s
“Tannhäuser” — while, in his own compositions, harnessing stride’s capacity for tightly woven harmonic color.
For all of Rilhac’s dazzle as a soloist, he did much of his playing in groups, whether a member of washboard-player Gilbert Leroux’s band, fronting his own collective, François Rilhac’s Harlem Jazz, or in a duet partnership with fellow pianist Louis Mazetier. His discography was limited, with only a single solo album released during his lifetime (“Megalo Stride Piano,” now out of print), although further recordings have appeared posthumously — most recently, “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” a live album recorded in Paris in 1985. The piano is in questionable shape (apparently the reason Rilhac originally shelved the album) but the pianism is beguiling.
On Rilhac’s recordings, one listens in vain for the darkness that plagued him. The only possible echo is found in his endings: Much as pianist Erroll Garner would ruminate his way into a number with long, discursive introductions, Rilhac, especially in ballads, often took his time winding things up, lingering for a phrase or two or three longer than expected. It’s almost as if every song was its own alluring, self-contained world — fantastic realms that Rilhac, perhaps, was ever reluctant to leave.