The music on this album can best be characterized by the term classical jazz piano. It follows the swing and stride style that was popularized by early jazz pianists such as James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Willie "The Lion" Smith. While the music is very melodic and has the laidback feel of swing, it still contains strong ties to its origins in Ragtime. The stride piano means that the left hand will "stride" between the bottom and middle registers while the right hand improvises in variations on the melody, which often results in complex sounds and rhythmic variation between the two hands. This means the style works very well for solo performanc, such as what Lhotzky does on this album.
Bernd Lhotzky has done his best to add his own personal touches to the work of his stride piano predecessors. The German-born pianist graduated from the Munich Conservatory with interests in both classical piano and jazz. At the age of 22, he released his first CD of primarily stride piano compositions, and was acclaimed as the first German pianist to do so. Since then, he has refined his command of the keyboard and the execution of his ideas to produce this album.
Piano Portrait contains three main categories of selections that are interspersed throughout the album. Firstly, there are several jazz standards such as Irving Berlin's "Russian Lullaby", Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love", and Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz". All of the selections are nicely harmonized and the solos well planned. It's obvious that these pieces are favorites of Lhotzky and that he feels completely comfortable with them. Secondly, the suite by Eastwood Lane entitled "Adirondack Sketches" is more classical than the other selections and contains many elements of Ravel and Debussy. All of the six segments of the suite are played very tastefully, without many attempts at greatness. Instead, the focus is on giving the music a sing-song, soothing quality using primarily the melody line and some harmonization. Lastly, there are several piano specialty pieces included on the album. Many, such as "Rippling Waters", "Passionette", and "Fading Star", are transcriptions of recordings by Willie "The Lion" Smith from the late 1930s. The writing is very contrapunctal, leaving little room for improvisaton, so Lhotzky takes some liberty with the numerous recorded versions to create his own version. "There Was Nobody Looking" is from the Duke Ellington Deep South Suite. It suits Lhotzky's style very well with a call and response motif between the left and right hands, as well as bluesy waltz-like middle section. "Caprice Rag" is a fastpaced James P. Johnson tune where Lhotzky shows clear, light-fingered playing despite the burning, Ragtime tempo.
On the whole, this album contains something for just about everyone. Lhotzky has chosen most of these compositions to show how he could build upon the ideas of earlier jazz artists. Every selection is played with the utmost artistry and ability, yet at the same time with humility and verity for the style as it is. While Lhotzky can be appreciated as a master of his chosen art, his playing is very easy for listening and, for those of us who have lost our selfconsciousness, dancing.