UPDATE (2 May 2017): Thanks to Bécquer Seguín for linking to this now somewhat dated article. I hope that it’s main argument still holds, and is of interest. It was originally posted on 20 August 2013.

This Wednesday, Gerardo Martino’s Barcelona travel to the Vicente Calderón Stadium to take on Atlético Madrid in the first leg of the Spanish Supercopa, their first real test of the season after eviscerating Levante 7-0 in their season opener.  With a new era underway, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the genius of Guardiola’s (and Vilanova’s) Barcelona and the tiki-taka football they perfected.  In order to do so, I want to turn outside the game, to one of the greatest American artists of the 20th Century: Art Tatum.

If you have never heard Art Tatum play piano, you must do so right away (the 1940 version of “Tiger Rag” below is as good a place as any to start, though almost equally impressive is the 1933 version, one of his earliest recordings).  Being a musician or a jazz fan will certainly further your appreciation, but in the way that being a geologist furthers one’s appreciation of the Grand Canyon.  Even now, over a half century on, the impact of his talent is immediate and overwhelming.

Nonetheless, the praise he received from his most talented contemporaries is noteworthy.  Seeing Tatum in the audience during a club gig, Fats Waller—himself no slouch—announced “I just play piano, but God is in the house tonight.”  Charlie Parker once worked a stint washing dishes for free just to hear him playing at a club.  Vladimir Horowitz, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and George Gershwin counted themselves among his admirers.  Jazz critic Leonard Feather captured a widely held view in declaring Tatum the greatest soloist in jazz history, regardless of instrument.

In comparing Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona to Art Tatum, I am not really interested in asserting an equivalency in degree of greatness (though such a claim is not, on its face, unreasonable).  Instead, I want to suggest that Barcelona’s peculiar expression of soccer genius bears compelling and illuminating analogies to Tatum’s equally unique contribution to jazz.  Both involve unrivaled technical brilliance that, in largely unacknowledged ways, unbalances the traditional aesthetic principles of their respective disciplines.  Because we think about music in purely aesthetic terms, recognizing the similarities between his achievements and Barcelona’s can help us to better understand our responses to the team beyond wins and losses or goals for and against.  Simply put, I think that understanding how and why Barcelona’s genius operates like Art Tatum’s makes it easier to appreciate their performances and those of the deeply inter-related Spanish national team, especially the performances most derided by critics.

Barcelona - Bayer Leverkusen, 7 March 2012

To begin with, Tatum’s brilliance is defined by a technically flawless execution, at unimaginable pace, of runs and variations that are, considered individually, quite simple and conceptually unremarkable.  Tatum is not a radical conceptual innovator, like Thelonious Monk (or, in football terms, Dennis Bergkamp).  Rather, he has taken some of the most basic and straightforward elements of jazz improvisation and sped them up to an impossible rate while still maintaining an absolute precision and accuracy.  We do not ask “how did he think of that?” so much as “how does he do that?”  And the cumulative result is undoubtedly conceptual, broadening our sense of what is possible within the form and opening new vistas, if only fully attainable by Tatum himself.  In short, tiki-taka on the keyboard.

Two other points about the nature of Tatum’s genius seem particularly relevant to Barcelona.  The first is that his music reshapes our sense of time rather than space.  Whereas spatial metaphors seem more apt for the sonic vistas opened up by conceptual innovators like Monk, time is what most notably bends in Tatum’s hands.  It seems impossible that so much song can be fitted into only 2:30 or 3:00 minutes, an experience not dissimilar to the dizzying passing statistics (and resulting possession) that Barcelona and Spain routinely generate.  Equally important is the way in which this mastery of time can reveal itself through radical shifts in pace.  Though visible across Tatum’s catalog—the shift from the introductory passage of “Tiger Rag” is a textbook example—I think my favorite illustration is his 1934 “Liza,” which spends just over a minute and a half pretending to be an ordinary recording before sprinting into the inhuman pace at which Tatum routinely works.

Those shifts in pace, the ability to move from what looks like harmless lateral and backwards passing to a devastating forward move, usually followed by two or three additional passes to utterly discomfit a recovering defense, are a signature component of Barcelona’s game when at its best.

Yet for all of Tatum’s brilliance, there is at least one notable drawback in his recording catalog: a lack of truly successful collaboration.  As a solo artist, he is almost certainly without compare; but whenever Tatum found himself in an ensemble of any sort, the whole was almost always less than the sum of its parts.  This is true from his 1941 sessions supporting singer Big Joe Turner to the series of all-star ensemble recordings arranged by Norman Granz in the mid-fifties before Tatum’s untimely death in 1956.  Buddy Defranco, who played with Tatum on one of these later sessions, described the experience as “like chasing a train.”  Indeed, the temptation is to say that the real problem was simply that no one else could keep up with Tatum.  But the reality is that, even when collaborating with other giants, as in this duet with Coleman Hawkins, one can’t help but feel they would each be better off on their own.

The closest thing to an exception would be Tatum’s fruitful trio collaborations with bassist Slam Stewart, especially the 1943 grouping that included guitarist Tiny Grimes.  One is tempted to make comparisons to the better of Barcelona’s tilts with Jose Mourinho-led teams: the finest of their Classico match-ups or the first leg of Barcelona’s 2010 Champions League Semifinal tie with Inter Milan.  In reality, though, Stewart was less Mourinho to Tatum’s Guardiola than simply the collaborator who most frequently understood how to get out of Tatum’s way.

A more fruitful approach to thinking about what Tatum’s limitations as a collaborator can teach us about tiki-taka is to step back and think more broadly about the relationship between jazz and football.  Jazz has always seemed to me one of the most promising sources of football analogies in art because of the central role it grants to improvisation.  (As a kind of support, you might think of how easily samba, thanks to Brazil the most common musical metaphor applied to the game, merged with jazz in the aptly-timed bossa nova movement of the 60s.)

Though we most frequently think of jazz improvisation in collaborative terms, within the framework of a unified band, there remains an inherently competitive element to jazz soloing as well, best seen in the so-called cutting heads of afterhours jam sessions.  The incredible collaborations of Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray are formal—and sometimes not-so-formal—elaborations of this tradition.  But the key point about great jazz records, like the Gordon and Gray collaborations, is that each is driven by interaction to higher levels of performance.  The whole, at least in theory, is greater than the sum of its parts.

The same holds true for a great game, if not necessarily for a great team: the two sides need to prod one another, pushing each beyond their comfort zone to produce something greater than either could achieve individually.  This is precisely where both Barcelona and Art Tatum confound our expectations.  In both cases, their technical superiority ensure that virtually no one can actually compete with them in the ordinary sense.  Tatum’s best collaborators are those who just get out of his way, while the majority of Barcelona’s opponents—even many of Mourinho’s sides—do not compete so much as pack themselves tightly within their own penalty box, hoping to limit Barca to only three or four scoring chances and, luck willing, steal a counter-attacking goal against the run of play.

Copa del Rey, 26 February 2013

In this context, it is no more surprising that Barcelona games are frequently “boring” than that Tatum is a better solo artist than an accompanist.  The criticism of Barcelona—and even moreso of the Spanish national side—of producing negative football with their tiki-taka domination is in many games altogether just.  While one can argue about whether Barcelona or their bus-parking opponents are to blame, the end result is certainly not the two-sided collaboration we most desire in a football game.

The reality is that, in most games, Guardiola’s Barcelona simply can’t be appreciated as part of a competition or collaboration.  Opponents couldn’t keep up, and most of them didn’t really even try.  Instead, you’re better off watching those Barcelona games—and those of the Spanish national side as well—as solo performances.  Don’t worry about the other team, the score, or anything other than the mesmerizing patterns of their passing and movement without the ball.  As a solo act, Barcelona is possibly unrivaled in the history of world football.  A trait they share with the pianist nicknamed God.

A request for help from my more video-savvy readers: the best support I can imagine for this argument would be a Barcelona video homage set to an Art Tatum solo recording.  I’m lacking in the editing skills to make this happen, but I hope someone else might take it on.  If you do, be sure to let me know so that I can link to your work and spread the word.

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