Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hank Jones and His Secret After-hours Classics

Hank Jones’s touch, taste, harmonic wisdom, professionalism, and versatility as a soloist, and accompanist or ensemble player was clear to anyone. In his music all emphasis was on "beauty,” and for instance not on dexterity (which is of course one of the very first elements of a pianist like Jones, especially when you hear him as a sideman), nor on emotional eruptions like his younger brother Elvin, the great drummer of John Coltrane’s classic quartet. Hank’s exquisite sensitivity, and the refinement of his musical thinking, placed him high on everyone's list of favorite pianists from 1950s till very recently. I am one of them.

His light, harplike touch, as though he were plucking the piano's strings instead of striking its keys, and his gracefully restrained single-note style are a reformulation of their aesthetic in modern jazz terms. He was a pianist of great flexibility. He could not only "fit in" with other cats, but inspire and stimulate them, and we are talking about a wide range of jazzmen, from Artie Shaw to Jackie McLean, as well as singers of every variety, from Andy Williams to Ella Fitzgerald. One of the best examples of this stimulation could be found in his duo with Red Mitchell (issued by Timeless label, 283), recommended by my jazz uncle, Ali-Reza Poodat, a beautifully executed record with Hank at his most lyrical touch.

This afternoon I started with his quartet/quintet(s) from a 1955 Columbia session, with Donald Byrd, Matty Dice (at least to me, an unknown trumpeter), Eddie Jones on bass and Kenny Clarke. The thing that stroked me most was Hank’s modesty and generosity in giving his combo a lot of time and space for extended solos, even when the session is under his own leadership, and commercially appeared with his name on sleeve. In these sessions I love his heavily romantic interpretations of standards, and his classical way (in European sense of the word) in translating American pop tunes into a relaxing, dynamics and imaginative eccentricities. As a matter of fact I’ve always loved pianist of a gentler and more lyrical approach to the instrument. Those cats, somewhere between the aggressiveness of bebop and bluesy feeling of hard bop; cats like Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Wynton Kelly, Kenny Baron and Tommy Flanagan. While Hank Jones speaks respectfully of pianists as varied as Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Al Haig, his playing derives more from the Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole. I can hear these influences in the works of Kelly, Harris or Red Garland, too.

A day later, I had a delightful time with another Hank’s record from the Savoy label. Hank was virtually Savoy Records' "house pianist" in the middle of 1950s. What I heard was his first trio record, after a solo recording, for the label, simply called The Trio (with bassist Wendell Marshall and Kenny Clarke). Here, Jones achieves one of the most deeply relaxed grooves in jazz history. He provides a model of alert yet unintrusive accompaniment, while his solos combine ascending and descending runs of carefully modulated dynamics, deft funky touches, and a flexible rhythmic sense that constantly pushes and pulls at the beat. “This is one of jazz's secret after-hours classics” says David Rosenthal (in his study of Hard Bop) about the session, and continues “Marshall's velvety bass and Clarke's perfect wrist control on brushes lay down a cushion of sound as they mesh with Jones's dancing, skipping lines on medium tempos and his lushly strummed chords and bell-like octaves on ballads.”

What can I add to this, except listening to Hank with these certain qualities in his music, will never make me tired. There are always lot to hear, lot to groove and lot to be mesmerized. That’s what I call, in my very limited vocabulary of jazz, a PERFECT musician. God rest his soul.

--Ehsan Khoshbakht

1 comment:

  1. Yes I totally agree! I was fortunate in having been able to interview him in the summer of 2010, in the South of France. At 91 years old he appeared on stage at the Vienne Jazz Festival(France), no stick, no specs, no hearing aid, and blew us all away; a consummate musician. R.I.P.