Saturday, August 10, 2013

Al Haig, a Pianist of Vigilant Sensitivity

Al Haig

One of my relatives, recently turned 66, whose life is wholly dedicated to jazz (and I'm used to calling him "uncle") asked me for a groundbreaking favor, something that utterly defines his jazz canon: he asked me to reorganize his iPod, delete the unnecessary stuff, so he can only listen to the albums recorded by three musicians and no one else - all pianists. For him, the lucky 3 who have survived the test of time were, respectively, Count Basie, Al Haig and Ahmad Jamal.

While Basie holds a rank only next to God, and Ahmad is enjoying a belated recognition (in spite of being praised by Miles Davis and selling thousands of his Pershing album more than half a century ago), though mostly in Europe, Haig still remains the pianist in the dark, the doomed figure, nevertheless the most lyrical of all.

"In many respects,"Max Harrison declared, "Al Haig was  the most sympathetic pianist to record with Parker." The same writer quotes Stan Getz who calls Haig "the best in the business."

Williams' Jazz Review article (Volume 3, Number 5, June 1960) sheds more light on the career of the obscured giant:

He has an apparently intuitive understanding of a surprisingly wide range of soloists and, with his fine technical equipment, he is usually able to execute the best possible support for their improvisations. 
At their best Haig's accompaniments, like those of John Lewis, are enhancing commentaries rather than mere backgrounds. His technique is altogether exceptional, and there can be few pianists who would not admire the unfailing consistency of his light touch, or the absolute evenness of his scales and arpeggios. 
In his solos he is never content either merely to decorate the melody, or to abandon it altogether and base his lines solely on the chords. He often demonstrates a quite exceptional power of conceiving an independent melody that, while distinct from the theme, is a true variation on it. 
At other times, he will present the original melody with a deceptive simplicity and directness but still make convincing jazz out of it. 
Haig's melodic grace and delicate touch form an obvious contrast to Powell's almost unrelenting attack and intensity. 
The fast right-hand single lines are similar and so are the detached left-hand chords, yet the total effect is very different. Haig may be a little more conventional in phrase lengths, but his melodic sense is equally strong and individual. Also, his technique is such that his playing has a flexibility which lends to even the fastest of his performances a relaxation, that is a positive quality of his style because it allows him to think melodically at all tempos.  
His powers of melodic variation and of building improvisations that have continuity over several choruses lend his solos an unusual degree of concentration. 
The perfectly controlled touch and phrasing are evidence enough of a vigilant sensitivity.

Now I'm going back to fix my Uncle's iPod.

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