Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Just Hawk: Coleman Hawkins in Denmark

Someone opened that bloody book again this morning and Witney Balliett's words echoed in the room:

"Improvisation, the seat of jazz, is a remorseless art that demands of the performer no less than this: that, night after night, he spontaneously invent original music by balancing emotion and intelligence, form and content, and tone and attack, all of which must both charge and entertain the spirit of the listener. Improvisation comes in various hues and weights... Great improvisation is rare; bad improvisation, which is really not improvisation at all but a rerun or imitation of old ideas, is common. No art is more precarious or domineering. Thus, such consummate veteran improvisers as Armstrong, [Vic] Dickenson, Hawkins, Buck Clayton, and Monk are, in addition to be master craftsmen, remarkable endurance runners. One of the hardiest of these is Hawkins.

A trim, contained man, whose rare smiles have the effect of a lamp suddenly going on within, [Hawkins'] early style was rough and aggressive, and he used a great many staccato, slap-tongued notes. But these mannerisms eventually vanished, and by the mid-thirties he had entered his second and most famous phase. His heavy vibrato suggested the wingbeats of a big bird and his tone halls hung with dark velvet and lit by huge fires. His technique has become infallible.

Hawkins would often begin [a] number by playing one chorus of the melody, as if he were testing it. He would fill its fabric with tone to see how much it would take, eliminate certain notes, sustain others, slur still others, and add new ones. Then, satisfied, he would  shut his eyes, as if blinded by what he was about to play, and launch into improvisation with a concentration that pinned one down.

He would construct -- out of phrases crowded with single notes, glissandos, abrupt stops, and his corrugated vibrato -- long, hilly figures that sometimes lasted until his breath gave out. Refilling his lungs with wind-tunnel ferocity, he would be off again -- bending notes, dropping in little runs like steep, crooked staircases, adding decorative, almost calligraphic flourished, emphasizing an occasional phrase by allowing it to escape into puffs of breath. He often closed those solos with roomy codas, into which he would squeeze fresh and frequently fancy ideas that had simply been crowded out of his earlier ruminations.

When Hawkins had finished, his solo, anchored directly and emphatically to the beat, had been worked into an elaborate version of the original melody, as though he had fitted a Victorian mansion over a ranch house."

Here is a rarely heard solo from Hawk's late period in Europe which I hope proves many points in the Balliett's piece, even if the Hawk of this 1968 session is almost 10 years older than the time Balliett published his Hawk manifesto. Though Hawk was gravely ill during these "last years", but once again, that Victorian mansion is magically fitted over a shack.

The line-up is:

Coleman Hawkins (ts), Lou Bennett (org), Paul Weeden (g), Albert ”Tootie” Heath (d)
Copenhagen, Denmark, February 14, 1968

They play Just You, Just Me, originally issues on Tempo di Jazz (only in Italy).

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