Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Revival of Fatha: Earl Hines Returns to NYC

These recordings document Earl Hines' return to the top after a decade of obscurity in the West Coast. Here, on a March 7, 1964 date from the Little Theater in New York City, Hines teams up with bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Oliver Jackson for a triumphant return to form. For three numbers, his band member from the 1940s, Budd Johnson, sits in.

I'll play a tape from David W. Niven's collection, featuring some of tunes The Earl Hines Trio (and Quartet) played during this particularly significant engagement, but before that, I invite you to read the passionate notes written by the co-organizer of the event, David Himmelstein, and passages of the New Yorker review of the concert by Whitney Balliett, both as exquisite as the recordings:

"I'm a band pianist, you know. I've never given a concert like this before," said Earl 'Fatha' Hines shortly after his arrival in New York City during the first week in March 1964. The news of this historic "first" was only the beginning of a series of surprises that Hines, after a give year absence from the New York scene, was to unveil at the three weekend concerts that were part of the Jazz On Broadway series at the Little Theatre, produced by Down Beat’s New York editor, critic Dan Morgenstern and myself [David Himmelstein]. The astonishing fact that Hines - the man who can safely be said to have singlehandedly made the piano a significant solo voice in the jazz band and whose instrumental style directly influenced the course of jazz through Bud Powell - had never given a piano recital is no less remarkable than the semi-obscurity into which he had slipped during the 1950s.

Anxious to meet his sidemen - the sensitive bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and the wonderful drummer Oliver Jackson -Hines held the meeting on the stage of the Little Theatre, several hours before the first concert, and what followed was one of the most memorable "rehearsals" ever witnessed. Pork-pie hat tilted forward, pipe-jutted and camel's haircoat a-fly, Hines vaulted onto the stage and without so much as a “how d'y do", began to play. He introduced himself to the boys, changed tempo, discussed the routines, joked, rearranged their positions onstage. Forty minutes later, the three were as thick as thieves, playing together as if they had known each other always, all in a delightful frame of mind. Hines had never once stopped playing and the continuous music he made seemed one long, connected piece. By the time he had concluded, the stagehands (and who is more blasé than the crew of a Broadway theatre?) were standing, listening, awe-struck in the wings. Fatha had stepped in and scored the initial victory in what was to become a triumphal weekend.

As the first concert began, I was on my way down from the dressing rooms with Albert "Budd" Johnson, the great saxophonist who was to appear as a guest soloist in the second half of the programme. ("My Budd", as Hines calls him) [Johnson] found a seat at the very edge of the wings. He sat transfixed, attention riveted on the grinning pianist who was in full flight. Midway through the next piece. Hines executed a particularly intricate phrase and Johnson exclaimed "That old man is crazy!" During the next, Johnson leaped up and whispered hoarsely, "What did you get‘ me into? That old man is really playing. I never expected anything like this," He paused and looked serious. “I'd better go wet my reed," he said, and ambled off into the backstage darkness to prepare his horn, although there was fully one hour to go before he was scheduled to play.

By intermission time the entire audience was in a similar state of euphoria. Hines played like a man possessed and had communicated his demon to them. He brought them to the edges of their seats, lifted them up, made them shiver with pleasure and tremble with excitement.

Whitney Balliett titled his review in the New Yorker -a magazine not generally given to gushing - "Triumph". This is how Balliett rhapsodizes his experience:

“Hines, tall and quick-moving, with a square, noble face is a hypnotic performer. His almost steady, smile is an unconscious, transparent mask. When he is most affected, the smile freezes-indeed, his whole face clenches. Then the smile falters, revealing a desolate, piercing expression which melts into another smile. He tosses his head back and opens his mouth, hunches over, sways from side to side, and rumbling to himself, clenches his face again, tears of sweat pouring down his cheeks. His face and manner are his music - the sort of naked, perfect, non-show-man showmanship that stops the heart. Brilliance topped brilliance. He exhibited arpeggios that made Tatum sound electronic and Monk scraggly; shocking dynamic shifts; odd, melancholy, turned-in chords; an unbelievable rhythmic drive; lyricism upon lyricism; and a juxtaposition of moods that made one laugh with delight."

Set list:

Fats Waller Medley
Sweet Lorraine
Mandy Make up Your Mind
Speak Low
Brussels's Hustle
Canadian Sunset
Lullaby Of Birdland
Birth Of The Blues
Black Coffee
Blues Jam
Lester Leaps In
Out Of Nowhere
Blues For Jazz Quartet

Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans 

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