Thursday, March 31, 2016

Miles at The Movies, April 1, 2016 - “Miles Ahead"

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“What's a labor of love? Take a look at what Don Cheadle does in Miles Ahead. Not only does he act the hell out of the role of the late jazz trumpeter Miles Davis — the raspy voice, the death stare, the hair, the attitude, the cocaine-fueled paranoia. Cheadle is also the director (his first time at bat),  co-writer and co-producer of the movie. That means he gets the lion's share of the credit — and also the blame. As an actor, Cheadle is flawless, letting us feel we're really hanging with a musical genius possessed of a volatile temper and a talent to match. Like Born To Be Blue, Miles Ahead is allergic to all things biopic, especially the cheap psychology and the effort to tie up a complex life with a neat bow.”
- Rolling Stone Magazine

Don Cheadle's cool, vibe-y biopic Miles Ahead paints an accurate portrait of Miles Davis, the late jazz musician's family told USA TODAY on the red carpet of the Los Angeles premiere. No, Cheadle didn't pay them to say that-- relatives of Miles were actually involved with Cheadle's script-to-screen process.


“Selected as the closing-night feature in last fall’s New York Film Festival, “Miles Ahead” is an obvious labor of love, born out of Cheadle’s lifelong obsession with Davis’ groundbreaking music and troubled personal life. Although the movie can’t avoid all the pitfalls of the showbiz biopic, it’s a subtle and complicated example of the form that gracefully weaves together numerous episodes and historical periods, and never seeks to whitewash the more painful aspects of Davis’ story. In the present tense of “Miles Ahead,” it’s about 1980 and the trumpeter has become a Howard Hughes-style recluse, living alone in his New York brownstone buffered by cocaine and alcohol, and refusing to surrender the tapes for his long-contemplated comeback album.


A Scottish music journalist played by Ewan McGregor (and we’ll get to the controversy surrounding that role) gets into Davis’ house and at least partway into his confidence, and unleashes numerous adventures along with a stream of almost Fellini-esque reminiscence and association. So Cheadle’s screenplay (written with Steven Baigelman) locates Davis at a personal and professional low point, but weaves in bits and pieces from throughout his remarkable career: the bebop years after World War II, the extraordinary small groups of the early ‘60s, the symphonic orchestrated works created with Gil Evans (Davis himself always preferred “Sketches of Spain” to the immortal 1959 sextet LP “Kind of Blue”) and the then-controversial jazz-rock “fusion” albums of the ‘70s, which alienated much of his middle-class white audience and anticipated musical innovations that still lay ahead.


If you’ve ever seen Cheadle act in anything, I hardly need to tell you that he grabs your attention and holds it throughout the film. You could say that Miles Davis is a role he was born to play, but then again Cheadle could play anything. (If given a role as an Irish leprechaun or a Nazi officer, he’d find a way to make you believe it.) He doesn’t look much like Miles Davis, but he captures the musician’s door-creak voice and hesitant body language without making it feel like mimicry. To give a performance this layered and complex and unstinting while also directing the film around it, which is risky and imaginative and full of life, testifies to impressive powers of concentration.
- Salon

If you’re gonna do a film about Miles, it’s gotta represent what Miles stood for.”
- Herbie Hancock


“Troubled Genius”
Allen Morrison
Downbeat
April 2016


“If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude, man.”


That's Miles Davis, as played by Don Cheadle, talking to a TV producer who is rehearsing the intro to an interview he's about to tape with the legendary trumpeter. The scene occurs near the beginning of Miles Ahead, Cheadle's biographical film about Davis' life and music. The lesson in "cool" can be taken as a mission statement for both Davis the musician and Cheadle the actor* who is making his debut as a director with the film. Critics and the movie-going public will certainly debate the liberties it takes with the factual record in pursuit of larger truths about Davis (1926—91). But one thing is indisputable: Miles Ahead is anything but corny.


When the film premiered in October at the 2015 New York Film Festival, the festival’s selection committee raved that "every second of Cheadle s cinematic mosaic is passionately engaged with its subject: this is, truly, one of the finest films ever made about the life of an artist." Within days, Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film, which will open April 1.


Cheadle knows a thing or two about biographical films. The acclaimed actor was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of hotelier Paul Rusesabagina in 2004's Hotel Rwanda, and he won a Golden Globe (and earned an Emmy nomination) for his role as Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1998 HBO movie The Rat Pack.


Co-writing the Miles Ahead script with screenwriter Steven Baigelman, Cheadle deliberately avoided the usual cradle-to-grave biopic approach, opting instead to focus on just three days in the life of Davis in the late has become know as his "silent" period.


Following a press screening in New York, Cheadle answered the inevitable questions about how much the story is invented by saying that "to some degree all biopics are historical fiction." In order to be true to Davis' continual quest to push the music forward, Cheadle felt it was necessary to expand the conventional idea of a biographical film and "to make a movie that Miles would have wanted to see — or star in."


Although the public verdict is not yet in, Davis' family and friends feel that Cheadle hit a homerun. Miles' nephew, drummer/record producer Vince Wilburn Jr., who helps run Miles Davis Enterprises and is one of the film's producers, said, "I think Don f****n' nailed it, period. Don is a badass, and I love him. And you can quote me on that."


Reached by phone at his West Hollywood home, keyboardist Herbie Hancock—who worked extensively with Davis and served as a music consultant for the film — said, "I loved Don's approach to the film. It's not historical, not a documentary. I love the fact that he was being so creative, as a tribute to Miles' own creativity. If you're going to do a film about Miles, it's gotta represent what Miles stood for. He would absolutely have dug this approach. As a matter of fact, Miles would probably have gotten mad if it had been done [as a conventional biopic]. Miles would have said"—and here he imitated Davis' distinctive, gravelly voice—'F*** that.'"


Despite the way the film embellishes the record, one thing that feels authentic is the music. Cheadle, a musician himself, hired pianist Robert Glasper to compose the score. Working together, they took impressive pains to get the music right, whether the scene employs original Davis recordings or Glasper's score, which includes compositions that simulate the trumpeter's various eras and styles so faithfully that they could easily be mistaken for lost Davis recordings. For the score's critical trumpet parts, Glasper turned to Keyon Harrold,


his former classmate at The New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music. He also assembled a stellar group of musicians to simulate the sound of Davis' groups from the various eras depicted in the film .


As the film begins, Davis, then in his early fifties, hasn't touched the trumpet in three years. He has become a recluse, holing up in his disheveled, roach-infested town-house on West 77th Street in Manhattan, where he spends his days snorting cocaine, consuming copious amounts of alcohol and painkillers to deaden the pain from a degenerative hip disorder, and fending off friends, fans, creditors and record company executives with equal hostility.


Forcing his way into this mess is a freelance journalist named Dave Brill (played by Ewan McGregor), who claims to be on assignment from Rolling Stone magazine in order to write the story of Davis' alleged "comeback." After a violent initial confrontation, the mismatched pair gradually develop a wary respect for each other. The two eventually become entangled in a mission to reclaim a tape of Davis compositions that has been stolen by an unscrupulous record producer named Harper and the gifted young trumpeter, Junior, whom he is promoting.


Beneath this melodramatic surface, however, a more important drama unfolds. Davis is haunted by memories, shown in numerous flashbacks, of his past triumphs and humiliations. He is particularly pained by his failed marriage to the lovely dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), whose face famously adorns the cover of the 1961 album Someday My Prince Will Come, and who was subjected to his repeated physical abuse. We also get to see him creating some of the music that made him one of the most important musicians of the 20th century.


Cheadle's movie is many things: a buddy action movie; a love story; a feast for fans of the music; and potentially an eye-opening experience for millennial kids who have not yet discovered Davis' oeuvre. But ultimately, Miles Ahead is a meditation on creativity, the mysteries and loneliness of genius—and the toll it can take on an artist's personal life and family.”


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Coleman Hawkins by Dan Morgenstern



© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.



“Coleman Hawkins was a legend in his own time: revered by younger musicians, who were amazed and delighted at his ability to remain receptive to their discoveries; loved by his contemporaries, who were equally astonished by his capacity for constant self-renewal. He was one of those who wrote the book of jazz.


The art of Coleman Hawkins transcends the boundaries of style and time. Fortunately, it is well documented. The great sound and mind that is one of the landmarks of jazz lives on, as in these grooves, awaiting your command to issue forth once more.


Even among the chosen few of jazz, Coleman Hawkins stands out. Hear him well.”
- Dan Morgenstern

It takes a special observer to identify what was special about tenor saxophone legend Coleman Hawkins, because the legendary aspects of Hawkins’ career often overshadowed the actual aspects of the style that made him so distinctive and the contributions as a bandleader that did so much to help other Jazz musicians.



So what we wind up with is largely adoration and hagiography instead of critical insight and discerning explanation.


Dan was also one of the few observers of the Jazz scene who could write about the not-so-great closing years of the great man’s career with a gentleness and compassion that was a reflection of his love for Coleman.


Morgenstern, winner of an almost embarrassing number of Grammy Awards for his liner notes, did justice to the great saxophonist in 1973 and won yet another Grammy when he wrote these notes for the album The Hawk Flies [Riverside RLP-233, Original Jazz Classic CD OJC-027].


“Even among the chosen few, the extraordinary men and women who make up the peerage of jazz, Coleman Hawkins stands out.


To begin, there is his sound, a thing of beauty in and of itself. Hawkins filled the horn brimful with his great breath. Sound was his palette, and his brush was the instrument that, for jazz purposes, he invented—the tenor saxophone.


In this post-Coltrane age, the tenor sax is so prominent a feature of the landscape that it's hard to imagine it wasn't always there. Lester Young once said, accurately, "I think Coleman Hawkins was the President first, right?," here meaning "president" in the sense of founding father. Which wasn't the sense in which Billie Holiday had laid "Pres" on Lester—at a point in time when the president of the United States was a great man, Number One in all the land.


Tenor time in jazz begins in 1924, when Coleman Hawkins joined  Fletcher Henderson's band. In a decade there, he first mastered, then established the instrument. While trumpet still was king, it was due to Hawk that tenor became president. Thus jazz became a republic in the Swing Era. King Louis was peerless by definition, but his powerful message unlocked the magic in other noble souls. If we hear young Coleman Hawkins both before and after Armstrong joined Henderson, the point is clearly made.


The saxophone family of instruments had been invented by Adolphe Sax to mirror the range and variety of the strings; he wanted his instruments to sing, to have the warmth of wood and the power of brass, and thus created a hybrid of wind mouthpiece and brass body, unlocked by a new system of keys. He did this in the 1840s, but with the exception of Bizet, Debussy, and later Ravel, no major "serious" composer knew what to do with the new arsenal of sound. Until it was discovered and mastered by jazzmen in the early 1920s, the saxophone remained a brass band and vaudeville instrument — a novelty.


Coleman Hawkins's first instruments in St. Joseph, Missouri, were piano and cello. (Of all the saxophones, the tenor most resembles the cello in range and color.) As a boy, he heard and saw The Six Brown Brothers in vaudeville. They used the whole range of saxes, from sopranino to contrabass, and with all their clowning really knew how to play. Young Coleman began to explore the saxophone.


Exactly when this occurred is not entirely clear. Hawkins, like so many other performers, prevaricated about his age. It was widely accepted that he was born on November 21, 1904; a date he unsuccessfully tried to adjust to 1907. Still, underneath incessant joking and good-natured teasing about age with his friends (Ben Webster: "I was in knee pants when my mother first took me to hear you." Hawkins: "That wasn't me; that was my father. I wasn't born then!") there ran a current of doubt, and when Charles Graham, doing biographical research, obtained a copy of Hawkins's birth certificate, it read 1901!


By the time the Father of Tenor Saxophone left for Europe in March 1934, he had already created the two prototypical tenor styles in jazz: the fast, driving, explosive riff style and the slow, flowing, rhapsodic ballad form. He made the mold, he was the model: already, Ben Webster, Herschel Evans, Chu Berry, Budd Johnson, and many more had sprung, fully armed, from his high forehead.
To Europe, where the greatness of jazz had been felt mainly through records, Hawkins brought it in the flesh. Sidney Bechet had spent time there back in the twenties, and Louis Armstrong himself had flashed like a comet through England, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, France, Italy, and Switzerland earlier in the thirties. But Hawk came and remained; the first fixed star of magnitude.


When His Erstwhile Henderson colleague, Benny Carter, that master of the alto sax, clarinet, trumpet, and arranger's pen, crossed the Atlantic a bit later and also decided to stay, the two often hooked up. Together and individually they put their stamp on European jazz for decades.


The process was reciprocal. Hawkins's love for certain of the better things in life — good food, good drink, good clothes, pretty women, fast cars — was apparent before he left his homeland, but Europe sharpened and deepened his tastes. His sense of his own dignity and worth also expanded the warmth of European appreciation and adoration. From here on in Hawk was a cosmopolitan.


Meanwhile, there were not just contenders to his crown back home, but a whole new tenor style, introduced by Lester Young. Only a few of Hawk's great European recordings had made their way into the hands of American musicians during his absence. The climate seemed right for battle and the tenor brigade was ready for Bean (as musicians then called him, "bean" being a synonym for head, i.e., brainpower) when he came home in late July of 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II. Chu Berry, Ben Webster, Don Byas, and Lester himself were gathered to greet Hawk at a Harlem after-hours spot called Puss Johnson's (there were many such music spots; the reputation of Minton's is all out of proportion). The master arrived without horn (but with a striking lady), listened, and refused to be drawn into battle. A few days later he returned with horn and reestablished his sovereignty.


Hawk's victory became official with the release, late in 1939, of the biggest record of his career: "Body and Soul." Consisting of just two choruses—framed by a brief piano introduction and short tenor cadenza—it stands as one of the most perfectly balanced jazz records ever made. After more than three decades it remains a model of flawlessly constructed and superbly executed jazz improvisation, and is still the test piece for aspiring tenorists.


Although young tenor men in increasing numbers were taken with Lester's cooler sound and unorthodox phrasing, the Hawkins approach remained firmly entrenched (as the newfound popularity of Ben Webster with Duke Ellington and Don Byas with Count Basie proved in the early forties). There also arose a school of tenors equally influenced by both: Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, Gene Ammons, and Dexter Gordon are examples.


Furthermore, that leader of the new style soon to be labeled bebop, Charlie Parker, symbolized the possibility of a Hawkins—Young fusion. Though fashionable jazz criticism has emphasized only Young's influence on Parker, there can be no doubt that Hawkins, especially in terms of harmony, approach to ballads, and use of double time, also profoundly touched Bird's conception.


The influence was a two-way street. Hawkins was the first established jazz figure of major stature to not only accept but embrace the new music, which he rightly saw as a logical development. Consider this: Hawk was the only name leader to hire Thelonious Monk, the strange piano player from Minton's house band, for a downtown gig (on 52nd Street) and to use him on a record date (the earliest music heard on this remarkable collection, and Monk's studio debut). And this: for a February 1944 date with a larger band, Hawkins hired Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Leo Parker, and other young modernists to back him. And this: at the end of 1944, Hawk took to California a pioneer bop group that included Howard McGhee and Denzil Best. As early as 1947, Hawk used Miles Davis on a record date; a few years later he had him in his band. The 1947 date on this album clearly reflects Hawk’s commitment to the new sounds, and his ability to fit himself into it. (Note also the inclusion of a Monk tune, perfectly interpreted.)


Hawk didn't just adapt to bop; profoundly touched by Parker, he entered a whole new phase of musical development at an age when most players have settled permanently within a given framework.


The new Hawk was most clearly visible in the blues. Prior to the mid forties, Hawkins rarely played blues, and never with much of what we now call "funk." But Bird brought a new blue stream into jazz, and Hawk was nourished by it (hear him here on "Sih-sah" and "Juicy Fruit"). And Bird’s song in Hawk's ear didn't end with the blues. You can feel it throughout tin 1957 session, and in the magnificent "Ruby, My Dear" which stems from a Monk — Hawkins reunion album that co-starred John Coltrane. (The rest of that date, by the way, can be heard on Monk/Trane.)


For many years they had affectionately called him "The Old Man." But he still looked, felt, and played young and it was the Old Man's pride that he could keep up. No resting on laurels for him; virtually everything new was a challenge. But for a while, when Lester's way of playing tenor dominated the scene, and bop had little time to look back, Hawkins fell somewhat out of favor. When producer Orrin Keepnews gave him carte blanche to pick his own men for the 1957 date reintroduced herewith, the result was the first loose, modern jazz date for Hawk in some time. It compares most interestingly with the session of ten years before, and not only for the work of Hawk himself and repeaters J. J. Johnson and Hank Jones. (It is also interesting that Hawk did not choose a bop rhythm section for himself.)

Throughout the fifties, with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic and also on his own, he frequently teamed with old friend Roy Eldridge, ten years younger but a fraternal spirit. From 1957 on, the Metropole in New York's Times Square area became their home base. Most jazz writers except visitors from Europe) shunned the place, but musicians did drop in to hear Roy and Hawk: among them, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane.


At the soulful establishment across the street, The Copper Rail, the players and their friends congregated to eat and drink. Even when they were three-deep at the bar, you could hear Hawk's laughter, or his voice emphasizing a point, from anywhere in the house. Though he was not a large man, his voice had a presence remarkably similar to his saxophone sound. Hawk was strong in those days. The new tenor voices, significantly that of Sonny Rollins, seemed closer in conception and sound to him than to Lester, and his star was once again in ascendance. He and Roy made periodic tours abroad. Recordings were again fairly frequent. His personal life was happy. His health seemed robust.


"You have to eat when you drink," he used to say, and he was still following his own rule. A girl I knew thought nothing of cooking him eight eggs for breakfast, and he could go to work on a Chinese dinner for two or a double order of spareribs in the wee hours of the morning with the gusto of a hungry lumberjack. In the course of a working day, he'd consume a quantity of Scotch even Eddie Condon would have deemed respectable, but he could also leave the booze alone when it got to him. When Lester Young died in 1959, not quite fifty, the Old Man told me how he used to try to make Pres eat when they were traveling together for Jazz at the Philharmonic. "When I got something for myself, I'd get for him, too. But I'd always find most of it left under his bus or plane seat when we got off."


Hawk liked Lester very much, but the only tenor player I ever heard him call "genius" was Chu Berry. Other musicians he bestowed this title on were Louis, Bird, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, and Monk—the latter a personal favorite.


At home, Hawk rarely listened to jazz. His sizable collection was dominated by complete opera sets (Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini) and also included a lot of Brahms and Debussy. Bach and Beethoven were there as well, and some moderns, but Hawk liked music with a big sound and romantic sweep best of all. With his luxurious hi-fi setup, he could fill his comfortable Central Park West apartment with sound, and the commanding view of the park went well with the music. Sometimes he'd play the piano, which he did surprisingly well—always music of his own.


In the final years, which his friends would rather forget but can't, Tommy Flanagan would sometimes drop by and make Hawk play the piano and try to copy down some of the tunes. Hawk was always a gifted composer — even with Henderson — but never had the patience to write the stuff down. By then, the expensive hi-fi equipment had fallen into disuse, the blinds were often drawn to shut out the view, and the sound most frequently heard was that of the TV — on around the clock to keep the insomniac company. As often as not, there'd be food defrosting in the kitchen—chicken, chops, ribs, or steak—but "by the time it's ready for me to fix," he once told me, "I've lost my appetite from this whiskey." He knew exactly what he was doing to himself, but some demon had hold of him.


It had nothing to do with the socio-psychological cliches of art and race so often applied to "explain" jazz artists, but it did have much to do with the fact that he was living alone now, and that his aloneness was of his own making. His last great love gone because in his jealousy he could not accept that a woman could love a man much older than herself, he now chose to accelerate the aging process he had previously hated and successfully fought off. He let his grizzled beard and hair flow freely, and let his once immaculately fitting suits hang from his shrunken frame.


Only work could shake him out of his depression, but now it seldom came. He'd never been one for managers and agents; if people wanted his services, they could call him. But only a few employers — mainly the loyal Norman Granz, sometimes George Wein, a club owner here or there —  would still come through. My friends and I got him some gigs. It was a vicious circle: because he didn't work much, he was rusty when he did play (he had always disdained practicing, and lifelong habits don't change), and because he was rusty (and shaky), he wasn't asked back. Even quite near the end, a few nights of work, leading to resumed eating, could straighten him out, and he'd find his form. But there was no steady work to make him stay on course.


Perhaps it would have been too late; he hated doctors and hospitals and refused all suggestions of medical attention. And since his voice, incongruously, remained as strong as ever and his ego just as fierce, it was difficult to counteract him. He welcomed company but never invited anyone. His daughters would come by to visit and straighten up the house when they were in town. Frequent visitors included Monk and the Baroness Nica de Konigswarter, but the closest people near the end were Barry Harris and drummer Eddie Locke.


Monk was at Hawk's bedside when it had finally become necessary to take him to a hospital. Monk even made the Old Man laugh — but it was for the last time.
Coleman Hawkins was a legend in his own time: revered by younger musicians, who were amazed and delighted at his ability to remain receptive to their discoveries; loved by his contemporaries, who were equally astonished by his capacity for constant self-renewal. He was one of those who wrote the book of jazz.


The art of Coleman Hawkins transcends the boundaries of style and time. Fortunately, it is well documented. The great sound and mind that is one of the landmarks of jazz lives on, as in these grooves, awaiting your command to issue forth once more.


Even among the chosen few of jazz, Coleman Hawkins stands out. Hear him well.”

Monday, March 28, 2016

Hank Jones - The Elite

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


My how time flies.

It seems like only yesterday that I was off to Tower Records in the North Beach area of San Francisco to check out the latest Verve Elite Edition and now here it is 20 years later as I sit at the computer to write this blog feature about the series.

The Verve Elite Edition was a series of select recordings from the Verve and Mercury jazz catalogs that - because of their historical value and esoteric appeal - were reissued in the mid-to-late 1990’s only as limited-edition CDs. In some cases, previously unreleased material was included: bonus tracks, alternative or incomplete takes, even studio chatter.

All Verve Elite Edition CDs were carefully restored to optimal audio clarity. Unlike the bulk of the Verve commercial CDs, the Verve Elite Edition were available only until the first pressing is sold out.

Mike Lang, a wonderful Jazz pianist and much-in-demand studio musician was the supervisor of the Verve Elite Edition reissues and lots of cool folks helped out including Cynthia Sesso of www.ctsimages.com, Phil Schaap and the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.

The Verve Elite CD Edition of Urbanity [314 537 749-2] also includes the tracks from Hank Jones Piano which was recorded on September 1947. On Hank Jones Piano, Hank Jones, one of the smoothest and most versatile pianists in Jazz history, was given a solo date with no strings attached by Norman Granz.  He chose his favorite standards and, with his trademark light, deft touch, produced classic music.

Six years in September 1953, Granz gave Jones an unorthodox rhythm section - no drummer and, playing together for the first time with guitarist Jimmy Smith and bassist Ray Brown - on mostly Jones originals, the three produced equally great Jazz. This music was issued as Urbanity.

In the liner notes pianist Steve Kuhn recounts Jones's recent recollections of these sessions as well as his own ideas about piano playing.


Urbanity and Hank Jones Piano were recorded nearly four-and-a-half and five decades ago respectively. The 1953 date is mostly original compositions while the 1947 date is mostly standards.

Norman Granz, who produced these dates, allowed Hank to pick the repertoire. This isn't always the case in recording situations. Many times the producer will urge the artist to record something in particular. And often the musical results are far less than satisfactory. The artist should have strong feelings for the tunes and spend time living with the material in order to develop a very personal point of view.

So, on the 1947 session, Hank chose standards that were his personal favorites. He stresses how important it is for the artist to choose his own material whenever possible - as the results will certainly reflect that freedom of choice. All of these standard songs were written by master composers, and all have very strong melodies.

Hank believes that the melody should be stated pretty clearly initially and recapped at the end - of course, the improvisation occurs in the middle sections. He adds that, for variety's sake, an artist can reharmonize parts of the melody - that is, use a different chord or set of chords under the melody note or notes. (Some overdo this treating reharmonization as an intellectual exercise; Hank never overdoes it.)

On The Night We Called It a Day and Yesterdays, Hank, in stating the melody pretty dearly, communicates easily with the audience - even though the songs do contain improvisations and reharmonizations. The listener is really never left in limbo for long.

The influence of pianist Art Tatum is certainly evident in these solo pieces. Hank remembers when he heard Tatum on a record for the first time. He thought it was a trick recording that used two pianists at once. (When discovering that it was a single pianist, Hank was amazed - and delighted.) Tatum epitomized swing, harmonic sophistication, and technique, not for its own sake, but for the sake of music. Even on one of the trio pieces, Little Girl Blue, Hank's solo introduction reflects Tatum's presence - the touch, the arpeggiated runs, and the harmony.


Key selections are vital in determining the colors of the music. The standard key for "Little Girl" is F major; Hank chooses D-flat, which gives the tune a more somber cast. Certain songs sound better in certain keys - ideally, the artist should experiment by playing the song in all keys, then choosing which key fits best. (If a pianist and a bassist are playing a ballad together, they should consider the sharp keys - G, D, A, and E - as the bass has the same open strings. The harmonic and acoustic sound is more sonorous and profound than when the other keys are used.)

Hank's harmonies are very sophisticated. Like Tatum, he places the notes within a given chord in a pleasing way. His extensions of the chord, such as altered ninths or elevenths, never sound muddy. He has, as a trademark, a light, delicate touch. Like a Ping-Pong ball bouncing over the keys. Hank's knowledge of tunes is certainly reflected in his playing. His approach reveals his assimilation of repertoire, his technical command of the piano (listen to the solo playing on Yesterdays and Tea for Two), his taste and understatement in group playing (Thad's Pad and Odd Number are orchestrally arranged by Hank, with exposition, then solo, ensemble, and another solo, which leads to the final group statement of the melody), and his overall superb musicianship.

The trio playing here is quite remarkable, considering that Hank and Johnny Smith had never played together prior to the recording. There is a very real danger in piano-guitar ensemble playing because of the inherent similarities of the two instruments; their similar sound in certain registers can lead to one easily getting in the way of the other. But because of the expertise of these musicians, and the way they listen closely to one another, they were able to reinforce and strengthen the music rather than sabotage it.

Hank has nothing but the highest praise for Johnny and Ray Brown. All three have an obvious empathy and a common musical frame of reference. Ray has great ears, and his immediately identifiable sound was already established at the time of this record. Johnny's style is understated, as he does a lot of dose listening in order to underpin the music. In fact, no one stepped in front of the others; all worked for the ensemble.

Hank points out that the piano used was a Steinway concert grand, which is a nine-foot instrument. (The longer the piano, the longer the strings and the larger the sound board - and if it's a good instrument, the sound is so powerful it can be overwhelming. The artist has to harness the instrument.) Back in those days, most of the dub pianos were far below par, terribly out of tune. Pianos were usually uprights or baby grands. So, in a controlled environment such as a concert setting or a studio, it's certainly more inspiring to play on a good grand piano.

Norman Granz put these date together for Hank, and we listeners are certainly richer for it. The music stands up well over the years, as all good art does. This was not cutting-edge stuff in the Fifties, nor is it in the Nineties - what is important is that three stellar musicians led by Hank Jones have created music that swings, that has subtlety and impeccable taste, and that communicates to all. This is, in sum, timeless art.

Steve Kuhn
March 1997


Here are the original notes to Urbanity.

“Urbanity, one will concede, is a most fitting term to describe the aura of Hank Jones's piano, which conjures to mind the sophistication of the city. It is a late-at-night aura, generous in under-statement, deploring the obvious, suggesting rather than declaring. Actually, Henry "Hank" Jones and his piano do recall all of this. But the point should be noted that Hank Jones is not a Manhattan cocktail lounge-type pianist. Far from it. Not only is his musical sophistication much more genuine, but Jones himself is a schooled musician of great inventiveness and fertility of expression. In a word, the sophistication is no veneer, the urbanity no pose.

Hank Jones plays an awful lot of piano. His music is sensitive, pretty (but not just pretty), abundant in ideas and through it all there is a jazz beat - he uses both hands equally well, incidentally, this being a habit which seems to have eluded so many modern young pianists. One of the more interesting facets to Hank Jones is his flair for saying something new with an old song - in this album, for example, Vincent Youmans's "Tea for Two" ranks in the upper rung of most-played songs in the last few decades. "Tea for Two" is even more standard than most songs thoroughly accepted in all quarters as standards - and yet it is well to listen to

Hank Jones play this number and reveal a freshness you may not have thought could exist. Two other standards, just a notch below "Tea for Two" in durability are also to be heard here. They are "Yesterdays", by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach, and the Rodgers-Hart evergreen, "The Blue Room". These, too, get a fresh shading and are very pleasant to hear once more. Two others here are pieces by Jones himself - "Blues for Lady Day", written for and inspired by, of course, Billie Holiday, and "Things Are So Pretty in the Spring", both singularly evocative of a mood.


Jones, a native of Pontiac, Michigan, has preferred to concentrate for most of his career in New York, although he has made one tour with Jazz At The Philharmonic (and can be heard in Volume 8 of JATP) and accompanied Ella Fitzgerald in a tour of Europe. A thoroughgoing modernist, Jones has been influenced by Art Tatum and Fats Waller in the successful pursuit of his own individuality.

He is abetted here by the following musicians: Johnny Smith, guitar and Ray Brown, bass.'

Due to restrictive copyright provisions, I was unable to bring you an audio-video sample of the music on The Verve Elite CD Edition of Urbanity [314 537 749-2].

So I turned instead to a track from Hank’s performance on May 22, 2009 with Holland’s magnificent Metropole Orchestra under the direction of Jim McNeely, who is an excellent pianist in his own right.

I’ve selected Star Eyes from the concert because as you will note from the following excerpts from Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards, Hank had a long association with the tune dating from the time it was brought into Jazz prominence by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker.


Star Eyes
Composed by Gene de Paul, with lyrics by Don Raye

“Charlie Parker was not the first jazz musician to record this song—several big bands had added it to their repertoire in the early 1940's. But the song had fallen by the wayside before the close of World War II, and no jazz artist had brought it to a recording session for more than five years when Bird resuscitated it for his 1950 Verve studio date. His performance — accompanied by Hank Jones, Ray Brown, and Buddy Rich — turned "Star Eyes" into a standard, and many later versions even borrow the distinctive intro he used on that occasion. …

The song has proven worthy of its second life as a jazz staple. The harmonic personality shifts back and forth between a major and minor sensibility, ultimately resolving into the former, and nicely aligning with the affirmation of romantic optimism in Don Raye's lyrics. The words come close to echoing the cliches of previous "star" songs—from "Star Dust" to "When You Wish upon a Star"—but are imbued with a whimsical enough tone to make these references seem cute rather than parasitical. The melody is first rate, evoking a jazz sensibility with its alternating measures of half notes and eighth notes and the majestic clarion phrase that concludes the final A theme.