Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Thinking Back on Hank Jones: Urbane, Suave and Debonair [From the Archives]

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

“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 understatement, 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 - ….”
- Original liner notes to Urbanity [Clef MGC 707; Verve 314 537 747-2]

“Never much of a composer,…, Jones is not given to wholesale reassessment of standard progressions but prefers to concentrate on the sound of a tune. … Jones colors every chord …. His delicacy and balance, that tiptoeing, tap-dancing feel, are among the qualities which have enhanced and prolonged his reputation as a great accompanist….”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Hank Jones has been a central piano figure on the world scene for close to a half century; I had the pleasure of introducing him on records, as a sideman in a 1944 Hot Lips Page date. He was the eldest of three brothers: Thad Jones followed him on the path to fame, as a Count Basie sideman, from 1954. Two years later Elvin Jones moved from PontiacMichigan, the brothers' home, to New York, where he became a member of the Bud Powell Trio.

Hank, like most other pianists of the day, was strongly impressed by Bud Powell, but like Tommy Flanagan and others from the Detroit area, he transcended the bop idiom to become an eclectic interpreter of everything from time-proof ballads to swing and bop standards. …

Over the decades Hank Jones has recorded in a multitude of settings, from small combo dates to big bands to accompanying Ella Fitzgerald and other singers.

However, all that is needed for a complete demonstration of his singular artistry is a well conceived repertoire, fine acoustic conditions, and a piano worthy of him. On this occasion Hank blended these three elements into what is undoubtedly a highlight in the fast-growing and invaluable Maybeck Hall series.”
- Leonard Feather, notes to Hank Jones: Live at Maybeck Recital Hall #16 [Concord CCD-4502]

“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 re-harmonize parts of the melody - that is, use a different chord or set of chords under the melody note or notes. (Some overdo this treating re-harmonization as an intellectual exercise; Hank never overdoes it.) …

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. Hank's [playing often] … reflects Tatum's presence - the touch, the arpeggiated runs, and the harmony.

Key selections are vital in determining the col­ors of the music. [For example], The standard key for “Little Girl Blue”  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 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 keys.

Hank’s knowledge of tunes is certainly reflected in his playing. His approach reveals his assimilation of the repertoire, his technical command of the piano, his taste and understatement… and his overall superb musicianship.”
- Steve Kuhn, Jazz pianist, notes to the CD version of Urbanity  [Verve 314 537 747-2]

Hank Jones has to be considered one of the smoothest and versatile pianists in Jazz history.

I met Hank Jones on a number of occasions. Always amiable and polite, it was difficult to get him to talk very much about himself or his music. “I prefer to let the music speak for itself,” he said.

Hank continued: “It is hard to look back or to analyze. I’m always looking forward to what I’m going to play next. It keeps the mind focused.”

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember Hank on these pages with this brief piece.

Hank’s music has a consistently melodic quality about it and is played with impeccable taste and subtlety.  It’s accessible, always swings and creates a lightness of spirit in me that makes me feel happy, joyous and free.

No furrowed brows; no looks of consternation trying to figure out what he’s playing. His music just washes over you and helps clear away the cares of the day.

Here’s what Gene Lees had to say about Hank and his music.

© -Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Two major pianists, Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn, have told me that Hank Jones is their favorite pianist, and to make the statement more forceful, Andre added, ‘Regardless of idiom.’

Like many another major jazz musician, Hank Jones might have become a ‘classi­cal’ musician had he not been black. I once heard Hank warming up on Chopin for a recording session, and was deeply impressed by his approach to that music. But black musicians did not aspire to con­cert careers when Hank was coming up — this was long before Andre Watts — and Hank became a jazz pianist, leading the way for two other musicians in the Jones family: the late Thad Jones, trumpeter and brilliant composer and arranger, and the remarkable drummer Elvin Jones.

Though he was born deep in the South, he grew up in PontiacMichigan, and seems to consider Michigan his home state. He was given solid musical training, but his father did not have it in mind that Hank should or would be a jazz musician. He gained his first experience in a church choir, and later played with regional bands, particularly in the Detroit area. When he went to New York in 1944, Hank heard the new music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, which he assimilated into his own playing. He was on a number of historic Charlie Parker recording dates.

Hank Jones is a particular favorite of other pianists, who admire his enormous but unprepossessing facility, his harmonic subtlety and sophistication, and his unfail­ing taste. He is a rich and sympathetic accompanist—he was Ella Fitzgerald's for several years — and an elegant soloist. He has played and recorded with almost eve­ryone in jazz, including artists as varied as Milt Jackson, John Kirby, Howard McGhee, Coleman Hawkins, Julian (Cannonball) Adderley, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw. Indeed, he was a member of Shaw's last Gramercy Five group, and took part in Shaw's last recording session in 1954.

He tours the world constantly, though he has cut back on his New York studio work, preferring to spend his off time on his four-hundred-acre farm in upstate New York, not far from Cooperstown — always the impeccable jazz player, always in demand, admired and liked by everyone who has come into contact with his gentle humor and considerate warmth.

Hank wanted to farm that land, but his wife, Teddy, ever the realist, gave him a choice: ‘Do you want to be a farmer or a musician?’

Music won. But the farm remains his refuge.”

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