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, 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.

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