These days, it’s not often that Jazz fans get to visit with a bebop piano-bass-drums trio in situ, by that I mean over a length of time in a nightclub devoted to the music.
There are many reasons for this rarity, not the least of which is the fact that there are very few practitioners of The Art of Bebop Jazz Piano still among us.
We lost another one recently with the passing of Hod O’Brien on November 21, 2016. Hod was eighty years old at the time of his death.
Although widely known and appreciated in Europe, outside of a relatively small coterie of devoted fans, Hod O’Brien, a sizzling, straight-ahead bebop pianist, has been one of the best kept secrets on the US Jazz scene for much too long.
In The Los Angeles Times, Don Heckman describes him as “a masterful bop-based improviser … his lines unfolding with an impressive blend of precision and propulsive swing. In The Montreal Mirror, Len Dobbin called him “the best bebop pianist this side of Barry Harris.” And Scott Yanow, in the L.A. Scene, wrote that Hod is the “unsung hero of Jazz … [a] master bebop pianist.”
A close listening to the three albums described in this Jazzprofiles feature which Hod and his trio of Ray Drummond on bass and Kenny Washington on drums recorded at Blues Alley in Washington, DC in July, 2004 will provide a good introduction to what the fuss is all about concerning this most impressive musician.
The context for the music released on these albums is that each represents a working set by the group, or if you will, three sets that you might have heard had you dropped by the club one night to catch the trio.
A special word should be put in about the song selection on these recordings as its rare to hear such a diversity of repertoire that ranges from Jazz originals such as Freddie Redd’s rarely played Thespian [after you listen to it you’ll understand why as it is an extremely challenging song structure upon which to improvise], Randy Weston’s Little Niles, and Sonny Rollins’ Pent-Up House, to a number of standards drawn from the Great American Songbook, to a collection of tunes by one composer – in this case, Tadd Dameron.
Since I could not improve upon them, I have included the insert notes by Pete Malinverni to describe sets one and two, and those by Hod himself to describe how and why set three came about.
Praise is also due Mark Feldman and his team at Reservoir Records for making so much of the music of this deserving artist available in recorded form.
Hod O’Brien at Blues Alley: First Set [Reservoir RSR CD 180]
“Conventional wisdom has it that the creative output of an artist more or less reflects the artist's personality. If that's the case, Hod O'Brien is a joyous and witty man, given to long explications of thought. His playing suggests that he is assertive and that his intellect is a restless one. In conversation Hod is, instead, a self-effacing, humble man who listens and processes before he speaks -good traits, to be sure, for one who works in a job where tenacious self-improvement is the prime requisite, but which traits appear, at first blush, to be at variance with the fulminating pianist heard here.
These two seemingly conflicting characters find their reconciliation in live performance, revealing themselves to be, in fact, two distinct sides of the same coin-perhaps that's what makes this recording all the more historically important.
Captured here is Hod O'Brien at his most spontaneous, free of the artificial constraints of the recording studio, and encouraged to emotional heights by the presence of a lively and supportive audience. Hod likes the "immediacy of a live date. There's nothing like it-you feel the life." One certainly can feel the life, in the risk-taking flights and surprising moments only possible before an audience.
Hod O'Brien is an artist of high order, one, surely, in firm possession of all the requisite ‘musicianly’ tools, but who employs such tools so well and so craftily as to reveal accessible, human truths. The stops and starts in his phrasing, along with his use of space and dynamics, suggest, by turns, an honest, exploratory and effusive nature.
Notice, too, Hod's brand of melodic development, his musical statements often beginning with motifs with which previous statements were concluded. His careful attention to the arrangement of each selection, which might easily go unnoticed, lends a natural pacing to the entire recital. In myriad ways, O'Brien's playing rewards the careful listener, as witness to what lends Hod's music its emotional and logical art.
A Chicago native, reared in suburban New York and Connecticut, Hod O'Brien came to New York City in the Fall of 1956 and played in many of that era's jazz clubs and lofts with the likes of Kenny Burrell, Oscar Pettiford, Gigi Gryce, J. R. Monterose, and Zoot Sims. After a six-year sojourn in the musically fecund community of Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains - home to such as Phil Woods, Bill Goodwin, Bob Dorough - he moved in 1994 with his wife, singer Stephanie Nakasian, to Charlottesville, VA, where Stephanie is adjunct professor of vocal jazz at the University of Virginia. The Northeast's loss is Charlottesville's gain, the home of Jefferson being a good fit for this gentle man of broad and erudite musical knowledge.
But he can swing, too. Listen to the ‘grooviness’ of his eighth-notes, the way he finds a hammock in Kenny Washington's crisp ride beat during his solos throughout. And he can play the blues as well, his soulfulness laid bare on Frog's Legs, the Joe Zawinul vehicle written in tribute to Ben Webster.
The selections on this recording are of the "musician's choice" variety, picked by O'Brien for their "play-ability." indeed, the first four tracks feature compositions by musicians at least as well known for their playing (and singing) careers as for their contributions as writers. Hod says he picked "interesting tunes", good songs to "blow on." And blow he does, for example, in his deft exploration of Bob Dorough's Nothing Like You Has Ever Been Seen Before. Seemingly circular in nature, the harmonic and formal framework of the tune presents a puzzle the solving of which provides some of the date's most exciting moments. Thespian, written and originally arranged for quintet by the great pianist Freddie Redd, is here reduced for piano trio with no lessening of its dramatic nature. Mel Rhyne's It's Love features a ‘Confirmation’ -like scheme that gives currency to the deep vocabulary acquired over time by these musicians while they, in turn, give the tune new breath.
The final four selections are of the "chestnut" variety, picked fresh by the trio. The joy they take in playing - and in playing together - is evident throughout, their cooperative explorations fueled, in equal parts, by skill and curiosity.
While he picked the tunes for the challenges they present the improviser, Hod hopes that his non-musician listeners will enjoy his choices, too. On this, their fourth recording together (it is the third as a trio, to go along with Hod's quintet date, OPALESSENCE) Messrs. O'Brien, Drummond and Washington embody that great tradition of jazz - unmistakable, individual voices in the service of a unified, group statement.
Ray Drummond has been doing just that for years. Always engaged and focused, "Bulldog" consistently husbands the essential, structurally supportive role of the jazz bass (Hod makes special note of Ray's "strong pulse" and "clear attack") while suggesting, in his inspired note choices, interesting and wholly individual takes on harmony. Ray is also an imposing and singularly melodic soloist, as is evident on Lullaby of the Leaves.
Kenny Washington has likewise carved a characteristic voice. "I like a drummer that complements," Hod says, and he notes Kenny's penchant for orchestration, "every time, a great fill," and says that when thinking of Kenny, the phrase "snap, crackle, and pop" comes to mind. It's true. Washington consistently contributes to every musical situation in which he takes part, with his optimistic, energetic approach, always thinking, never complacent.
So, these three - O'Brien, he of the long, searching lines, at times exploratory and at times full of twists and quirks; Drummond, providing his continually creative and strong underpinning; and Washington, with his trademark electric punctuation -combined on two evenings at Washington, D.C.'s BLUES ALLEY. The result of those nights is two CDs[obviously, a third has been released since this writing], the first of which is in your hands. What nights they must have been.”
Hod O’Brien at Blues Alley: Second Set [Reservoir RSR CD 182]
“Hod O'Brien. This quiet, unassuming man makes music of far reaching import; people the world over await each new recording and attend his performances as often as they are able. Why the immense popularity of Hod O'Brien? The reasons for this phenomenon, his loyal, worldwide audience, are manifold, each person appreciating O'Brien's art from his own perspective, for his own reasons.
I'll use myself as an example.
As a pianist I marvel at Hod O'Brien's virtuosity. His single-note attack and legato phrasing and his timely and explosive use of block chords are the result of the artful blend of initial gifts with years of intense study. Consistently well articulated, each note is crafted with care and shaped lovingly to achieve maximum effect.
As an improvising musician I'm thrilled by the seemingly endless flow of O'Brien's ideas that yield melodic lines of remarkable length and complexity.
He stays with each phrase, and this tenacity allows Hod to extract every last drop of melodic truth to be found there. He chooses his collaborators well-bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Kenny Washington join again with Hod-and listens and reacts honestly, the free exchange of ideas being the hallmark of truly prepared musicians who've learned, above all, to trust.
As a jazz fan I'm gratified by the homage Hod O'Brien pays to his musical forebears, in his choice of material and in the quality of his history-deepened improvisations. He opens the present set with Sonny Rollins' Pent-Up House and likewise features the compositions of such jazz greats as Randy Weston (Little Niles), Billy Strayhorn (Snibor and Take The A Train) and Duke Ellington (In a Sentimental Mood and Do Nothin’ ‘Till You Hear from Me). One hears, throughout Hod's interpretations of these jazz classics as well as those of the standards included (How About You and Love Letters), many golden moments inspired by O'Brien's appreciation of those who've come before. This is what all jazz musicians are required to do. But, of course, it is the degree to which one molds one's influences to inform and buttress one's own voice that really tells the tale, and Hod O'Brien is very much his own story teller.
And, finally and perhaps most importantly, as a human being I'm moved by Hod O'Brien's optimistic world view, evident in the obvious joy Hod takes in making music. There is an unvarnished brightness in his playing that just can't be "put on". Surely there is much pianistic technique at work here, but this music is lit from within. His genial and engaging personal demeanor, caught here on the announcements made between selections, reveals the respect O'Brien has for his audience, his colleagues and the music itself.
Speaking of his audience, this particular group was fortunate to be present at the venerable Washington, DC nightspot BLUES ALLEY on the night when this, the second such live recording by Hod O'Brien's trio, was captured by the good folks at RESERVOIR MUSIC. As companion to the 2004 release, FIRST SET, this is a fitting sequel. Once again we
hear the faithful and resolute Ray "Bulldog" Drummond (listen to his tour de force performance on In a Sentimental Mood) along with the combustible and always engaged Kenny Washington (his solo on Pent-Up House is unforgettable). Together, O'Brien, Drummond and Washington give us seasoned music of intelligence, spontaneity and wit. Perhaps you and I weren't there that night, but the quality of this recording provides the next best thing.”
Hod O’Brien at Blues Alley: Third Set [Reservoir RSR CD 187]
“I'd like to preface these notes by thanking Pete Malinverni, a great jazz pianist as well as a great journalist, for doing such wonderful liner notes for my two previous LIVE AT BLUES ALLEY CDs. With all due respect to Pete, I thought it fitting to do the liner notes for this CD, and explain how the third and final set of LIVE AT BLUES ALLEY came about.
True Confessions: All the selections on this CD are ones that I initially rejected when selecting material for the first two CDs. At that time, I thought that two sets were all of what was going to be released from the Blues Alley material. In the course of the ensuing months, RESERVOIR producer, Mark Feldman mentioned several times that there was enough material in the can for another CD. I kept refusing because I didn't think that it was good enough, but he finally persuaded me to give a listen.
To my surprise, I found the music to be highly inspired in spite of several instances of flubbed notes, and flawed phrases. There is an overall sense of excitement which pervades throughout these performances, most particularly in Double Talk and Our Delight. There is one spot in the middle of an open piano alone segment in my solo in Our Delight where the time feel is impaired due to a momentary slip of the wrist. I remember thinking at the time I played it, "Well, I'm not going to be putting this one out." But on reconsideration two years later, I felt that the entire performance really held up, and was worth hearing. From the reaction of the audience, it seems that they felt the same way.
The Squirrel has a pretty strong story line going in it, and It Could Happen To You, and On A Misty Night have nice laid back feels to them which warrant their being heard too. The ballads, though far from exquisite have merit as well. They bounce along in the solos with unyielding momentum, never causing one to be bored or impatient. Dameronia is a rarely heard, up-tempo tune, and one of my favorites of Tadd's.
So, having had this reaction, I decided that it was a good idea to give Mark the go ahead to release a THIRD SET, and I hope that you will agree when you listen to it.
I'd like to thank Ray Drummond and Kenny Washington for what is clearly a vitally significant contribution to this music. It wouldn't have the excitement and energy if it were not for them. They have been with me on five recording projects, and are my rhythm section of choice. Thanks also to Jim Anderson and Allan Tucker for their expertise involved in all of the aspects of recording and mastering, and thanks to Mark Feldman for prodding me into listening again, and for releasing this CD.
Finally, thanks to my fans in the audience for their encouraging support, and enthusiastic responses, which are as integral to this recording as the music itself, and the biggest thank you to my wife Stephanie for spurring them on with her frequent whistles, and for all of the emotional support that she gave me throughout this grueling two nights (and days) session.”
The following Art of Jazz Piano video montage features Hod, Ray and Kenny performing Freddie Redd’s Thespian as the audio track.