One of the pleasures of writing for the journal Cadence is in working with its editor, Bob Rusch, who has great faith in his reviewers’ intellectual elasticity, their ability to consider art that falls slightly outside their accustomed orbit. Although I could be happy listening to James P. Johnson until the day of doom, Bob has asked me to listen closely and think about recordings I wouldn’t have ordinarily purchased, artists I wouldn’t have otherwise known. One such CD was a trio recording on the Sharp Nine label (its title an emblem of witty hipness) featuring the pianist Tardo Hammer, bassist Dennis Irwin, and drummer Jimmy Wormworth, Tardo’s Tempo. I thought it a remarkable recording because of Hammer’s beautiful touch, his unhurried melodic sense, the way the trio worked together, and (no small matter) the beauty of the recorded sound. Although Hammer might have been classified superficially as a boppish pianist of the Bud Powell persuasion, he has and had a thoughtful restraint, his lines distilled musings rather than violent displays of pianistic ferocity.
Then Tardo surfaced on a particularly moving quartet effort by saxophonist Grant Stewart, Young At Heart, and a live session featuring Stewart and the trumpeter John Marshall, Live at Le Pirate. I confess that all of his fine playing on these discs did not add up to a conversion experience. That took place when I heard his latest recording, Look Stop Listen: The Music of Tadd Dameron, also on Sharp Nine. It features Tardo, John Webber, and Joe Fransworth, a truly empathetic trio. All of their virtues are even more beautifully on display here. Because Dameron created ringing, mournful melodies, Tardo has wonderful material to explore, and he is someone who (in Eubie Blake’s phrase) knows how to make the piano sing. He takes his time, he considers the implications of each note without ever getting bogged down in his own cogitations; his tone is like nothing so much as a fine cognac. Listen to his thoughtful exploration of something as well-worn as “Hot House,” made into a headlong rush by generations of eager emulators of Bird and Diz; hear the pearls he creates out of “Dial B for Beauty” and “If You Could See Me Now.” Webber is every pianist’s dream: solid but supportive, his focused sonority relaxed yet pulsing. And Farnsworth (especially on brushes) urges and comments without changing the tempo a hair. It is one of those sessions that without being in the slightest bit backwards-looking, summons up all the glories of the past without imitating anyone’s familiar gestures.
Because I organize my compact discs alphabetically, Hammer will now have his own section among Ed Hall, Scott Hamilton, Lionel Hampton, Annette Hanshaw, Michael Hashim, and Coleman Hawkins — a set of great melodists. Those players will welcome him; he’ll be right at home.