Daily Archives: March 23, 2011

THE IMAGININGS OF EARL HINES

Earl Hines is both revered and under-acknowledged, a position many jazz legends find themselves in.  He was in the public eye for more than sixty years, playing everywhere.  But his energy and abundance have often tended to make him a caricature of himself: late in life, he surrounded himself with functional but less inspiring musicians, and the listener was often treated to spectacles: mountainous versions of BOOGIE WOOGIE ON THE SAINT LOUIS BLUES that seemed to go on forever.

But in his prime — and that lasted, intermittently, throughout his life, he could be mesmerizing.  I remember seeing him at a solo concert at The New School in 1972: his pyrotechnics on BWOTSLB made me look at my watch, but his tender, mournful playing and singing of I’M A LITTLE BROWN BIRD LOOKING FOR A BLACKBIRD stays in my mind all these years.

When he was fully realized — often when playing solo — he reminded me of Emerson’s comment that the best journey is a series of zigzag tacks.  Stride piano proceeded in straight lines (and that’s no insult); Hines started from apparently simple but highly embellished statements of the melody and grew wilder and wilder, even at slow tempos, seeming like the Japanese brush painter beginning a view of Mount Fuji with only four calligraphic strokes but ending up, three or four minutes later, with an intensely detailed mosaic — the canvas filled to the edges with flourishes and dancing satyrs.  Hines didn’t know “restraint”; “ornate” to him was like breathing.  In some ways, he resembles the Joyce of Ulysses, who found simple linear narrative constricting and boring, preferring to present a reader (a hearer) with simultaneous conversations going on.  You forget that it’s only one piano and one musician, only ten fingers: a full Hines solo defies all logic.  “That can’t be one person playing!” the ears insist.  But it is.  His own Charles Ives, with no orchestra but his own ten fingers.

Here he is, explaining his style to Ralph J. Gleason and the television audience on Gleason’s JAZZ CASUAL, circa 1961:

And the gorgeous and dense GLAD RAG DOLL from 1929 — a wandering universe complete in itself, full of light and shade and surprises:

A year earlier, his ruminations on I AIN’T GOT NOBODY, which takes its beautiful time to get there:

Finally, two little lessons by contemporary jazz masters of the keyboard.  First, Chris Dawson’s transcription of Hines’s 1934 ROSETTA solo:

Then Dick Hyman tells us how to become Hines at home.  Remember to keep counting!

Thanks to Robert D. Rusch, whose gentle urging made this happen, and of course to Louis Armstrong, whose gentle prodding made Hines leap forward into the power of his own audacities.

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“AIR MAIL SPECIAL”: JOHN COCUZZI, ANTTI SARPILA, BUCKY PIZZARELLI, JASON WANNER, RICHARD SIMON, and BUTCH MILES

Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian and the small groups they levitated (for only a brief time, 1939-41) continue to resonate, even though I believe that none of the original players survive.

But the music does.

Here is a fervent sample — recorded live at the 2011 San Diego Jazz Party.  (It comes from the “swingink” YouTube channel.)

This all-star sextet (led by Antti Sarpila) is playing AIR MAIL SPECIAL — composer credits Goodman, Christian, and Mundy — although my guess is that the composition should read CHARLES CHRISTIAN (100%), BENJAMIN DAVID GOODMAN (fine-tuning after the fact, percentage undetermined), and JAMES MUNDY (arrangement for big band).  Poor Charlie didn’t even live long enough to enjoy the royalties from his one-third, but that’s another story.

Many Goodman tributes are overseen by clarinetists, senior or junior, who have memorized the King’s fleet set-pieces without understanding the central nervous system that made them work so well.  Goodman seemed to use many notes, but he also had an intuitive grasp of space — how silence, like breathing, was essential to swing.  He had great flexibility on his instrument but was never shrill; he was melodic rather than loud.  Finnish clarinetist ANTTI SARPILA knows this from the inside out, having studied with the Master Robert Sage Wilber.

Then there’s the vibraphone / vibraharp — another instrument that lends itself, in the wrong hands, to swirling excesses: too many arpeggiated chords, too much jumping up and down a la Hamp, too much pounding.  If you simply watch JOHN COCUZZI’s mallets, you’ll be hypnotized — they go so fast, and in this performance one disintegrates under the strain (where is Dixie Rollini when you need her now?) but don’t let the flashing sticks fool you.  John’s phrases are elegant, his constructions logical and hot but never losing their cool.  He rocks!

Then there’s that wonderfully age-defying rhythm section: Uncle BUCKY PIZZARELLI, who is both the single-string Friend of Charlie Christian and a chording dynamo (a long-time Goodman alumnus); young titan JASON WANNER, spinning out beautifully nuanced piano lines; reliable swinger RICHARD SIMON; engine-room man BUTCH MILES.

Put them all together and you have an AIR MAIL SPECIAL that’s both riotous and right on time!

And for a reason to save your pennies or to make your own coffee now and again — John Cocuzzi has just recorded a delicious CD called GROOVE MERCHANT for the Arbors people — with Antti, the irreplaceable pianist John Sheridan, guitarist James Chirillo, bassist Frank Tate, and drummer Joe Ascione.  I’ve heard an advance copy and it swings in a lovely, insinuating way — and some tracks have become instant classics, stuck in the JAZZ LIVES car player.  Coming soon!

For now, dig this AIR MAIL SPECIAL: it repays frequent watchings.