Magic Numbers: Hank Jones, Ron Carter, Tony Williams

RIP Hank Jones 1918-2010.

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Was it really Tony Williams’s idea to play with Hank Jones at the Village Vanguard in 1975?  It's a bit surprising Williams would initiate such an outwardly conservative project during the height of the fusion era. (1975 was also when Williams brought Allan Holdsworth to American audiences on Believe It.)  However, when Williams, Jones, and Ron Carter recorded a reprise engagement two years later, Williams calls out the next tune after “Favors” and announces the band at the end of "12 + 12," so the legend might be true. 

The liner notes say that club-owner Max Gordon coined them “The Great Jazz Trio."  That blustery designation indicates how uncomfortable jazz musicians of that era were with naming a band.  To this day, having a clear-cut leader seems preferable for those that came up in the 1950's and 1960's.

But it's nice The Great Jazz Trio gave collectivism a try, although the name lost integrity when Hank Jones went on to play with diverse all-stars under the same brand.  All the later "Great" trios are good, but for me, the GJT will always be Hank Jones, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams.  They share compositional duties, solo space, and all sound like leaders, just like any collective must.

The basic idea is fabulous:  take one of the premier bass and drum teams of the ’60s, a team that has never recorded with just piano before, and add them to an eager elder who can get his hooks into any style and approach.

This essay looks at all the GJT recordings alongside the contemporaneous dates with Grady Tate and Buster Williams.  In the companion post, all of Ron and Tony's other trio recordings are briefly considered.

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In 1975, Hank Jones was already almost 60. But Hanky Panky was his first serious trio date in over 20 years.

A strange career:  In the late 40’s and early 50’s, Jones was everywhere in jazz, playing with the biggest stars for Norman Granz and recording about a dozen superb albums for Savoy both as sideman and leader.  The best known Savoy records are solo and trio with Wendell Marshall and Kenny Clarke. You must own those albums if you love Hank Jones.  But don’t sleep on the many Savoy dates with horns and/or Milt Jackson, either, which showcase some of the most lush pre-Bill Evans comping in jazz, a post-Strayhorn nexus of impressionism and the blues.  It’s a collection of sides that shows Kenny Clarke at his best, too.

After Savoy, the Jones discography as a leader gets inconsistent.  Not that he lacked for work. He could read anything and color it with taste, qualities that supported a long run as a studio musician.  A group with Barry Galbraith, Milt Hinton, and Osie Johnson backed a variety of projects and can be heard alone The Talented Touch, which has a particularly memorable piano solo on “If I Love Again.”  But “Let Me Know” from the same album is pure boogie-woogie.  That's a surprise, because most modern jazz pianists won’t play boogie-woogie:  They regard it as either anachronistic or too difficult technically.  Indeed, “Let Me Know” is probably the only time a canonical modern jazz pianist recorded boogie for real, and shows that Jones was open to anything.

“Anything” including an album of ragtime.  Unfortunately,This Is Ragtime Now! has tack piano on most of the cuts.  Why couldn’t Hank Jones have just recorded Scott Joplin solo on a decent piano, end of story?  However, Ragtime Now! makes more sense than Happenings, a heavily-arranged big band album where Jones is featured on dated electric harpsichord.  I admit the “swinging” arrangement of Bach’s B-flat fugue from WTC 1 has a kind of grim interest.

There’s also two earlier albums of musicals with Kenny Burrell, Milt Hinton, and Elvin Jones, Porgy and Bess and Here’s Love (the latter has selections from Meredith Willson’s A Miracle on 34th Street).  It’s always interesting to hear Elvin in different settings, and really both these discs are very good, but it’s hard not to wish that this powerful band hadn’t been caught in a more casual session like the Savoy dates.

The unfettered Hank Jones did surface periodically in the 1960’s, like in serious collaborations with Milt Jackson.  But mostly he was humbly in service of others, like when he accompanied Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK.  Many “star horn meets grandiose backdrop” projects of that decade used his talents, like both Stan Getz’s and Stanley Turrentine’s Burt Bacharach songbook albums.  He also was in the band for Ed Sullivan, where apparently he was featured a little bit and even stood up to take the occasional bow.  Horace Tapscott told of being impressed and influenced by the fact that a black man could hold that position on a mainstream CBS television show.

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Finally, in 1975, East Wind took Jones in hand and gave him a proper date as a leader.  Toshinari Koinuma was the executive producer and Yasohachi "88" Itoh and Kiyoshi Itoh (unrelated) were co-producers for Hanky Panky and all the other GJT-related projects of this era.  (NB:  Those that made it to America were licensed by Inner City, but as far as I know they were identical to the East Wind issues in Japan.)

Not all of Jones’s ’70s trio albums were for East Wind by any means.  Jones clearly wasn’t interested in building a serious relationship with any one label:  he recorded everywhere for everybody.  After Hanky Panky I count 15 (!) Jones-led sessions before 1980 – in addition to the 8 or 9 East Wind albums!  

They are all good (of the ones I’ve heard), but the East Wind albums are easily the best sonically.  David Baker engineered the New York dates and Lee Hershberg the Los Angeles sessions.  (My CD reissue doesn’t say who did the Tokyo session, but it’s just as good.)

They also had a modernistic and distinctive design team.  The album covers have nothing to do with the music or musicians, but instead are clean, provocative, and indefinably “Japanese.”  There is another kind of Japanese jazz aesthetic that can be problematic:  “New York jazz is cool, rainy, flower, night.”  East Wind’s image was much more subtle.

And, of course, the East Wind records with Hank Jones have Ron Carter and Tony Williams.   For all their fame, I wonder sometimes if the post-Miles Davis years for Carter and Williams aren’t underrated.  Their collaboration with Jones show all three at their best.

Someone should write a history of jazz in Japan from this era.  It wasn’t just East Wind: many of the best recordings of ’70s and ’80s acoustic American jazz were made on the Japanese dime.  It’s a body of work that hasn’t gotten enough respect compared to the hagiography that surrounds ’50s and ’60s American labels.  The extensive Test of Time website (the home of East Wind CD reissues) includes a valuable interview with “88” Itoh.  Koinuma’s impressive biography is available on his own site.

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Hank Jones:  Hanky Panky

(July 14 and 15, 1975)

For his comeback disc, Jones carefully chose a repertoire of lesser-known jazz composers.  It’s not quite the GJT yet:  Ron’s on bass but Grady Tate is on drums.  However, I believe this session is more or less contemporaneous with the first Tony Williams-suggested Vanguard run of the GJT. Hank is out of the studios at last.

“Nothin’ Beats an Evil Woman” is a groovy A major blues by guitarist Ray Rivera.  Right away Ron Carter shows why he’s Ron Carter: the half notes are placed in the beat with maximum heat, and when he starts walking, the game is over.  His solo is great, too.  Blues folklore is always unforced from Mr. Carter.

There’s a clear but funky direction in Ron’s playing whether accompanying or soloing.  He’s got phenomenal reading and listening ability:  While he seems to take particular delight in making a complex notated chart as rich and “free” sounding as possible – without any wrong notes! – his radar is always keenly tracking the pianist’s voicings.  I watched him play with Steve Kuhn recently, in a situation with a lot of harmonic substitutions and “false” resolutions, and Ron had an intuitive way of either guessing right or moving to the right note in a satisfying way that didn’t sound like a mistake.

That’s why all piano players love Ron Carter.  I’m sure Hank Jones did.  Their rapport is obvious on every tune they played together.  Each harmony lands with sure-footed swing.

Since the 60’s, Ron's sound has evolved so that the bass amp is now a major component, and this has been somewhat controversial.  I don’t mind the “direct” sound if it is still woody enough to project the intensity of his beat, and don’t have a problem with the East Wind recordings, especially  Hanky Panky.

“Warm Blue Stream” is a pretty ballad by Sara Cassey, an obscure Detroit composer whose music was also played by Johnny Griffin among others.  The harmonies are rich and specific, as if the voicings are all written out.

“Confidence” Pete Rugolo wrote this middle-of-the-road swinger.  Rugolo's probably best known for his Stan Kenton arrangements.

“Wind Flower” The second Cassey composition is a serious E minor blues. It includes a special effect I’ve never heard before, a rare case of long-term planning in jazz composition.  While the first 8 bars of the blues are fairly active and syncopated, the last four bars are nearly empty and very square, almost like the composer quit trying.

All is revealed at the end:  The second time through, the song abruptly ends on bar 9, F# minor, omitting the empty bars.  What was formerly banal is now surprising.  Hank orchestrates this further by using the soft pedal from the top of the chorus until the bump.

“Wind Flower” is an excellent performance overall, with a tight rhythm section feel and those snaking, swinging lines that can only be played by Hank Jones.

“Minor Contention” was first recorded with Bobby Jaspar, Paul Chambers, and Kenny Clarke.   Pre-modal jazz composers like Hank felt that going to minor was a radical shift, and therefore frequently put "Minor" in the title.  Hank’s bright flow never sounds rushed or hectic.

“Favors”  For those that like pretty harmony, Claus Ogerman is one of the master composers and arrangers.  The GJT version of “Favors” discussed below is definitive.

“As Long as I Live” is a relatively unfamiliar Harold Arlen standard.  Hank’s solo is close to pre-bop in harmonic language and melodic paraphrase.  Tate is right in there, sounding really good.

“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” would become one of Hank’s signature pieces.  Whereas the Arlen above has old-fashioned harmony, this Richard Rodgers interpretation is modernistic:  substitutions, poly-chords and suspensions abound.  The solo version on Tiptoe Tapdance might be even better.

“Hanky Panky”  We end as we began, with an informal funky number.  As with Ray Rivera and Pete Rugolo, I suspect Hank got interested in Gary McFarland’s music in the studios (Hank is on McFarland's first record).  This is one of McFarland’s more conservative pieces,  the only unusual detail is a tritone bass line.  The McFarland/Steve Kuhn collaboration The October Suite has far more distinctive music by this composer and a stunning bass performance by Ron Carter.

(It’s a shame Hank never got a shot at a “concerto” like Kuhn did with McFarland’s The October Suite or Bill Evans did with Claus Ogerman on a couple of occasions.  The closest chance he got was Happenings with Oliver Nelson and that unfortunate electric harpsichord.)

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The Great Jazz Trio:  Love for Sale

(May 22, 1976)

This is from the day after the GJT with Ron Carter on bass backed Sadao Watanabe on I’m Old Fashioned.  Love for Sale has Buster Williams, I’m not sure why.  As usual, Buster sounds great.  (He was also Carter’s choice for bass in Ron’s piccolo-bass quartet.)

Whereas Hanky Panky focused on obscure material, this one contains familiar standards.  Thanks to Tony Williams, though, this is the more radical album.

Tony’s kit is massive by older jazz standards, with more toms and a bigger bass drum than any 60’s drummer.  His drums have a center-dot on the top head.  This deadens and tightens the sound:  You can hit harder and don’t need as much finesse in the touch, a kind of super-sizing that reflects the influence of rock music.  Tony's choice remains controversial.  These days it’s hard to imagine any professional and respected jazz drummer unpacking his kit at a gig and proudly placing center-dot toms on his stands atop a 24-inch bass drum like Tony Williams did.

One of my theories about great drummers is that they have strange, mystical relationships to their gear.  They are either weirdly obsessive or distant.  Some will tell you for hours what they do to get the sounds and others will lie to your face.  At any rate, it is very hard to hear any truly great drummer on any record or gig sounding like anybody else, no matter what they are using for equipment.  They always sound like themselves.

Tony’s rock influence is tempered by his love and knowledge of jazz.  His command of swing is absolute.  And that loud and charismatic rock energy brought something new to this music.  The records with Hank Jones are one of the best places to check it out.

“Love for Sale”  A case in point is the opening number.  Cole Porter’s tune about prostitution has never sounded so dangerous.  It’s fair to say that Tony plays an out-and-out disco beat during the head.  Hank is forced into bigger piano playing than on Hanky Panky, using octaves and ringing chords.  For solos, though, the trio settles into serious swing.

“Glad to Be Unhappy”  Hank harmonizes the verse with some surprising polychords.  The tune is then fairly straightforward.  Buster Williams shadows Hank closely.

“Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” is played in real whorehouse fashion.  Tony’s slow backbeat shuffle doesn’t accompany the piano but sits right next to or even in front of it.

“Secret Love”  begins with a roaring drum flourish that’s more appropriate to rock than a piano trio.  Pretty hilarious (I love it, though).  Buster’s walking lines are superb, as is Hank’s flowing solo.  Even though they rarely played together, Tony and Buster are comfortable with each other.  They know the same information.

“Someone to Watch Over Me” might be the standout track, which has one of Hank’s great solo introductions and a spectacularly rich harmonization of the theme.  What a divine piano touch.  Buster’s solos are more gregarious than Ron’s.  The arranged coda is a lovely surprise.

“Autumn Leaves” is this disc’s most conventional performance.  Hank participated in a slow and evocative version of “Leaves” on Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else! but, like most musicians since, Hank doesn’t reference that arrangement here, preferring just to “blow.”

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The Great Jazz Trio:  Live at the Village Vanguard

(February 19 & 20, 1977)

Now we finally have the real GJT.  On this live session Tony’s kit isn’t as large as on any of the studio records:  he’s missing a tom or two and I suspect it’s not his biggest bass drum.  The Vanguard stage is tiny, after all.

“Moose the Mooche”  Ron Carter’s bass notes on the head stretch tonality, and the drum solo is a lesson in bebop.  The star, though, is Hank Jones.  When I met him briefly at the Blue Note a few years ago, I complimented him on how he phrased the head of “Moose the Mooche” that set.  He replied, “Yes, Charlie Parker was a great player—so fast and innovative!”  I remembered with a shock that Hank Jones had already been on the scene for a few years by the time Bird came to town.

Jones comes out of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson.  He then added Nat “King” Cole and Bird, but Jones’s connection to stride and the swing era never took a back seat to bebop.  While that’s most obvious in the left hand tenths and how he fills out all the registers of the piano in harmonious syncopation – pure bop pianists don’t do this – looking at the right hand line on “Moose” tells the same pre-bebop story.

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It’s interesting to compare how Jones and Tommy Flanagan play rhythm changes with Ron Carter and Tony Williams.  Flanagan frequently references Bud Powell, whereas Jones doesn’t.  From The Trio, discussed in the companion post:

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For fun, here are a couple of other Jones “Moose the Mooche” performances.  You can see how much Hank is improvising – he repeats himself less in three solos than Flanagan does in one.

From his album Bop Redux with George Duvivier and Ben Riley:

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With George Mraz and Mel Lewis from Warne Marsh's Star Highs:

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(back to the GJT @ Vanguard)

“Naima”  If Jones was already working when Bird came to town, he was a well-seasoned professional by the time Trane showed up.  The suspended and bitonal chords of “Naima” become a gentle tone-poem under his hands.  There’s something Ellington-esque about his unaccompanied prelude, and perhaps the whole performance is related to a mood piece like “Azure,” a favorite of Jones.  He uses the soft pedal quite a bit throughout the performance.  Hank loved classical music, and the impressionistic quality of this interpretation becomes extra-obvious when he closes his solo with a paraphrase of "Clair de Lune."

Ron does the one-note groove that he does so well, and Tony splashes around like he’s having fun.  Tony even stops playing the groove sometimes, especially in the final chorus.  I wonder if Hank liked this!  Probably not.  No drummer ever stopped playing during the 50’s.  It’s important to remember that this was one of Tony’s innovations, too: to not always play.

“Favors”  Comparing Grady Tate’s version on Hanky Panky with Tony Williams’s surreal interpretation here is revealing.  On Hanky Panky, after the twelve bar intro, Tate snaps the side-stick on “4” like any professional big-band drummer.  Throughout his interpretation of this mildly complex theme, Tate plays the standard language of drumming.

Instead of a side-stick, Tony firmly but not aggressively attacks a open crash cymbal on “4” after the intro.  This is in keeping with his (Williams’s) near-absence of drums during the theme.  Not only are there no drums, but there’s also no high-hat on “2” and “4.”  Indeed, the only time I hear the high-hat is when there are the big-bandesque hits after E minor, when Tony hits the hats with a stick.  The lack of drums is pretty unusual.  I hear one (!) side-stick, right before the repeat of the theme.

What that means, of course, is that when the blowing starts and the snare and toms come in alongside feathered bass drum and conventional high-hat, the music surges forward with swing.

This medium-tempo is where Ron Carter lives.  He can make anybody sound good in this pocket.  He sounds especially good with Tony Williams. Together they are the Rolls-Royce of modern swing.

The quarter note is the essential element, not the skip-beat on the ride or any other eighth-note.  It’s Ron playing quarter-notes alongside Tony’s quarter notes.  This spectacular blend of science, folklore, and poetry is mostly connected to the African diaspora and all the other musics that have six and four simultaneously.  I suspect there is also Scottish or some other European pagan “drum and bagpipe” or “drum and trumpet” pageantry in there too, especially at the drum set.  At any rate, it seems like the clave and the march are always present in the work of those that swing.

Most of the music Tony Williams had been playing since leaving Miles Davis had little to do with swing. Maybe Tony wanted to work with Hank Jones and Ron Carter because he thought it was time.  Listen to how he lays it in there for Hank on this cut,  like he’s wearing an enormous smile.

“12 + 12” Ron’s piece is a blues until bar 5, when it begins circling the tonic like an old-fashioned standard.  It’s melodically related to his “Third Plane.”  The Rolls-Royce rolls on as Hank delivers his urbane take on gutbucket.

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The Great Jazz Trio:  At the Village Vanguard Vol. 2

From the same sessions, four more swingers.

“Confirmation” is the highlight of the second volume.  Hank’s version of bebop is always exciting, and Ron and Tony sound enthused to be playing with it.

“Wind Flower” is good too but there’s not the same focus heard on the version on Hanky Panky.  It’s a bit long and a bad edit screws up the form near the end of the trades.  But the ending is still surprising.

“Nardis”  There’s no fixed or official version of the melody or harmony to “Nardis”: Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, George Russell, Joe Henderson, and Richard Davis (arranged by Bill Lee) all played it in very different arrangements.

Hank is in the Bill Evans tradition here.  He’s either learned it off Explorations or is looking at a lead sheet that reflects the same.  The Real Book I grew up with had that version  Indeed, it sounds like Hank is looking at that very chart, which is just possible, I suppose, although my best guess is that there was some common-practice sheet that Hank and the makers of the Real Book both possessed.  

There’s one phrase that doesn’t make much sense in “Nardis,” the penultimate bar of the A section with major-third exotica. Amusingly, Hank doesn’t even play it on the first A, but just hiccups. (Russell’s version has the most intriguing solution of this awkward moment that I’ve heard.) It's interesting to compare Hank’s luminous introductory fantasia to Bill Evans's.

This is the first Vanguard track with brushes.  But the performance really settles down and gets to business when Tony picks up sticks.

“Lawra” Tony’s Williams song is a simple fanfare supported by an attractive collection of sustained dominant chords.  This is a rare case of Hank betraying his age:  he just can’t believe that D7 (or suspended) transition from F7 (or sus.) to Bb7 (or sus.).  Hank mostly plays D minor instead, a chord that makes more traditional major-minor sense.  It’s fun to hear Hank trying it out but frankly the versions with Herbie Hancock honor the composition more.

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The Great Jazz Trio:  At the Village Vanguard Again

The week’s bounty continues with more tasty versions of common-practice repertoire.  This final collection wasn’t released until the digital era.

“Hi-Fly” is a bit disappointing at first:  Randy Weston wrote it as a march and all the other best versions fall into military step, like the Jazztet’s or Dexter Gordon’s with Art Blakey.  (Weston has since re-conceived it as other styles, but never as simply swing.)  Tony Williams doesn’t seem to know this, but Ron Carter does, which is probably why Ron gooses some sort of different feel out of the drums in the second chorus.  As the piece goes along, I swear I can hear them all realize, “This isn’t going on the record,” so the performance loosens up and includes some of the wildest drum fills from the Vanguard sessions.

“Sophisticated Lady”  Hank had a special touch with Ellington.  This is a fabulous version of a song that is not really overplayed:  It’s so unusual and confining that to program it, you must really love it.  (Monk’s and Archie Shepp’s versions come to mind.) After the piano solo there's a chorus of indeterminate activity, otherwise the whole track is really great.

“Softly As In a Morning Sunrise” was originally a bit of harmless exotica from the 30’s meant for dancing.   Canonical versions by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane made it a must for modern jazz.  Hank would go on to play it a lot, but this is his first recording.  He’s still getting it together:  you can hear him grunt and curse a bit as his left hand repeatedly lands on the major third instead of the correct minor.  Very swinging, though!

“Wave”  Hank has taken on Bird, Coltrane, and Bill Evans so far.  How does he fare with Jobim?  Pretty well, but not as well as Ron Carter, one of Jobim’s favorite musicians.  (Ron is on the first recording of “Wave” from Jobim’s superb album arranged by Claus Ogerman.)  “Wave” is a Bird blues with a bridge –  a good demonstration of how another continent’s folklore can absorb modern jazz and make it their own.

Some strange major-minor controversy is dogging Hank:  Here, he doesn’t seem to believe that the concluding cadence ends in minor.  He does fine on the head but when soloing he can’t find it.

For the bass solo, Ron vamps and goes to a more African area of Brazil.  Tony half-heartedly hits a few timbales in response.  On later studio recordings of “Wave” with the GJT or McCoy Tyner, Tony is more committed.  Here he sounds suspicious of the bossa, beginning with some standard cross-sticking patterns and then wandering around.

“My Funny Valentine”  Both GJT recordings take “Valentine” at a surprisingly brisk tempo.  Not sentimental in the least! Hank harmonizes in rich thirds and turns the harmonic corners with ease.  However, I prefer the many versions of Cedar Walton with Ron on this tune, which have a dark, distinctive, heavily-grooving mood.  Ron is great here with Hank too, finding some unusual patterns to navigate these static changes.

Tony starts on brushes but soon picks up sticks and the Rolls-Royce rolls forth, supremely confident and swinging.

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The Great Jazz Trio:  Kindness, Joy, Love, and Happiness

(October 3 & 4, 1977)

The title comes from a Los Angeles radio station, KJLH.  Is the phrase too new-agey?  Not in the least!  This is some of the most joyful music ever recorded.

Admittedly, it’s not possible for me to be objective about Kindness, Joy, Love, and Happiness.  I owe it a great deal.  Possibly I even owe it my career:  “Freedom Jazz Dance” is a rare example of classic acoustic jazz that sounds like proto-Bad Plus.

I remember being at a jazz camp in high school, talking trash with other young piano players, including several that went on to be professionals like Anthony Wonsey and Jim Pryor.  I said, “Hank Jones with Ron Carter and Tony Williams:  Now that is magic.” Everybody disagreed with me: “No! Herbie Hancock with Ron Carter and Tony Williams: That’s magic!”  I sat back and thought:  “H’mm. Herbie has that territory controlled.  Keep listening to Hank in order to be distinctive.”

On KJLH, every song is worked out in detail.  Overall it seems to have had the most preparation of any GJT date.  I suspect most of the baubles in the arrangements are Hank’s, but Ron and Tony also contribute distinctive elements to every piece.  The arrangements are required because these pieces are almost too familiar (excepting the three originals).  One of the ways this album succeeds is by reinventing the common-practice book in fresh ways neither pretentious or sarcastic.

“Freedom Jazz Dance”  Dig how Hank plays the tricky melody in both hands like it’s nothing.  The full-throttle piano solo is based on a new set of II/Vish changes instead of a vamp.  It’s one of the great Hank Jones performances.

Tony has the big kit back.  He announces it with a rock-influenced fusillade at the top and doesn’t ever really let up.  Clearly enjoying the ride, Ron plays with fierce independence throughout including during a great solo – which is really more like a duet, Tony is hitting so hard.

“Doom” was first presented on Miles Davis’s E.S.P. (as “Mood”) and then on Ron’s Uptown Conversation.  KJLH has the best version.  I especially enjoy the abstract bass and drums duo introduction (as if something from the early Tony Blue Note Life Time shows up for a minute?) and Tony’s burning double-time six contrasting with Hank’s debonair three.

“Ah, Oui” is by Hank, who, as a composer, is maybe not quite at the level of Ron or Tony.  It’s a nice piece in a melodic hard-bop style, but it’s probably the least distinguished track on KJLH.

“Old Folks”  I wrote above that Hank seemed bemused by Tony’s “Lawra.” He really gets Tony’s “Old Folks,” though, which is also mostly a progression of dominants.  Once in a while Ron pulls something out of what I think of as his “Richard Davis bag,” like the wonderful, noisy, out-of-tune high notes during the theme.  The Rolls-Royce then settles down to accompany Hank at his most Monkish.  The short quasi-solos of Ron and Tony are marvelous.  Straight-ahead trios should play like this more often: only four minutes but everybody gets their say.

“Mr. P.C.” is not a tune usually suitable for pianists because the repeated notes are so tricky to pull off.  Hank doesn’t try to make the repeated notes but simplifies the theme instead (McCoy Tyner does the same thing).  He also adds a surprising introduction and interlude, and of course contributes a breathtaking improvisation spinning out the up-tempo minor blues in his marvelous “Teddy Wilson to the future” style.  Hank is producing a massive amount of volume out of the piano but it never comes across as tense or forced.  It sounds so easy, the way he drops in his impeccable time feel against the band here, but playing like this is not easy at all!

Listen carefully and you’ll hear that Ron uses a number of delayed resolutions, implied pedals, and unusual voice leading behind Hank.  Several times it seems like he’s playing on F or Bb instead of C minor on the first chord of the form, bringing out folklore to contrast Hank’s urbanity.  Ron’s just getting started, though.  This might be my favorite Ron Carter bass solo, full of surreal motivic development.  I defy anyone to not get lost in the form the first time listening.  It’s reminiscent of some similar surreal phrasing on a fabulous “Isotope” with Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, and Jack DeJohnette.  In that case, though, the band actually does get lost for a moment.  Here with the GJT, they keep the form just fine through Ron’s “out” lines.  (I think.)

Tony Williams was the first drummer to play all four beats on his high-hat with his left foot.  It became one of his fingerprints when playing a within certain range of tempo in swing.  He doesn’t do it with Hank that much; most of the time he’s snapping the traditional “2” and “4.”  (There's none or hardly any all-four hat at the Vanguard with the smaller kit.)  On “Mr. P.C.,” though, he’s doing the four-beat hat.  And the four-beat bass drum, too:  this is a good place to hear Tony feather.

The one time I saw Tony live he was sometimes playing four on the bass drum, four on the hats, and, believe it or not, four on the snare as well.

“All Blues” is also not usually suitable for pianists – not that that has stopped amateur musicians from defacing it over and over again.  Several superb details of this marvelous Miles Davis composition usually get lost.  The most common error is the bass motion:  Amateurs go to C in the conventional place instead of staying on G.  The ride cymbal beat is specific, too:  two eighths followed by two quarters.  There’s also an important mid-register piano tremolo.

Ron and Tony played these details correctly with the composer, of course.  But here they abandon that arrangement entirely and come up with a completely new bass line and drum feel.  Hank floats on top with a complex harmonization of the theme.  I know he liked Ravel; maybe that’s who he’s thinking of.

It’s worth noting that, with these last two tracks, the GJT has just taken on the most iconic blues pieces by the most important modern jazz musicians, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and made them their own.

“A Child Is Born” is played without drums.  Hank begins with a few bell-tones at the very softest dynamic, the kind of “special effect” that happens frequently throughout KJLH, and not enough on most other straight-ahead piano, bass, and drum albums.  I’ve never heard a better version of brother Thad Jones’s most famous ballad.

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The Great Jazz Trio:  Direct from L.A.

(October 6, 1977)

Just two days later the GJT keeps going with a casual spin through more familiar material.  Direct from L.A. is less arranged and intense than KJLH.

“A Night In Tunisia”  Hank cheekily begins with vamping on “Arabian Dance” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.  Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop classic is an important piece for drummers – it’s just about the first attempt at putting Afro-Cuban rhythm in jazz – but Tony is restrained, just cross-sticking and undulating gracefully.  His solo is good but not the epic journey some drummers like Art Blakey always made of “Tunisia.”

The Rolls-Royce is superb, and it’s interesting to hear Hank constantly choosing between A7 and Eb7 while soloing.

“‘Round Midnight”  Hank played this a lot.  It's fine, but any other version of the changes besides Monk’s own are simply wrong.

“Satin Doll” is the highlight of this record.  Hank had worked up a complex piano part to this for his marvelous solo Duke album also called Satin Doll.  What rich harmony!  What other pianist could play this nearly banal song with such forthright beauty?

Ron gives us two choruses of walking solo.  Every Ron Carter walking solo is automatically definitive.

“My Funny Valentine”  A solid turn but maybe the live version was better.  The tempo is the same but Hank is more linear during the melody.  For me, the thirds he used before were more distinctive.

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The Great Jazz Trio:  Milestones

(April 5, 1978)

A few months later and it’s time to roll into a decent studio with David Baker for a day and knock out another session for Koinuma and “88” Itoh.

“Milestones”  When I took a lesson with Barry Harris, he asked me what I was going to play and I said, “Milestones.”  His brow furrowed and he growled, “The right one or the wrong one?”  For Barry, the right one was the early II/V tune that John Lewis had something to do with.  The later one from the famous album was modal, and “wrong.”

I was going to play the old one for Barry, of course, but I told Barry he might like the new “Milestones” as played by Hank Jones, since, rather than treating it as a modal piece with unrelieved phrases in G minor/C7, Hank cadenced to F at the end of every A.  I played the progression for Barry and his face cleared.  “That’s a good idea,” he said.  (Barry will never have anything to do with modal music!)

As it turns out, Herbie Hancock was possibly the one who came up with the idea to cadence “Milestones” in F:  He played it that way with Ron and Tony a year earlier, in a version that is superior to the GJT.  Herbie’s intensity is just more correct for the composition.  It’s still interesting to hear Hank play it though, putting a little Teddy Wilson into (nearly) modal music!

I regret that Ron doesn’t play the correct bass part for the bridge on either of these mid- ’70s trio versions.  What Paul Chambers did on the original was important and innovative.  (Ron did play it correctly for Miles a decade earlier.)

“Lush Life” is in Ab, the only time I remember hearing it in a non-standard key without a singer.  This should be great but I’m not sure that the bass needed to play so much of the melody in the verse.  I admire Tony’s chutzpah in only using sticks, but, really, wouldn’t brushes have been better?

“Wave” is now slower and more focused than a year earlier at the Vanguard.  Tony has his part together:  there’s no “normal bossa” cross-sticking but rather a feel that’s closer to quarter-note rock.  Amusingly, Hank still doesn’t believe that the A sections cadence to minor when blowing.

“Eighty-one”  The original version on E.S.P. is definitive; one of that band’s greatest moments in the studio.  Ron’s blues was a new kind of abstract funk that was vastly influential.

During the head, the GJT does not deliver a worthy remake.  After the head, when the Rolls-Royce and Hank play the blues, it’s fabulous.  It still doesn’t sound like “Eighty-one,” though.

“I Remember Clifford”  The second side of the LP is better for some reason.  No complaints about this respectful reading at a walking ballad tempo.  They play it in F.   As with “Lush Life” above, this is the only time I’ve heard this song in a non-standard key without a singer.

“Hormone” is intriguing and my favorite of Hank’s originals played by the GJT.  There’s definitely the influence of classical music, both melodically (the abstract G-minor tune) and harmonically (the mid-register, rumbling quasi-counterpoint over Eb).  The structure is not II/Vs but a collection of scales:  is Hank learning from the other members of GJT?

“Mr. Biko” starts wonderfully with a mysterious, grooving, delicate texture only possible with the GJT.  They could have stayed there all day as far as I’m concerned.  I rather wish Tony didn’t go into swing so quickly.  Oh well, it’s his piece, he certainly knows what he’s doing with it!

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The Great Jazz Trio:  The Great Tokyo Meeting

(July 31, 1978)

The last record has no standards or jazz classics, but two originals by each member.  I always like the originals, but for context maybe a familiar John Lewis, Horace Silver, or Wayne Shorter piece could have been added as well.

The Great Tokyo Meeting is better than Milestones, though.  It’s really grown on me, especially the first four tunes.  I don’t think this ever got to America much before the digital era.

"Pink Lady" is a Tony Williams swinger related to hard-bop.  The phrase lengths are rather tricky, forcing Hank to attractively quote the melody quite a bit in his solo.  Ron enjoys his low “D.”

“Mellow Blues”  Ron Carter came up with an interesting 12-bar ballad with these changes:

F maj.7 / Bb7 / F maj.7 / E7 / A7 / D7 / G7 / C7 / Fmaj.7 / A7 D7 / G7 / C7

It’s like the dead intersection of a normal standard and the blues.  Perfect for this band!

“Out of Round” keeps the blues coming.  Hank’s tune is reminiscent of Ron’s “12 + 12” from the Vanguard.  The first phrase of the piano solo is astounding.  Hank is really hitting here, and Tony responds with enthusiasm.

“G.J.T.” Ron’s tribute to the trio is barely a tune.  It’s simply a collection of half-and whole-notes.  Hank starts the machine, Ron joins, and then Tony’s brush work galvanizes the groove.  The high-hat starts on “2” and “4” when Hank opens up and begins playing.  Ron never starts walking and Tony never goes to sticks.  They just stay in that parade as Hank traces his subtle magic above. A whole galaxy of rhythmic nuance is contained in this outwardly basic performance.

Ron would also record this tune with Tony, Chick Corea, and Joe Henderson plus tightly-arranged horn section on his own album Parade.  Ultimately those bells and whistles come across as conventional compared to this more mysterious version. The GJT owns “G.J.T.”

“Interface” is another blues by Hank, this one in minor and doubled to 24 bars.  The melody is in the bass; Ron plays it an octave lower than Dave Holland does a decade later on The Oracle.

Hank also quotes “Eleanor Rigby” for a few bars, like he quotes “Johnny Come Lately” in “Wind Flower” and “Nature Boy” in “My Funny Valentine” at the Vanguard.  I’m not really a fan of any of those moments.

The first time I saw Hank live was 1993 or so, in a quintet with Johnny Coles, Clifford Jordan, Johannes Weidenmuller, and Keith Copeland.  On two successive nights, Hank put in his “Eleanor Rigby” quote while smiling at the audience to make sure they got it.  Ugh.  In my early twenties I thought that kind of mugging was just awful.

I’ve mellowed a bit on this topic.  Now, while still a bit impatient, I see this Beatles quote as key to understanding Hank Jones.  If you got up the nerve to ask Hank Jones outright if he was an artist or an entertainer, I wonder which he would choose.

For me, he is an artist; one of the greatest, really.

But that artistry is deeply informed by a blue-collar attitude:  “Let’s give the audience a good time.” After all, how could someone with his gifts have stayed in the studios for so long in his prime without some working-class perspective?  How could he go from playing the Vanguard with Ron and Tony to holding down the chair at a Fats Waller revue on Broadway if he didn’t like getting applause from the common man, not just insiders?

Every day of his life, Hank made good-to-great music that got over.  He didn’t worry about it too much.  I’m sure he’d shrug off my judgement against quoting the Beatles on a minor blues as pompous or silly.

“Forever” Tony’s slow waltz features sensitive beat placement from Ron and Tony.  “Delicate” is a word often used about Hank, and I’ve used it myself.  But it’s never that delicate, as shown here in a solo that is quite tough considering the context.  One of my favorite quotes about bebop piano comes from novelist Peter Straub in his liner notes to Tommy Flanagan’s Sunset and the Mockingbird.  It’s a quote equally applicable to Hank Jones:

...Far too much of what has been written about him misrepresents the real nature of his talent.  Adjectives like “elegant,” “civilized,” “poetic,” “modest,” and “discreet” recur so often as to suggest that the charming Mr. Flanagan offers harmless salon vapors based upon the poems of Mr. Mallarmé.  Any such notion is, let us say, laughable.  In fact, Tommy Flanagan is a passionate, tremendously muscular piano player who leans into every phrase with enough force to blow an unsuspecting sideman off the bandstand.  The clarity of his articulation and the resolute unflappability of his progression from one inspiration to the next can be called elegant and is nothing if not civilized in the best, widest possible sense, but most of the time this music is about as delicate as Mohammed Ali’s left hand.

“To Destiny” is a rather portentous title for Hank’s charming Latin number.  Tony plays a far more authentic Brazilian beat here then on "Wave."  I’m sad listening to it, for there is no destiny for this GJT:  The collaboration between modern Rolls-Royce rhythm and 1935-vintage harmony is done.

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Hank Jones would go on to record frequently in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, although not quite as much as during the post-studio boom of the ’70s.  In addition to many other Great Jazz Trio configurations his collaboration with producer  Jean-Philippe Allard for Verve was fruitful.  Indeed, Allard concept albums like Fats Waller and Thad Jones songbooks or the meetings with Charlie Haden, Abbey Lincoln, and Cheick-Tidiane Seck & The Mandinkas are a much better collection than his concept albums of the ’50s and ’60s.  There was plenty of other, less highbrow product too, like good straight-ahead albums for Concord, Timeless and EmArcy.

A final quartet nominally led by Joe Lovano with George Mraz and Paul Motian was loved by both critics and audiences all over the world.  The last time I saw him live was in that configuration.  The youthful 91-year old piano player comped for Paul Motian’s noisy, abstract solos with a smile.

With the passing of Hank Jones we have not just lost a great pianist but part of our memory.  Hank embodied the history and ethos of a kind of music that doesn’t really exist unless a major practitioner is making it.  Working with Hank, Ron and Tony showed that they, too, were part of the innermost circle of authentic jazz magicians.  Re-listening to all the GJT and GJT-related music above was nothing but pleasure.

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(Go on to companion post)

07/17/2010