John Hicks' fifth tribute CD for High Note honors yet another pianist associated with the city of Pittsburgh, the great Earl Fatha Hines. Once again Hicks is joined by his favorite sidemen, bassist Dwayne Dolphin and drummer Cecil Brooks III. Like his earlier releases in this series, Hicks plays a number of songs written by, or indelibly associated with, the musician he salutes, though there are a couple of exceptions. Two tracks were leftovers from the sessions for Nightwind: An Erroll Garner Songbook, though one could have easily imagined how Hines might have approached the lovely ballad "Almost Spring," or Hicks' swinging blues on "Twelve Bars for Linton," which is dedicated to Garner's older but lesser-known brother. But the heart of this CD consists of the leader's enjoyable renditions of Hines' favorites. Hicks doesn't try to mimic Hines' approach to the keyboard, instead recasting each song in a bop format while maintaining a swinging feeling. The driving mid-tempo setting of "My Monday Date," and the moving duet with Dolphin on "You Can Depend on Me," are also first-rate performances. The leader also contributed several originals, including the stride-flavored solo "Remembering Earl and Marva," which refers to Hines and singer Marva Josie (misspelled "Joseph" in the liner notes), who toured and recorded together in the early 1970s, as well as the tender ballad "Fatha's Bedtime Story." More than a few jazz musicians could learn how to make tribute CDs by listening gems such as this one by John Hicks.
All Music Guide
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John Hicks' tribute to one of jazz music's true piano stylists, Earl "Fatha" Hines, is his fifth such tribute for High Note Records to pianists associated with the Iron City of Pittsburgh. Hicks has thus far covered the gamut of Pittsburgh's major jazz piano figures from Billy Stray horn ( HCD 7019) and Erroll Garner (HCD 7035), to Mary Lou Williams (HCD 7046), and more recently Sonny Clark (HCD 7083), and the selection for Hines here is perfect if not overdue. Pittsburgh-affiliated pianists Ahmad Jamal, Dodo Marmarosa, and Horace Parian, amongst few others, remain for Hicks' future consideration, each of whom we might assume are 'on-deck'.
Though it may have been a nice marketing maneuver to coordinate this release with the actual June date of Father's Day, the true intent and namesake of Hicks' "Fatha"-inspired session of Hines' music and spirit-including the five originals by Hicks -is made clear with Hines' familiar melody found in the introductory track of "Rosetta". Coincidentally, the timeliness of this session is that its release is right around the two-decade anniversary of Fatha's passing, and just over 80 years from the basic beginnings of Hines' professional and documented career as a proven genius of jazz piano.
"Fatha" Hines' arpeggios, percussive attack, sudden changes and manipulation of tempo, and his renowned and devoted melodic improvisations-not to mention his mood creations via his mastery of stride, ragtime, and the blues-are given a more than adequate homage here by Hicks. Hines' discography, with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and in contexts ranging from big band - in which his own bands featured Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, trombonist Trummy Young, vocalists Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan, and saxophonist Wardell Gray - to his trios and solos, has indubitably left an indelible marking on the map of jazz history.
Similarly, John Hicks' experience is as diverse with regards to instrumentations and musical flexibility, not only as a leader and sideman, but also as a prolific composer. He nears 40 releases as a leader since his debut in the late-'70s (Hell's Bells, Strata East), and is in his own right as well respected as any of the many unheralded jazz legends. Having spent many years with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Betty Carter, and Woody Herman, Hicks' recorded legacy is expansive, including multi recordings and prolonged stints with saxophonists Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, David Murray, and Arthur Blythe. With his soft-spoken yet elegant and mature demeanor, he is truly a jazz treasure for those who are aware of his accomplishments and creativity behind the keys. With his longstanding trio of bassist Dwayne Dolphin and drummer (and record producer) Cecil Brooks III-both Pittsburghers whom Hicks has collaborated with in each of his High Note trio sessions-the jazz veteran is riding a wave of one successful recording after another. This new release certainly following in that trend.
Though born in Atlanta, and having spent a significant amount of time in St. Louis, Los Angeles, and New York, Hicks' musical affinity is to Pittsburgh. Though he's basically and inherently an adopted son of Pittsburgh, having been a Jazz Messenger of Blakey (himself one of the legendary Pittsburgh-bred jazz musicians), this most recent recorded installment proves that he is-more than anything else-at home with his honed style regardless of locale. Representing the apex of his recording career as a leader thus far, Fatha's Day continues a well-documented annual visit to the High Note recording studio, even if this and his previous session from last year (Music In the Key of Clark) mark the only two actually not recorded in Pittsburgh.
First and foremost, this is a John Hicks session. You'll immediately hear that Hicks fortunately doesn't waste his time and energy with efforts of emulation. Hines' work at the piano, after all, was totally unique. Hines was indeed the "Fatha" of modern jazz piano as he was commonly referred to as the first modern jazz pianist. "I base what I'm doing and what I've done on my own impressions", Hicks revealed of his mindset in preparing not only for this dedication, but for his four previous. "Fortunately I've been able to hear all these artists I've paid tribute to, so I've either known them personally or have been in their presence more than a few times and have gotten to know the people they were, as well as the music they created, which goes way past them as just musicians.. .Also, if you really want to do something on the music of Hines, you couldn't possibly do it in one CD anyway!" Bringing a contemporary homage to Hines, who was known for his phenomenal trumpet-style piano playing, Hicks sees this session as his own "personal take on some of the music and some of the compositions Hines did. It's really my memories and interpretation".
Both pianists certainly excel in the solo setting, and each are well documented as such. For starters, check out Hicks Time (1998) and Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 7 (1991), and for Hines' his early-'40s recorded solos and Spontaneous Explorations (1964). John Hicks features himself on four tunes unaccompanied, all his originals. "Remembering Earl and Marva" showcases Hicks literally dueting with himself in fine Hines fashion, with accentuating left-hand rolls and right-hand single note lines. He dedicated this tune to a singer by the name of Marva Joseph, who he had seen featured with Hines in the '70s at the old Birdland club in New York, and admittedly had no idea of her whereabouts let alone existence since. Little did Hicks know that when he introduced the tune to Dolphin and Brooks, Dwayne would pipe up, "I just played with her in Pittsburgh!" And so the Pittsburgh connection continues.
"Fatha's Bedtime Story", a ballad, is another Hicks-penned solo piano feature, given a delicate treatment with an ornate Hines-inspired concluding run. The stride spotlight of "Rhythm Run (Uphill)" features the feeling and spirit of the blues at its core. "We had a little time in the studio during breaks, but I didn't even want to think about eating," Hicks revealed of this spontaneously played piece. "It was just one of those things that happened." Fortunately Hicks wasn't hungry, and the tape continued to roll.
The final unaccompanied Hicks statement, appropriately concluding Hicks' Hines-in-mind session, is "Synopsis". It reveals the leader's admiration for Hines' mastery of octaves. "It's sort of like a showcase for piano tunes. There's a Hines melody I heard him play in the early-'70s which I'm always thinking about, but can't quite put my finger on. I tried to take a stab at it here."
Hicks preferred a trio treatment of what many Hines listeners might recollect from the master's late-'30s unaccompanied "Rosetta". It's one of the elder pianist's most well-known tunes which he gave countless renditions of both live and in studio. Here Hicks, Dolphin, and Brooks give a fine uptempo rendition of one of the earliest tunes Hicks remembers, even as a pre-teen. It's reminiscent of Hines' later performances of the staple he played and recorded live at the Village Vanguard with his trio of bassist Gene Ramey and drummer Eddie Locke back in the mid-'60s.
There are also two compositions which were carried over from Hicks' Erroll Garner session (Nightwind: An Erroll Garner Song-book), as he was unable to include them back then due to time constraints. Hicks felt it enticingly appropriate to incorporate the Garner-ish material. The ballad "Almost Spring" was written by bassist Mickey Bass, yet another Pittsburgher, and the upbeat bass-driven track "Twelve Bars for Linton" is a Hicks original dedicated to Erroll's older brother Linton, who Hicks knew in the early-'60s.
"Poor Butterfly" brings forth Brooks' brushes and Dolphin's slight bass accent in conjunction with Hicks' piano bass lines. The bass and drums at times function as compensating components for Hick's venturing from the bassline, as he instead preoccupies himself with awe-inspiring right-hand displays.
"My Monday Date", an oft-recorded and played Hines standard many a times done solo, is a near 8-minute high-energy trio excursion with a solid bass solo under sparse piano and cymbal background accompaniment, before transitioning into Brooks' solo exchanges with his two teammates. For "Sweet and Lovely", Brooks' expertise of providing an in-the-pocket groove and even his melodic stylings are brought to the fore.
The Dolphin-Hicks duet, "You Can Depend On Me", is a heart-wrenching ballad gone blues by the chorus. "If you hear the melody, you'll sing along with it. The lyrics are pretty impressive, and reminds me not necessarily of a straight-ahead 12-or 16-bar blues, but it just has that feeling," is Hicks' description of his desire for a drum-less and spacious take on the occasionally covered standard.
"Serenata", a ballad composed by Leroy Anderson who Hicks labels as much under-appreciated, was never recorded by Hines, though Hicks fondly recalls him performing it with vocalist Kenny Hagood at Birdland in the early-'70s.
As Hines was said to have gotten better with age, especially after his final renaissance which lasted his final twenty years, the same too can be said of John Hicks who is not only producing his finest work but is doing so in such a consistent manner both in studio and in concert. Hick's usage of Hines' accomplishments as a point of departure is captured exquisitely throughout his new recording, which represents another stepping stone in an already well documented career.
If this is your introduction to the name and/or music of Earl "Fatha" Hines, I'm sure John Hicks would be honored, but at the same time might he recommend you immediately take a trip to your local record store's jazz section, look under "Hi-", not only grab some of Hines' releases, but also have a gander in the John Hicks' section, too.
Fatha's Day is ultimately another fine John Hicks release that merely uses the concept of his continuing admiration for Pittsburgh-associated pianists as a springboard into a very personal recorded document in Hicks' own recorded legacy.
- Laurence Donohue-Greene (managing Editor, AlIAboutJazz-New York)