As a core sample taken from the early to middle portion of his long career, Piano Man captures the essence of Earl "Fatha" Hines. The listener is meant to begin with five unaccompanied piano appetizers from 1939, 1940, and 1941; to relish the "Blues in Thirds" that Hines recorded with Sidney Bechet and Baby Dodds in 1940; dig into 16 classic big band sides recorded between 1939 and 1942; then savor four beautiful Fats Waller tributes waxed in early 1944 with Al Casey and Oscar Pettiford. For dessert, there's a V-Disc take of the "Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues" with Hines in the company of Charlie Shavers, Red Norvo, and the Paul Baron Orchestra. There are plenty of reasons — 27 outstanding tracks, in fact — for this album having consistently received top honors and highest critical acclaim. As both an introduction to and a celebration of the life and work of Earl Hines, the people he worked with, and the music they all lived and died for, this is as good as it gets. That's not hype. It's the honest truth.
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By the time most of the recordings in this collection were made, Earl Hines had been a bandleader for a dozen years. Broadcasts from the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago, where he had opened on December 28 (his birthday) in 1928, had made his orchestra famous throughout the United States and Canada. But as Jonah Jones pointed out many years later, in the East - particularly in New York - it was regarded as a "Western" band. The condescension that existed in such a description was countered by the antipathy, if not contempt, that Earl felt for New York and its attitudes. "It's the city with the loudest voice," he used to say, "and when I get there my feathers faII! "Not that many people were allowed to be aware of that, for he always presented a bold front and backed it with overwhelming artistry on the keyboard.
Early on, Duke Ellington had given him some friendly advice, that he should not buy stars but find them. Earl profited from this enormously. He had an exceptional ear for talent, and there was a considerable pool of gifted musicians to draw upon in Chicago, a city that had never forgotten it had been the world capital of jazz during the '20s. Throughout his career, as a leader of big bands or small groups, he constantly introduced musicians and singers of great ability, many of whom went on to become big names in the world of jazz.
The bands heard in this collection, dating from 1939 to 1942, were certainly the finest editions for which there is recorded evidence (none, unfortunately, existing to testify of the excellence of their successor, the so-called bop incubator in which Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie performed). A lively decade of experience had given Earl self-confidence; he knew how to form a band, to weld it together, and to ensure its success with good arrangements and good tempos. He already had excellent lieutenants in George Dixon and Budd Johnson when, at the end of 1939, he heard and hired Billy Eckstine at Chicago's Club De Lisa. In a very short time he found himself at the head of one of the hottest attractions in the country, one remarkable for its esprit de corps and its ability to challenge the top bands of the day. "We were a Chicago band, a midwestern band," Eckstine recalled in a 1975 conversation, "and when we came into New York they used to lay for us. But we'd shake them off like they were nothing, whoever they put on us." At which Earl smiled and added, "That was the damnedest band I ever had!"
By the end of 1940, with the aid of the musicians' union, Hines was strong enough to break what was described as a "peonage" contract with the Grand Terrace's Ed Fox and launch out under the aegis of the celebrated William Morris Agency. He even had what was extremely unusual in those days, a black manager, the extremely capable songwriter Charlie Carpenter. The glorious period that ensued might have lasted even longer, but the onset of World War II had its inevitable effect on all the big bands.
In his later years, Earl liked to refer to himself as a "band pianist," but for many years after 1928, when he had effected a revolution in the way jazz piano was played, he was regarded as the supreme soloist. With hornlike lines in the treble and broken or implied rhythms in the bass, he had created a brilliant alternative to the stride style perfected by James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, two pianists for whom he always retained the greatest affection and respect. As the 1930s progressed, musicians became increasingly aware of Art Tatum, and John Hammond was actively promoting Teddy Wilson, but the Hines style remained paramount and both Tatum and Wilson benefited from it. Through the work of one of his best disciples, Billy Kyle, it even found its way into the music of Bud Powell, the foremost bop pianist. Ever inventive and adventurous, Earl remained, as Max Harrison wrote in The New Grove Gospel, Blues and Jazz, "one of the great pianists of jazz until the end of his life."
Those in charge at the Bluebird label were obviously well aware of the importance of Hines as a soloist, because during these years as a bandleader they also recorded him without accompaniment. The solo selections that begin this record make a fitting introduction to his artistry and to the band music that follows.
"Rosetta," written in 1932, was Earl's first hit and it soon became a jazz standard. For the rest of his life, he was usually required to play it at least once a night, but somehow he always seemed able to give the number a fresh twist. Here he states the melody lightly and clearly in the first chorus (in a manner that serves to illustrate the relationship of Teddy Wilson's style to his). The second chorus is altogether more turbulent, full of what drummer Oliver Jackson once called his "counter-motion" and "counter rhythms." The third, relatively straightforward, permits momentary relaxation, but the fourth, ferociously swung, is one of intense climactic violence. His ability to outswing all other pianists is displayed here and also on the extraordinary "Child of a Disordered Brain," which was made the following year on a "Storytone" piano. Substituting electronics for vibrating strings, that short-lived instrument defied his usual methods of making a piano sing, while its somewhat xylophonic tone robbed his music of its normal warmth. Nevertheless, a rhythmic tour de force resulted. This demonstration of his seemingly limitless capacity for quick-witted, genuine improvisation represents a veritable stream of consciousness, in which he reverts to "stride" as appropriate to the instrument. Reminded that his personal pianistic revolution was supposed to have been against that style, he once replied, "But that was what I learned first!'
The other solos on familiar standards are also marvellous examples of hisart. Although often despised by jazzmen as a vehicle for "businessman's bounce," "My Melancholy Baby" becomes another masterpiece in Earl's hands. Stripped of its usual sentimentality, the number is swung at a brisk tempo, with exciting invention in the treble, arresting rhythmic suspensions, and remarkable rumbling basses.
(As a sort of transition between the solos and the selections from the band repertoire, there is included here one of the greatest trio recordings in jazz history, a performance of Earl's classic "Blues in Thirds" on which he joins forces with Sidney Bechet and Baby Dodds. It was the legendary New Orleans pioneer's session, recorded in Chicago by various musicians who had come there to play a memorial concert for clarinetist Johnny Dodds. "Bechet was evil that day," Earl remembered, "but when he got to the studio he kept saying, 'I'm going to do Hines's tune.' " He did, too; magnificently accompanied and spurred on by the composer, Bechet and his woody-toned clarinet combine with Earl to createa definitive version.)
Because of their variety and development, Earl's solos have often been likened to orchestral arrangements. In all the band performances here, his piano not only provides solo highlights, but is also a constantly provocative and stimulating presence. Like Ellington, he is always energizing the ensemble, and on most of the tracks he is assisted in this by an outstanding but insufficiently recognized drummer, Alvin Burroughs. Battles of bands were still not uncommon in those days, and one can only wonder what would have happened if a Hines band of this period had met Basie's head on. It swung riffs just as hard, and what with head arrangements and the many created by the talented Budd Johnson, its material was definitely comparable. The music speaks convincingly for itself and there are many soloists, in addition to the leader, who are impressive. (The various arrangers, and the brass and reed soloists, are separately listed in detail.) Budd Johnson is heard at his best on tenor and alto and clarinet; and there is excellent contrasting tenor work from Bob Crowder and Franz Jackson. Two trombonists, John "Streamline" Ewing and Ed Burke(with a kazoo mute?) make highly individual contributions. Walter Fuller's fiery and impetuous trumpet is seemingly indispensible to the band, but after he left Earl discovered another superb player in Shorts McConnell. Similarly, Hines was even able to find a formidable replacement for Alvin Burroughs in Rudy Traylor.
Three numbers that showcase the leader are "Piano Man" (striding happily); the spontaneously conceived and everlastingly popular "Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues," with George Dixon's encouraging shouts; and one on which his rhythm-section mates also shine, the effervescent "Tantalizing a Cuban." And as we reach the end the reare included, for very good measure, the two blues classics with Billy Eckstine vocals, "Jelly, Jelly" and "Stormy Monday Blues."
- Stanley Dance