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Remarking upon the qualities of HANK JONES in a recent conversation, Bill Charlap, perhaps today’s preeminent post-Boomer interpreter of the Great American Songbook, said, without equivocation, “Hank is the premier living jazz pianist. He has uniquely and in an original way put together the whole history of jazz piano playing. You can hear the juncture of Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, and Nat Cole — but it’s also his own voice. His rhythmic feel is original, and his harmonic language is entirely Hank Jones. At any period in his career, he seems always to be able to access his very best — every introduction or solo that he plays is impeccable. He contains subtleties upon subtleties. He records new music all the time, and keeps revitalizing his concepts — his playing now is different than 40 years ago. He seems to be open stylistically to playing with just about anybody, and he can fit into anything.”
“Hank Jones operates on a genius level of pure musicianship, apart from inventiveness or technique or style,” said Eric Reed, who shares Jones’ reverence for hymns and spirituals. “He has such a definite, purposeful sound, not unlike the sound of the great Baroque interpreters who play piano, like András Schiff, or Vladimir Horowitz, or Dinu Lipatti. His pedal work is amazing, and he understands harmony better than any living musician, as you can hear in the way he’s able to interpret and reinterpret songs. When you tell Hank Jones that a certain chord is C7, he’s not just thinking C7, but of the thousands of variations of C7 that can be played at any particular moment. Since it’s Hank Jones, he always picks the right one. I don’t like to make extreme statements, but you cannot go wrong with Hank Jones.”
“Hank transcends eras in jazz,” added Geoff Keezer, who presented Jones’ compositions in piano duos with Chick Corea, Kenny Barron, Benny Green, and Mulgrew Miller on the 2003 CD Sublime: Honoring The Music of Hank Jones [Telarc]. “Here’s this old-school stride-transitioning-into-bebop player playing harmonies that are as hip as anything that was ever done! His songs are very modern sounding, like someone who is interested in trying to move forward. On the duo record, I did a piece with Chick Corea called ‘Intimidation’ – and it is just that. The chord changes aren’t easy, and they move quickly. Chick Corea was going, ‘Oh my God, this tune is hard!’ They are interesting, virtuoso pieces, which stretch you to the limits of what you can do as an improviser. You can’t auto-pilot on them! You have to think, to be on your toes at all times.”
Jones himself co-signs Keezer’s point. “When you become satisfied with your playing, your creativity levels off and you don’t do anything,” he told me last year. “That’s a bad place to be. I’ve never been there, and never expect to. Each performance is a learning experience, which prepares me to do a better job the next time on stage. You’re not experimenting, but you’re always trying to improve on what you did before. It’s a life-long quest. I’ll never be able to play as well as I would like. I’ll always try to, but I cannot predict that it will ever happen. I just hope it will.”
Perhaps by way of self-description, Jones referred to Coleman Hawkins, who first employed Jones in 1946 for a 52nd Street gig, two years after Jones moved to New York City.
“Coleman’s mind was always open to new ideas, which is the only way to stay fresh,” he said. “You have to keep an open mind to styles that might be at variance with your own, and adopt that portion that might be beneficial. Improvisation is just that — a new way of doing something. You substitute. You play a variation here or there. That’s the essence of improvisation, a variation of a melody or theme. Coleman’s ideas were always fresh, because he was constantly searching for new ways to express an idea, to develop a theme, to approach the overall melodic content.”
Famously the older brother of trumpeter-composer Thad Jones (1923-1986) and drummer Elvin Jones (1927-2004), Henry Jones, Jr., the great-grandson of West African slaves, was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and moved north to Pontiac, Michigan, with his parents before he could crawl. He learned spirituals and hymns at his mother’s knee, and first took piano lessons at 12. He internalized his work ethic from his father, a church deacon who held a supervisory job at Fisher Body. By 15, with the Great Depression in full swing, Jones was playing piano at local beer gardens; during the late ’30s he worked in a Lansing, Michigan, territory band led by Benny Carew, a strong drummer of the Chick Webb school, who also recruited the young tenor saxophonists Lucky Thompson and Wardell Gray. After several years in Cleveland, Ohio, with bandleader Tommy Enoch at the Cedar Gardens, and a shorter stay in Detroit, Jones, convinced that he needed to reach New York City to get to the next level, set about working his way east. Towards that end, he took an engagement in Buffalo, New York, at an Italian restaurant cross-town from a bar-and-grill where Art Tatum was fulfilling a two-week residence.
“Tatum’s playing boggled the mind,” Jones told Joe Lovano in a 2005 Downbeat article. “After he got off work, he would go to a nightclub or someone’s home, and play until 11 or 12 o’clock the next day. You’d watch him for hours, and he did things on the piano that you knew were impossible, and made them look so easy.”
Not long after his Buffalo experience, Jones landed a job with trumpeter-blues singer Hot Lips Page at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, across the street from the Three Deuces, where Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were unveiling the spectacular new music known as bebop. Jones settled in Harlem, and applied himself to augmenting his old-school approach — he had fused together a personal admixture of Fats Waller’s powerful two-hand stride, Teddy Wilson’s long, flowing, flawlessly-executed lines, and what he could garner from Tatum’s harmonic grandeur — with the more rhythmically agile innovations of young New York bop avatars Bud Powell, Al Haig, and Thelonious Monk.
“When I heard the so-called ‘bop’ style, I thought there were portions of it that I could adapt into my own playing,” he told Lovano. “So I tried to integrate these things without becoming over-balanced one way or the other. I wanted to maintain the two-handed playing style — God gave us two hands, so we might as well use them!”
By 1946, Jones was on the 52nd Street A-list, working not only with Hawkins, but also with Billy Eckstine, Andy Kirk, John Kirby, Howard McGhee, and Ella Fitzgerald. In 1947, Norman Granz hired Jones to tour with Jazz at the Philharmonic in which, from 1948 to 1953, he functioned as Ella Fitzgerald’s accompanist. He also shared the JATP piano chair with Oscar Peterson, who credited Jones as a deep influence. In 1954, Jones, who had already recorded consequential sides with Hawkins, Charlie Parker, and Lester Young, left the road to perform and record with Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five. During 1955 and 1956, he worked with bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Clarke as house rhythm section for Savoy Records, spurring iconic albums by Milt Jackson, Cannonball Adderley, and Frank Wess. From 1956 to 1958, he worked with Benny Goodman, and continued to freelance, recording classics on various labels with Adderley, Hawkins, Sonny Stitt, Lucky Thompson, J.J. Johnson, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Benny Goodman, Wes Montgomery, both of his younger brothers, and Kenny Burrell, then an up-and-coming guitarist from Detroit, now a venerable jazz grandmaster in his own right (he turns 77 tomorrow), who will perform this evening with Jones and Wilson.
Between 1959 and 1975, Jones worked at CBS as a staff pianist, deploying his talents for such fare as Captain Kangaroo, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Arthur Godfrey Show, and any other forum which required his services. During these years he subsumed his visibility on the jazz scene to fulfill the dictates of his studio career, and made only three recordings as leader.
Jones retired from the studios in 1975, relaunched his career as a solo artist, and did so with a vengeance, recording 27 dates, primarily trios, for a variety of labels in Japan, Europe, and the United States. Until an illness forced him to the sidelines for much of 2007, he continued to tour and record with unabated energy, accumulating a discography of close to one hundred sessions. Many of these documented all-star, for-the-studio units, billed as the Great Jazz Trio, on which Jones matched wits with bassists Ron Carter, Eddie Gomez, George Mraz, and Mads Vinding, and drummers Tony Williams, Jimmy Cobb, Al Foster, Roy Haynes, and Billy Hart. The results include a dozen or so masterworks, among them the 1978 release Tiptoe Tapdance, which Keezer describes as “a textbook of contemporary solo piano playing,” and Bop Redux and Groovin’ High [on 32 Jazz], on which Jones has his way with the bebop canon. Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 & 2  documents Jones with Carter and Williams in 1977 performances at the venerable basement. On Steal Away [Verve], on which Jones and bassist Charlie Haden perform a stirring program of hymns and spirituals; on Sarala, a 1995 collaboration with a Malian unit headed by keyboardist Cheikh Tidiana Seck, Jones explores his African roots.
With the exception of Kenny Burrell and Willie Jones III, this evening’s drummer, each of Jones’ partners on the Hollywood Bowl bandstand tonight has contributed to an equally inspired 21st-century recorded output. From 2005, the discursive, conversational For My Father [Justin Time], presents Jones’ working trio of many years, including bassist-of-choice George Mraz, who will triangulate the flow this evening. Filling in for Mraz on bass chair for several tunes will be Christian McBride, the program’s emcee, who joined drum icon Jimmy Cobb on West of 5th [Chesky], from 2006, to engage Jones in rarefied conversation in notes and tones. On You Are There, from 2007, Jones tastefully complements singer Roberta Gambarini’s bel canto voice and projects inspired joie de vivre on his solos, using his mighty left hand to provide the bass and the rhythmic pulse. He also upholds this function in duo with Lovano on their Grammy-nominated 2007 offering, Kids: Live at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola [Blue Note], the latest iteration of which will transpire this evening. On two previous interactive encounters with a Lovano-led quartet featuring Mraz and drummer Paul Motian (I’m All For You and Joyous Encounter [Blue Note]), Jones controlled the flow, embellishing and guiding the constantly changing hues and colors of Lovano’s sonic palette.
“Hank is involved in every aspect of the piece,” said Lovano of their five-year collaboration. “His rhythmic punctuations and voicings are free and spontaneous, and the feeling he plays with is so solid and beautiful that a certain flow happens…. He never repeats voicings. As a duo, we spontaneously orchestrate, shape each tune as we go along. In the quartet, there’s a lot of counterpoint and clarity; his punctuations are always searching and swinging. He always feeds off the line you’re playing, and follows it in an almost telepathic way.”
Responding to Lovano’s request at the conclusion of the Downbeat article to address some of his secrets, Jones responded with characteristic pragmatism. “I’m not sure there are any secrets,” he said. “I’m always reacting to what I hear. There are lots of ways to play tunes. But there is always the best way to play a tune. Every tune has a soul, a central thought, just as a poem does. If you can identify that central thought, then you can appreciate what’s being explained. The same thing applies to music. Every tune has a central thought, a musical idea, a form, an entity that lives. If you can then identify with it, then you can be part of it, and make it come to life.”