The world lost a formidable music giant this past May with the passing of Elvin Jones, who succumbed to heart failure at 76. Jones took the role of the jazz drummer and blew it wide open; his polyrhythmic attack was urgent, liberated, swinging, and served as a masthead in jazz’s post-modern evolution. He performed with countless jazz greats: Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and his own Jazz Machine (which he continued to play in right up to his death) to name a few. But Jones was most importantly known as a member of John Coltrane’s classic quartet, which released some of the most fearless recordings in the jazz canon from 1960-1965. One listen to the sacred poetics of A Love Supreme demonstrates that the entire quartet—especially Coltrane and Jones—was operating on a terrestrial plane far removed from its peers.
Jones was one of three brothers ensconced in jazz’s fickle hierarchy, which included the late trumpeter/composer Thad and pianist Hank. Hank formed the Great Jazz Trio in 1976 with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, but the line-up would constantly fluctuate over the next two decades with Hank always at its center. Hank and Elvin rarely recorded together, as their respective groups kept schedules tight; in fact, their previous collaboration Upon Reflection: The Music of Thad Jones appeared back in 1994. After nearly ten years, the brothers reunited to record as the Great Jazz Trio with veteran bassist Richard Davis. The resulting Someday My Prince Will Come is not only a snapshot of their final collaboration, but a feather in the cap of Elvin’s illustrious career.
Someday My Prince Will Come is a superb album of standards, performed by three incomparable masters in their twilight. The collective wisdom and intimacy of the performances practically ooze from the speakers. This one-time incarnation of the Great Jazz Trio is like a phone call from an old friend or a finely aged wine, depending on your number of old friends or taste in spirits. Someday My Prince Will Come is a document of devout traditionalism, a reminder not only of jazz’s Golden Age, but of the inevitable thinning of a generation’s greatest players.
There’s no shortage of passionate, lively playing on the album. The bumpy ride of “Caravan” kicks things off swinging, with Hank steadying the melody in octaves over Elvin’s tangled fury of ride cymbal and toms. Hank’s playing—playful, joyous, more heart and soul than intellectual mathematics—sets the carefree, exultant tone for the entire session. When it comes time for Elvin’s solo, he lets it all hang out: tom vamps, drops in the well, an utter cyclone of metal and wood. “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” is a gleeful strut, Hank tiptoeing around Elvin’s brushed snare and Davis’ mischievous slides on the bass neck. The rollicking reading of Charlie Parker’s “Moose the Mooche” coasts on its own swift steps, the melody from Hank’s piano like a fountain of words, spilled and stuttered. Davis provides the first of a few whimsical bowed bass solos, and here he makes the instrument laugh through octaves. In the title track, Hank’s fingers think out loud on the keyboard, constantly prodded and antagonized by Elvin’s snaps and crackles; Elvin’s subsequent solo is like rolling thunder, uncomfortably close.
The Great Jazz Trio is a connoisseur of understatement as well, evidenced by the album’s ballads and moments of tempered restraint. The candlelit take of brother Thad’s “A Child is Born” is sentimental, but not blubbering thanks in large part to the weathered nuances of Hank and Davis. “The Shadow of Your Smile” paces at a slow trot, and is highlighted by Hank nipping at Davis’ solo like he’s a translator relaying snippets of dialogue. “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” features a monster brushed solo from Elvin, which proves that aggression and command need not be limited to sticks alone.
The material on Someday My Prince Will Come was selected by producer Yasohachi “88” Itoh, and while the songs fit the trio beautifully, one gets the impression that it would tackle a randomly chosen song with the same finesse. Itoh’s production is unobtrusive and classical, wisely allowing the trio to breathe in the album’s ventilated atmosphere. When the album reaches its end, culminating with Hank’s solo take of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, the feeling is bittersweet. While he presides over the keyboard with a hushed domination, it’s impossible not to notice the absence of Elvin. Hank and Davis were fortunate enough to perform one last time with Elvin, and we’re lucky to hear the inspired collaboration. Elvin Jones goes on living within the beautiful music he made throughout his lifetime, and Someday My Prince Will Come is about as perfect as encores get.