The effortless approach and delivery of every track on the 1960 album At Ease With Coleman Hawkins proves to be both its most admirable asset and its most aggravating shortcoming. This is for the relaxing, drink sipping, quiet conversation crowd. If you aren’t at ease, it will put you at ease. If it is too cold or inclement outside, it is the perfect soundtrack to making some coffee, or a hot cup of tea, and wearing sweaters, and reading, and seeing fit to never venture out of doors. It is for romantic dinners. It is a smoky, bittersweet memory. It is easy listening to the max.
The original liner notes by Ron Eyre make the most convincing case for this album. Eyre speaks of this as sophisticated “mood music,” a popular genre of the day and probably not entirely erased from today’s spectrum (Coldplay). The album is created around an ambiance to transmit just that. In this case there is a cohesive set of ballads that this quartet ably runs through. While the examples I gave may be silly clichés, I would be more than happy to sit inside with a cup of tea and this album playing.
While bassist Wendall Marshall and drummer Osie Johnson are excellent, this material gives them little room to shine, and hence is largely the Coleman Hawkins/Tommy Flanagan show. Each track posits its melody only to make way for the two to trade languid, sweet solos. Never is there a note misplaced, never do they stutter. Unfortunately they are also rather unexciting. There is never any sense that they are exploring or pushing or challenging themselves. There are only delicate runs of requisite notes, floating above torpid rhythms.
There are no actual problems with these recordings, and in fact everything sounds impeccable. It is over the course of the album that the initial good ideas start to wear thin. It’s all overwhelmingly pleasant, but never in an energetic fashion. It’s pleasant like a nap. I hate to say it, but listening to the whole album makes you think it must be background music. There’s just not enough to reward an intent listen. As background it would always be right on. On a more conscious spin one has to discover the standout choice moments.
And there really are quite a few such moments. Hawkins’ technique is unquestionable. In his rendition of “For You, For Me, For Evermore”, the first track, he displays a remarkable tonal variety. He can sound strident and plaintive all at once. His “voice” can be expansive or, as he winds down his first solo, intimately subtle. And he does not merely do one or the other but moves gracefully between poles. On “Then I’ll be Tired of You” his sound is breathy and low, almost sultry.
But that track’s title and its fade-out on a Hawk solo seem to acknowledge just how exciting this all sounds. There are times when it almost seems that Hawkins’ effortlessness holds the record back. The solos are flawless; if there were only some moments of urgency, they would be splendid. Pianist Flanagan is not really much help here. His accompaniment is discreet. He slowly outlines melodies. His solos are elegant but reserved; pretty much doing more of the same, only more extensively. “Mighty like a Rose” has some interesting interplay between the two after Flanagan’s solo. Flanagan continues to extend his ideas out under Hawk’s lazy melody, then provides looser “fills” as they close the number out. But unless you’re listening for it, it could all float by.
The fact that there are so few actual complaints about At Ease with Coleman Hawkins is the only complaint I have. If there were trouble, at least that would be substantive. So what? These musicians set out to make accomplished mood music and they succeeded. Good for them, good for the “mood music” crowd. End of discussion. So why pick this example of Hawkins’ work to reissue? It seems like an odd aspect of the man’s career to draw new attention to. Is it to show that Hawkins was a pioneer tenor player not above resting on musical laurels as he grew old? That Hawkins knew a good marketing scheme when he saw one? At worst this reissue seems crass. At best it seems mostly unnecessary.