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Frank Hewitt: Four Hundred Saturdays

In his lifetime a great unknown, Frank Hewitt's last years were given to playing piano at the now defunct venue this label was named for. Taped live, here's a complete 3 a.m. Sunday quintet set including two little-known ace saxophonists.

This has a real three o'clock in the morning start, the pianist warming his fingers, or letting his fingers warm him up by means available to few sets of fingers. The producer's verbal notes -- not to be confused with the pianist's inspired proliferation -- suggest that unlike Thelonious Monk, who gave barely any indication to his group what they were going to play next, Frank Hewitt sometimes gave no advance clue whatever.

Soul and body warmed with an improvised verse. Hewitt strikes up "Lullaby in Rhythm", co-composed by the earlier piano genius Clarence Profit, beside whose one CD's worth of recordings there are extensive reliable testimonies to the sort of other things he never had the chance to record and which thus ain't there. Profit's co-composer Edgar Sampson's name is here misspelled, but the music receives justice when, after Hewitt has begun to play the theme proper, Christopher Byars's tenor slips in, joins the jam. It could have been no simple matter making that entry, but Byars was a long-time regular with Hewitt, fitting in with the profusion of interweaving piano lines. Behind Byars, Hewitt's orchestral scale accompaniment continually restates or re-expresses parts of the melody, keeping it in mind as the harmonic implications open up. Mike Mullins's alto solo, following a study of the terrain without repetition, and sensitive to the beauties of landscape, proceeds to build to a climax, the pianist behind him now working more with harmonies than the melodic theme. After Mullins, Hewitt's own solo goes right to the summit and then an eagle's eye view. Even Profit might have been amazed.

Ari Roland on buzzy bowed bass brings things back nearer earth. Roland's something of a successor to Slam Stewart and Major Holley, both exponents of bowed bass with a curious sort of vocalisation, imitating the timbre and overtones of the bass. Where Stewart produced the vocalisation an octave above what his bow elicited from the strings, and Holley vocalised in unison, Roland produces lines in different harmonic relation to his bowing. Pablo Casals used to make similar noises with his cello, extraneous rather than deliberate. When told about this, he said that more money could be charged for records with such extra noise. Let's keep him out of the comparison, noting how well Jimmy Lovelace's drum solo builds tension back up for the ending.

The drummer doesn't solo because he's there, or because it's getting on for three-thirty and a wake-up's needed. Each of the four very approximately quarter-of-an-hour performances has its own quasi-symphonic structure. The almost ad lib beginning to "Blue Gardenias" emphasises saxophone teamwork, and there's no question of just one solo after another. The alto comes in alone, gets support from the tenor, and after the latter has taken a brief solo we're into an alto ballad with incredibly full piano, followed by a highly congruent tenor performance, neither reedman suffering the least compulsion to cram even half as many notes into every chorus as technique would allow. Musicianship wins, but Hewitt gives so full a setting there probably wouldn't be room for superfluous display. The liner's unfortunately short on info about the saxophonists.

Hewitt actually seems to play fewer notes in the course of taking his own "Blue Gardenias" solo, than he did in the accompaniments preceding. Fewer notes, that is, before the rhapsodic expansion into which he moves to complete the solo. The drummer maintains a subtle beat, and what's really unusual is that unlike almost every other pianist spreading out in rhapsodic style Hewitt doesn't ease out of tempo. Lovelace marks time softly, and the technically amazing spread of piano makes a good transition into the bass solo, whose job is to bring things back nearer ground level, and accompanied by Hewitt in the economical style of standard comping, complementing the total effect. Mullins has a splendid cadenza, Byars setting a velvety seal on things with a few last notes.

The horns move swiftly in for a clean entrance nearly as soon as Bud Powell's "Oblivion" has begun, Byars wonderfully at ease and the laid-backness carrying through Mullins's outing. Hewitt toward the end of his own solo, maybe thinking he's just played a chorus too many, finds some nice ideas to spark things again before Roland comes in. The depth of pattern is as on the preceding two tracks.

There are no piano preliminaries to "Manteca", originally a Dizzy Gillespie big band number and included in the programme of the date issued on Hewitt's previous trio CD, too. "Manteca" has ample material for a lengthy quintet performance, including call-and-response between tenor and alto, and Hewitt soloing early in the sequence, this time aspiring to even an astronaut's-eye-view of the mountain-tops. I notice him on this set throwing in some McCoy Tyner phrases, as little motifs to be played with inside his phenomenal expansion of untrendy super-bop. Mullins throws around little snatches of adapted old bop licks, for a kind of leverage. He has a broad tone on alto, not Charlie Parker. Byars is a boppish player who could have fitted in with Al Cohn or Zoot Sims, or could match Harry Allen. When his solo turn comes, he recognises the need for a dynamic build, and being up to it he reaches the second climax after Hewitt's. Roland, here as if he was a third saxophonist, gets the performance's breath back with a release section before Jimmy Lovelace, who died just a few months back, takes things back up with a drum solo of real intensifying development. Prefigured near the end of Byars's solo, the playout has a lot to work with in recollection of Gillespie's early big band recording of the number. Thus ended the 3 a.m. set at Small's on August 21, 1999, barring Hewitt's closing announcement and reference to the jam session after the pause. The title refers to his eight years playing such sets at Small's. Jam session after the pause?

Gott in Himmel! Was that recorded too?


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