Coleman Hawkins: The Hawk in Hi Fi

Matt Cibula

Coleman Hawkins

The Hawk in Hi Fi

Label: Bluebird
US Release Date: 2001-09-25

If you understand and appreciate the importance of Coleman Hawkins to the jazz world, you probably already have this disc. The man basically invented the tenor saxophone as a solo instrument at age 19; he bridged the ages by recording wih Fletcher Henderson and Louis Armstrong as well as Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Max Roach, and Miles Davis; his 1939 recording of "Body and Soul" is so historically monolithic that Eddie Jefferson's vocalese version of his solo was a hit 20 years later; he led the first bop recording session ever, using Dizzy Gillespie as a sideman; he recorded "Picasso", the first unaccompanied sax solo, in 1948; he was vital for over 40 years. No one in your jazz CD collection has more street credibility than the Hawk.

So you should actually be excited that The Hawk in Hi Fi has been chosen to be one of the first CDs released to celebrate the rebirth of Bluebird Records. This label was huge in the big-band era, and has a great name among jazz aficionados. Now, that name is being used to resurrect a lot of great albums RCA Victor released from the 1950s up through the 1970s, with remastered sound, bonus unreleased alternate takes, new liner notes, beautiful cardboard packaging with a little insert book: very classy, very much needed.

The Hawk in Hi Fi is a splendid choice to lead these reissues. Hawkins had passed a little bit out of the popular ear in the early 1950s, but by 1956 he had been fully rehabilitated and was once again a name to reckon with. This album was one of RCA Victor's "New Orthophonic High Fidelity" albums, which means that it was recorded at Webster Hall in New York City with legend Jack Lewis producing and sainted Ray Hall as the engineer. So it sounded pretty great to begin with. And now that it's re-mastered using modern technology and digitized for our modern ears, with almost a half-hour of unreleased alternative takes, this should be a no-brainer for those of you who are into this stuff.

But some of you will actually want to hear about the music before you make your decision about whether or not to buy this disc. Okay: 30-year-old prodigy Billy Byers was the orchestra leader, and the backing musicians in their various configurations included such notables and future stars as Hank Jones on piano, bassist Milt Hinton, sax player Zoot Sims, trumpeter Charlie Shavers (billed as Charles Kidde for contract reasons), and trombonist Urbie Green. Byers, a true talent who never really made a name for himself, also used a 15-piece string section and a woodwind quartet on some tracks. So it's a full-blown big-band affair, designed to showcase Hawk's rich tenor sound -- and it completely succeeds on that level. Byers was savvy enough to vary the sound on different songs, and his charts are never less than sympathetic and often nothing short of stunning.

And Coleman Hawkins is, simply, one of the most talented musicians of this century. He comes out swinging for the fences; the first track is a new version of "Body and Soul" backed only by strings and woodwinds, and while it doesn't quite measure up to his 1939 version, it's only because nothing could. This 1956 take on "Body and Soul" is beautifully planned to seduce the listener into a false sense of complacency; Hawkins' flow is casual and listener-friendly, but his technical attack is devastatingly precise, and never once devolves into easy choices. The last minute of this song is just brilliant -- the orchestra stops, and Hawkins goes it alone, creating a brave but smooth coda that isn't easily erased from the memory.

Every song here is pretty amazing. Byers' arrangements are like simple rings on which Hawkins' solos are beautiful diamonds. It might get a little soupy at times (Rodgers and Hart's "Little Girl Blue", Hawkins' own "The Essence of You"), but there is nothing sentimental about any of these tracks, and there is real wit and verve and intelligence behind every choice here. And when they swing, they swing it hard. "I Never Knew" rocks along very nicely, as do a couple more Hawkins originals; "His Very Own Blues" and a new version of "Bean and the Boys" entitled " 39"-25"-39" " must have set many a late-'50s dancefloor on fire.

The alternate takes are not revelatory -- they sound a whole lot like the finished versions, with the solos maybe not quite as sharp -- and neither are the new liner notes by Jeff Sultanof, which focus almost exclusively on the history of 33 1/3 albums and "hi fi" technology but give us no new information on Hawkins or the recording of the album. But these are minor quibbles once you hit "play". When that happens, you are transported into the world of pure timeless jazz sound. Dress warm. You might never return.

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