Frank Hewitt Trio: Not Afraid to Live

Frank Hewitt Trio
Not Afraid to Live

The title presumably means free from the hopes and fears which feed self-hypnotic conformism. It comes from a quote from Hewitt.

Outside of New York, he was perhaps impossible to hear. Beyond the tape archives this and the previous CD came from, there may be nothing else. Hewitt died aged 66 in 2002: annus horribilis with the loss of such other jazz pianists as Mal Waldron, Roland Hanna, Ellis Larkins, and still other strictly irreplaceable individual keyboard voices.

Hewitt resembles Tommy Flanagan only in being a two-handed trio performer, doing interesting things with both sets of fingers. He’s a more dynamic player than most, using pedals, touch, timing in various relation to the beat, in the cause of color and emotional force. If he sounded overall like anybody else there probably isn’t enough recorded material from them on which to establish such a judgment. The whole note runs of Monk and Bud Powell are here, as in fast runs recalling Powell, George Wallington, and other bop virtuosi not quite on their level. Hewitt applies a greater degree of inflection to these than is common. He communicates intense excitement with a delayed striking of the notes in a run, sounding rushed when he wants to, as if he might not make it. He doesn’t play safe and the reeling (occasionally near stumbling) effect gets nearer the slurs of a Parkeresque horn player.

The slightly older generation to whose music Hewitt comes closer tended to vanish from view, or retire in the absence of anything but hackwork — Duke Jordan drove cabs, taught and finally emigrated to Europe. The best had real character, Jordan the lyrical melodist, Wallington a master of clean ringing attack at high speed, Dodo Marmarosa hard to describe but showing remarkable flair after beginnings in an older style and before settling into something less characterful prior to another too early silence. Steeplechase records in Scandinavia let one hear the longer-lived Jordan’s wondrous renascence.

Elmo Hope took incredibly fast runs playing with a light touch; the equipment on his last date couldn’t quite cope with them (the piano sounds out of tune but wasn’t). Hewitt’s more beetling runs suggest knowledge of Hope but with a more ringing sound: it’s as if he had combined what Hope developed, perhaps through association with Powell, with the more biting attack of Powell. The result is precisely Hewitt.

George Wallington’s solo recording “Just One of Those Things” was the vehicle for one bebop piano masterpiece. On his trio performance here Hewitt sounds like a member of the Powell and Hope generation who lived on to hear later extensions of jazz piano and incorporate them without leaving home ground. Actually the opener, “On Green Dolphin Street”, finds him extending harmonies to the verge of sounding like Sun Ra, when that yet older player approximated to bebop on piano.

The ballad opening of “The Nearness of You” would be a nice intro for a mainstream tenorist, but soon enough Hewitt is extending the emotional range — with sensitive assistance from a beautiful bassist — and going out on harmonic limbs reminiscent of Monk’s harmonic preoccupations. Hewitt moves through these and out again, after a fond reminiscence. He comes out of a virtuoso pianism. On “Nearness”, Ari Roland’s bowed bass solo is fine enough, but Hewitt is resourceful in accompaniment with no impression of trying to be clever. He does the simple thing where that’s apt.

The notes suggest that the presence of Louis Hayes on drums stimulated Hewitt to play a bebop repertoire with not only “A Night in Tunisia” but “Manteca”. Hewitt was the sort of piano master who, rather than preparing a program in advance, picked up on items of a big repertoire as a means of saying what he had to on a particular evening.

“Manteca” tackles the business of performing what began as a high-powered Dizzy Gillespie big band number by expressing the theme in passages fragmented from the original whole — and expanding on these by way of ingenious quick-fingered long phrases and brittle-sounding runs. He keeps the listener’s attention by a sometimes slightly disconcerting rejection of the reasonably expected — avoiding not only the predictable. “Manteca” settles into mid-tempo and Roland takes a bowed solo which allows Hewitt — a longtime admiring partner — exposition of brief very melodic phrases. Hayes takes a drum solo logically consistent with the highly rhythmic conception which “Manteca” always was.

On “Night in Tunisia”, on the other hand, Hewitt applies his complex harmonic extensions to achieve a big sound remarkably full in rhythmic implications. He seems on the verge of moving into different jazz piano, but uses the accumulated tension in the cause of a very broad and direct booting drive.

Roland skips along to allow Hewitt a more meditative broad expansion in the statement of Bob Haggart’s ballad vehicle “What’s New”. Whereupon the pianist moves into his characteristic generation of irregularly accented sustained but still fragmented lines. The result sounds very different from Errol Garner, making very unusual use of space while achieving, or weaving, the kind of almost symphonic spread across the whole keyboard which maybe only Garner was able to achieve without rhythmic deadening or an unwanted stasis.

“I’ll Remember April” had some remarkable treatments from Powell, with whom Hewitt still can’t be compared. Setting up a strongly explicit rhythmic pattern, Hayes shifts the balance of the trio and Hewitt’s less interesting than elsewhere. He’s less directly inventive, except in trying to prevent a steady reminiscence of familiar phrases from developing in any too obvious way. He has gone on too long, and with too many reminiscences of Powell — an excessively introverted subtlety — before Roland’s bowed bass has a further workout, just as it has on “You Stepped Out of a Dream”, with more nice work from Hewitt in support. A bout of Hayes on brushes prefaces Hewitt’s sensitive full chording as the bassist walks things to a close. More could have been made of this, but nothing could be more apt than to conclude a posthumously issued CD with a good new idea somebody able enough could still do something with. It might even be the seed of a future arrangement.

Hewitt on this showing would seem to have been notable less for consistency than really extended spells of inspiration and ideas of extraordinary freshness. It’s as well to recognize the occasional longueur (on what without it would still be an hour-long CD) even though there’s presumably never going to be an enormous discography even with whatever Smalls still has on tape of his belated recording career. Hewitt’s the more welcome when the young piano master Ethan Iverson is thought worth being quoted on his own resolve to find a way which avoids latter day orthodoxies tied to Evans/Jarrett/Tyner. That still all too narrowly current range of approach to the acoustic keyboard is enormously more widely represented on disc than the sorts of things to be associated with Hewitt, who didn’t find an easy but a musically very rewarding way.

Readers are anyway commended to look up Luke Kaven’s liner note, easily available online. He promises further explication of quite why this set, from Hewitt’s final studio date, April 10, 2002, is protest against and challenge to a maintenance of publicity, marketing, and recording norms all too justly blameable for Hewitt’s never being able to hold a copy of any issued recording of his playing in his own now stilled hands.

RATING 8 / 10