Out of the voices and din of what sounds like some late night hipster hot spot comes the low rumble of a piano, like an impromptu orator trying to gather the attention of an unwitting audience. Quickly punctuating the bass drone is a plucky upper octave introduction, joined by the determined and driving swing of brushes on a snare and hi-hat, and both bop and bounce into the melody of “It’s Only a Paper Moon”. While the audience only dies to a dull roar, disturbed by an occasional hearty laugh or tinkling of glasses, the room does take on a decidedly different rhythm. Like the gentle rolling waves beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, it begins to ebb and flow with the inescapable energy of the sextet onstage.
Recorded in May of 1970 at a small club in San Francisco, Earl Hines’s At the Party is an energetic recording featuring the gifted pianist and proving that, while beyond his youth at the age of 67, was far from being past his prime. Born in 1903 and raised as a pianist in a musical family, there was little surprise when he moved to Chicago in 1926 to pursue his career as a jazz musician. There, Hines joined up with a young coronet player by the name of Louis Armstrong and proceeded to collaborate and record with him as a member of his legendary quintet, the Hot Five.
Credited along side Jelly Roll Morton as being a major influence on the evolution of jazz piano style and technique, the Hines sound is uniquely bombastic at times and equally as freewheeling with twisting pre-bop melodic gestures. As a bandleader, he was a major force in the Chicago scene for nearly fifteen years, recognizing the burgeoning young talent of artists like Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, and Charlie Parker.
At the Party is an apt name for this recent reissue, capturing both the essence of Hines’s remarkable career and the frenetic energy that is in the air this particular night. After opening the disc with the aforementioned aplomb, the group moves into a flirtatious rendition of “Coquette”. Here, the group — consisting of Hines at piano, vibraphonist Johnny Rae, guitarist Jack Crowley, bassist Larry Richardson, drummer Kahil Mahdee and percussionist Escovedo — switches gears immediately, with Rae and Crowley offering a wonderful sense of color to the whole affair.
Following up with a gorgeous introduction into “Poor Butterfly”, Hines exhibits a thoughtful sense of melody balanced by gently arching technical runs that would make any classically trained pianist sit up and pay attention. Picking up the tempo again with “Indiana” and then dropping the pace back into a gentle plod with “Along the Santa Fe Trail” and the languid drifting of “Lazy River”, Hines pays homage to his old and new stomping grounds with a medley of “Chicago” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. Along the length of this geographic trek, Hines and his band joke and jibe all along the way, urged on by the occasional shout of “One more time!” emanating from the effusive piano player. The disc’s final cut, “I Want a Little Girl”, caps the evening off with flair and a dash of genuine panache.
In all honesty, Earl Hines is probably one of the best piano players that no one has really heard about. As unfortunate as that may be, this release serves as evidence as to why any student of the music, its development, and its innovators need to give him some well-deserved consideration.