Geoffrey Keezer: Sublime: Honoring the Music of Hank Jones
It's been a productive and high profile year for jazz piano so far, what with Omar Sosa's groundbreaking solo set and veterans like McCoy Tyner and Monty Alexander in sparkling form. The perfect moment then, for a tribute to one of the instrument's unsung heroes by one of the more sensitive and thoughtful of current players. Hank Jones is what they term a "musician's musician." Despite a successful career and countless significant recordings, his is not a name that registers with the general public. Even within jazz, he is as renowned for being a member of a ridiculously talented family (Thad and Elvin are his brothers) as for his own inimitable and influential style. The central figure in what is now commonly termed the "Detroit School" of pianists, which includes other equally undervalued talents such as Sir Roland Hanna and Tommy Flanagan, Jones's musical world is one where melody, subtlety and an easy lyricism co-exist so perfectly that his dynamism, inventiveness, and technical expertise are often overlooked.
Thanks, in part, to a younger generation of Detroit musicians (violinist Regina Carter, particularly) belated recognition is being accorded. The understated elegance of Jones, Hanna, et al, is enjoying something of a revival. Enter Keezer, cerebral and classically inclined, who has had the wit to realise that it is not just Jones' playing that is worthy of consideration but that the noted accompanist is also a composer of interest. With that in mind, he has assembled an homage of careful precision but one with sufficient warmth (Keezer is a true devotee) to stand as a fine set in its own right.
Keezer has taken his inspiration from the Jones-Flanagan duo albums (from the late seventies, I think).He plays throughout the session, but is joined along the way by fellow luminaries Chick Corea, Kenny Barron, Benny Green, and Martin Mulgrew. The compositions are all by Jones, except for two which have long been associated with him. It is a lot of piano and nothing else, but don't be frightened off. Thanks to the standard of execution and Jones' delightful melodies, this is nowhere nearly as rarefied and technical an exercise as might be feared. It does have a serious feel to it, though, and will take more than one listen to thoroughly appreciate. Jones's style was based in stride, learned much from Teddy Wilson's lightness of touch and then paid attention to post-war developments. The modernists on this session all owe something to Bill Evans. If you want to, you can discover almost a century of jazz piano within this single collection.
A solo piece, "Angel Face", played gently and with a cool ambience, opens and sets the tone for the whole enterprise. It is very modern in spirit but has a stately and timeless quality to it. History re-emerges with "Hank's Blues", which brings in Green, who like all the players offers a fairly restrained reading. This reticent approach may be seen as a fault with the album. The players have chosen pieces that suit their own styles and so do not showcase the full range of Jones's work. On the other hand, they are all very respectful to the original concepts. There are few pyrotechnics and this is no series of piano-duels. It works, but is perhaps a little on the polite side, to the point that it is often difficult to notice the change in personnel. Nonetheless, this lack of overt individualism is compensated by the music's well-crafted structure and harmonic excellence.
Apart from Keezer, Corea seems especially attuned to the material but, perhaps unsurprisingly, given his own rather Jonesian sound, Kenny Barron just about walks away with top prize as guest soloist. "Passing Time" has a flamboyance and expansiveness that brings a definite change of atmosphere to the proceedings. A little later, encouraged by Keezer, he most effectively turns the usually modal "Favors" into a smoky ballad. Some other numbers will undoubtedly bring the accusation of "cocktail" tinkling. It is a lie. The music is mellow; there are no discordances or startling distractions, but there is complexity and intensity beneath the polished surfaces of tunes like "Lullaby" and "Things Are So Pretty in the Spring". As to the title track, another solo piece, it is, pretty nearly, exactly what it says it is.
"Alpha" and "Intimidation" are more angular and abstract but also, oddly, more jaunty than the rest of the album and bring it to a more robust and abrupt close than one would expect. Mulgrew and Corea are the respective guests but Keezer seems the dominant voice, as of course he is throughout what is evidently a project close to his heart. This could have been a rather cold and mechanical affair. It is not, although there are undoubtedly nuances to the dual-piano concept that only the experts will fully comprehend. Fortunately, and more importantly, Jones' music comes out with flying colours and Keezer's growing reputation as creative figure should be duly enhanced. This is an album that sounds pleasant on first hearing and intrigues just enough to keep you coming back. Once hooked, you will find more there at each play. In that it has captured not a little of Hank Jones' own role in jazz history and deserves your support.