John Hicks (1941-2006) gave much to jazz over several decades but never really received the appreciation he so richly deserved. As a pianist, he proved himself in the Art Blakey and Betty Carter universities. He was also the prototypical musician's musician, a first-call pianist for many jazz greats and a magnificent accompanist to the art's best saxists, including Pharoah Sanders, Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman, Archie Shepp, and David Murray.
He was often accused of hovering in McCoy Tyner's shadow, which is unfair and untrue. But he evinced a great fondness for Coltrane's music and was often heard on many a Coltrane tribute, showing affection for the saxophonist and his appreciation for Tyner's contribution to Coltrane's finest music.
Another facet of John Hicks' career, which gets even less attention than his wondrous playing, is his ability to craft identifiable compositions that are wandering and melodic, suggestive and malleable yet memorable all at once. On Mind WineThe Music of John Hicks, his widow, flautist Elise Wood, and pianist Larry Willis showcase this feature most splendidly. They've gathered an eclectic group of like-minded partners to craft a well-deserved tribute to Hicks and his otherwise under-regarded legacy.
It would be difficult to conceive the ideal tribute to John Hicks. As a jazz contributor, he wasn't easily pigeon-holed. While he was always a (straight) jazz player, he skirted the edges of free jazz and pure romanticism that neither side ever appreciates in the other. But both camps could find moments of joyous life in all the ways Hicks chose to express himself. He was an unmistakably perfect accompanist in any mode.
This tribute seems to favor Hicks' softer side, which is exactly how he was heard in his recordings with Wood that date back to the early 1980s. The program features seven Hicks compositions and a little-known Duke Ellington tune, "Single Petal of a Rose" (a duo feature for Wood and Willis), which was also the title feature to a Hicks/Wood album from the '90s.
Perhaps it is the groupa collective with high-brand talents as Craig Handy, Eddie Henderson, Curtis Lundy, and Steve Williamsthat seems so at odds with this music. Henderson sounds as lovely as ever. Handy brings some of the needed fire to bear. Willis is simply wonderful. It is the collaboration that just doesn't seem to gel.
The song selection is decent enough. Hicks' best-known songs, "Naima's Love Song" and "Yemnja" (named for each of Hicks' daughters from an earlier marriage) are here. The beautiful waltz "After the Morning" and the somewhat fiery "Avotcja" are pleasingly here as well. The lack of tunes like "Hick's Time" or even Wood's own "Luminous" could be questioned...but why bother?
It may be imperfect as the best music sometimes is. It is more important to appreciate that this remembrance came about and was delivered with obvious affection. Hopefully Mind Wine will help others discover the joy of John Hicks' music.
Personnel: Elise Wood-Hicks: flute (1-4, 6, 7), alto flute (5, 6, 8); Craig Handy: soprano sax (2), tenor saxophone (1, 3, 5, 6, 7); Eddie Henderson: trumpet (4-6); Larry Willis: piano; Curtis Lundy: bass; Steve Williams: drums.