Writing exactly one year ago about We Loved You , the first Frank Hewitt album to be released on the nascent Smalls label, I concluded my review by saying that the rest of the pianist's posthumous recordings couldn't come fast enough. This wasn't a matter of hyperbole or excessive enthusiasm. We Loved You was and remains a superb album, a prize find when playing the (usually) friendly game of one-upmanship that has all jazz fans on the perpetual lookout for gifted undiscovered musicians to champion.
Not Afraid to Live illustrates why that anticipation was entirely justified. This second disc all but surpasses its outstanding predecessor with eight standards, all decided on the fly, performed by an especially tight-knit trio (Louis Hayes replaces We Loved You 's Danny Rosenfeld and the late Jimmy Lovelace for this final studio session) with consummate humor, elegance, passion and acumen.
Here Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things" becomes a breathless process of disassembly and reassembly, stutters and surges, hasty sketch and prolonged scrutiny. Hewitt holds nothing back, rolling and running and staggering. As on so much of this album, his ideas simply come pouring out, and the lasting impression is that an important dynamic in his playing derives from the constant choice between tapping this font and keeping its flow in check. During his own solo Roland tries to match the bandleader's swiftness and agility; his blurred bowing contrasts the precision of the piano. Hayes, having sustained a rapid-fire locomotion throughout, opts instead for restrained brushwork with an occasional outburst.
Hewitt was by all accounts a "live" pianist, regularly working for his bread two or three nights per week at Smalls, and he spent a lifetime developing the unique introductions by which he would isolate and deconstruct or develop a song's primary theme. On Not Afraid to Live , one half-expects to hear the audience's applause of recognition once the intro delivers just enough clues as to what tune Hewitt has spontaneously taken up. The opening "On Green Dolphin Street" is just the first of many such examples. Hewitt's intro is like an interpretive dance, by turns florid and abrupt. At the end of the song after a long concluding pause, a chord rings out like a single splash of color. Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" has no intro; rather Hewitt subjects the head to what one might call refraction.
The disc closes with all three players gradually winding down and stepping aside, as if the "You" of the track "You Stepped Out of a Dream" and the narrative "I" have walked arm-in-arm away from the crowd and toward a happy future. Sadly, that poetic image is marred by the knowledge that Hewitt's future was cut short only a few months after making this recording. As producer Luke Kaven rightly insists in his rather bitter liner notes, "[W]ith the release of this second volume, the case of Frank Hewitt... will be that much harder to ignore."