Alexander Hawkins: Retaining The Sense of Discovery
AAJ: You mentioned some pianists you love there, so who are the most prominent pianists in your pantheon? And given what you've said about not wanting to reproduce them, what have you taken from them?
AH: My real hero, my first love, is Art Tatum. I find it very difficult to extract technically what the influence of certain people has been, because for sure there are a lot of things I could pinpoint in Tatum's playing that I absolutely love. His harmonic sense is just extraordinary, and for me he really incorporates virtuosity in a non-self- conscious way, presaging Cecil Taylor more than anyone else, I think. I love his time feel. I actually love his way with a melody. But if I think why do I love Tatum, it's not because of those technical thingsthat's not how I listen to the music, generally; I just like how it sounds. And with all these guys, I'm inspired by the fact that they sounded like themselves and no one else. I love their music, and that inspires me to do my own music rather than to do theirs. So Tatum would be the main guy for me.
I remember my dad having a tape of a half-hour BBC program about Tatum, and in introducing Tatum that mentioned Earl Hines and Fats Waller, so I got very into them. Teddy Wilson is another huge favorite, and I've got a real soft spot for Chicago pianists like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson. And then moving forward from Tatum, I quickly got into Bud Powell and Monk. Another guy from that era who is a real inspiration to me is Elmo Hope. He was interesting because he reassures you as a musician. Whereas Powell and Monk were conspicuously geniuseswell, if you try to emulate a genius it's quite daunting Elmo Hope seems to be just a guy who did something completely distinctive but without that kind of awesome baggage that Monk has. Then I work forward from there chronologically to Herbie Nichols, Dick Twardzik, Hasaan Ibn Alithat record with the Max Roach Trio is just amazing [The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan (Atlantic, 1965)].
AAJ: That's the only record he made, isn't it?
AH: I think there was a quartet record with [saxophonist] Odean Pope in the can, but it was destroyed in the Atlantic Records warehouse fire, or at least it's thought to have been, as far as I'm aware. But Hasaan, his big influence was Elmo Hope. In fact, there's a great tune on the Max Roach record called "Hope So Elmo." Then of course Cecil Taylor, that's where you begin to have another game changer, language wise. I think that was the first jump in the language where I really had to figure out how that related to all the stuff I loved.
AAJ: But you knew there was something there that was worth pursuing?
AH: Absolutely. For example, one guy who I didn't mention: Ellington. If he'd never ever gone near a big band, he would still be thought one of the great pianists. And listening to Cecil, I could very, very immediately hear Ellington in the touch, in the way he would voice certain things, and Tatum in the sweep, the architectural aspect of his playing. Then more recently, someone like Marilyn Crispell was hugely important to me because when I first heard her with the Braxton quartet, her music was like a Rosetta Stone because, for me, she was a pianist who had synthesized so many of the pianists that I lovedMonk, Cecil and so forth. Their languages are so all-consuming, you need to be quite inventive not just to ape them. And Marilyn was really inspirational to me because she showed how you could take those languages and mold them into something personal. And she shows the way, significantly for me as a composer as well, where you could take Cecil's language and use it in a very composed context, which is what I was hearing in her playing in the Braxton quartet.
And then looking for other contemporary ways with my influences, I very soon arrived at Muhal Richard Abrams, who is another big hero of mine. And Don Pullen. And Horace Tapscott is another guy who I spend a lot of time listening to. And that's to miss out Jaki Byard, who blows my mind whenever I listen to himwhich is a lot. And Andrew Hill, who fascinates me because he's a pianist who's essentially an inside player in the sense that he's always playing compositions, pretty much like Monk in that he's always within the composition, but incredibly free as well. So all these people I spent a long time listening to. Chris McGregor as well; in part because of my connections with [South African drummer] Louis Moholo, I spent a long time listening to Chris. So all these people were hugely influential.
AAJ: But in the ether rather than in the particular?
AH: I think so. It's an interesting thing, these streams of influence, because for sure I could probably take any one of my recordings and say, "Ah, that owes a stylistic debt to so-and-so," but because I've very single mindedly never transcribed anybody and always studiously avoided thinking I'm going to do an Irene Schweizer, for instance, on this tune, the assimilation of ideas has never been a conscious thing. And it would be telling, I think, if I was to go to my iTunes libraryI don't like to listen to music digitally, but when I'm on the road it's a good thing to doif I was to look at the most played pianists, actually in recent times it would probably be Hampton Hawes and Oscar Peterson. I'm a real sucker for Hampton Hawes.
So I think it goes back to what I was saying about Tatum; the real inspiration is that I like the sound. Obliquely, I can adopt certain rhythmic things from Cecil's playing and certain harmonic things that Muhal will do and Sun Ra. Actually, if Sun Ra had never gone near a big band, he would still be one of the great piano players. But actually, I'm probably inspired as much by listening to Hampton Hawes or listening to Oscar Peterson. While it's probably fair to say I would struggle to sound like either, I would love to be able to. I mean, that would be amazing to go down the pub and play a standards gig and sound like Hampton Hawes. I would be so happy [laughs].