Piano man Tardo Hammer is the perfect poster boy for the category of “one of the greatest jazz musicians you’ve never heard of.” His record dates have been few in number and his musical activity is confined primarily to the New York area, but his world-class stature is categorically undeniable. Now thanks to Sharp Nine, the rest of the world gets a chance to catch some Hammer time. Somethin’ Special is Tardo’s second effort for the small New Jersey-based label and an even more impressive display of pianistic chops than his previous set.
One of Bud Powell’s most sublime items, “John’s Abbey,” provides Hammer’s opening nod. Even at this bright tempo there’s a sense that the pianist is taking his time, carefully selecting notes and telling a story with his lines. In other words, with Hammer it’s not about running up and down the chords as fast as possible. Sonny Clark’s title track was tailor made for Hammer’s methodology, harmonically atypical and yet expansive enough to provide for some comprehensive blowing. Then there’s the more humorous side of things, as the pianist opens up “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with, of course, strains of “Two Base Hit.”
Displaying another facet of his personality, there are four Hammer originals as part of the program. “Divertimento” and “Subterranean are both medium tempo swingers that give a tip of the hat to Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan. “Lizard Lips” is constructed with angular melodic tags that leave room for some drum fills and is in the tradition of Herbie Nichols’ iconoclastic writing. Striking a nice balance then, “Into the Fire” provides for ballad relief.
With bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Leroy Williams on hand, Hammer finds himself among kindred spirits and the results are grand. Somethin’ Special provides the closest thing you can get to those singular New York City piano bars of legend (the now-defunct Bradley’s comes to mind) without hopping on a plane.