A half-century removed from its heyday, and no longer the most influential style or common dialect of the ever-expanding jazz canon, bebop is more often intimated than played in its unalloyed form. For many young musicians bop is not a destination or even a place to linger, but at best a way station en route to finding a more suitable means of expression. In the right hands, however, it is still a vital, living art form. OnSomethin’ Special, his second recording for the Sharp Nine label, pianist Tardo Hammer, along with bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Leroy Williams, thrives within bop’s parameters, playing with artistry and emanating a feeling of elation integral to the finest performances in the idiom.
Hammer’s ability to imbue a well-established style with his own distinctive voice is evident during the opening cut, “John’s Abbey,” a composition by Bud Powell, one of the seminal figures of bebop and a giant of modern jazz piano. After the swing-march rhythms of Williams’ snare drum and tom toms mark off a rapid tempo, the pianist efficiently navigates the jagged yet symmetrical head, then wastes no time in launching his solo. Evincing a touch that is both weighty and agile, Hammer plays with a calculated ferocity, dashing through the harmonic maze of the tune without ever sounding forced, making precision and exactness a part of his animated performance. With a ride cymbal more felt than heard, Williams makes his presence known by abrupt accents on the snare and bass drums, breaking up the rush of Hammer’s playing, and providing incitement as well. For example, at one point, the drummer’s repetitive, three-stroke, drum-to-drum cadence is picked up and repeated several bars later, by the pianist’s left hand chords.
The fierce virtuosity of the trio is tempered with a more relaxed quality during the medium-tempo "Divertimento," one of Hammer’s four original compositions on the disc. For all of its ease, the pianist’s improvisation retains a certain tautness that spikes at the end of the first chorus and then continues to rise and fall. Over the bed of Williams’ smooth brushwork and Hammer’s sparse chords, Irwin plays with humor and conviction, utilizing horn-like phrases that make perfect sense yet elbow the boundaries of the stated pulse.
Hammer’s rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “If I Loved You” is a marvel, the most memorable cut on an altogether laudable disc. Taken at a glacial tempo, his reading of the melody manages to be both stately and pensive, with chords ringing until they fade into silence, and brief, telling single note remarks. A little more airy in tone, Hammer’s solo is filled with significant pauses, but there’s an emotional weight throughout that carries everything to a plaintive conclusion.
On the lighter side, there’s “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Hammer and his cohorts transform the swaying, easy-going jingle into a burning jazz anthem, in the process reminding us of the American roots of the sport and the music. After utilizing chords to state the familiar tune, the pianist goes on a tear, whipping out bright, single note lines which are nudged by Irwin’s vibrant walking, as well as Williams’ tom tom thwacks and three snare drum strokes that sound like the crack of a bat hitting a baseball. In trading eights and then fours with Hammer, the drummer’s rhythms are dense in texture, cramming sounds into every conceivable space to the point of overflow, and swinging mightily.
Personnel: Tardo Hammer--piano; Dennis Irwin--bass; Leroy Williams--drums.