Alexander Hawkins: Retaining The Sense of Discovery

John Sharpe By

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One of the fastest-rising stars of the UK jazz scene, pianist Alexander Hawkins is remarkable in that he shines equally in both the further reaches of free improvisation and the creation of ingeniously crafted charts. Indeed, Hawkins' particular talent might be in bringing the two so close that it's hard to distinguish between them. At times on his two acclaimed Ensemble releases, No Now is So (FMR, 2009) and All There, Ever Out (Babel Label, 2012), there seems to be simultaneous expression of both the written and the unfettered. While uncompromisingly modern, he has a deep appreciation of the jazz tradition, a trait apparent in compositions such as "Tatum Totem," which references the likes pianist Art Tatum while invoking reed multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. In concert, a single solo might move from stride piano to all-out Cecil Taylor-inspired mayhem.

But he's a thrilling improviser on not just piano but also the Hammond organ, even when in completely spontaneous territory, as amply demonstrated on the wonderful collaboration between the organ trio Decoy and trumpeter Joe McPhee Oto (Bo'Weavil Recording, 2010). While his discography is still growing, even now his performance credits read like a who's who of contemporary jazz: trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and Taylor Ho Bynum, saxophonists Evan Parker, Marshall Allen and Sonny Simmons, drummers Louis Moholo-Moholo and Harris Eisenstadt, and Ethiopian vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke.

Of late, there's a sense that his career has stepped up a gear in terms of activity and output. Given that his encyclopedic knowledge of the whole spectrum of jazz and creative music is allied to formidable articulateness, it's no surprise to find the pianist enjoying an increasing profile as a broadcaster on BBC Radio while, together with vibraphonist Corey Mwamba, he presented an idiosyncratic history of jazz recordings as part of the 2012 London Jazz Festival. On top of that, there are four new discs scheduled for release over the coming months: a duet with Moholo—Keep Your Heart Straight (Ogun, 2012), his first solo recording, the third outing from the transatlantic Convergence Quartet, and a second offering from Decoy with Joe McPhee. Hawkins is clearly someone to watch.

Chapter Index


Piano Heroes

Sounds of the '70s

Working Bands

Inspirations and Reference Points

Compositional Underpinnings


All About Jazz: So, a bit of background first. When and where were you born?

Alexander Hawkins: Oxford, in 1981. Apart from six years, three years of undergraduate study and three years of Ph.D., I've always lived in Oxford. During that six years I was in Cambridge, in fact, hence the Cambridge connection. [Hawkins often plays in Cambridge when on tour.]

AAJ: Do you come from a musical family?

AH: Yes, in the sense that it is very much a music- loving household. My Dad did play decent piano and clarinet, and also has a C-melody saxophone, which is a bit of a rarity. He's a real music lover. Right back from when he was a student, he would go and see Ellington whenever they were in the country. So I've got some good photos of him backstage with Duke. He's been listening forever. So I grew up listening to music at home, and actually one of my Dad's great loves is Ellington. And because he actually likes the very early Ellington, I sort of did jazz chronologically in the sense that the first music I was exposed to was the 1924 Ellington band, and I worked my way forward from there.

AAJ: At what point did you start playing jazz?

AH: That's a slightly tougher one to pinpoint. I initially started playing classical piano, and in fact as a classical musician I was a much better organist than I was pianist. I had no particular technique to speak of, in the classical sense, on the piano. So in terms of studying, I was playing classical music. I probably didn't start playing jazz, or trying to, until I was maybe 14, 15, 16. I really wasn't very good. I'm trying to think when I would have done my first gigs. It was probably at about 16, going out with friends doing standards gigs in local pubs, but they were very much fumbling efforts. I took it up in a much more concerted fashion later. I really liked playing the organ, but I loved the piano, and I wanted to play music in this idealistic way: I wanted to make music my living. And so I thought for that to be the case, I needed to put a lot more time into the piano. So one day when I was 18, I never played the organ again. I was doing a lot of practice each day on the organ. I was playing it quite seriously, and then one day I just didn't play the organ again.

AAJ: Was that church organ?

AH: Yeah. And one of the problems I had with it was that some of the repertoire is fantastic. I loved Bach—I still do—and Messiaen and lots of the French composers I loved, but there was an awful lot that I really wasn't that into. But what that did expose me to was different schools of improvisation. The French organ tradition is mind boggling when it comes to improvisation.

AAJ: Who are you thinking of there?

AH: Well, recordings of musicians like [organist] Daniel Roth, who's at Saint-Sulpice [church in Paris], which is the organ where [organist/composer Marcel] Dupré was. Charles Tournémire. There's this whole tradition of training the organists in the French conservatoires to become, ideally, extremely disciplined improvisers in a variety of forms. [Guitarist] Derek Bailey goes into it in the Improvisation (Da Capo, 1993) book. It's really interesting and an incredibly rigorous, disciplined thing, and actually a lot of the published French repertoire originated as improvisations which were then transcribed. So it exposed me to that, and then later when I came to play more Hammond, the actual literal skills of registering things became useful then. Organs have a relatively simple but quite idiosyncratic way of creating sounds, so it gave me that background.

AAJ: You did a law degree and a Ph.D. in criminology, so you seemed set on one career path, but at the same time you were thinking that you would love to make a living as a musician. Was that a difficult decision?

Alex Hawkins Ensemble—All There, Ever OutAH: No, not at all, actually. Law degrees are often just a means to an end, but perversely I did it and the Ph.D. because I was interested in it. I never toyed with the idea of doing law as a career. And I think I was also fairly bloody-minded in that I didn't want to study jazz. Part of that was a slightly naive line of reasoning. I thought, "None of my heroes have [studied jazz institutionally], so I'm going to figure it out for myself the same." That's kind of crazy, but that schooled sound was not something I was interested in. I know there are a few more far-sighted courses, and if you were able to study with [saxophonist/composer] Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan [University in Connecticut] or [saxophonist/composer] Roscoe Mitchell at Mills [College in Oakland, CA] or [trumpeter/composer] Wadada Leo Smith at CalArts [California Institute of the Arts], that would be fantastic. But I don't think that over here we have that opportunity. It is much more didactic, and it's to do with what you should play over certain things, and for me, as soon as education turns prescriptive rather than descriptive, it ceases to be an interesting thing.

AAJ: That's interesting because many of the most distinctive sounds are from people who haven't been through that educated route. You talk about bloody-mindedness. Is it actually more difficult to find your own way?

AH: I was lucky because I had studied the piano and the organ conventionally. So from the point of view of having a technique, I had a facility on the instrument whereby I could play my ideas. So that wasn't something I that I needed to develop quite so much—because of course there are technical things that you need to be able to do on your instrument just to be able to realize your ideas. Of course, every so often there are people who come along who do find a totally idiosyncratic way around the instrument. But in terms of actually learning to improvise, the most useful thing is understanding the tradition, the past voices, in order that you don't sound like them.

There's a really fascinating [saxophonist/composer] Henry Threadgill interview somewhere where he's talking about people transcribing solos, Coltrane solos, and saying why on earth would you want to do that. And that's kind of how I feel. I'm not interested in transcribing a [pianist] Bud Powell solo, because I don't want to play it less well than Bud Powell. He's so awesome, why would I listen to anyone else play it? And similarly with Monk and Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard and other pianists that I love, why on earth would I want to transcribe it, because I'd never be able to play it as well as them. And nor is it interesting to play in their language because they own that language and do it better than everyone else.

So what not studying probably means is that there are certain technical skills I'm probably deficient in. I'm not a massive walking library of standard tunes. I have a working knowledge of a number, I guess, but I couldn't sit and play those in any key just off the top of my head, for example. But learning or developing a musical voice is developing the facility to play the music you want to play. And given that playing the standard repertoire night after night is not what I'm interested in doing, though I love it very much, it doesn't strike me that that was something that I needed to do.

So the education is an interesting thing, but I really have problems with the very didactic way of: if you have this chord then you play this scale. It just doesn't make sense. No, you don't play that scale, you play the sound you want to play. I can also see that if you are a session musician, you want to be able to reproduce a certain sound. No problem, but that's not improvising. That's the product of repertory music. So, in a very real sense, I think that a lot of music from that tradition is not improvised; it's different permutations of learnt rules.

Piano Heroes

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 things—that'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 geniuses—well, 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 Ali—that 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 loved—Monk, 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 him—which 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 library—I don't like to listen to music digitally, but when I'm on the road it's a good thing to do—if 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].
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