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The Frank Hewitt Quintet: Four Hundred Saturdays

Eric J. Iannelli By

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Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons. Frank Hewitt, as this disc's title suggests, might have done so (albeit with a bit more relish) by counting his Saturdays at Smalls, the New York jazz club where he performed regularly for eight years. Sadly, his renown outside the club only properly began after his death in late 2002. Unless the Smalls label has more Hewitt material stashed away in its archives, this disc is probably the last recorded testament to his gifts.

This recording is taken from an after-hours set on August 21, 1999, and it features the quintet—saxophonists Chris Byars and Mike Mullins, bassist Ari Roland, and drummer Jimmy Lovelace—who appeared alongside Hewitt for many of those years. The names of these musicians will already be familiar to fans of Smalls records, but with Hewitt calling the tunes on the fly, it gives them a slightly different dynamic.

There are only four songs on this hour-long session, and that enables the quintet to really settle in, stretch out, and let the solos and musical threads develop. Oddly perhaps for bop of this type, there's no great sense of urgency to squeeze in a thousand and one musical ideas, yet they somehow manage it; there's no lethargy, either, and the musicians quickstep through all but the rather sleepy "Blue Gardenia." Maybe it had to do with the late (or early) hour, when funny things happen to one's sense of time.

Hewitt shines on "Lullaby in Rhythm," delivering an inspired solo in his singular manner of phrasing: retro- and post-, order and disorder, rigidity and fluidity. On "Blue Gardenia," he picks up the satin cloth with which Byars has caressed the tune and ties it a few knots in it. A closet romantic with a sly sense of humor, he frequently challenges the smooth, seamless nature of balladry with a choppier style. Roland, as always, bows his short solo here, and sharp cuts of the bow enable him to underscore certain passages—or jolt the late-night audience awake.

"Oblivion"? They aim to get there as fast as possible. Lovelace delivers some fine fills and sustains a blazing and impeccable swing throughout, though he tends to exhaust his ideas quickly on solos. The quintet is at its collective best on the spicy closer "Manteca," on which shouts of "Go! Go!" can be heard during Hewitt's extended solo.

Two reservations. The sound is just shy of excellent. Hewitt's piano is set far back and flattened slightly, and when the saxophones first join him on "Lullaby in Rhythm," to cite the most noticeable instance, they can take an unsuspecting listener by surprise. And producer Luke Kaven's liner notes just get bitterer as time goes on. On earlier Hewitt releases he made no secret of his anger over the pianist's lack of recognition during his lifetime. Here he's positively spitting venom. However justified his indignation, it introduces a sour note into this otherwise outstanding session.

Track Listing: Lullaby in Rhythm; Blue Gardenia; Oblivion; Manteca.

Personnel: Frank Hewitt: piano; Chris Byars: tenor saxophone; Mike Mullins: alto saxophone; Ari Roland: bass; Jimmy Lovelace: drums.

Title: Four Hundred Saturdays | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Smalls Records


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