It seems that piano legend Hank Jones will be celebrating his 87th birthday this year by reminding his audience just why he's considered such a legend. With the releases of two very different straight-ahead jazz releases, Jones will likely satisfy both his loyal fans and more critical die-hard jazz enthusiasts.
Jones is last surviving member of a jazz dynasty that featured his brothers Thad, the famed trumpeter who passed away in 1986, and Elvin, who helmed the drums with older brother Hank for many years prior to his passing last year. On both of his current albums, Jones remains completely at ease in his preferred trio format, despite (or perhaps due to) a different lineup on either recording. They make for a fascinating comparison.
For My Father
On For My Father, Jones produces a laid back trio feel featuring often-overlooked accompanists George Mraz on bass and Dennis Mackrel on drums. Jones is deliberately straightforward in his interpretations of more obscure entries from the book of jazz standards.
On familiar tunes like Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" and "Prelude to a Kiss," as well as Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing," Jones makes up for what critics have deemed a lack of innovation and exploration within the compositions with a complete understanding of the songs themselves. With his younger sidemen, Jones is almost playful in anchoring the rhythm and weaving the background of sound with a hip, relaxed swing. What listeners will most certainly hear in this album, more so than perhaps of any other trio currently recording modern jazz albums, is a distinct presentation of elegance.
On the trio's interpretation of Billy Strayhorn's "Johnny Come Lately," where many listeners may be expecting a fast-moving rendition (as many other artists have done with the tune over the years), Jones slows the band down a few notches, in keeping with his signature medium-pacing and his recognizable swing. On "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise" (another song of natural melodic beauty that has fallen through the cracks of time from lack of play), Jones keeps the tempo down for another leisurely rendering. On this track, perhaps more than any of the others, Jones is exploratory, with a slow searching to find improvised possibilities and further the beauty of the melody. Had this been a work of literature instead of a musical endeavor, the word "minimalism" might have been used to describe Jones and his band's approach, with their successful attempts to strip the songs of gloss, pomp, and showiness. Here every note counts, even those improvised whimsies that define the jazz style. With Jones, nothing is wasted.
The Great Jazz Trio
The more anticipated of Jones' two new releases is the latest incarnation of the Great Jazz Trio, which marks 'S Wonderful as its first album together. Jones is joined by two popular virtuosos, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Jack DeJohnette, another pair of younger accompanists who fuel this selection of standards with a more energetic and fiery sound. S'Wonderful is the sixth installment of the ever-changing Great Jazz Trio lineup since its 1975 debut incarnation featuring bassist Ron Carter and drummer Grady Tate. Since that time the group, while always maintaining Jones as its leader and constant pianist, has featured such greats as Tony Williams, Al Foster, Richard Davis, and brother Elvin Jones.
This time around, the new Great Trio interprets songbook material from various points in Jones' seventy-year career, but it truly brings a youthful freshness to the songs. Neither Patitucci nor DeJohnette are strangers to reworking older jazz tunes, and both offer harsher, yet lucid commands to each individual classic. The opening title track is always listenable, even to those who believe jazz music to be no more than a pleasant diversion to eat dinner by; the original melody is entirely hidden, almost recognizable. No matter! Its fast pacing but slight spots of romantic shadings help make it new. Another highlight is "MKE Five," a reworking of Paul Desmond's classic "Take Five."
Since these two releases came out at almost the same time, they're ripe for comparison. Both have their own high points, although they're very different in nature. With For My Father and 'S Wonderful it's like the contrast between sitting in a restaurant or lounge and hearing a fantastic house band that's just too good to be playing in that kind of venueversus sitting in a jazz club and enjoying the band letting it all out at full force.
Tracks and Personnel
For My Father
Tracks: Paulette; Bemsha Swing; Queen of Hearts; Sophisticated Lady; Johnny COme Lately; Prelude to a Kiss; Lotus Blossom; SKJ; Easy to Love; Because I Love You; Grace of God; Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.
Personnel: Hank Jones: piano; George Mraz: bass; Dennis Mackrel: drums.
Tracks: S'Wonderful; Sweet Lorraine; Moanin'; The Days of Wine and Roses; Take Five; I Surrender Dear; Night Train; Lover Come Back to Me; Greensleeves.
Personnel: Hank Jones, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums.