The hard bop, Philadelphia pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali had a short, troubled life. On what was believed his only recording, The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan
(Atlantic, 1965), the drummer placed Ali's full image front and center, his name in a larger font on the LP cover. Within the Philadelphia jazz community, he was well-known and considered uniquely talented, if unpredictable. He practiced with John Coltrane
and saxophonist Odean Pope
is among those who credit Ali with inspiring Coltrane's "sheets of sound."
Ali was born William Langford, Jr., in 1931. By age fifteen, he was touring with established bands and later played in Philadelphia clubs with Clifford Brown
, Miles Davis
, J.J. Johnson
and Henry Grimes
. It was Roach who persuaded Atlantic Records to hire Ali for the trio session in 1964. That project led to Atlantic offering Ali a one-off contract in 1965. The pianist led a quartet with Pope, bassist Art Davis
and drummer Khalil Madi, who was lightly recorded but had worked with Billie Holiday
and saxophonist Al Sears
. Shortly after the recording session, Ali was imprisoned on drug possession charges, and Atlantic shelved the recording without comment. In 1978 the Atlantic Records warehouse in Long Branch, New Jersey, burned down and destroyed an estimated six-thousand reels of tape, including almost all of the company's unreleased master tapes. Ali's recording was among the losses.
Recently, Omnivore Recordings came into possession of a tape copy of long-lost reference acetates of the sessions, restored and mastered by Grammy-winning engineer Michael Graves. Previously untitled, Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album
is a small masterpiece from a virtuoso pianist/composer with almost no exposure on record. Comparing artistic styles is sometimes a flimsy exercise in convenience, but not so much in the case of Ali's playing. He was cited as cross-pollinating Thelonious Monk
's distinctive approach and Herbie Nichols
' ideas about an expansive, harmonious palette. He demonstrates both influences where the choppy piano opening on "Atlantic Ones" is smoothed over with Pope's exquisite tenor lines. When Ali returns, he's more lyrical in his set-up of Davis' terrific bass solo. "Viceroy" is an ornamental piece of exceptional hard-bop reharmonizing; complex, layered, and ahead of its time. "El Hasaan" is primarily given over to Pope. A bit slower in pacing, it's still quirky and a showcase for the saxophonist entering his prime years. The oddly named "Richard May Love Give Powell" leans toward peculiar balladry and a departure from the overall mood of Metaphysics
but the title track re-animates the session. Madi finds room to show his chops on this one, and his interaction with Ali is intriguing. "True Train," the final full-length cut, is a superb eleven-minute wrap-up, building slowly and allowing each player time to express themselves. The music is full of crackling energy and inventiveness. Three bonus "shortened" versions (not alternate takes) of "True Train," "Viceroy," and "Atlantic Ones" conclude the album.
Ali was considered eccentric and possibly dealt with mental health issues that went undiagnosed. There are stories of Ali going into jazz clubs and forcibly taking over from performing pianists. He was an only child, pampered by his parents, who he lived with well into his adult life. Their Philadelphia home burned down, and Ali's parents both died in the fire, leaving the pianist at loose ends. Though it's not certain, he may have been homeless for a time or living in a shelter until he died, while only in his forties. Ali was mentored by the greatand also under-recognizedpianist Elmo Hope
. Hope's style is a presence on Metaphysics
as well but in a more subtle way. More interesting is listening for that dotted line that connects Monk, Nichols, and sometimes swings to Art Tatum
. The music on Metaphysics
may be the only remaining taste of Hasaan Ibn Ali's talent that we are likely to have, and it is well worth having.
Atlantic Ones; Viceroy; El Hasaan; Richard May Love Give Powell; Metaphysics; Epitome; True Train; True Train (Short Version); Viceroy (Short Version); Atlantic Ones (Short Version).