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Art Hodes: I Remember Bessie


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The end of World War II remains the most profound demarcation in jazz history. Jazz changed so radically and abruptly after 1945 that fans of the music split into two bickering camps. Pre-war jazz fans argued that their music had structure, charm and romanticism that post-war jazz lacked. Post-war jazz fans countered that their music was about individualism, advocacy and daring—viewing pre-war jazz as archaic, formulaic and dull.

Pianist Art Hodes [prounced HOE-diss] was considered a pre-war pianist and often expressed bewilderment and exasperation with modern forms like bebop. But in retrospect, his approach in the decades following the war seemed to be routinely updated, particularly in his voicings. Yet Hodes' name is all but forgotten today, disregarded by decades of post-war jazz fans deaf to the music of the '20s and '30s. Hodes deserves better. [Pictured above: Art Hodes, left, with Pete Johnson on piano, Red Allen on trumpet, Lou McGarity on trombone and Lester Young on tenor sax]

Hodes grew up in Chicago and moved to New York in the late '30s, recording with all the greats of his era. Though Hodes' career would continue until his death in 1993 at age 88, he was viewed the way many classic rock artists are today—performers who earn a living playing the music of another era. [Pictured above: Art Hodes]

What sets Hodes apart as a pianist is his concentrated strength on the keyboard and the orchestral way in which he treats a song. Listening to Hodes now, you marvel at how alive the keyboard sounds. It's not the high-speed figure eights of Art Tatum, the punctuating stride of Earl Hines or the penetrating whimsy of Fats Waller. With Hodes, there's not only taut syncopation but also dense lines, with his fingers functioning as different sections of a band. Each of his fingers seems to bear a different tonal personality, almost like a chorus. It's quite remarkable to hear. [Pictured above: Art Hodes at the piano, in the U.K.]

In September 1976, Hodes recorded at a Santa Monica, Calif., bungalow of a friend. There was a Yamaha grand there along with superb engineering by Cecil Spiller. The theme Hodes chose for the session was songs made famous by singer Bessie Smith. One by one, Hodes applies his deliberate, textured style to songs like You've Got to Give Me Some, Yonder Come the Blues and Cake Walkin' Babies From Home.

Now Art Hodes: I Remember Bessie (Delmark) is out for the first time on CD with previously unreleased tracks. This is a thrilling album for many reasons. First, the sound is fantastic—Hodes is practically in your room. Second, Hodes is a positively glorious soloist—rekindling the joy and excitement of pre-war jazz. But even more important, Hodes performs as if singing through his hands, growing soft and loud in different places and tossing in a mini solos here and there with the most unusual fingering. 

What I find particularly miraculous is how he offers something completely different in each bar. It's almost impossible to conceive how one person could be playing. In Hodes' hands, you hear the blues, Bessie's bossy voice and the early architecture of R&B piano, with its snap and stride. Hodes would probably insist that what you're hearing is just pre-war jazz—over easy.

Art Hodes' I Remember Bessie is easily one of this year's most pleasant surprises. I plan on grabbing as much Hodes as I can find.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Art Hodes' I Remember Bessie (Delmark) here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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