The depth and breadth of pianist, arranger and composer Dick Hyman’s career seems astonishing by any musical standards. Most aspects of his career, which began in the late 1940s in the thriving Manhattan music scene, were touched upon Tuesday, March 7 at the 37th annual Sarasota Jazz Festival.
The evening’s journey, which Hyman called “wallowing in nostalgia,” featured the pianist with an all-star cast of supporters. They were pianist Bill Charlap, guitarist Russell Malone, tenor saxophonist Houston Person, trumpeter Randy Sandke, singer Clairdee, bassist John Lamb and drummer Mark Feinman. Retired Tampa jazz radio host Bob Seymour was the evening’s narrator-interviewer.
Hyman dug into vintage material from significant and/or unusual points in his career and premiered two brand-new tunes. He opened the program with “Sweet Sarasota,” which he wrote specifically to honor this year’s festival. During the second set, he premiered “Clairdee, That’s Me!,” written for the San Francisco-based singer who goes by just her first name.
The carefully paced program provided several opportunities to reminisce. “I was a jazz guy on one hand and a studio guy on the other hand,” Hyman said on the eve of his 90th birthday. “If you could stand it, you could do three recording sessions a day… and maybe had an early morning radio show the next day.”
The evening included several piano duets with Charlap. The first was a rollicking version of “Ready or Not,” one of their variations on “Back Home in Indiana.” Another was an extended exploration of “42nd Street,” much like Hyman and the late Derek Smith played it on one of their dual piano recordings.
Some of the interesting moments underscored Hyman’s versatility. He wrote the music for Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, a recording featuring singer Earl Wrightson, some of which was later covered by Maxine Sullivan (and re-interpreted this night by Clairdee). He also served as house pianist/organist for several radio and TV shows, including those of broadcaster Arthur Godfrey. Hyman shifted to the B-3 organ to reprise “Sam Taylor Blues,” a track on his Rockin’ Sax and Rollin’ Organ session with Sam “The Man” Taylor. This version featured Hyman and Person.
A wide-ranging Duke Ellington medley closed the first set. Russell Malone sat in rapt fascination as he watched Hyman’s Stride piano version of “Jubilee Stomp.” It then segued into Ellington bassist John Lamb’s feature on “Mood Indigo,” and shifted to “Dooji Wooji,” a blues that Duke wrote for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. The extended medley wound down with Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a longtime Ellington band staple.
In addition to their piano duets, Charlap complemented the evening beautifully. He softly comped behind interview segments, at one point playing “Lullaby of Birdland,” as Hyman talked about working at Birdland in 1949 as part of Max Kaminsky’s Dixieland band during a wide-ranging “All-American Jazz Festival.” Charlap was featured on a beautiful trio version of “S’Wonderful” with Lamb and Feinman.
Malone offered a solo version of “While We’re Young” before Hyman joined him on “You’re Getting to be a Habit With Me.” Malone and Clairdee then teamed up for an intimate take on Kurt Weill’s “My Ship.”
The program wound down with two other aspects of Hyman’s career. His work writing music for film, including 1987’s Oscar-winning Moonstruck and 10 or so Woody Allen movies, and his early Moog synthesizer work. For the latter, the band performed Hyman’s “The Minotaur” from 1969’s Moog- The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman. The song charted in the U.S. top and was the first Moog single hit.
As “The Minotaur” wound down the evening, Charlap, a distant cousin of Hyman, tagged it with a few well-deserved bars of “Happy Birthday.”
More than 900 people packed the Riverview Performing Arts Center for the concert, acknowledging Hyman’s impact on the area over the years. Broader recognition will come next month in Washington, DC, when he is honored as a new NEA Jazz Master.
Hyman and his sculptor wife, Julia, moved to the Sarasota area as snowbirds about 30 years ago and took up permanent residency more than 20 years ago. They were attracted to the area by Sarasota’s vibrant arts scene, particularly its then-young Jazz Club of Sarasota, which was founded by ex-Benny Goodman publicist Hal Davis.
Hyman has had a hand in the festival virtually every year. This festival concludes on Saturday, March 11 with a concert by Hyman and the Jim Cullum Classic Jazz Band. That evening will include some piano duets by Hyman and Cullum pianist John Sheridan.