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Hasaan Ibn Ali: Metaphysics

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Hasaan Ibn Ali
Abstractionism in music is just over 100 years old. Largely a reaction to the inner torment of chaotic events that the artist can't process, abstractionism dates to the summer of 1908 and the jilting of Arnold Schoenberg. Back then, his wife, Mathilde, left him in Vienna and spent several months with a young Austrian painter. The despair experienced by Schoenberg as his world distorted was channeled into music. That summer, he composed Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide (You Lean Against a Silver Willow). It was his first key-less composition. That year, he also would compose his String Quartet No. 2, the last two movements of which are atonal. Schoenberg, of course, would go on to pioneer the atonal classical movement, composing notable dissonant works that include Pierrot Lunaire (1912). The shattering of Old Europe in World War I gave rise to an entire abstractionist classical movement led by Anton Webern, Alban Berg, and Hanns Eisler. 

Abstraction came to jazz much later, after World War II. Up until then, jazz was a largely a dance enterprise that had to meet the commercial interests of just three major record labels. Not until the late 1940s and the rise of independent labels, do we begin to hear the percussive dissonance of pianist Thelonious Monk, the pretzled counterpoint and harmony of pianist Lennie Tristano, and the early free-jazz group experiments in 1949 by Tristano, Lee Konitz and Teddy Charles. In the 1950s, Monk would continue to advance jazz's emotional abstractionism, but along the way, other Black pianists would take up the approach, including Elmo Hope and Herbie Nichols. Included in this group was the lesser known Hasaan Ibn Ali.

Born William Henry Langford, Jr. in Philadelphia in 1931, Ali spent years playing locally, developing a reputation for defying traditional jazz forms. According to jazz writer, author and pianist Lewis Porter, Ali caught the attention of jazz's most sophisticated musicians, including drummer Max Roach, by playing fourths using “chord progressions that moved by seconds or thirds instead of fifths, and playing a variety of scales and arpeggios against each chord." Ali was said to have greatly influenced John Coltrane's “sheets of sound" approach and set the tenor saxophonist on his emotive trajectory as early as 1952.

For decades, Ali's sole album was The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan, recorded in December 1964 and released in '65. We have Atlantic Records' Nesuhi Ertegun to thank for that. A follow-up album was recorded in August and September 1965, but the tape sat on the shelf at Atlantic's New Jersey storage unit until 1978, when it was destroyed by a fire that turned to ash many released and unreleased taped jazz recordings. Ali, who died in 1980, never heard the music released.

Over the years, rumors made the rounds in jazz circles that a copy of the tape existed, but it never surfaced. Then in 2017, there was startling news. Lewis Porter picks up the story: “[That year], I played piano at the Clef Club in Philadelphia with Bobby Zankel's group featuring Odean Pope and others. Odean is, of course, a wonderful player and a beloved person in the Philly scene. Around that time, I received a group email fom my new Philly friends asking what I knew about unissued Hasaan. This promoted me to get back in touch with Alan [Sukoenig]," a producer and friend of Ali.

Sukoenig urged Porter to get in touch with Patrick Milligan. According to Sukoenig, Milligan “years before was at Rhino Records and worked alongside Joel Dorn on the Rhino/Atlantic Jazz catalog releases." It turns out a copy of the tape had been made between 1971 and '77 and had been in the Warner tape library for 46 years. When the tape was exhumed from the Warner vaults in 2018, Patrick Milligan, Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings, and Sukoenig went to work on it with engineer Michael Graves, readying the material for release.

The result is the newly released Hasaan Ibn Ali: Metaphysics—The Lost Atlantic Album. The album features Hasaan Ibn Ali (p), Odean Pope (ts), Art Davis (b) and Kalil Madi (d). By the summer of 1965, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman had become huge influences on a generation of tenor saxophonists, including Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Clifford Jordan and Pope.

The music on this set may prove to be the most important historic jazz recording released this year. In addition to Ali's powerful abstractionist originals and commanding, fluid playing, the album presents startling performances by Pope, whose liberated and endearing expression sits somewhere between Coltrane and Charlie Rouse with Monk. Songs such as El Hasaan and the ballad Richard May Love Give Powell exude Mingus-like soul coupled with unsettled social anxiety. The title track is beautifully fractured, Epitome bears Monk's driving, sewing-machine attack and True Trane features Ali's remarkable way of simultaneously playing two completely different rhythmic ideas with his left and right hands, and Pope's take on Coltrane.

It's important to also understand the social backdrop to this recording. By the time the album was recorded, the 1965, the Voting Rights Act had just become law, a year after the Civil Rights Act was passed and signed. Reflected in the music is hope but not celebration or conviction. Black artists knew too much was stacked against them achieving legal justice, equal rights, integration nationwide and fair pay and promotion by record companies. As the Beatles and other white pop-rock bands soared to unheard of levels of financial success, it was clear that record companies were looking for more bands like them. Black art in the form of jazz abstraction and expressionism was quickly becoming a hard sell.

Listening to the music over the weekend, I could hear the times baked into the expression. Instead of a sense that American society was coming around, you hear the sound of dread that big money was shifting to a new form of pop rock and pop soul that appealed largely to white and Black kids. Thinking music by serious black jazz artists was simply too out there and unprofitable in the new youth-driven marketplace, especially if the artist wasn't going to tour.

JazzWax clips: Here's Odean Pope on Ali...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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