Because jazz is so fundamentally wound up in its own history, it can often be difficult for fans to accept a new voice. The canon of jazz players is set in stonehow could there be a great voice that we have overlooked? However, there come times for just such paradigm shifts. Frank Hewitt prompts us to do so. Out of the Clear Black Sky
is the fifth Hewitt album released on Smalls Records, all of which are posthumous. For more than eight years preceding his 2002 death, Hewitt was the house pianist at Smalls Jazz Club in New York. This recording is drawn from two of his Sunday evening sets there in 2000.
There are a number of ways in which Hewitt throws off the typical historical narrative of jazz. Although born in 1935 and a lifelong Harlemite, the only recording of Hewitt released during his 67 years was a single track on the album Jazz Underground: Live at Smalls
(Impulse, 1998). Additionally, his aesthetic is founded in the music of his youth: pianists like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Hewitt's is a meticulously percussive brand of bebop, often allowing his chords to take on a muddy flavor in the pursuit of rhythmic expression. Later influences are remarkably absent from his technique, and he plays a purer bebop piano than perhaps anyone today except Barry Harris and Hank Jones.
If his playing demands reconsideration, his album warrants rethinking, too. Out of the Clear Black Sky
has several tunes that run the risk of sounding hackneyed due to overexposure: "The Girl from Ipanema" and "Misty," which Hewitt plays twice on this disc. However, the performances are absorbing and unique enough to break through the danger of cliche.
On "Misty," Hewitt borrows slightly from Erroll Garner's locked-hands method, making for a degree of traditionalism. However, by neatly doctoring the melody's opening line, he manages to cut through the tune's obviousness with his own voice. Although Jimmy Lovelace's drumming frequently sounds docile, the trio proves capable of dropping into a strong groove, as when they land together on the corners of the form. The second, somewhat truncated version of "Misty" drives a little bit morebassist Ari Roland feels a little more propulsive here, and Hewitt follows suit.
He also gives other songs a new lease on life. An unprecedented vamp at the beginning of "Girl from Ipanema" augments the song just enough, making it once again a valid vehicle for improvisation. And he disguises "Manteca" by blurring between swing and Afro-Cuban grooves.
In the album's liner notes, producer Luke Haven explores jazz history to seek out some justification for Hewitt's absence from the typical roster of great players. Although he attributes the lacuna to the racist Cabaret Laws that restricted gigging musicians, fundamentally one cannot know why such a strong musician would not receive his due time in the spotlight. The best we can do now is listen to Hewitt and embrace the reconsideration he merits.