Recording for independent labels such as Sharp Nine, Criss Cross, Venus, and Go Jazz, in less than a decade David Hazeltine has amassed an impressive body of work as a leader. Viewed as a whole, the music on these discs amply documents his strengths as a player, musical thinker, and director of small ensembles. First and foremost, Hazeltine is an excellent jazz pianist. Having assimilated influences ranging from Art Tatum to Barry Harris to Cedar Walton, his improvisations abound with well-developed ideas. Furthermore, he chooses material carefully, juxtaposing original compositions with jazz standards, and frequently including unique interpretations of American popular songs from the 30s through the 70s. Last but not least, Hazeltine always keeps good company. He regularly utilizes the talents of young, promising players Eric Alexander and Joe Farnsworth, as well as respected veterans like Slide Hampton, and George Mraz.
The Classic Trio, Volume II, the follow-up to his 1997 release of the same name, is an important addition to Hazeltine’s ever-growing discography. Marc Edelman of Sharp Nine Records wisely decided to reunite the pianist with first call bassist Peter Washington, and Louis Hayes, one of the most important drummers of the hard bop genre. The record opens with Hazeltine’s composition, “Face to Face,” a rocking, sharply rhythmic line with a pensive bridge, written about his eye contact on the bandstand with Hayes. Their rapport is apparent from the very beginning, as Hayes weaves jarring snare drum rhythms and cymbal crashes around the leader’s statement of the melody. Working off of the cushion of Washington’s sure, fat-toned walking and against the drummer’s volleys, Hazeltine takes the first solo, playing chorus after chorus of pregnant, utterly convincing single-note lines with a sound, ringing touch. He never runs out of things to say, loses focus, or is at a loss for direction, and always stays in touch with his peers. After a number of exchanges of varying bar lengths between pianist and bassist, followed by Washington’s brief solo, its Hayes’ turn to enter the same cycle and he doesn’t disappoint. In a violent outburst, he begins by concentrating on heavily accented beats on the snare drum, and then gradually increases the velocity of his strokes while integrating the tom toms and cymbals in a rush of finesse and force.
In contrast to these muscular, virtuosic sounds, the relative stillness of the next cut, “What the World Needs Now,” comes as a pleasant surprise. In his arrangement of the Bacharach and David classic, Hazeltine avoids the melodramatic trappings that surface in other versions of the song, achieving a haunting simplicity that lingers in memory. With Hayes eschewing pyrotechnics in favor of quietly executing little more than straight eighth note triplets on his ride cymbal, the pianist’s brief solo sustains the subdued mood and nourishes the soul by subtly incorporating blues phrases and maintaining a fairly consistent level of dynamics.
A marvelous medium tempo version of the standard “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” displays another aspect of Hazeltine and the trio’s sublime artistry. Over the drummer’s subtle brushwork the pianist mostly plays chords, making his phrases leapfrog over the beat and then abruptly surge forward, creating the effect of both restraint and exclamation in the course of every few measures, craftily bending the melody without breaking it. As the last note of the tune is played, a cymbal crash announces Hayes’ return to sticks, and Hazeltine begins his solo with genuine intensity, then proceeds to get hotter by integrating hurtling bebop lines into somewhat more relaxed chordal and single note passages. With the pianist gently prodding him, Washington alters the mood with a thoughtful turn that includes snatches of the song, segueing to the band’s return to the theme.