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More Rhodes and Synth Jams, From an Unlikely Source
Hampton Hawes' glorious, if brief, electric moment
I spent this week exploring the fusion-leaning titles from vibraphonist Cal Tjader, then searching for electric records from other unexpected sources. There are many — for a while in the early ‘70s, musicians with extensive hard-bop resumes were plugging in and going long, often over unremarkable, repetitive, vamp-based compositions.
Among them was the extravagantly gifted West Coast pianist Hampton Hawes, whose career stretched from a run with Charlie Parker to work in groups led by Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and many others. Hawes — whose memoir, Raise Up Off Me, is a classic of jazz literature — was a flat-out master. His chord voicings are precise structurally and concise rhythmically, his garrulous over-the-bar-line improvisations reflect years in post-bop trenches yet never sound jargony. He made complex ideas seem understandable. Singable.
Hawes was recording for Prestige in the early ‘70s, and in 1972 brought out the lovely Universe. It’s Hawes on Fender Rhodes electric piano and synthesizer; highlights include the gorgeous lullabye opener, “Little Bird,” and “Drums For Peace,” which shows how Hawes, presumably through multi-tracking, conjured expansive conversations between the piano and synth.
The next year Hawes released Blues For Walls, with its slightly dystopian, way-ahead-of-its-time cover art:
This one is a bit spacier, but does include “Rain Forest,” which was sampled by the late hiphop producer Nujabes on “World Without Words.”
That same year, Prestige issued Playin’ in the Yard, a live trio album (with Bob Cranshaw and Kenny Clarke). This one is a gem throughout — note the way this trio slips between a comfortable, easy-stepping straight 8th groove into swing and back again, and then how Hawes slides between acoustic and electric instruments in mid-solo. Tremendous trio invention right here.
Then comes the record that introduced me to electric Hawes: Northern Windows, recorded in July 1974 for Prestige. Had to hear it as soon as I saw the personnel: Carol Kaye of the Wrecking Crew is on bass, Spider Webb is on drums, there’s a horn section with charts by David Axelrod. Among the tunes: “Go Down Moses” (which harks back to his stone-cold classic The Sermon, recorded in 1958 during a period when Hawes was awaiting sentencing on drug charges) and a tune titled “Bach” that paraphrases and then slyly extended the harmonic cycles of Johann. The interplay between Hawes and Kaye sparkles throughout.
Discussions of these albums note that many of Hawes’ longtime fans did not respond favorably to his electric forays; the albums don’t seem to have been big sellers, either. That’s possibly a relic of the reign of jazz snobbery, when “crossover” was scorned. But the creativity on display? That’s timeless. If and when Prestige and its reissue arm Craft Recordings turns its attention to Hawes, it would be nice if these propulsive, rivetingly free, genre-transcending works got a moment of spotlight.
Program Note: No Echo Locator next week. Getting an early start on summer.