Although most modern jazz pianists don’t acknowledge the fact or don’t know it, modern jazz piano begins with Earl Hines. For the most dramatic evidence, listen closely to Hines in the 1920s, especially in the mind-blowing “Weatherbird” duet with Louis Armstrong or his QRS recordings from 1928, “Chicago High Life,” for instance. (Follow the link, then scroll down to hear it.) You can bet that Bud Powell studied that chording left hand and those “trumpet” passages in the right hand and knew them inside out. Hines is recognized by older musicians, historians and critics as one of the most important figures in American music. It is a mystery why younger musicians, who could benefit from familiarity with his playing, don’t study it. Fortunately, there is at least one exception. Nearly twenty-three years after Hines’s death at seventy-nine, Harold Danko has recorded a tribute to the seminal musician whom his sidemen quite justly nicknamed Fatha when he was in his twenties.
Danko includes an obscure 1923 Hines composition, “Congaine” into which he fits references to Powell, as if to emphasize the line of descent. The album is called Hinesight. It is a collection of a dozen Hines pieces played by Danko, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Jeff Hershfield. Danko, too little appreciated as one of the most adventurous and far-sighted post-Bill Evans pianists, is on the faculty of the Eastman School. He brings an educator’s zeal to his Hines project. His interpretations, however, are about as far from academic exercises as one can imagine. He makes 7/4 time for “Deep Forest,” 5/4 for “You Can Depend on Me” and a leisurely samba 6/4 for “Ann, Wonderful One” sound as if Hines meant them to be played that way. “Rosetta” gets a snappier bossa nova treatment and a slight revision of its chord changes.
Danko plays three of the QRS pieces, “Stowaway,” “A Monday Date” and “Blues in Thirds,” a trademark composition that Hines revisited all of his life and relished filling with surprises. It is a splendid CD. I can imagine Earl hearing that rollicking “Congaine” and, all smiles, giving Danko one of his patented compliments, “Well done, young man, well done.”
After hearing a Hines performance in New Orleans in 1980, I wrote that he was, “if anything, an even more ferociously experimental creator than he was at twenty-three.” Here is a little more from that chapter of Jazz Matters.
Rummaging in the basement of the keyboard, applying rococo layers of chords in the middle and a lightning scattering of tenths on top, erecting arhythmic passages that somehow continue the beat, taking pauses that suggest a gliding eagle surveying possibilities, Hines is in full cry, eyes closed, head back, grimacing in intellectural strain and the ecstacy of creation. Possessed of a tone with the brilliance of polished metal and fingers with the speed of pistons, he indulges himself in the surprises he loves: runs, curlicues, doodads, pizzazz, castles in the air, tension, release, single and multiple explosions, harmonic excursions into unknown territory, feats of metric foolery. Conversation stops and the noisiest drunken life underwriter is compelled to listen. Other pianists look anxious; this is clearly impossible, and the impossibility has nothing to do with technique. That is why there has never been a successful Hines imitator. The imitation would have to go beyond notes. The most meticulously written transcription could not capture the joyous rage, the abandon, the whimsy.
This CD, recorded a couple of years earlier in New Orleans at Le Club, has moments of Hines at the top of his game, with a dynamite ”Blue Skies” and a “Wolverine Blues” full of tremolos and cascades that might have made even Jelly Roll Morton smile at what his young admirer did with his tune.