Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Coleman Hawkins Quartet: Today and Now, 1962

In his fan-club website, Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren recently reviewed one of Coleman Hawkins's late-career albums, the often underappreciated Today and Now (go here, then check out the 26 April 2016 entry). Says Lundgren, "It's a classic jazz recording which must surely rank as one of the best-sounding albums ever made. Today and Now is perhaps not the most obvious choice for many of Hawkins' fans, but it's definitely one of my all-time favorites. Everything on this disc sounds wonderfully good, and I wonder if I've ever heard a better sax sound on record. . . The music is generally on the soft side, which makes it the ideal record to sit back and relax to." Lundgren is definitely right on all counts: the sound of this album is crisp and clear, the song choices favor a slower, more relaxing mood over uptempo swingers, and yet, the record remains one of the least discussed and remembered in Hawkins's discography. By the time he cut these seven tracks at the Rudy Van Gelder studio in 1962, the Hawk had long been regarded as a jazz legend, one of the leaders of the stylistic transition from swing to bop, and was revered by anyone who ever picked up a saxophone. He was also pushing sixty, had developed a drinking problem, and the quality of his recorded output had become rather erratic. No matter, though—when he was in good form, Hawkins could still make the magic happen, particularly in a small-group setting. And on these two sessions, the Hawk sounds relaxed, engaged, and in complete command of the instrument.

Today and Now is one of Hawkins's three albums for Impulse (the other two are Desafinado and Wrapped Tight) and it was recorded over the course of two sessions in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, on September 9 and 11, 1962. These two dates find Hawkins on tenor saxophone in the company of Tommy Flanagan on piano, Major Holley on bass, and Eddie Locke on drums. It's an excellent quartet, but from the beginning it becomes clear that Hawkins is the main attraction. The repertoire is rather unusual, with a few swinging tracks thrown in among the ballads. The opener, the traditional tune "Go Lil' Liza," is a good excuse for Hawkins to improvise on the agreeable melody, with a couple of solos from Holley (played arco) and Flanagan, who is always classy and engaging. "Swingin' Scotch" is basically a series of variations on the Scottish air "Loch Lomond," and the old evergreen "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" is taken at a pleasing light tempo by the quartet. In the Hawk's hands, the old-timer "Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet" becomes a soulful, bluesy affair, and the three remaining tracks (the ballads "Quintessence," "Don't Love Me," and "Love Song from Apache") are definitely the highlights of the album, even if "Apache" may seem like an unlikely choice at first. On all three, but particularly on Quincy Jones's "Quintessence" and the little-known "Don't Love Me," Hawkins sounds relaxed and introspective, with a breathiness of tone that is perfectly suited to the tunes. As on the rest of the album, the accompaniment by Flanagan, Holley, and Locke is superb. As Lundgren rightly points out, this album is a good choice for relaxation, and its overall high quality, I would add, makes it deserving of more praise and critical attention.

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