Friday, August 12, 2016

Earl Hines on Impulse, 1966

Earl "Fatha" Hines
One of the most important, innovative pianists in jazz history, Earl "Fatha" Hines influenced virtually every keyboard player who ever had a chance to listen to him, among them many greats such as Nat King Cole and Teddy Wilson. Born in Duquesne, near Pittsburgh, PA, in 1905, Hines was playing piano professionally by the 1920s, as a member of several different bands, and working off and on with the likes of Jimmie Noone and Louis Armstrong, with whom he participated in some of the groundbreaking Hot Five sessions of the late '20s. A few years later, when it came time for Hines to lead his own orchestras, he proved to have a good ear for recognizing talent, and his outfits were always full of excellent musicians such as Trummy Young, Budd Johnson, Ray Nance, and a vocalist who would soon turn into a jazz/pop idol—Billy Eckstine. Critics have often hailed Hines as one of the first modern pianists, He never failed to swing with ease, and his bluesy style was definitely swinging, forward-looking, and flamboyant, making him one of the direct links between the old school of stride piano and the more modern sounds of swing. Hines survived the 1950s by inflecting his swinging style with the strains of Dixieland jazz and spent several years catering to the followers of the decade's Dixieland revival. And that takes us to the album we're reviewing today, perhaps one of the lesser-known entries in his prolific and enormously rich discography.

Cut for Impulse on two different dates in January 1966, the record is called Once Upon a Time, yet it might very well have been titled something like "Earl Hines Meets the Ellingtonians," since on these seven tracks he's surrounded by a host of Duke Ellington sidemen, though the Duke himself is absent. The collective personnel features, among others, great musicians like trumpeters Cat Anderson, Ray Nance, and Clark Terry; trombonist Lawrence Brown; reedmen Russell Procope, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, and Pee Wee Russell; bassist Aaron Bell; and drummers Sonny Greer and Elvin Jones. As critic Stanley Dance tells us in the liner notes, the idea was "to bring together past and present members of the Duke Ellington orchestra" and have them play alongside Hines and other greats like Russell and Elvin Jones. And the concept works perfectly: the material includes Ellington standards such as "Black and Tan Fantasy" and an explosive reading of "Cottontail," and each solo that unfolds is pure bliss. Both Hodges (the title track and the closer, "Hash Brown") and Hines himself (the lovely "You Can Depend on Me") showcase their talents as composers, and selections like Lionel Hampton's "The Blues in My Flat" (with some inspired singing by Nance) place the accent on the blues. The beautiful ballad "Fantastic, That's You" receives a quartet treatment by Hines, Hamilton, Bell, and Jones, and the Fatha sounds extremely comfortable both in a small-group setting and within the larger band, leading everyone forward with energy and authority. When it comes to albums by Hines, there's evidently a wealth of material to choose from, but this mid-'60s meeting with the Ellingtonians should be high on the list of must-haves by the Fatha.

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