The World According to Keitho

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A few words about Hank Jones

Posted by keithosaunders on May 20, 2010

This week the world lost one of the great jazz pianists of all time — Hank Jones.  He was 91 years old.  Though he was born in Mississippi, he, along with his brothers, Thad and Elvin, grew up in Michigan, and he was one of the immense crop of musicians to emerge from the Detroit scene. 

When I think of Hank Jones I think of touch.  He had a smooth, gossamer sound that was personal and instantly identifiable.  He integrated the language of Bud Powell and Charlie Parker and infused it with an elegance and harmonic language which was second to none.  But always the touch;  light and airy, yet able to handle the fastest of tempos and the thorniest of harmony.

I remember learning some of his solos back when I was starting out.  They were surprisingly difficult — angular with odd intervals.  Very different from the other pianists I was studying — Bud Powell, Tommy Flanagan, and Kenny Drew.   I always wondered how he was able to execute those lines so deftly with legato phrasing. 

A confession:  Hank was not among my favorite of the great pianists.  I gravitated towards the more horn-like styles of Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly, and Horace Silver.  It did not lessen my respect and admiration for him.  In fact it made me conscious of my own lack of subtlety and grace.  I did love his playing and the times I heard him play live were awe-inspiring.

I had a friend named Jon who was a Hank Jones freak — a vibes player from L.A.   Once Jon discovered Hank’s music it was all over for him.  He didn’t want to hear about any other pianist — he ate, drank, and slept Hank.   Jon spent hundreds of dollars on rare Hank Jones recordings — his prize was a live record done in Tokyo during the 1960s.   He transcribed dozens of Hank’s solos and compiled them into a book.    When Jon contacted Hank to let him know about the book of solos Hank was flattered, but bemused.  Hank wanted to know why he ever would want to play his own solos again! 

A good friend of mine, drummer Taro Okamoto, knew Hank and played with him.  By all accounts Hank was not only a brilliant musician, but a gentleman who was down to earth and had a great sense of humor.   Warmth that is forever evident in his music.

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