Always Au Courant

Amid the constant blare of new recordings, it's easy to overlook a work that later generations deem classic-easy to lose sight of the elements that define classic. The allure of originality and au courantness can blind us to achievements wrought with an offhanded simplicity, elegance, invention and authority that distinguish great from respectable. Consider Benny Carter and Hank Jones. I've been listening a lot to Carter since his passing in July, and marveling anew at how natural and unforced his music is. Posturing was not in his makeup.

In 1937, during a momentous tour of Europe, he created a perfect session for Coleman Hawkins, the nominal leader, and Django Reinhardt. They recorded four tunes-"Honeysuckle Rose," "Out of Nowhere," "Crazy Rhythm" and "Sweet Georgia Brown"-and Carter's thumbprint is on every measure; in addition to his superb trumpet and alto saxophone solos, he wrote the charts with a graceful effervescence that transcends era and idiom. Such writing must once have seemed so effortless, his choices so functional and right, that many writers could have done it. Yet as the decades flew by, Carter's candor and ease proved harder to bottle than conventional virtuosity. So those sides survive as the legacy of an afternoon in Paris and as a benchmark of their time.

Carter helped Ray Charles to a Top 10 hit and Grammy with a 1963 arrangement of "Busted" that is little more than a two-bar riff. It was all he needed, an engine to keep a trite melody on track. Compositional humility underscores everything he did, his improvisations no less than his scores. Carter finessed solos, sculpting them with motifs, odd harmonic asides, rainbow arcs of falling notes, sudden stiletto jabs. His playing defies pigeonholing; he came up long before swing and departed long after the avant-garde, making his own path on his own terms.

Hank Jones celebrated his 85th birthday a week late, in August at the Blue Note in New York, feted by a starry procession of musicians representing several generations. (Clark Terry stole honors with "I Don't Wanna Be Kissed," demonstrating the rolling precision that eluded Miles Davis.) But a quieter tribute took place in the record racks, as Hank O'Neal's invaluable label, Chiaroscuro, finally reissued a 1977 date called The Trio, by Jones, Milt Hinton and Bobby Rosengarden. You may not know this album-it didn't attract much notice.

When it was initially released, Martin Williams phoned me early one morning and, as usual, began the conversation in media res. "Have you played the Hank Jones album on Chiaroscuro?"
"Oh, uh, Martin, good morning."
"Have you listened to 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning?'"
"What time is it?"
"Go play it and call me back."
"Right."
I padded into the living room, located it in the unplayed pile, and listened, enchanted by the whole album, especially the designated number-Jones' unaccompanied transformation of a song that, excepting a then-recent Ray Charles version, had enjoyed little favor beyond Broadway corn stalks.

Martin and I riffed on our mutual enthusiasm-a masterpiece, we decreed-and the album has remained for me a standard in evaluating '70s jazz. Hearing it on CD (O'Neal mourns the loss of alternate takes, but I'm glad they aren't here to distort a sublimely efficient set that has the integrity and brevity of a concert), I noticed a patina beyond the bright blush of digitalization; after 26 years, it has taken on the glow of a classic.

In its day, The Trio figured in the widespread rediscovery of Jones, who had returned from a long sojourn in the studios, mostly at CBS. A Japanese label, East Wind, had released two stirring albums that teamed him with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, providing a sexier marquee than Hinton and Rosengarden (fellow studio veterans), and effectively legitimizing him for a generation that knew his brothers, Elvin and Thad, but not Hank. Yet the muse blows kisses where she will, and it takes nothing from the East Wind and other albums, to say that The Trio, handsomely recorded to emphasize the equilateral nature of the venture, is unusually inspired.

Rosengarden, now retired, was a drummer who loved to play and exulted in finding the right tonal response for each occasion. His total commitment is evident from the first measures of "S'wonderful"-he's having the time of his life. But then no one is feeling any pain. The charts regularly part to permit bass solos (a ritual that can take the heart out of any group), yet every one of Hinton's brief forays is a melodic, rhythmically exciting gem. He never changes the tempo-as some do, as if to say, "OK, now it's my turn." Instead, he stays in synch, extending the trio's esprit. According to O'Neal, the only "spur of the moment" track was "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," though everything about the piece feels considered: the vamp, the exposition of melody and the deep variations, at once lyrical, sophisticated and driven.

Like Carter's 1937 Paris date, The Trio is matchless-surprising, given the zillion albums these guys made. It changed nothing. It simply is: an exemplary memento of a day when three friends gathered to play music and everything went right. O'Neal thinks it will sell only a few thousand. Prove him wrong.

Originally published in November 2003

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