What is remarkable about Tardo Hammer is not that he is so good for someone so unknown-jazz breeds unsung heroes like Microsoft used to breed millionaires. What is remarkable is the degree to which the 45-year-old Hammer is confidently, masterfully, quintessentially representative of a genre invented before he was born. The genre is hardcore bop piano in all its sassy, daredevil, take-no-prisoners, life-affirming glory. In Hammer's presence, you surrender and let its authenticity wash over you: the streaming, breakneck variations, the two-handed, catapulting syncopations.
On one level, Tardo's Tempo can be understood and enjoyed as a journey through some arcane, meaningful musical nooks and crannies, especially in jazz of the last half century. Ted Panken's insightful liner notes point out that Hammer's take on Jerome Kern's "Last Time I Saw Paris" is inspired partly by Sonny Rollins' 1957 trio treatment, and partly by the arrangement of bop altoist C. Sharpe (with whom Hammer worked in the 1980s), but mostly by "Bud Powell's Tatumesque 1950 solo version." All this history filtering through Hammer's performance does not date it. His off-kilter progressions and displaced accents and stabs of melody are obviously happening now.
"I Waited for You" is pulled from the original 1946 Musicraft recording by Dizzy Gillespie, and it shows Hammer's no-nonsense, comprehensive approach to ballads.(His touch is unapologetically percussive yet elegantly rounded at the edges.) "Philly Twist" reveals his articulate comfort level with the blues. It is from a 1961 Kenny Dorham Blue Note session, Whistle Stop. "Little Man (You've Had a Busy Day)," from 1934, comes to Hammer through Paul Robeson, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan and Jiminy Cricket. It is lush with tremolos and wry with gentle wit. Bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Jimmy Wormworth, who are deeply dialed-in throughout, infuse this playful tune with muted rhythmic force.