07/08/08

Hank Jones Invitation Series at Montreal Jazz Festival

If there were to be only one jazz musician to grace the cover of AARP The Magazine, the award-winning monthly lifestyle periodical targeted to people over 50, it would have to be Hank Jones. A consummate pianist, Jones was just a month shy of celebrating his 90th birthday when he performed at the 29th annual Montreal International Jazz Festival with four winning duo performances for the event’s Invitation Series.

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Jimmy Katz

Hank Jones

In Montreal, Jones didn’t display the art of aging gracefully in a display of resignation; it was more in the form of seasoned glee, showing, throughout his four-day run, much musical alertness and agility and a charming humor. His musical wisdom—gained from with a plethora of jazz legends that stretch back to swing and bebop heroes such as Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and Lester Young, up to current music titans such as Joe Lovano, Charlie Haden and Cheick Tidiane Seck—wasn’t lost. Jones cherry-picked compositions, mostly from the bebop era, that range from well-known standards (“Body & Soul,” “Blue Monk” and “Lullaby in Birdland”) to comparatively obscure gems such as Oliver Nelson’s “Six & Four,” his brother Thad Jones’ “Quiet Lady,” and his own compositions, “Lullaby” and “Lonely Woman.”

During his first duo performance, at the Théâtre Jean-Duceppe, 73-year-old pianist Oliver Jones joked about the rare chance for him to perform with someone who was older that he. Hank Jones laughed it off and continued to engage the Canadian Jones in a swinging tribute to Canada’s first jazz hero, Oscar Peterson, who died last December. Considering that both Joneses draw much inspiration from Peterson’s orchestral virtuosity, the repertoire seemed like a no-brainer. The trick, however, is getting out of each other’s way while comping with a noticeable level of ingenuity. The two men navigated around each other superbly as Hank Jones mostly asserted himself with thick block chords and sparse rhythms that complemented Oliver Jones’ fleet, feathery single-note runs in the upper register. When they traded duties, the process unfolded seamlessly, especially on chestnuts such as “Those Foolish Things” and “All the Things You Are.”

At times it seemed effortless, as on “Cakewalk,” on which they crisscrossed melodic improvisations that lived up to the composition’s namesake. Hank Jones revealed his gospel roots in a solo set, unraveling poignant renditions of “Amazing Grace” and “When the Saints Come Marching In,” before Oliver Jones re-entered the picture for more delightful duets on “Blues for Big Scotia.”

Hank Jones’ second piano duet, with Brad Mehldau two days later, wasn’t as bracing as the one with Oliver, but it nevertheless had its shining moments. Melodically astute, with a flair for lucid, blues-based bebop improvisations that, at times, could be as rhythmically bright, Jones had to make some noticeable concessions with Mehldau, an orchestral piano virtuoso in his own right, who didn’t seem as comfortable in the duo setting. The pairing did allow Mehldau to show off his affinity for the blues, something that a lot of listeners don’t give him credit for. But he seemed to be holding back some of his patented firepower, especially on their rendition of “Night in Tunisia,” on which Mehldau seemed to get lost when he accompanied Jones’ driving improvisations. Eventually, Jones and Mehldau found their respectful places in what sounded like an endless game of exchanging improvisations, as on Parker’s “Confirmation” and “Anthropology.” Toward the end of their performance, Jones and Mehldau forged a more appeasing accord with their sumptuous balladry on “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “There’s No Greater Love.”

Expectations were high for Jones’ other two duet partners, Lovano and Haden, given that they’ve both recorded fabulous discs with Jones. Lovano has been a major crusader for Jones as of late, recruiting him his albums I’m All for You (2004), Joyous Encounter (2005) and last year’s Grammy-winning duet, Kids: Live at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola. Haden had shared his love and history with church music on the absorbing 1994 classic, Steal Away.

Understandably, Jones and Lovano concentrated on material from their recent partnership, uncorking sparkling makeovers of “Quiet Lady” and “Lady Luck” and “Ornithology.” Sticking mostly to standard ballads, Jones’ warm, discreet yet almost ebullient accompaniments underscored Lovano’s rhapsodic tenor saxophone improvisations magnificently. The sparse setting, however, may have been too revealing in that Lovano’s tone seemed to suffer when he reached into the lower register of his horn, which softened it. Nevertheless, the empathy and imagination shared with Jones on “Lullaby” and “The Very Thought of You” more than made up for the blemishes.

Jones’ duet with Haden was the most comfortable sounding of the four, and oddly enough the most problematic. On their rendition of “My Love and I,” Haden had to interrupt the performance, because of a tempo discrepancy, and start over. The same thing almost occurred on “Alone Together” but eventually the two master musicians made light of the blunders and began to goad the other by trading fours. Surprisingly, the pair only performed one gospel tune, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” from their Steal Away disc. This proved to be one of the highlights of the evening as Jones pecked out the somber melody underneath Haden’s foreboding bass accompaniment. Instead of focusing on gospel, Jones and Haden leaned heavily on standards and bebop classics such as “My Old Flame,” “Body & Soul” and “We’ll Be Together Again.”

Throughout some of the performances’ rough moments, Jones revealed himself a true gentleman, as if he was saying that dealing with the bumpy moments, then laughing at them, is the true meaning of living life to its fullest.

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