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Coleman Hawkins: Ultimate

Sonny Rollins has made such an excellent choice of titles for this “ultimate” collection that I feel quite apologetic. After he recorded with Hawkins in 1963, I remember telling the latter (in the Copper Rail bar during an intermission from the mirrored Metropole) that I had heard the album they made together. Asked what I thought of it, I answered boldly, if unfairly, “Don’t do it again!” He laughed.

Thirteen of the sixteen selections here are from producer Harry Lim’s glory days at Keynote in 1944. The program opens with the unaccompanied 1947 “Picasso,” and there are a couple of tracks with Oscar Peterson. Ten have Teddy Wilson on piano and three have Earl Hines. These last are from the Cozy Cole session with Joe Thomas and Trummy Young, one of Lim’s greatest successes, and the disc ends fittingly with Young’s splendid “Through for the Night.” “I loved Earl Hines with him,” Rollins observes in his notes. Hawk is everywhere impressive, and his “gorgeous tone” is also stressed. It has certainly never been bettered and is indeed the “ultimate.” He liked to explain his big sound not in terms of loudness but of fullness.

The Uptown CD, handsomely transferred by Jack Towers, is a happy surprise. Recorded live at a high-school dance, Hawkins fulfills a union obligation and plays with a pick-up band quite unlike the star-studded Verve groups. Conversation between the musicians, mostly during the uninspired piano solos, was also recorded, and it is transcribed in the booklet, which has good notes by Frank Driggs. Trombonist Ted Donnelly was an experienced section man, but obviously unaccustomed to the prominence as a soloist in which he found himself here. What is remarkable is how well Hawkins plays despite the rather pedestrian accompaniment. He delivers many warm, relaxed solos of unusual melodic beauty. Altogether, the disc is unique in documenting the greatest tenor saxophonist playing for young dancers and giving of himself generously.

Originally Published