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John Hicks: Music In the Key of Clark

This album’s subtitle is Remembering Sonny Clark. Hicks honors his fellow pianist with performances of eight of Clark’s compositions and five of his own dedicated to Clark, who died at 31 in 1963. Ten years younger, Hicks knew him toward the close of the older man’s life, whose sad end Bill Evans memorialized in a piece he titled with an anagram of Clark’s name, “NYC’s No Lark.”

In truth, the city was no more unkind to Clark than he was to himself, but the heroin addiction that killed him did not keep him from developing a style of soloing and accompanying that made him a favorite of musicians in a range that encompassed Buddy DeFranco, Dexter Gordon, Lee Morgan, Cal Tjader, Jackie McLean, Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins. Hicks captures the spirit and harmonic underpinnings of Clark’s playing, if not quite the tension that Clark achieved in the contrast between relaxation and rhythmic snap in his attack.

Music in the Key of Clark is not about imitation, however, but about tribute. Hicks calls attention to his predecessor’s legacy with superb trio versions of pieces from Clark’s huge output as a composer. Hicks and his customary sidemen, bassist Dwayne Dolphin and drummer Cecil Brooks III, are all integrated purpose in pieces like “Minor Meeting,” “Sonny’s Crib,” a lilting waltz treatment of the ballad “My Conception” and a little-known blues in F, “I Deal.” Hicks is moving in unaccompanied performances of his compositions: a blues called “Sonny Side Up,” a new ballad “A Sonny Day” and “Angel With a Briefcase,” which acknowledges Clark the prolific songwriter.

Originally Published