The Gig: Goin’ Home

Nate Chinen on Charlie Haden and Hank Jones' 'Come Sunday'

Hank Jones image 0
Ben Johnson

Hank Jones

The American standard “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” has received no shortage of noble ministrations since it was composed, by the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, some 80 years ago. Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin are most famously associated with the song, but there are also popular recordings by Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves, Nina Simone and many others, and what they all have in common is a reverential pathos, the suggestion of human frailty in the face of the divine. The song’s second verse cuts to the heart of mortal supplication:

When my way grows drear

Precious Lord linger near

When my life is almost gone

Hear my cry, hear my call

Hold my hand lest I fall

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Those lyrics haunted my head as I encountered the instrumental version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” that opens Come Sunday, a new Emarcy release from bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Hank Jones. The reasons should be obvious: Jones, who was 91 when the album was recorded, in February of 2010, died just three months later. His passing was widely mourned in the jazz community, especially by those musicians, like Haden, who had counted him among their dearest elders.

Jones was rightly revered by pianists for the clarity of his touch and the intuition behind his harmonic choices-by what you might call the essential rightness of his playing. I’ll never forget standing next to Jason Moran as he studied Jones’ hands during a noisy cocktail reception in 2007; we were about 10 feet from the piano, and I could almost sense the information being registered and absorbed. So it was with many others.

Come Sunday, one of the new year’s first significant jazz releases, presents yet another glowing memorial, even though the ever-modest Jones had a hand in it himself (or more precisely, two). It also continues a vital duologue established in the mid-1990s, when Haden and Jones made their masterpiece, Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs (Verve). Like Come Sunday, that album focuses principally on the canon of Negro spirituals, songs that formed the backbone of the early African-American experience and later served as anthems of the civil-rights movement.

Haden, 74, was just recognized as an NEA Jazz Master, receiving the same encomium bestowed on Jones in 1989. The two artists, so different in certain respects, share at least a few other important commonalities, including a foundation in American folk music. For Jones, these hymns and spirituals were familiar from an upbringing in Pontiac, Mich., where his father was a Baptist deacon. Haden sang some of the same songs in church, and others with his family singing group in the Ozarks. He has said that Steal Away came about after he heard Jones’ take on “It’s Me, O Lord (Standin’ in the Need of Prayer),” on a Smithsonian compilation. That very song serves as the mellow opener of Steal Away, with chord voicings like crushed velvet and a cadence that slowly gathers steam. After two minutes of muted tension, the performance takes on a sashaying feel, and the psychological subtext opens: The person crying for spiritual succor could be Jack Lemmon in The Apartment, or Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia.

The rest of Steal Away unfolds with no less furtive grace, as Jones applies his magisterial calm and subtle wit, and Haden provides not only an earthy foundation but also casual counterpoint, and the occasional melody. I’ve heard the album many dozens of times, and it still hasn’t exhausted its appeal or surrendered all of its secrets.

Come Sunday can’t quite match its greatness, for a handful of reasons: a drier, less welcoming sound mix; the brittle circumspection of Jones’ playing; a track listing with less force and focus. There are two straight-up Christmas songs on this album, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and one seasonal hymn, “Bringing in the Sheaves.” A few other songs, like “That Old Rugged Cross” and “Blessed Assurance,” just might have been too hallowed for their own good; Jones and Haden approach them with a stilted reverence.

But it’s early still. I haven’t lived with Come Sunday for all that long. And I can attest to at least one stroke of genius on the album: the duo’s version of “Goin’ Home,” a song often attributed to Harry T. Burleigh, and based (by most accounts) on the “Largo” movement of Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Jones alludes knowingly to the song’s provenance, bracketing his version with the same processional flourish that appears in Dvořák’s score. And as with “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” the song’s lyrics bear some relevance, especially (again) in the second verse:

Mother’s there ‘spectin’ me

Father’s waitin’ too

Lots o’ folk gather’d there

All the friends I knew

All the friends I knew

Jones, recording “Goin’ Home” near the end of his own journey, could well have drawn some meaning from those sentiments; who’s to say he didn’t smile at the thought of future jam sessions with Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker and his jazz-inclined younger brothers, Thad and Elvin? He might also have reflected, for a moment, on a pronouncement famously made by Dvořák, the Czech composer, during his fin de siècle Stateside residency. “In the Negro melodies of America,” he wrote, “I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” I’m sure Hank Jones would have exempted himself from this prophecy, just as surely as he came to fulfill it.