When Atlantic Records released the first—and, for over a half-century, only—album featuring Philadelphia pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali in 1965, the label did everything it could to hedge its bets. The album’s title, The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan, not only gave marquee status to the far better-known drummer who had championed Hasaan’s arcane talents; it also framed the pianist in a way that at the time was pure hyperbole, but would prove prophetic in decades to come.
Hasaan Ibn Ali’s legend has grown in a vacuum. Born William Henry Lankford, Jr. in 1931, he was praised for his genius by various collaborators, chief among them the saxophonist Odean Pope. His influence apparently ripples through jazz history via a generation of notable Philadelphians including John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, and Reggie Workman. He’s a phantom figure in their biographies, an eccentric guru whose presence remains alluringly obscure. But his actual reputation rests on that single recording, enticing yet tauntingly incomplete.
Until now, that is. With the release of Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album, Omnivore Recordings brings Hasaan into slightly sharper focus. The album, recorded less than a year after the pianist’s debut, features a quartet with Pope on tenor, Art Davis on bass, and Kalil Madi on drums. The music bolsters Hasaan’s image as a brilliant yet challenging composer, with barbed, bristling melodies made all the more daunting by his dense and foreboding harmonic sense. The pieces feel like ornate puzzle boxes, possessing an obvious internal logic but demanding intense concentration and imaginative leaps to solve.
“Hasaan was a powerful force that emerged from a generation of local musical explorers,” Pope describes. “He was a person that wanted to enrich understanding and was a forerunner in the evolution of jazz music. He was like a walking institution. For every three notes that came out of the Philadelphia musicians who went on to make a name for themselves—Trane, Lee Morgan, Reggie Workman, Jimmy Garrison—one of those notes would be Hasaan’s, because he had so much information and everybody was so energetic and enthusiastic about [him].”
During his lifetime, however, that didn’t translate into career opportunities. Aside from his personal demons and idiosyncratic personality, Hasaan’s advanced concepts made him more a subject for research than a fruitful collaborator. During after-hours jam sessions at Philly’s Woodbine Club, Pope recalls, “When Hasaan would get on the bandstand and play, all the saxophone players would get off the bandstand because they couldn’t follow his very modern changes. Even if he played ‘Cherokee,’ he would be interjecting so many passing tones and so many substitutions. But if you really listened to what he was doing, he was correct.”
Hasaan met Pope while both were still living with their parents in North Philadelphia, in a neighborhood that was also home to Benny Golson, Sonny Fortune, and Lee Morgan. Pope was practicing at home one day when someone tapped on the window. “I went up to the door and I saw this young, intellectual guy standing at the bottom of my steps, all dressed up with a cut-off tie. I thought that was kind of weird, but meanwhile he said, ‘I’m Hasaan Ibn Ali, would you be interested in practicing with me?’”
So began a regular practice routine at the Lankford house, after which they would play small private gigs at local homes. “We would go to a different house each night and play from 7:30 until about 11:00,” Pope remembers. “Then the house owners would give us a couple of dollars and some cake and tea. That was our job for the next few years.”
Alan Sukoenig, who co-produced Metaphysics with Omnivore’s Patrick Milligan, was a student at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1960s when he met Hasaan. His friend, the late saxophonist Dave Shrier, had told him of a new pianist on the scene who “was like a logical extension of Monk with technique like Bud Powell.” Practicing his tenor one day in the student union building, Sukoenig heard the sound of a piano coming through the air vent from the floor below. “Hasaan was supposedly in prison, but from Dave’s description I thought, ‘That has to be him.’”
It was, and the two struck up a friendship, leading to Sukoenig penning the liner notes for The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan. He also recorded Hasaan on several occasions in UPenn’s women’s dormitory, which housed a grand piano; by the time Hasaan entered the studio to record his second album, Sukoenig had moved to New York. Shortly after the Metaphysics session, Hasaan was incarcerated for narcotics possession, a situation he would sadly continue to repeat until his untimely death in 1980. Atlantic shelved the tapes, which were then lost in a 1978 fire at the label’s warehouse in Long Branch, New Jersey.
Sukoenig had heard rumors throughout the years that another copy of those tapes existed, but the trail remained cold until 2017, when pianist and Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter performed in Philadelphia. A cohort of locals asked him for any information he might have about unissued Hasaan recordings, and he contacted Sukoenig, suggesting that he reach out to producer Patrick Milligan, who had worked with the late Joel Dorn on Rhino’s Atlantic Jazz reissues.
“[Milligan] immediately contacted his buddies there in the vault and got back to us in less than two hours,” Sukoenig says.
Hearing the music for the first time after so many years, Sukoenig continues, “was amazing. It was different from what I had been expecting. I told that to someone else, who asked, ‘Well, what were you expecting?’ And I realized I couldn’t put that into words.”
“In my experience, Hasaan’s music grows on you,” Porter adds. “It’s difficult, and at first it’s a little mind-boggling. It’s very dense; it’s hard to hear the structures of the tunes. But when I really started to get it, it’s mind-blowing—deep and virtuosic and very intense.”