Art Hodes: I Remember Bessie

“She just reaches out and grabs and holds me. … This gal sings from the heart. She never lets me get away from her once.” This is how Art Hodes describes, in Hot Man, his autobiography, his first time seeing Bessie Smith perform. With I Remember Bessie, a solo piano album recorded in 1976 and now reissued, we can borrow Hodes’ words to describe his own playing-i.e., how his stride, boogie-woogie, ragtime and blues style grabs you and doesn’t turn you loose. Hodes is primarily a percussive player, and with him there’s no such thing as a nebulous tempo.

There are 17 performances, 12 from the original issue and five previously unreleased. Hodes plays “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” with an infectious march beat. The original issue of “Cake Walkin’ Babies From Home” (there is also an alternate take) shows his considerable stride chops. “Back Water Blues” employs a bassline reminiscent of the James Brown recording of “Night Train.” The interplay between Hodes’ basslines and his melodies and chords is fascinating, not only for his dexterity but also for his imagination. He changes tempos mid-tune, as on “St. Louis Blues,” where a slow, see-sawing first chorus yields to a speeding double-time walking bassline and a stirring-the-pot right-hand mix. He has an arsenal of expressive effects: gruff grace notes, a bass note now and then that seems to slip and glide into the next and, of course, tremolos that rattle the melody or make it linger sweetly. This is a very fine album from a master.