Mosaic’s Classic Earl Hines Sessions: 1928-1945 begins with four solo performances-“Caution Blues,” “A Monday Date,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “57 Varieties”-that set the template for the future path of jazz piano. Art Tatum, then 18, paid close attention. So did Teddy Wilson, then 16, who would observe Hines firsthand during an early ’30s residence in Chicago, where Hines had moved from Pittsburgh in 1924. So did New Yorker Billy Kyle, whose modernistic approach with John Kirby’s Sextet would earn Bud Powell’s close attention. Chicagoan Nat Cole, a 1917 baby who would have known “Glad Rag Doll” (1929) and “Down Among the Sheltering Pines” (1932), extrapolated and smoothed out Hines’ hornlike melodic approach and vertiginous, between-the-beat left-hand.
The seven CDs include a for-the-ages 1940 encounter with Sidney Bechet, Rex Stewart and Baby Dodds, and an effervescent 1944 tribute to Hines’ idol, Fats Waller, with guitarist Al Casey and bassist Oscar Pettiford. But most of the 171 tracks comprise the Earl Hines Orchestra’s complete works for Brunswick (1929-1934), Vocalion (1937-1938) and Bluebird (1939-1945). That trail begins in February 1929, some six weeks after Hines, booked at the Grand Terrace, a new Capone-controlled South Side cabaret, assembled his first ensemble from local talent. With the Terrace as home base until 1940, Hines backed these sides with weekly national broadcasts-one aimed to the east, the other to the west-and frequent long-haul tours.
After listening in sequence, the strongest impression here is the consistency of Hines’ improvisations. Whether the context is a showcase for him to concertize (“Piano Man,” “Boogie Woogie on the St. Louis Blues” and Mel Powell’s “The Earl”), a call-and-response section with the band (the Ellington-saturated “Rhythm Rhapsody,” 1937), or a chorus or two of space within the arrangement’s flow to toss off an invention (“Grand Piano Blues,” from 1929, is the first of many), Hines unfailingly exudes eccentric brilliance, creativity and ebullience. Sometimes he foreshadows the phantasmagoric constructions that he would conjure as an old master on several dozen unaccompanied albums, which document him abstracting rhythm, melody and form to their limits, a musical Picasso manipulating perspective and color. Like Coleman Hawkins, with whom Hines first recorded in 1944, his personal evolution coincided with that of jazz.
Why didn’t Hines’ extraordinary skills and abundant visibility translate to Q-ratings equivalent to Ellington, Calloway, Lunceford or Basie? The aural evidence provides few clues. A big reason was Hines’ onerous contract that made him almost an indentured servant to Mob factotum Ed Fox; he had no Joe Glaser, Irving Mills or John Hammond to smooth his path. Another factor might be the more competent than inspired nature of the charts, conceived by more than a dozen arrangers rather than a single distinctive voice. Yet, the various editions swung hard, executed crisply and, when called upon to solo, did so with flair.
It is also true that-excepting the great Southwest tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson-Hines didn’t incubate many instrumental stars. Ray Nance, Trummy Young, Freddie Webster and Wardell Gray made cameos during their apprentice years, while world-class Chicago soloists like violinist-reedman Darnell Howard, clarinetist-altoist Omer Simeon and trumpeters George Dixon and Walter Fuller could never fully translate their skills outside the friendly Windy City confines. Nor was Hines able to exploit the potential of such stars-to-be as vocalists Valaida Snow (“Maybe I’m to Blame,” 1933) and Herb Jeffries, who debuted in 1934 with unmemorable renditions of “Just to Be in Carolina” and “Blue Because of You.” In 1939, he struck gold with Billy Eckstine, who made hits like “Jelly, Jelly,” “Stormy Monday Blues” and “Skylark,” before leaving in late 1943 with arranger Jerry Valentine (“Second Balcony Jump,” 1942) to form his own pioneering bebop orchestra. He brought with him several bandmates, among them Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan, whose nascent innovations Hines addressed with the same equanimity and freshness that he brought to every situation.
As always, Mosaic provides exemplary value added with impeccable transfers and a well-produced booklet featuring comprehensive discographical information and strong program notes from Brian Priestley.