Sir Roland Hanna: Colors From a Giant’s Kit

These selections were recorded during the 1990s and as late as 2002 by IPO’s Bill Sorin, before his label came into being. They showcase pianist Sir Roland Hanna, the label’s first artist, at the height of his powers. Hanna’s playing resonates with an authoritative, almost regal forcefulness yet it’s also graceful. Despite his deft technique, he never sacrifices meaning for display, and there’s a sense of joy and discovery at every turn-life-affirming melodic and harmonic richness, deep emotion without bathos. He begins Coltrane’s “Naima” with a feel of coiled tension, which he then relieves by lessening the tautness of his focus, expanding from his initial narrow reading of the melody line into a broadened elaboration on the theme. His “Lush Life” isn’t the world-weary lament of a soul old before his time, but a meditation on the joy that Billy Strayhorn’s careworn after-hours poet was seeking in his dissolution. The sparkling clarity of Hanna’s treble work and the richness of his chording bring a feel of hard-won tranquility to a piece most interpreters mine for its romantic resignation.

Hanna brings a sly trickster’s wit to his own “‘Cello,” a meditative line brightened by unexpected angles and offshoots and enriched by an improvisation that once again radiates good humor with a regal presence. “Blues” is just that: a retrospective, through-the-eras travelogue through the development of this venerable root source of jazz. Hanna brings to bear the full arsenal of his technical and imaginative gifts, yet his playing is infused with an emotional immediacy that cuts to the core of blues expression. A balance of strength and soul this effective was remarkably rare, and makes Hanna’s absence-he died in 2002-all the more unfortunate.