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Alexander Hawkins Trio

Alexander Hawkins Trio


by Ian Mann

June 09, 2015


This is a surprisingly accessible album but it is also a highly adventurous one as Hawkins' obvious love of the jazz tradition is merged with bright new ideas of his own.

Alexander Hawkins Trio

“Alexander Hawkins Trio”

(Alexander Hawkins Music AH1001)

Pianist, organist and composer Alexander Hawkins is a musician who has attracted much admiration on the Jazzmann web pages from both my former co-writer Tim Owen (now the proprietor of his own successful Dalston Sound blog) and myself.

Oxford born Hawkins is a busy musician who has appeared on these pages in a variety of contexts from leading his own Alexander Hawkins Ensemble to playing piano in the bands of others including trumpeter Nick Malcolm’s quartet, bassist Dominic Lash’s quartet and the trans-Atlantic alliance that is the Convergence Quartet. As an organist he has appeared with the powerful trio Decoy alongside bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble with the core group augmented by guest saxophonist Joe McPhee on the live album “Oto”. More recently I saw him perform in a duo with vocalist Elaine Mitchener as part of the Edge Project event at the 2015 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Others with whom Hawkins have worked include Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke, South African drum icon Louis Moholo Moholo and avant garde saxophone giants Evan Parker and Antony Braxton. Hawkins is naturally drawn towards the experimental end of the jazz spectrum and I have to admit that there are times when I find his music rather “difficult” and some of his projects have been more suited to Tim Owen’s tastes rather than my own. Where I enjoy Hawkins playing most is at the interface where composition and improvisation meet and I’ve certainly enjoyed his contributions to recordings by the Malcolm and Lash groups and also the Convergence Quartet and Decoy.

It’s almost incredible to think that this, Hawkins’ latest recording, is actually his first in the classic “piano trio” format. I suspect that it’s something Hawkins has shied away from in the past, waiting for just the right moment and just the right trio. On the evidence of this recording Hawkins has found exactly the right band and the result is an album that neatly balances those elements of composition and improvisation and therefore occupies exactly that area where I can appreciate his music most. This is a surprisingly accessible album but it is also a highly adventurous one.

Hawkins’ dream team for this project consists of bassist Neil Charles and drummer Tom Skinner, both of whom have worked together as part of Charles’ trio Zed U.  Richard Williams’ liner notes offer several valuable insights into the trio’s influences and working methods. Hawkins has a thorough knowledge of the jazz piano tradition and cites Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Hampton Hawes and even Nat King Cole as primary influences. Other inspirational figures from the more experimental/avant garde area of the jazz spectrum include Elmo Hope, Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrahams.

Hawkins eschews the post E.S.T. school of contemporary jazz pianism and also distances himself from the “equal partnership” model of the piano trio pioneered by Bill Evans. “I’m quite traditional when it comes to bass and drums” explains Hawkins, “I like a bassist who plays the bass like a bass, guys who play low down and get a woody sound like Wilbur Ware and Malachi Favors. And I have more of an affinity with rhythmically based drummers rather than colourists”.

That said both Charles and Skinner make a big impression on the music and in reality their roles are less subservient to the piano than Hawkins’ comments might suggest. As Hawkins says “I can get quite cerebral with the compositions and play with structural devices in the knowledge that Tom and Neil will be providing a counterweight. They’ll make it work as a piece of music”. Hawkins clearly has immense trust in a rhythm team who are both also members of his larger Ensemble. Skinner also plays with the pianist Mulatu Astatke’s band.

The relationship between Hawkins and his trio is in some ways paradoxical. “in a lot of my compositions the decision making is devolved” he explains. “While the music should be clearly identifiable as my own it’s not hierarchical in the sense that the bandleader defines everything. Other musicians can give cues, or the bass and drums can take themselves off on a path that’s not related to what I’m doing. That’s the kind of freedom in which I’m interested, all doing different things, but all part of a group dynamic”.  Hawkins describes his brand of freedom as being the “freedom to” rather than the “freedom from” of most hard core improvisation, and this may involve asking one of the players in the trio to stick with the role conventionally assigned to his instrument.
Therein lies the paradox, it’s a blurred line but it’s one that this trio negotiates superbly well. 

The idea for the trio came about in 2012 when Hawkins was invited to play two sets of music at Kings Place in London. He opted to perform one set of solo piano and the other with this trio. “I thought it might be interesting to go orthodox and find a way to make it innovative. I found I needed to think harder because of the smaller range of possibilities with only three musicians”.

That said not all the material on this album was written specifically for the trio. Opener “Sweet Duke”, Hawkins’ Ellington homage, was originally composed as part of a suite for an octet commissioned by the BBC and broadcast on Radio 3 in 2013. The pared down version nevertheless
represents a good introduction to this trio’s music. That sense of paradox previously alluded to is apparent from the start as the album begins with the sound of Skinner’s drums with both Hawkins and Charles subsequently finding ways of moulding their own playing around the drummer’s unstoppable flow of ideas. There’s a strong structural element here but also a high degree of freedom that allows the trio to explore in interesting but still accessible ways. Hawkins’ playing is refreshingly cliché free and the trio also avoid the usual free jazz tropes. This is music that is both adventurous and accessible from an integrated unit that functions like a single organism.

Enigmatic tune titles are something of a Hawkins trademark as epitomised by “Song Singular - Owl (friendly) - Canon”, a kind of segue that embraces both song like structures (briefly) and engagingly rambling extemporisations with Hawkins’ piano ranging far and wide across a constantly evolving rhythmic backdrop. Charles makes effective use of the bow as the music advances further into improvised territory and a sense of a highly developed collective interdependence is apparent throughout. 

“One Tree Found” is a second piece sourced from the BBC commissioned suite for octet. It begins with a catchy, loping vamp that forms the basis for subsequent improvisations and deconstructions , all the while retaining enough of the original structure to keep the listener fully engaged no matter how far the trio ranges.

“Perhaps 5 or 6 Different Colours” delivers the most obviously “free” playing of the set beginning with an absorbing dialogue between Hawkins and Skinner with the drummer producing an astonishingly wide range of sounds from his kit but doing so with intelligence and subtlety. Later things get more animated as Hawkins veers into Cecil Taylor inspired territory with a correspondingly dynamic Skinner replying in kind.

“40HB” is one of several titles dedicated to other musicians. In this case the recipient is the cornet player Taylor Ho Bynum, Hawkins’ colleague in the Convergence Quartet. The structure of the tune is inspired by and adapted from Bynum’s own composition “Coyote” and is an intriguing juxtaposition of rhythmic complexity and flowing lyricism with Hawkins at his most effusive.

The title for “AHRA” was derived from the middle name of the AACM saxophonist Kalaparusha Ahra Difda, the musician formerly known as Maurice McIntyre. Hawkins’ dedication was written shortly after Difda’s death in 2013 and begins with the composer’s solo piano. There’s a thoughtfulness and reverence about Hawkins’ playing but a sense of restlessness too, a raging against the dying of the light. Charles’ deeply resonant bowed bass subsequently adds to the air of gravitas as he shadows Hawkins’s piano lines. Skinner adds delicately brushed support.

“Baobabs + SgrA*” is the lengthiest track on the record. “Baobabs”, the title a reference to the exotic tress described in Antoine deSaint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince”, was originally written for sextet and first appeared on the Alexander Hawkins Ensemble album “No Now Is So” in 2009.
I haven’t heard the sextet version but this trio recording is a thoroughly absorbing listen that treads a characteristically fine line between freedom and structure, abstraction and accessibility. Essentially it’s Hawkins who leads the way, subtly steering the trio off the beaten track and then back again, his exchanges with Sons Of Kemet drummer Skinner a continually intriguing source of fascination. Charles is receptive and supportive and also spends some time in the limelight with a pithy bass solo about half way through the proceedings that acts as the springboard for the vigorous ensemble playing that characterises the later stages of the piece.

The closing “Blue Nots For A Blue Note” -subtitled “Joy To You”- is Hawkins’ dedication to his collaborator Louis Moholo Moholo. The young pianist and the veteran South African drummer have forged an extremely successful creative partnership, one that is honoured by this tune. Hawkins composition takes elements of the Township Jazz sound but merges them with more obviously avant garde ideas inspired by Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor and others. Skinner’s busy drumming drives and galvanises the music and the album ends as it began with the sound of his unaccompanied kit. Indeed Skinner’s playing is a revelation throughout the album and his contribution is a key component in its overall success.

For all its apparent paradoxes “Alexander Hawkins Trio” is a consistently absorbing and sometimes thrilling album that draws on many disparate elements yet unites them in a shared vision that expresses both the commonality and individuality of the group members. It’s an album that has received almost unanimous critical acclaim and rightly so. Some of its more experimental and dissonant moments may dissuade some listeners but overall it’s not an overly “difficult” record. Indeed it’s one in which most adventurous jazz listeners should find something to enjoy as Hawkins’ obvious love of the jazz tradition is merged with bright new ideas of his own.


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