by Ian Mann
November 09, 2017
Hewson has taken on the challenge of the solo piano album and succeeded – for the second time.
(Cam Jazz CAMJ 7912-2)
Tom Hewson, originally from Kent and a graduate of New College in Oxford and of Trinity Laban in London is a young pianist and composer who was mentored by the late, great John Taylor. It was through the Taylor connection that Hewson came to the Italian label Cam Jazz with this new solo piano recording, “Essence”, representing his second release for the company.
Hewson’s début for Cam Jazz was the 2015 trio album “Treehouse”, an excellent recording that also featured the talents of British musicians Lewis Wright (vibraphone) and Calum Gourlay (double bass). My review of that album can be read here;
Hewson has also led a number of other projects including a quintet (with George Crowley - sax, Nick Malcolm - trumpet, Ferg Ireland - bass, James Maddren - drums) and the electric trio Identity Parade (Alam Nathoo - sax, Pete Ibbetson – drums). He has also collaborated in a duo with vocalist and songwriter Fini Bearman. Others with whom he has worked include composer Issie Barrett, guitarist Ant Law, saxophonists Mark Lockheart and Paul Riley, vocalists Nicky Schrire and Sylwia Bialas and drummers Tim Giles and Asaf Sirkis.
In 2012 Hewson released his first album of solo piano music, a collection of original compositions titled “Slightly Peculiar” that attracted a considerable amount of critical acclaim. Two years later he was awarded first prize at the 2014 Nottingham International Jazz Piano competition.
A duo performance with Bearman in Vienna brought Hewson to the attention of the Bosendorfer company and he was invited to their factory in Wiener Neustdadt to try out the new 280 VC Concert Grand, the instrument on which the music of “Essence” was recorded. CAM Jazz then suggested the possibility of a solo album and with the blessing of the record label and the piano manufacturer Hewson spent three days at the factory with the CAM Jazz production team during which he recorded the eleven pieces that make up “Essence”. The album was subsequently mixed at Artesuono Recording Studios in Italy.
Given the circumstances of its recording on one of the best pianos in the world and with mixing taking place at Italy’s most renowned studio it comes as no surprise to discover that the recorded sound on “Essence” is exquisite. It’s the perfect setting for Hewson, whose classically honed lightness of touch is frequently reminiscent of that of his one time mentor Taylor.
The liner notes to “Treehouse” made reference to Hewson’s influences, among them classical composers such as Ravel and Debussy plus jazz figures such as Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Jimmy Guiffre and Dave Holland. The press release for “Treehouse” also cited Hewson acknowledging the influence of jazz pianists ranging from Oscar Peterson through Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk to Paul Bley.
Brian Morton’s scholarly liner notes add context to the music to be heard on “Essence”, the programme comprising of eight Hewson originals plus pieces from the pens of John Taylor, Kenny Wheeler and Charles Mingus.
The album commences with the Hewson original “Constellations”, the delicate opening passage perfectly encapsulating the twinkling of the firmament in the clear night sky. But Hewson is about more than mere prettiness and his musical universe continues to expand, his harmonic and rhythmic inventiveness taking the music into fresh new worlds. Yet Hewson’s music remains thoroughly melodic and engaging at all times, his playing sophisticated but undemonstrative. He is a musician whose playing always serves the music.
Despite its ‘chamber jazz’ instrumentation “Treehouse” was a surprisingly vibrant and rhythmic record, thanks in no small part to Hewson’s inventive work with his left hand. These qualities are again apparent on the lively and energetic “Major Malfunction” with its choppy, syncopated rhythms. It’s more obviously a ‘jazz’ composition than some of its companions, the majority of which are more closely rooted in the European classical tradition.
Following the jagged exuberance of “Major Malfunction” the melancholy lyricism of “Consolation” represents an effective contrast as Hewson re-introduces his classical leanings on a thoughtful Kenny Wheeler ballad that also possesses something of the feel of a jazz standard.
“A False Step” combines a flowing melody with a syncopated rhythm in a piece that neatly encapsulates Hewson’s approach.
The pianist gets right inside the architecture of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Hat” while retaining all the beauty, lyricism and gravitas of a piece written as an elegy to the great saxophonist Lester Young.
The self penned title track, one of the lengthiest pieces on the album, finds Hewson touching all his bases in a piece embracing a gentle, flowing lyricism before bursting into vibrant, joyous life on a piece rich in dynamic contrast and rhythmic invention but retaining its focus on strong melody. Aptly titled it captures the very “Essence” of Hewson’s music.
The elegant “Processional” features peals of melody above a slowly rolling left hand rhythm while
“Dare I” is a lively study in counterpoint with a jagged, almost ragtime feel.
There’s another change of mood and pace with the dark, sparse, almost glacially slow “Koyasan” but “Where A Stream Leads” is as flowingly lyrical as its title suggests and is quite delightful. And just like a stream it meanders to some beautiful locations along its course.
Appropriately the album concludes with a homage to John Taylor with Hewson reverentially performing a beautiful version of JT’s composition “Summer (Phases)”.
If he could have heard “Essence” Taylor would have been proud of his protégé. The great man would have appreciated not only Hewson’s technique but also the intelligence, imagination and very human warmth that imbues this recording. Hewson has taken on the challenge of the solo piano album and succeeded – for the second time.
It is intended that Hewson will undertake a tour of the UK performing music from the album in April 2018. Please visit http://www.tomhewson.com for updates.