John Hicks – I Remember You – High Note HCD 7191, 55:45 ****:
There are more famous names in jazz piano history and bigger selling artists than John Hicks, who passed away in 2006, but he was a master in the jazz scene equaled by few and regarded highly by many. While he never achieved the fame of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea or Bill Evans, Hicks had an economic melodic style and creative personality that made him a significant performer and composer. Hicks’ career spanned 45 years, which included his own releases as well as important stints with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Betty Carter Trio. He also worked alongside a who’s who of jazz and blues experts, including but certainly not limited to Little Milton, Albert King, Johnny Griffin, Pharaoh Sanders, Kenny Dorham, Lou Donaldson, Joe Henderson, and Sonny Rollins.
I Remember You is a posthumous solo piano set recorded at a New Hope, PA concert the year Hicks died and comprises nine standards that range from material taken from the American Songbook, some post-bop compositions, and two works by Thelonious Monk.
The presentation is more reflective and intimate than the powerful performances Hicks gave early in his life: here he devotes time and attention to each note, emphasizes each melodic line, and articulates an elegiac mood.
The Johnny Mercer-penned title track is one of many standout cuts. Hicks begins in a graceful manner but before long increases the rhythmic activity and negotiates in and around a lively improvisation that veers and continually swings. Hicks eschews the tricks inherent in the playing of youthful stalwarts, such as pouncing up and down the piano scales or other effects often used by young lions. Instead, Hicks effectively crafts a vibrant solo filled with imagination and lyricism. Another standards highlight is Cole Porter’s "All of You." Hicks’ relatively shortened two-minute version is heartfelt and mesmerizing, and he manages to give the well-known tune an individual and impish aspect. Later in the program Hicks returns to Porter’s catalog with a thoughtful take of "Everytime We Say Goodbye" that flowingly communicates the feeling of loss or heartache intrinsic in the tale of rueful parting.
Hicks was a complete pianist and as good as he was on beautiful ballads like "Everytime We Say Goodbye" he was equally gifted as a percussive powerhouse, a talent which is noteworthy during Hicks’ rendering of Miles Davis’ "Solar." Hicks may have moderated his fiery mannerisms as he grew older, but listening to "Solar" it’s evident he never abandoned his younger sensibilities. "Solar" might be over 50 years old but it’s the most modern piece in Hicks’ set list and he does it very well. He carries forward gradually but soon adds fast right-hand runs and snaps in left-hand counterpoints, and listeners are transported or at least reminded of the robust accompaniment Hicks gave to Bobby Watson and likeminded musicians. Most fans will probably agree that "Solar" is the apex of the hour-long concert. It’s a wonder to hear Hicks sound so free as he expands the harmony, slips in modal departures and spontaneously re-imagines the piece into something both familiar and unique. The restrained "Yeah" as Hicks finishes with a flourish underscores the passion that permeates the cut.
Hicks aficionados should also pay attention to his rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s "Upper Manhattan Medical Group." Hicks initially issued this on his Strayhorn tribute, Something to Live For. However, this arrangement is completely solo, and the song’s underlying melancholy is even deeper than the previous venture, with Hick’s resolute keyboard touches conferring a wistful quality.
As mentioned, this release is bereft of all-out blowouts but is full of genteel moments. Hicks’ gentle side is well represented by his interpretations of Monk’s "Reflections," which opens the record, and the album-closing "Nutty." "Reflections" is one of Monk’s most approachable and least unorthodox creations and Hicks furnishes it a temperate feel that rounds off any rough edges and provides a romantic evocation. Some could find Hicks’ translation too limiting, but it exactly conveys the emotions Hicks sought to demonstrate. "Nutty," conversely, is seasoned with a nimble and bright bustle accentuated by Hicks’ acrobatic right-hand chromatic figures.
Andrew Bart’s liner notes are balanced and insightful and remark on how Hicks changed or adapted over time but how he continued to follow his muse right up to the end. The text is a testament to Hicks’ legacy and memory.
2. I Remember You
3. A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square
4. All of You
6. I Want to Talk About You
7. Everytime We Say Goodbye
8. Upper Manhattan Medical Group
— Doug Simpson