John Hicks – Steadfast – Strata-East Records SES-9008 (1991)/Pure Pleasure Records (2021) 180-gram stereo vinyl, 42:40 ****:
(John Hicks – piano)
Solo jazz albums are distinctive. Piano Legends like Bill Evans, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk and Keith Jarrett were successful in different combos, but still found time to explore their lyricism and improvisational skills in solo outings. Most jazz pianists also chose this path. One of them was John Hicks. While not as publicly renowned as some players, he began his career working with blues singers. After moving to New York, he played with Art Blakey and Betty Carter. As a session musician, he played on more than 300 recordings. Additionally, Hicks recorded over 30 albums as a band leader. His style was a hybrid of hard bop, swing and free jazz. Never relying simply on flashy runs, Hicks was committed to distilling the melodic essence of a song. He was regarded as a “musician’s musician”, and left a significant legacy on the jazz landscape.
Pure Pleasure Records has released a 180-gram re-mastered vinyl of Hicks’ 1991 Strata-East album, Steadfast. In a unique collection, 12 arrangements (standards and originals) are rendered with warmth and energy. Side A opens with an original, “One For John Mixon”. In a signature Hicks performance, it is lively and reassured with measured swing. There is articulate notation with precise timing. Covering Billy Strayhorn’s eternal classic, “Lush Life” is no easy task. It has been done by legends like Duke Ellington, Bud Powell and John Coltrane. Hicks probes the sophisticated aesthetics of the composition, but with a delicate, winsome touch. His subtle touches of grandiosity never overwhelm the melodic flow. Another well-known standard, “Pensitiva” (Clare Fisher) was a significant part of the bossa nova jazz movement in the early-mid 60’s. This number has been recorded by Bill Evans, George Shearing, Benny Green and Marian McPartland, to name a few. Hicks builds on the Latin structure, but transforms it with up tempo grooves. Another timeless opus, Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” is notable for the seamless, descending chords and sparkling right hand runs. Returning to Latin-infused tempo, “Hamp’s Dance” (a Hicks piece) is stylistically bold with complex syncopation and precise instrumental agility. On a melancholy note, “My One And Only Love” is a traditional approach to jazz balladry, as this pianist joins the ranks of Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner and Joe Sample in re-purposing this conventional vocal song to jazz interpretation.
Side B gets off to a rousing start with the self-penned title track. The arrangement showcases some “free jazz” dynamics. including classical flourishes. It possesses an unrelenting pulse with hard-charging punctuation, and at 5:33, is easily the longest cut on the album. In a shift, “Serenade” is a glowing ballad, but with up tempo adjustments. Great jazz instrumentalists translate popular songs into edgy covers. That is the case on “Without A Song”. While maintaining the general direction of the material, Hicks introduces a series of complex chords with impeccable phrasing. His trademark bounciness is always there. Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” captures the uplifting cosmopolitan imagery of the great composer. In a mere 2:12, there are tempo breaks that grab the listener’s attention. “Soul Eyes” is another concise gem (under 2 minutes) that skips along with a breezy swagger. In an unusual selection, the British ditty, “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” fits into the Hicks musical vision. The finale (“The Bright Eyes”) is nothing short of a tour-de-force. Hicks unleashes a flurry of prominent chords and polyrhythmic accents.He is able to build texture and mood with key modulation and urgency. It is compelling.
Pure Pleasure Records has done an excellent job in re-mastering Steadfast to 180-gram vinyl. The intimacy of solo piano is presented with balance and clarity. Jazz lovers and piano aficionados will appreciate this album.
Side A: One For John Mixon; Lush Life; Pensitiva; Sophisticated Lady; Hamp’s Dance; My One And Only Love
Side B: Steadfast; Serenade; Without A Song; In A Sentimental Mood; Soul Eyes; A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square; The Bright Eyes
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