Alexander Hawkins Turns “Iron Into Wind”

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IRON INTO WIND / HAWKINS: Song All the Way. Congregational. Tough Like Imagination. Pleasant Constellation. Gossamer Like a Ghost Tree. Strange Courage. It Should Be a Song. Hard as Threads. Tumble Mono. Wander/Wonder. We All Bleed. Etude / Alexander Hawkins, pno / Intakt CD 330

British jazz pianist Alexander Hawkins presents here a solo recital recorded at Radio Zurich in September of last year. As one can tell from the titles of his original pieces on this CD, Hawkins enjoys juxtaposing words that normally don’t go together (Tough Like Imaginatino, Pleasant Constellation, Strange Courage, Hard as Threads, Tumble Mono), and in his music he also juxtaposes unusual and sometimes contrary-appearing themes to create them. One cannot really call his music “free jazz” in the sense that Ornette Coleman, Paul Bley or Pharoah Sanders used it, but it certainly incorporates elements of outside jazz within well-organized structures.

To a certain extent, this album reminded me of Charles Mingus’ old LP of piano improvisations. Hawkins sounds as if he just sat down at the keyboard, played some ideas he had been toying with, and then expanded them via improvisation into whole works. But his actual playing, at times, has more in common with Thelonious Monk than with Mingus, i.e. in Congregational where his flat-fingered keyboard attack with no use of pedal sounds for all the world like Monk trying to play jazz that was even more outré than his own unusual works. I say “more outré” because Hawkins, unlike Monk, does not hold a steady rhythm, but rather delights in playing a series of oddly-spaced beats and meters in the left hand against whatever he is doing in the right. He does, however, stick mostly to playing chords in the left hand as most pianists do rather than complex single-note counter-lines—which is not to say that it makes the music any easier to digest, just that it provides at least a little grounding for those listeners who have trouble following two complex lines instead of one.

Like the Cuban-born pianist Aruán Ortiz, Hawkins appears to have a fairly strong classical background. I say this because his sense of construction is quite rigorous despite how he departs from the norm. In Tough Like Imagination, he does indeed depart from the pattern of the first two pieces and plays contrasting, quickly-moving lines with both hands. Intriguingly, when he plays the right hand in the upper register he brings the left hand up with it, and when he plays lower lines in the bass he brings the right hand down. Thus they are seldom more than an octave, give or take, apart. In Pleasant Constellation, however, the left hand is really rumbling through some complex chord clusters while the right goes on its own discrete improvisation. This is really freaky stuff!

Gossamer Like a Ghost Tree is a slow, sparse collection of what appear to be random and loosely-linked notes, with Hawkins doubling the tempo in the right hand here and there. In Strange Courage, Hawkins fools the ear with what sounds at the outset like a normal jazz pulse, only to pull the rug out from under you within a bar or two, eventually playing bass notes between the beats behind the right hand. Eventually the interplay becomes so complex that only the occasional rhythmic signpost in the bass tells you that this is, in fact, jazz.

In It Should Be a Song, Hawkins begins with sparse chord clusters before doubling the tempo and sprinkling left-hand arpeggios against right-hand fantasia-like figures. Then, at 2:50, he’s back to doing his “outside” version of Monk, only this time even more complex in his use of cross-rhythms. Hard as Threads is clearly a piece that at least tries to be “free jazz,” yet even so Hawkins’ innate sense of structure keeps it from being incomprehensible except to the most obtuse listener. Even I couldn’t tell where the sparse notes and loosely-related chords of Tumble Mono were going when it started, and even though he got into meatier playing with thick chords and downward chromatics by 3:20, this is the one piece that seemed to me to get bogged down. But hey, nobody’s perfect.

In Wander/Wonder, Hawkins appeared to be thinking, from the outset, in two different rhythms and ideas, yet somehow manages to fuse them into a single piece. Eventually it moves so quickly and becomes so complex that it seemed to me that the “wander” overtook the “wonder”—but it’s still an amazing creation. Indeed, it struck me that Hawkins, like Mingus, may have simply improvised these pieces into being and then improvised titles to stick onto them. Perhaps, like Mingus, he may even rename some of them in the future as the spirit moves him. Etude is clearly the busiest, most complex piece on the album, an outstanding way to close this generally complex set.

Of course, the question that many jazz listeners may ask themselves is the obvious one: Is this music “really” jazz? Yes, certainly it is unless you are one of those who still think that jazz must have a steady rhythm, be tonally centered, and always swing. There are moments on this album, and entire pieces, in which Hawkins’ sense of swing sounds quite minimal and others where it is quite strong despite the amorphous structure of these works, but jazz has become so complex since the mid-1960s that it would do him and the concept of jazz per se a great disservice to claim the contrary. Jazz can indeed be fun music within creative boundaries, but it is also an art music with street-level roots, and these roots have grown in myriad ways over the past half-century. Just give yourself two or three listens to the entire album, and try to follow different threads of each piece every time you re-listen to it, and you’ll see what I mean.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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