It’s not so surprising, really, that pianist Alexander Hawkins has made a trio album only now, after thirteen previous recordings in eight years as either band- or co-leader. Certainly, there’s a precedent in Keith Tippett’s career-long avoidance of the format (notwithstanding the early-noughties Dartington Trio of Tippett, Tippetts & Dunmall).
If, unlike Tippett, Hawkins works unambiguously in the contemporary jazz idiom, like Tippett he’s also a distinctive improvisor, with broad, open-minded influences and a unique conception. So his idiomatic fidelity is a strength, not a weakness.
Where mainstream jazz pianism, as exemplified by, say, Brad Mehldau, has spawned shoals of imitators, all aping minimalism and/or Radiohead, and all shoaling into ever narrower tributaries of modern music, at least part of Hawkins’ intent is against the tide, keeping him back in the delta somewhere, still in touch with modishly overlooked influences such as Elmo Hope and Abdullah Ibrahim.
Outer-jazz influences also seep into his work. Both Hawkins and Trio drummer Mike Skinner have worked as sidemen for ‘the father of Ethio-jazz’, Mulatu Astatke. More notably, Hawkins has worked with South African expat drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, both in the Dedication Orchestra big band, which plays the music of Moholo’s old group, The Blue Notes. Hawkins and Moholo further cemented their partnership on the superb duo album Keep Your Heart Straight (Ogun, 2011), and in the drummer’s most recent quartet, 4 Blokes (Ogun, 2014).
Hawkins also played a brace of duo concerts this year with another drummer, the reliably antic ICP Orchestra figurehead Han Bennink, Afterwards, Hawkins likened the experience to “a game of cat and mouse”. But any deference to his elder and far more experienced partners goes hand-in-hand with Hawkins’ ability to match their creativity.
The Hawkins Trio, with bassist Neil Charles and drummer Tom Skinner, is more grounded, and more deliberative. It began as an offshoot of the sextet Hawkins Ensemble convened for Step Wide, Step Deep (Babel Label, 2014), but where that album has a looseness and compositional idiosyncrasy that’s reminiscent of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch quintet, Alexander Hawkins Trio (AH Music) is necessarily more focused.
All of the compositions here are by Hawkins, with any improvisational impetus being channeled into the constrained freedom of notation. At times, Hawkins’ music embraces repetition or a purely rhythmic impetus in ways that would be antithetical to ‘pure’ improvisors, but there are frequent moments of release in bound-breaking, often thrillingly lyrical or abrasive passages of spontaneous invention.
Neil Charles has worked with Skinner and the Hawkins Ensemble’s reeds player Shabaka Hutchings in Zed-U, as well as playing in groups led by others, notably Byron Wallen and Jack DeJohnette. His style is as BS-free as Charles Mingus’. When his basslines don’t pulse nor prod insistently, he’s creating dimensionality, drawing shadows and highlights with his bow.
Charles doesn’t have Mingus’ force of personality, but that’s to the general good in his grounded, effective communion with Tom Skinner, who elsewhere plays in Sons of Kemet, and leads Hello Skinny. Skinner starts the present album with a brisk, buoyant pulse, and regular patterning of cymbals and rims to introduce the fleetingly Ellingtonian “Sweet Duke”.
Duke Ellington is evidently a Hawkins touchstone. His first solo piano album, Song Singular (Babel Label; recorded in 2012, but not released until 2014) comprises a series of meditations on Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train”, but could hardly sound less nostalgic or deferential. Rather, it’s a superb showcase for Hawkins’ technical range and expansive imagination.
On the present album, the portmanteau “Song Singular / Owl (friendly) / Canon” opens things up, allowing Hawkins to drop relational chords amid rhythmic tempo shifts. Next up, “One Tree Found” is a catchy, insouciantly loping number that practically snaps its fingers, changing tone when Hawkins zeroes in on staccato, one-finger patterns and quicksilver runs.
Much of the pleasure in Hawkins’ style lies in moments where cerebral, constructivist exactitude yields unexpectedly to explosive disinhibition, or vice-versa.
“Perhaps 5 or 6 Different Colours” deconstructs the prevailing trioism. Skinner, initially bringing kit peripherals into play for texture, responds energetically to Hawkins’ controlled detonation of tonal clusters in dancing patterns à la Cecil Taylor. The subsequent “40HB (for Taylor Ho Bynum)”, a lyrical tribute to one of Hawkins’ partners in the trans-Atlantic Convergence Quartet, is contrastingly deliberate and intricately constructed.
“AHRA”‘s dedicatee is AACM saxophonist Kalaparusha Ahra Difda. It begins with thoughtful but far from placid solo piano, and Charles’ bowed bass shadows the gravity of Hawkins’ mood while Skinner soothes with brushed skins.
The longest piece is the 10-minute “Baobabs + SGrA*”. In moments where clear, sonorous chords ripple over purposeful bass and skittish percussion, rhythmic agitation sets the mood for intervals of improvisatory fragmentation. The piece’s unforced construction allows Charles to essay a brief pithy solo, but it’s Hawkins’ moodily inquisitive playing that really tests the group dynamics.
The title of album finale “Blue Notes for a Blue Note (Joy to You)” echoes titles penned by its dedicatee, Louis Moholo-Moholo. The bold chords of Hawkins’ opening solo suggest sadness, but Skinner’s drumming is lively and luminous. He draws his partners out, but Hawkins’ mood only darkens into a thunderhead, so Skinner surges ahead solo, ending the album with an exuberant surge of energy.
Hawkins’ Trio makes most contemporary piano trios sound depthless by comparison.
Alexander Hawkins piano; Neil Charles double bass; Tom Skinner drums.
Alexander Hawkins & Louis Moholo-Moholo – Keep Your Heart Straight.
Alexander Hawkins Ensemble – All There, Ever Out.
Louis Moholo-Moholo Quartet – 4 Blokes.
Convergence Quartet – Slow and Steady.