Why wasn't Roland Hanna, a first-rate piano improviser and brilliant accompanist, more famous? Newly unearthed sessions for the IPO Recordings release Colors From a Giant's Kit, again first-rate, again brilliant, don't do anything to solve the riddle.
You hear Bud Powell, perhaps the most obvious influence here, in Hanna's restless complexity. You hear Tommy Flanagan, in the way Hanna can recede back so gracefully into the role of tasteful supporter to his own boldest impulses. You hear Art Tatum, when Hanna unleashes these machine-gun retort of crisp runs.
Yet, Roland Hanna remianed his own man: thought provoking, but never so staid as to become circumspect, Hanna offers five deeply involving originalschief among them, the fleet opening title trackto go with a number of more familiar tunes from the canon, including a trio of Ellingtonian gems ("In a Mellow Tone," Chelsea Bridge" and the closing Cherokee") and two from Coltrane ("Moment's Notice" and Naima"). That dichotomy of old and new, traditional and something out along the ledge, follows closely Hanna's own memorable story arc as a performer in the 1960s both with the progressive Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band as well as old-school innovator Coleman Hawkins.
Hawkins, of course, helped introduce us all to both Tatum and Powell, not to mention Thelonious Monk. Flanagan played with him, as did Barry Harris ... and, yes, Roland Hanna. There is an unbroken line, both in the dusty pages of jazz history and inside of the freshly pressed digital inscriptions found on Colors from a Giant's Kit. None of it explains Hanna's relative anonymity, least of all when even so late in life he could still summon performances such as theseeach filled, by turns, with lyrical bravery, dapper levity and enigmatic beauty.
The posthumous Colors from a Giant's Kit isn't the first Roland Hanna release for IPO, founded by fellow pianist Bill Sorin. In fact, among the label's initial releases in the early 2000s was a solo recording of Hanna's work called Everything I Love as well as a collaboration on a series of Harold Arlen tunes with Carrie Smith called I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues. The sessions for this album were done in between those two projects.