Playing Hard to Get: Hank Jones and Jakob Bro


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As noted in a Rifftides review last week, record companies from abroad often come to the United States to make CDs of American musicians. Conversely, it is not unusual for Americans to record when they are touring overseas. Either way, some of the best work of US artists is done for labels that Stateside record stores —the few remaining—are unlikely to stock. The Internet then becomes the source of last resort for CDs or downloads. Two further instances of hard-to-find discs that are worth the trouble:

Hank Jones, Jazz At Prague Castle 2009 (Multisonic). Recorded less than a year before the pianist died in May, this trio recording shows that his swing, invention of melodic lines, harmonic imagination and celebrated touch were flourishing at the end of his 90th year. The occasion was the 31st concert of Jazz na Hradě in thePrague castle, the Czech counterpart of the White House. The series was initiated by the Czech Republic's ranking jazz fan, its president, Vaclav Klaus. The first track of the CD is Klaus's brief welcome and introduction, in Czech. Jones takes over in the universal language of music, accompanied by the eminent Czech émigré bassist George Mraz and the young drummer Willie Jones III (no relation).

The trio establish their compatibility from the first notes. Through 13 pieces, it never wavers. The program typifies Jones' sense of contrast, balance and discovery. It begins with his brother Thad's “Lady Luck," written for third brother Elvin's 1962 album Elvin!. Willie Jones' brush wizardry and Mraz's restrained power blend under the elder Jones' buoyant, full-bodied improvisation. Behind Mraz's solo, Hank Jones gives a lesson, the first of many in the album, in the art of accompanying through reactive listening. Willie J. switches to sticks for a beautifully realized treatment of Joe Henderson's modern classic “Recorda Me."

The medium- and up-tempo tunes are a delight, but the ballads come close to stealing the CD. J.J. Johnson's “Lament" and Thelonious Monk's “'Round Midnight" demonstrate the three musicians' dedication to the principle of togetherness rather than emphasis on the individual. Which is not to suggest that Mraz and Willie Jones are less than splendid in solo. Willie is particularly effective in Hank's “Interface." The audience lets him know it. They show great warmth to hometown favorite Mraz, their most famous jazz export, particularly following his virtuoso solo on Wes Montgomery's “Twisted Blues." Commitment to the trio concept aside, Hank Jones firmly establishes his individualism in two-and-a-half unaccompanied minutes of “Lonely Woman," capturing the wistfulness of the piece. It is neither the Benny Carter nor the Ornette Coleman “Lonely Woman" but the relatively obscure song by William Stegmeyer and Richard Carney.

“Comin' Home, Baby," “Stella by Starlight" and “Speak Low" swing hard. Jones reaches deep into the harmonies of “Speak Low" and gives Mraz more of his attentive support as the bassist executes yet another of his perfect solos. Jones concludes with two by his contemporary, Monk. “Rhythm-A-Ning" and “Blue Monk" effectively cover two of the staples of modern jazz, “I Got Rhythm" changes and the blues. It's a terrific concert by one of the music's treasures and a fine way to remember Hank Jones.

Jakob Bro, Balladeering (Loveland). Bro is a young Danish guitarist with his own label and a sense of quiet daring in his music. He has the respect of musicians years older. That is what enabled him to enlist drummer Paul Motian, guitarist Bill Frisell, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and bassist Ben Street as sideman for Balladeering. They recorded the CD with him in New York. Now in his early thirties, Bro attracted notice in Motian's Electic Bebop band, and further prominence with Polish trumpeter Tomas Stanko's group.

The title of the first tune in the CD, “Weightless," might stand as a description of Bro's music, except that while the music floats and seems to make few demands on the listener, beneath its placid surface flow currents that compel thought and stimulate emotions in ways that, among the arts, only music can. Bro's and Frisell's guitars dart around and through one another, meld, shift, disperse and recombine. Konitz's tone takes on expansiveness in this setting. The lines he creates are mystic stories spun out by a wise elder. Street's deliberate bass patterns are more commentaries than guidelines. Motian's participation is the essence of what has made him unique for more than five decades. He splashes, shimmers, punctuates and urges, rarely stating the beat but always giving the music its pulse. The two versions of “Starting Point"—one acoustic, the other electric—constitute a stunning contrast in the difference the medium can make in the message of a piece of music.

Bro's album runs under 45 minutes. He did not fill it to CD capacity, as far too many musicians do. I presume that is because he accomplished what he set out to achieve and was satisfied. Bravo.

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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
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