Alexander Hawkins

Unit[e]
AH 1002/3

Having demonstrated his proficiency as a solo pianist and collaborator with associates as different as South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and American cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, British pianist Alexander Hawkins validates his compositional skills on this two-CD set. Like a polyglot linguist, his musical affinity is evident here with charts for both one six-piece and one 13-piece ensemble.

The seven selections on C[all], the first CD are interpreted by a core sextet of reedist Shabaka Hutchings, violinist Dylan Bates, guitarist Otto Fischer, bassist Neil Charles, drummer Tom Skinner and Hawkins on piano. If anything the tunes appear to ricochet from allusions to British Music Hall ditties to variants on Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time combos Especially pronounced is Fischer’s crunching approximations of James “Blood” Ulmer on “[C]all (Part 1)” and “[C]all (Part 2)”. On the former the guitarist is seconded by Rock-oriented backbeat drumming and piled piano notes. On “(Part 2)” the resemblance is even more pronounced as a “Dancing in Your Head” riff is amplified by corkscrew interjections in a near King Curtis-like fashion from Hutchings and pointed fills from Hawkins that with sparking glissandi threaten to move into Jerry Lee Lewis territory. Although the repetative near-head-dancing result could be labeled Jazz-Rockabilly, the coordinated strings hold onto the ongoing narrative. Throughout the band never abandons its Jazz roots, usually indicated by the pianist’s swaying ostinato at points. Arco bass and violin are used both as descriptive counterpoint against guitar crunches and spikes on “[W]here” or to help the narrative along on pieces such as “[S]how”. Hutchings’ Dolphyesque bass clarinet sputters are showcased on “[T]each” which unfortunately is the weakest track since Fischer decides to – or was asked to – mumble some poetry-like text.

More ambitious, Hawkins’ five extended compositions on Hear [t], the second disc, aim for an orchestral resonance, with the additional textures coming across like color detail added to the foreground action of a figurative painting. Recorded about 2½ weeks after side one, the ensemble omits Hutchings and Skinner, but adds nine players to the core of Hawkins, Bate, Fischer – who sticks to guitar – and Charles. A mixture of musicians familiar with improvised and notated sounds, the group consists of brass players Laura Jurd, Nick Malcolm and Percy Pursglove; Alex Ward, Julie Kjær and James Arben on woodwinds; cellist Hannah Marshall; percussionist Stephen Davis and Matthew Wright’s live electronics.

Melodic, melistmatic and muscular in turn, the pieces rely on dexterous blending and division of sections as well, as individual instrumental textures, with space isolated for solo statements. Almost 16 minutes long, “See[k] > Hear[t]” is set up as the major statement with jellyfish-like like juddering and hocketing timbres built in layers to a pyramid structure, with allusions to Gil Evans and Graham Collier-like arrangements. Among the flute peeping and yapping and the Arco string sawing and shudders, the pyramid tip is defined by a heraldic trumpet tones and targeted clarinet grace notes. Reed snarls and slurs. Metronomic drum beats and a scratching wave-form ostinato power the narrative after a mid-section pause, with the tune reflecting its chimerical and pensive origins, as the final section of silky cellos sweeps, keen brass tones and electronic crackle confirm idyllic underpinning.

Other tracks work out variations on this thematic structure. “Sun[g] > Star[k]” for instance, is built around sliding and colliding sectional work in broken-octave concordance, preceded by concentrated kazoo-like reed note showers and strained, electronic oscillated jitters. “Unit[e]” in contrast, is divided with an arrangement strategy that culminates in massed shuddering texture following processed jitters and a tenor saxophone/piano duet that wouldn’t be out of pace on a Swing Era 78. If a dissenting comment has to be made though, it’s that none of the soloists are identified on any track, a particular concern when, for instance, there are three trumpet players involved.

Overall though it’s clear that Hawkins’ proficiency extends from playing and band leading to composing and orchestral coloring.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: [C]all: 1. For the People 2. [C]all (Part 1) 3. [T]each 4. [K]now 5. [W]here 6. [C]all (Part 2) 7. [S]how CD2: Hear [t]: 1. Forge[t] 2. See[k] > Hear[t] 3. Idea[l] 4. Sun[g] > Star[k] 5, Unit[e]

Personnel: CD1: Shabaka Hutchings (bass clarinet, tenor saxophone); Alexander Hawkins (piano); Dylan Bates (violin); Otto Fischer (guitar); Neil Charles (bass) and Tom Skinner (drums) CD2: (Omit Hutchings, Skinner and add) Laura Jurd (trumpet); Nick Malcolm (trumpet, flugelhorn); Percy Pursglove (trumpet, bass); Alex Ward (clarinet); Julie Kjær (flute, alto flute, alto saxophone, bass clarinet); James Arben (flute, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet); Hannah Marshall (cello); Stephen Davis (drums, percussion) and Matthew Wright (live electronics)