Rethinking Coleman Hawkins

posted by Tom Moon on September 14, 2010 at 5:33 pm
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It is time to reconsider Coleman Hawkins.


Actually, it’s long past time. The burly tenorman, author of the definitive performance of “Body And Soul,” (see 1000 Recordings, page 348-349), has been relegated to a certain fixed appraisal for decades – he’s regarded as the elegant titan of swing-era tenor, perhaps the last great pre-bebop soloist. Other saxophonists speak of Hawk in hallowed tones, but that admiration still hasn’t spread beyond the cognoscenti, perhaps because, for many hipsters, bebop is the cataclysmic event and what happened before it was a quaint warmup. As a result, Hawkins’ profile hasn’t changed much in the 70 years since he returned from several years in Europe, wandered into a studio and put down a solo some consider “the” masterwork of improvisation.

Several available Hawkins titles, particularly his recordings from the late 1940s, suggest that he was a sophisticated thinker whose slyly modern playing transcended swing. Now comes astounding further proof of this, in the form of a live Hawkins performance of “Body and Soul,” from 1940, roughly four months after he made the studio gem. The music comes from a radio broadcast captured by an engineer and musician named William Savory, whose collection of extended airchecks from the late ‘30s has recently been unveiled by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. (An excellent New York Times story on the material is archived here.)  If the rest of Savory’s collection is as intense as this performance, long-held notions about jazz are destined for revision.

On the new discovery, which is just beginning to receive an ambitious cleanup effort by audio engineer Doug Pomeroy, Hawkins plays four choruses, double the length of his studio solo. Those who know the classic will recognize motifs and ideas Hawkins deployed on the original – except in performance, he mulls them over more casually, and he takes them further. A riff that sits in one tonal area on the original blossoms into something unexpectedly complex, with Hawkins transposing it into several adjacent keys. Each variation pushes further against the established harmony, with thrilling results. And each suggests an approach to chordal “freedom” that didn't become a fixture of the jazz vocabulary until the 1960s. Yet Hawkins doesn't come across as a radical revolutionary on the horn: He drops these forays into an athletically arpeggiated solo that swings easily, and sounds entirely effortless. The logic, from phrase to phrase, is always crystalline: Even when he’s stepping “out,” he outlines the harmonic as Bach would, one careful resolution at a time.

The contrast between this governing sense of order and Hawkins’ facile stream-of-consciousness invention is positively stunning, and reason to visit the fledging museum, which requires advance reservation for playback of the Savory material. I had to ask the museum’s director, Loren Schoenberg, to play the tenor solo several times, because at first I couldn’t quite fathom what I was hearing. A musician and educator, Schoenberg spent twenty years trying unsuccessfully to convince Savory to share his trove; this one solo explains that quest. It’s one of the rare instances where an exhumed artifact doesn’t simply enhance our understanding of an artist – it suggests the common perception is inadequate, in need of revision at the least and perhaps a complete overhaul.

The Savory collection includes nearly 1000 discs. One wonders how many other reputation-altering recordings await within it.

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