At the Party
Delmark DE-535

Pianist Earl Hines (1905-1983) had three distinctive periods of fame during his almost 60 year professional career. The first came in the late 1920s, when he worked with Louis Armstrong and successfully adapted modern ideas to the piano. The second was in the mid-1940s when his big band was an incubator for the bebop revolution. The third came in the mid-1960s, when a renewed appreciation for his mainstream style freed him from the Dixieland clichés he had been forced into playing during the late 1950s.

A modernist before modern jazz was officially born, Hines was an exceptional pianist, but as someone who began playing music when jazz was classified as diversion rather than art, he never lost the compulsion to entertain — some would say pander — to the audience.

Which is what one has to deal with on this CD. Literally recorded at a party in San Francisco, with many inattentive audience members heard incessantly talking throughout many numbers to prove it, the disc features Hines playing in a soft-jazz, nightclub setting on a program of familiar standards in the style of George Shearing’s combos. The connection to the popular British pianist is made even clearer with the addition of a percussionist to the band, and with vibist Johnny Rae, a long-time Shearing sideman, as the second soloist.

Sticking close to the melodies and even taking requests, the band works to retain momentum, throughout, even when it’s clear that this is merely background ambient sound for many. Still Rae, especially seems to fall into light, perfunctory runs when he relieves Hines in the front line. Additionally, Jack Crowley has a nagging, pinched tone like many mainstream pop guitarists of the time. And probably the best you can say about the rhythm section members is that they’re steady timekeepers.

Thus it’s up to Hines to keep the proceedings moving along, as he does with loud, shouted asides, throaty vaudevillian laughs and the complete keyboard command for which he was famous. That he was still able to produce viable, exciting sounds from tunes such as “Lazy River”, “Indiana” — at double tempo, and “Coquette” — done as a subversive bit of stride — is certainly a tribute to his longevity.

Geographical considerations no doubt made him decide to create a medley of “Chicago/I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, which turns into a more than 12-minute tour de force. Both standards bring out his most rococo note decorations as he ranges all over the 88 keys, sometimes decorating his accompaniment as he plays behind the other soloists as well.

Never a bluesman, as he definitely proves on a run through of “I Want A Little Girl”, which is as sturdy and cold as Pittsburgh steel, he turns in his best playing on “Poor Butterfly”, a hoary ditty which might have been as old as he was.

Accompanied only by bass and drums, he dispenses with the mid-tempo melody in the first thee minutes. Then as his left hand plays some modified stride, he begins tinkling out flowery variations at the top of the keyboard until he finally gets the flying creature to gently swing, with a protracted Count Basie-style light-fingered ending.

Hines completists will definitely want this session for his piano prowess alone, but it’s not the best introduction to his many talents for the novice.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. It’s Only A Paper Moon 2. Coquette 3. Poor Butterfly 4. Indiana 5. Along The Santa Fe Trail 6. Lazy River 7. Chicago/I Left My Heart in San Francisco 8. I Want A Little Girl

Personnel: Earl Hines (piano); Jack Crowley (guitar); Johnny Rae (vibes); Larry Richardson (bass); Kahil Mahdee (drums); Escovedo (percussion)