Alexander Hawkins Ensemble

All There, Ever Out
Babel BDV 1196

Alexander Hawkins & Louis Moholo-Moholo

Keep Your Heart Straight

Ogun OGCD 039

Praised frequently as one of the United Kingdom’s most accomplished young pianists, on the basis of these discs it’s easy to see how Oxford-based Alexander Hawkins has gained this reputation. Someone whose collaborators as pianist and organist have included North Americans drummer Harris Eisenstadt, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and reedist Joe McPhee, Hawkins is also perfectly at home working with Commonwealth citizens who are veterans or his contemporaries.

All There, Ever Out, for instance, not only links him with in-demand London-centered players such as guitarist Otto Fischer, cellist Hannah Marshall, bassist Dominic Lash and percussionist Javier Carmona, but is enlivened by the marimba-work of experienced Orphy Robinson. Meanwhile Keep Your Heart Straight is a sympathetic duo session with South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, 40 years his senior and someone whose other piano duo records have featured partners such as Cecil Taylor, Irène Schweizer and John Law.

From the beginning of his sextet session, Hawkins keeps the pieces chromatic as he adds unexpected asides and sonic paths to their creation. With references made to everything from unaffected swing to understated chromaticism, the tracks are often conveyed by a combination of walking bass lines, melodic guitar licks and drum press rolls. Marshall contributes string asides to the more rhythmic pieces and sophisticated spiccato break to the more dissonant ones. Something like “Marta” for instance, takes full advantage of Robinson’s sweeping lyricism as well, contrasting those vibe resonations with Hawkins’ go-for-broke pianism. Meanwhile the guitarist’s licks down-shift the tempo and the cellist roughens the exposition with sul ponticello strokes, Robinson could be playing the head from “Ebb Tide” as he’s joined and spurred on in a different direction by the pianist in parallel broken octave lines.

Juxtaposition of the four stringed instruments sometimes ends up creating sweeping, semi-chamber-music sequences, while a track such as “Ahab” is firmly in the contemporary tradition, with analogous playing of vibrating guitar lines, martial rat-tat-tats from Carmona that heads toward Rock music territory and a dazzling keyboard display from Hawkins. His solo starts with bouncy patterning, shoehorns multiple notes and patterns, is played cross handed and ends by emphasizing pattern interpolations. On the concluding “So Very, Know”, with Kit Downes contributing organ chording, Hawkins’ pedal-pushing, mercurial emphasis demonstrates his stride piano affiliation, then opens up into a series of key-clipping, Monk-like allusions.

Hawkins needs all his keyboard skills finely honed when going up against Moholo-Moholo. Practically every track demonstrates some subtle meeting of the sinewy and the sophisticated. The semi-classical references are still in Hawkins’ playing as is his architectural build up of chords and patterns. He uses whorls and pressurized sequences to meet the drummer’s expositions, whether they encompass wide-ranging ratcheting and blurred motions or repeated thumping and bumping.

Both men are story tellers, which because of familiar hooks is less apparent on the spontaneous improvisations but shines with neon-like emphasis on the standards. At the same time the standards aren’t treated in expected manner. “If I Should Lose You”, for instance, is backed into, with Moholo-Moholo’s sympathetic rolls and cymbals pulls providing a rugged backing to Hawkins’ exposition which is all emphasized bass keys and hard touches. Two-thirds of the way through the piece becomes even more percussive, with the keyboard extrusion seemingly reflecting the sounds of capotes and backboard as well as action and lyre.

Two of the non-originals are South African in origin. Composed by Ndaba Majola of the Jazz Revellers Band, “Amaxesha Osizi (Times Of Sorrow)” is given a feathery and lyrical reading, somewhat in variance with its title. Only when the drummer’s strokes get blunter and harder does the piano playing becomes more stolid and processional, so that it must be lightened by bell shaking on Moholo-Moholo’s part. “Lakutshon’ Ilanga” by The Jazz Maniacs’ Mackay Davashe on the other hand is more descriptively magisterial. A half-secular, half-sacred melody, it’s propelled by the drummer’s hard ruffs and bomb-dropping as well as the pianist’s super-speedy key clips and rolling octaves, as the two stretch the theme to its limit without breaking it.

During the free improvisations Hawkins works out complementary strategies for everything he plays, for instance on “Catch You On The Rebound” creating a secondary bass-heavy structure for every phrase he exposes while moving spider-like across the keys. Reflecting the title, Moholo-Moholo contributes cross-sticking flams and thumps, with his accents becoming more intense and frenetic as he plays. Eventually the piece calms down to a series of bongo-like pumps from the drummer and jiggling key accents from the pianist.

Often when a young musician comes on the scene he’s over-praised for merely putting a new gloss on expected structures and can only be appreciated in the company of his peers. An exception to this rule, Hawkins appears to have the skills he needs to play any sort of improvised music from standards to on the-spot creativity. Plus Keep Your Heart Straight demonstratess he can hold his own with older Jazz masters.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: All: 1. Ologbo (Double Trio) 2. Tatum Totem III 3. Owl (Friendly)/A Star Explodes 10,000 Years Ago, Seen By Chinese Astronomers 4. AW/LJ (Differently)* 5. Ahab 6. (Untitled Free Improvisation) 7. Marta 8. Elmoic 8. So Very, Know+

Personnel: All: Alexander Hawkins (piano, Hammond B3 organ*); Kit Downes (Hammond B3 organ+); Orphy Robinson (marimba); Otto Fischer (guitar): Hannah Marshall (cello); Dominic Lash (bass) and Javier Carmona (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Keep: 1. Heavy Manners 2. Amaxesha Osizi (Times Of Sorrow) 3. Hear Our Hearts 4. If I Should Lose You 5. Pure Vision 6. Lakutshon’ Ilanga 7. Catch You On The Rebound 8. Prelude To A Kiss 9. Keep Your Heart Straight

Personnel: Keep: Alexander Hawkins (piano) and Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums and percussion)