Alexander Hawkins

Song Singular
Babel BDV 13120

Simon James Phillips


Room40 RM458

Expressing musical impressions in a solo setting – especially when a piano is involved – should be anything but reductionist. While interpretative input from other players is absent, the vitality of the performer’s ideas and his or her interpretation of them should be robust enough to make up for any perceived lack of sonics.

Both keyboardists here have admirably dealt with these challenges. Yet each has come up with an individual course of action to propel his ideas. Australian-born, Berlin-based Simon James Phillips constructs his recital around the spatial qualities of the German church in which he recorded, which serves to add an extra layer of sustain to the CD’s tough and inflective seven tracks. Even though he too has a so-called classical background like Phillips, London-based Alexander Hawkins is a Jazz improviser rather than a tone scientist. At the same time as his playing eschews subservience to tradition, Hawkins references earlier stylists like Duke Ellington and Ray Bryant as much as Sun Ra’s and Cecil Taylor’s advances.

This is demonstrated on pieces such as “Joists, Distilled”, where Hawkins who has valuable relationships with veteran improvisers such as drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, shows that his commitment to sophisticated chromatic motion is as pronounced as high frequency syncopation. With key voicing and an improvisational flow almost as kinetic as Taylor’s, he demonstrates this once again with his variations on the hyper-familiar “Take the A Train”. The tune isn’t served up as rhythmic pabulum, but with fragmented variations that suggest sarcastic world-weariness before echoing the familiar opening riff. Also while he’s anything but a rote-Bluesman, Hawkins can still invest “Advice” with a Blues sensibility, piling up enough notes and textures to provide a provide a post-modern sheen to standard Blues phraseology.

In other situations he stops and starts his playing frequently to have enough scope to examine key phrases, embellishing them in such a way that multi-shaded swing, syncopation and sweetness are all revealed. Impressionistic whorls and curlicues are in place on tunes such as “Unknown Baobabs (Seen in the Distance)” so that the connective threads lengthen as the lines circle back onto themselves. Plus his swiftly flowing associations are given additional power from internal echoes.

Carving his own solo piano niche, Phillips in contrast, is all about echo. Someone whose CV includes membership in the large Splitter Orchester, a piano duo with fellow Aussie Chris Abrahams and plenty of interchange with electronic manipulators, he specializes in reflecting vibrations. For a start most of his compositions ensure that tone partials and extensions are heard as much as the keyboard notes themselves. Cascading timbres often loop so that a hypnotic drone underscores the chords and note clusters he plays. These quivering keyboard echoes are intensified as his sounds reflect the room’s spatial properties, creating acoustically oscillations that others source from electronics.

At points some of the tracks appear to have been composed to showcase one certain technique to the exclusion of others. But by not ignoring basic harmonics and linear motions, his sequences are still compositions not laboratory experiments. Closer to the academy than Hawkins’ work, his silky touch on pieces such as “Ellipsis” glacially outflows until proper volume is attained. Finally his keyboard quivers give way to a studied impressionism. “Poul” on the other hand, sweeps along with nearly unstoppable key currents as the tremolo cadenzas almost turn into feedback. It’s a tribute to his sympathetic playing that these thickly voiced tremolo tones are oriented towards connectivity not mesmerisation.

With these CDs each pianist has made a notable solo statement. Subsequent singular, and as important, group, projects will definitely be worth investigating.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Chair: 1. Set Ikon Set Remit 2 Ellipsis 3. Posture 4. The Voice Imitator 5. 9er On/Off Switch 6. Poul 7. Moth to Taper

Personnel: Chair: Simon James Phillips (piano)

Track Listing: Song: 1. The Way We Dance It Here 2. Early Then, M.A, 3. Joists, Distilled 4. Stillness from 37,000 Feet 5. Two Dormant, One Active 6. Hope Step the Lava Flow 7. Take the A Train 8. Distances Between Points 9. Advice 10. Unknown Baobabs (Seen in the Distance)

Personnel: Song: Alexander Hawkins (piano)