Posted 25 June 2009 - 03:45 PM
The late Dick Wellstood was a friend of mine, a great pianist, a grumpy wit, a pool-shooter, a bicyclist and wonderful writer. Among his best prose was a liner note for "Quintessential Continued", Hines' second solo Chiaroscuro LP released as CR-120. I copied it out once, for a journalism student who had asked for an example of Writing-About-Jazz-In-A-Jazz-Way... I think this Hines topic is just the right place for it. (I trust this is okay with Hank O'Neal, who had the wisdom to ask Wellstood for the words).
EARL HINES -- AN APPRECIATION
Behold Earl Hines, spinner of yarns, big handed virtuoso of the black dance, con man extraordinaire, purveyor of hot sauce.
Behold Earl Hines, Jive King, boss of the sloppy run, the dragged thumb, the uneven tremolo, Minstreal of The Unworthy Emotion, King of Freedom.
Democratic Transcendant, his twitchy, spitting style uses every cheesy trick in the piano-bar catalog to create moving cathedrals, masterpieces of change, great chains of tension and relaxation, multi-dimensional solos that often seem to be about themselves, or about other solos -- "See, here I might have played some boogie-woogie, or put this accent there, or this run here, that chord there...or maybe a llittle stride for you beautiful people in the audience..." Earl Hines, Your Musical Host, serving up the hot sauce.
For all the compexity in his playing, Hines exercises fairly simple harmonic vocabulary, and in any event his peculiar stuttering rhythmic sense gives his phrasing so much force as to make harmonic analysis almost meaningless. The dissonances he uses are more the result of his fascination with the overtone of the piano than of any concern with elaborate harmonic substitutions. Accented single notes making the upper strings ring, or open fifths or octaves sounded a tone or semi-tone apart (either will do) at opposite ends of the keyboard are to him amonong the most beautiful of sounds.
His is the music of Change, based on the rhythms of the body in a graceful way unique to the older Jazz players. This may be why he is more successful as a soloist than as a trio pianist. The trio's oscarine petercision, a crutch for many, is a cage for Hines. It's need for relentless accuracy and predictable responses only betrays the tiny imperfections of freedom in his playing; when he is playing alone, these imperfections meld into a sweet flexible instrument of expression.
Hines is not a "stride" pianist. His rhythm is too straight four-four, too free. He does not possess the magisterial dignity of James P. Johnson, the aristocratic detachment of Art Tatum, the patience of Donald Lambert, the phlegmatic unflappability necessary to maintain the momentum of stride. Hines needs silence in the bass, room to let the flowers grow, space to unroll his showers of broken runs containing (miraculously) the melody within, his grace-noted octaves ("That's the way we make the piano sing!", -- Eubie Blake), and his wandering, Irish endings.
His is Freedom in Discipline, infinite choice in a limited sphere, the tension of Will vs. Material -- his is human creativity. Behold Earl Hines, King of Beasts!
Now, that is Earl Hines! That is Jazz Writing! That was a great pianist himself, Dick Wellstood speaking with affection, knowledge and skill. He nailed what Hines was about, and was jazz is about, in my opinion.