In this edition of ’10 Tracks I Can’t Do Without, a series in which jazz musicians do a personal deep dive into the music of their anticedents and idols, Liam Noble considers Earl “Fatha” Hines (1903 – 1983)
Piano lessons were all about reproduction when I was a kid. Learn the music of the great masters (yes, mostly men), play it back (again) to some people who will give you numbers in return. Welcome to the world of music, Grades 1-8.
I started well, but after a constant carousel of mistakes, mis-steps, lapses of touch and taste, and after eight grades of this, I defected. I loved the music, and still do, but my affection was not reciprocated. I’m (mostly) a listener now.
Jazz was, in contrast, “the sound of surprise”, which in my mind equated to “the sound of failure”, at least some of the time. To hear this philosophy in action, spend some time with Earl Hines. I discovered him in WHSmith, Bromley as part of the “I Love Jazz” vinyl series, along with Miles, Monk, Basie. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.
Earl Hines is a veritable lunatic, a good natured one, but a lunatic all the same. He has a kind of Aesthetic Of Mess. It’s like a teenagers bedroom, scraps of uneaten food and bits of melody strewn about everywhere. His improvising is pure syncopation, emerging in explosions and expletives of contrapuntal genius. He took stride piano’s full throttle energy and dismantled it, enriched it, made it more unpredictable. In many ways, we was the first piano player to truly improvise, certainly the first to really let you know he was doing it. In some way, it feels like he tries to general his own astonishing technique just, you know, to keep things interesting.
You never know what’s coming. He dances around the beat, somehow making it stronger by not playing it. This is the mystery at the center of jazz, and of African music in general. Things are implied, Not stated layers of rhythm constantly in motion, changing. You can hear it everywhere now, and yet we are in danger of losing it, the fun of it, the grubbiness. In those early days, one always had to have a showbiz smile, but in Hines’s case it concealed a lifetime of meticulously cultivated chaos.
For me, Hines combined the sheer joy of Fats Waller with a kind of fragility and openness: his stride is lighter but his left hand accents can shatter a wine glass at forty feet. It’s a bumpy ride but a lot of fun.
- “Rosetta”: Earl Hines and Jaki Byard, 1965.
This is new to me, I found myself fascinated by watching his hands, his arms. At around the one minute mark, Hines seems to let his fingers flop down the keys like a rag doll: orthodox classical technique has no place in the dirty blues, it just won’t give you what you need. Jaki Byard gets more stuck into the chord changes, and it’s a brilliant contrast: the rediscovered Hines sharing the stage with Byard, updating the old stride stylings. A warm and friendly encounter between two heroes.
- “Weather Bird”: (Louis Armstrong Hot Seven Recordings)1928.
This is the way many people will have discovered Earl Hines. It has one of my favorite moments in all of jazz: at 2:08, the Hines discovers the wrongest note in music in what seems the longest pause in history. They both hear it, let it hang there, and then move on. For me this moment is historic, the imperfections become the music itself. Hines summons up a whole band of improvisers on one instrument here, lines cutting in from all sides. Every time I hear this I have to listen twice, just to get that feeling at 2:08 again.
- “Frankie and Johnny”: (“Fatha”), 1965.
This was my first taste of Earl Hines, and part of his 60’s “comeback” where history had moved on without him but he came back with a vengeance. After the tune he’s forced somewhat comically into the space above the bass and drums. Jazz had moved on, and now required that pianists share the space a bit more. You can almost hear him holding himself back. But the lines remain, resolutely unschooled, totally melodic, a breath of fresh air.
- “Blues In Thirds”: (various compliations), 1965
Perhaps the prettiest blues ever recorded (of those I’ve heard). The feel is perfect, Baby Dodds’ drums leaving the perfect spaces, but Hines’ solo entry cuts the air like a knife. Bechet comes in with a vibrato that shakes the whole room. Hines’ closing few chords, surely unscripted, anticipating Monk, Coltrane and the rest, seem the perfect complement to Bechet’s descent into the lower register. The sort of piece that I hope never turns up in an “alternate take” in some vault somewhere: it could never, must never, happen again.
- “St James Infirmary Blues”: (“Fatha”), 1965
It was once said, on the plaque of a piano Hines auctioned to help disadvantaged music students, that he “never played a melancholy note in his lifetime”. Well, this is the exception that proves the rule. I remember first hearing Hines’ voice come in here, being totally unprepared: it seems to reverberate from a deep hole of grief, hollow and ghostly. But the piano entry after the vocal is all electrifying anger, lashing out at the rhythm section who are, I imagine, gritting their teeth trying to keep the time. A one off, expressionist masterpiece.
- “Love Is Just Around The Corner”: (“Jazz In Paris: One Night Stand”), 1957
Hines made so many recordings in the 60s, making up, I suppose, for lost time, but this is a bit earlier, from 1957 with Guy Pederson and Gus Wallez. The intro has an Errol Garner quality about it, mysterious harmonies that slide flawlessly into a relaxed groove. Hines is in perfect balance with the rhythm section here, and they groove like hell as the hands of Hines wander in and out of the sequence without a care in the world.
- “Body and Soul”: (“The Best Of Earl Hines”), 1940
The strange sounding, electrically amplified Storytone piano makes Hines sound even more spiky than usual. The opening chords here are typical of Hines, he likes to wander around aimlessly before the real business starts. Once he gets going, he can hit the notes so hard that they seem to wobble in the air, yet also plays with great tenderness and taste, and the ending is like a handbrake turn in slow motion.
- “Ditty Wah Ditty”: (Ry Cooder: “Paradise And Lunch”), 1974
Piano and guitar combine beautifully here, the feel is extraordinary. For me, Hines is at his best when he can cut across another instrument in a similar range. You have to admire Ry Cooder’s courage playing duo with Hines, but he holds his own completely. Listen to how they both stop a few bars into Ry Cooder’s vocal re-entry around 1:38, ears to the ground. There’s a real sense they didn’t plan this. There’s a real sense Hines never planned anything.
- “Child Of A Disordered Brain”: (“The Best Of Earl Hines”), 1940
This is such a great title, I was so pleased when it turned out to be an absolute banger.
This has the feel of one of those Willie “The Lion” Smith miniatures, full of delicate voice leading and counterpoint. At 2:07, he comes out of a full stride groove into a random repeated note that sounds like a toddler tantrum. Art Tatum inspired awe with his solo performances, but Hines has the edge for me, because it’s dangerous. It could go wrong at any time and does!
- They all Laughed: (“Plays Gershwin”), 1975
Hines goes headlong into this tune at a breakneck pace, the left hand’s bell like accents cutting up the melody. A stride groove keeps threatening to emerge, but instead the two hands seem almost to be in a boxing match. At 2:40, he trills with the left and punches with the right, later settling in to a comfy stride that almost immediately gets pulled. I think John Zorn would like this track.