Thursday, October 27, 2005

Doing It Hope's Way

On the cover of Blue Note’s reissue of bebop pianist Elmo Hope’s Trio and Quintet, Hope appears child-like. His suit hangs loosely from his frame, his hat seems too big, his feet are off the ground giving the illusion he is too small for the chair, and his smooth face is innocent and angelic. Yet, he towers over a dog with a bear-like head, a giant among predators. He is staring intently at several sheets of music.

The picture seems sadly apt. A brilliant jazz pianist, Hope, like the great Herbie Nichols, has been overshadowed by his peers Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. A childhood friend of Bud Powell – they listened to Bach together while growing up in New York City – Hope shares some of Powell’s rhythmic attack, but explores more complex melodies. But these promising explorations were hindered and cut short by self-doubt and heroine leaving us with only a few glimpses of the genius that could have been.

One of the best examples of Hope’s talent are the trio recordings on Trio and Quintet. On June 18, 1953 (the day Egypt was declared a Republic), Hope along with Percy Heath (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums) entered the famous Van Gelder Studios in Hackensack, NJ. Hope nudged a stool toward the piano, adjusted a few rumpled sheets of music, and at Van Gelder’s signal began to play.

On the first track Hope delivers a joyful, almost bouncy, rendition of Berlin’s “It’s A Lovely Day,” that is reminiscent of Powell’s linear, muscular rhythms – hard spiders marching ahead.

The second cut, “Mo Is On”, a Hope original, opens with dark, chunky chords, quickly switches to fast paced train-like rhythms, then opens up to lighter tones played in the higher registers with out losing any rhythmic intensity.

On the third song, Hope slows it down with a quiet rendering of the standard “Sweet and Lovely.”

The fourth track “Happy Hour”, another Hope original, opens with a few Monk-like phrases and then eases into a straight ahead piece, like drinking smooth scotch in a smoky bar, Philly Joe keeping time.

Cut five, the Hope original “Hot Sauce”, which really highlights his talents, opens with driving minor chords. Then using some quick trills segues into furious, piston-driving action fueled by Heath and Jones, who delivers a rapid fire solo. Genius unbound.

For the next track, Hope offers the exotic original “Stars Over Marrakech.” A dark, rhythm-rich journey.

On “Freffie”, another original, Hope returns to the joyful bounce of the first track – solid bebop action.

Co-written with Sonny Rollins, and recorded by Clifford Brown, “Cravin’ the Rock,” Riker’s Island, would presage Hope’s ongoing drug problems and prison time. Jones opens with dark, stomps on the bass pedal, then beats a military-like rhythm on the snares, before Hope enters with a driving circular minor-keyed melody, which opens to brighter tones, before returning to the dark. Hope continues to shift between light and dark tones creating a tension that is never completely resolved.

Finally, Hope launches in into a swinging, yet relaxed take of Mercer’s “I Remember You.”

These trio recordings reveal Hope at the height of his heroine-plagued career. Combining a high-energy melodic line with tight, hard-driving rhythms, that are tinged with darker more mercurial moods, Hope created a style that is less straight ahead than Powell’s, less angular and abstract than Monk’s, that is influenced by both, yet it in no way derivative. Hope’s way was his own.

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