February 28, 1961: Moodsville MV 15/Prestige PR 1710
I’ll Never Be The Same (6:08)
When Day Is Done (4:26)
Under A Blanket of Blue (4:35)
More Than You Know (4:09)
Just A Gigolo (5:04)
Speak Low (6:39)
Coleman Hawkins: tenor saxophone
Kenny Burrell: guitar
Ronnell Bright: piano
Ron Carter: bass
Andrew Cyrille: drums
One of the most profound things about jazz music for those who love it deeply is how it speaks so accurately of/to emotion, that one’s favorite jazz recordings seem to be telling our own stories, often out of time and place. Singer Johnny Hartmann’s rendition of the jazz ballad Lush Life, for example, has told the story of so many heartbreaks, all who have become enamored with it seem to have lived the same life. As well, John Coltrane’s probing, plaintive composition Transition (off the album of the same name) too seems to be commentary on reality and doubt; the very sound of existential uncertainty, music that Jean-Paul Sartre himself might have written if he played the tenor saxophone. Indeed, after nearly 14 thoroughly incendiary minutes of improvisation Coltrane’s return to the main theme feels like glorious illumination wrestled from the jaws of nothingness.
It is this quality of presence that we find in great jazz works, even as times change, which makes the album The Hawk Relaxes by legendary tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins unsurprising as a work of great jazz, yet remarkable considering its circumstances. A much lesser known work in the Hawkins catalogue, this rarely discussed LP (a long time favorite of mine) is an uncommon treasure.
What makes it so is how Hawkins rests in two very different worlds at this time (1961). On one hand he is the foundation on which all great harmonically oriented saxophonists stand, especially after his landmark 1939 recording of Body And Soul, while consistently hiring younger players who would go on to become the major players of the following generation, including the bassist and drummer on this LP. And while Hawkins inhabited these two worlds in the 60s, jazz around him was being radically altered by the music of Ornette Coleman: The Hawk Relaxes resting between Coleman’s landmark avant-garde recordings The Shape of Jazz To Come (1959), and the ecstatically dissonant Free Jazz (Sept. 1961).
And though it was not Hawkins intention to do anything other than record yet more music that reflected his interests and style, The Hawk Relaxes stands the test of time as a superlative example of lush jazz balladry at a time when frenetic new sounds of freedom and experimentation were figuratively exploding out of every jazz conduit. Completely capable of joining in and expertly playing the “new thing” Hawkins continued to do what he liked, what he was inimitably good at: creating moods of great vitality and in this case, romantic power.
For example, Hawkins’ ebullient yet velvety tenor moves like a fogbank into More Than You Know after a beautiful introduction by guitarist Burrell, a ballad made bittersweet by Hawkins arcing ornamentation around the main theme. The more breathy, restrained mood of Hawkins on I’ll Never Be The Same is replaced in his solo with the classic ‘up and down’ harmonic arppegiations that made him famous. But this ability to transport his listeners is also due to the fact that Hawkins had exquisite taste in hiring supporting musicians who were up to the task. Ronnell Bright’s glittering intro to Just A Gigolo is the definitive example of the kind of sedate, beatific piano work that makes one almost inevitably dream of lonely rainy nights and fleeting kisses long since past. Bassist Ron Carter, a supreme master who has gone on to perform on over 2000 recordings (!!), including several dozen considered jazz classics, is also in top form, laying down a soft foundation of rich, restrained tones over which Bright and Hawkins work their magic.
The Hawk Relaxes is a great jazz album, and for all ages and times, and feels like a luscious tonic for the disquieted soul.