1928, 1929, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1945, 1995, Music

Piano Man! His Greatest Recordings (1995) by Earl Hines

This is collection of 25 recordings featuring Earl Hines – solo, leading his orchestra, with Armstrong, Bechet and some other, less famous bandleaders.  It jumps around a little too much…

The title track appears to be the 1939 “Piano Man” (there are four, confusingly) and it’s more of a celebration of Hines’ legend than anything else. It’s basically the overture here.

“Fireworks” is an absolutely classic Armstrong Hot Five from 1928. On a track like this you can hear why Hines was known as “Fatha” (when he gets his solos).

“Skip the Gutter” is another Hot Five from the same era. The track is also a pretty classic slow blues, showing off a different side of the band.

“Two Deuces” is from the same year as those Hot Fives, but is listed as a duet in the track listing. It’s absolutely not a duet and is, rather, a slow blues, even slower than “Skip the Gutter.” But it goes bonkers 2 and half minutes in, which is awesome.

“Weather Bird” is listed as being performed by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra but is clearly not. Rather this is the duet. It gives you a much better idea of Hines’ contributions than the group performances. I know Hines moved the piano away from ragtime, but I am not enough of a student to tell you how. Suffice it to say: this isn’t ragtime piano here. A classic jazz duet.

The Noone track is rather “Every Evening (I Miss You).” Noone’s group is less amazing than Armstrong’s but they still do a good job. This is classic “trad” jazz (or dixieland, if you prefer) that just lacks the world-changing virtuosity of Louis Armstrong. Hines’ solo is good.

Omer Simeon’s performance of Jelly Roll’s “Smoke-House Blues” is notable for having that classic dixieland clarinet sound. Hines’ solo is more elaborate than previously.

Hines himself leads “Honeysuckle Rose.” The piano sounds way better mic’d so I am assuming this is the 1937 version, given how much clearer everything is. Pretty trad for that time, though.

“Blues in Thirds” is the first Bechet track here. It’s a small group performance at the height of the big band era. That makes it rather notable, I didn’t realize that some of the older musicians were performing in small groups still. It’s a pretty trad ballad, though.

“Save It, Pretty Mama” is an even later Bechet side, from ‘45. It has more of a pronounced “swing” sound, though it is a ballad and though it is still a really small group for the standards of the time. Hines is particularly on, albeit playing very conventional piano for the era.

“A Monday Date” is the first Hines’ solo performance to be included in the selection. It’s a track like this that really shows off both Hines’ abilities to play both rhythm and lead and his move away from ragtime style piano: it’s infinitely more complex, not just in his lines but in the breakdowns / tempo changes. Brilliant. Just incredible.

“Stowaway” is another solo piano piece, featuring Hines taking on more of a ballad. It’s not quite the mind-melter that “A Monday Date” is, but it still features excellent playing and the kind of improvisational runs we now associate with jazz piano. It’s easy to listen to this and understand the “Fatha” nickname.

You know what? I take it back, it’s an equally mind-melting piece.

Hines’ approach to the intro of “Chimes in Blues” is unlike anything else I’ve heard in 1920s jazz. The rest of the song is a little more conventional – though still up to his strong standard and really great – but that intro is something else entirely. Also, you can really hear the “trumpet” in a couple of his chords here.

“Fifty-Seven Varieties” is more conventional than many of his other 1928 recordings; much more ragtime-influenced and less indicative of his genius for innovation (though there are some decent improvisations and the break is great).

“Love Me Tonight” is a slightly later solo piano piece that has a more obvious debt to ragtime until about the 40-second mark when it really begins to resemble jazz and then everything goes mad. Really cool.

“The Father’s Getaway” has a neat intro but appears to veer dangerously  into ragtime but is saved by some typical Hines madness of selecting really odd chords for the bass parts (not a musicologist, sorry). Also, the break near the end is bonkers, just bonkers. As is the end.

“Chicago Rhythm” is a gig with Hines as leader that absolutely sounds like it was recorded on the transition from trad jazz to swing (which it was). The band is bigger and there is an emphasis on group-writing, but the solos are still pure “dixieland.” A pretty great little record given when it was made.

“Rosetta” is another Hines Orchestra performance, though I’m not sure if it’s from ‘33 or ‘34. It’s a ballad with a prominent Hines solo the middle (in contrast to some of his other group recordings). Hines’ solo is really out there compared to some of his other large group recordings.

“Cavernism” Now this is swing. Early swing, but great stuff, still containing the energy of early jazz.

“Harlem Lament” is relatively unique (at least among his music I’ve heard so far) in that it not only features a solo piano intro but also features a prominent piano part throughout, as if it was conceived as a piano solo and then the orchestration and clarinet solo were added on top. Perhaps Hines’ definitive band performance.

“Ridin’ a Riff” is much more mature swing. At this point the style had crystalized and the emphasis is much more on the different elements of the group playing off each other. That cornet or trumpet solo is pretty awesome.

“Solid Mama” is prime-era swing. At this point the genre completely ceased to sound like trad jazz and it’s hard to hear the connection to the early music on this disc. Hines solo is brief but great.

“Comin’ in Home” Solid swing track. Hines sounds like has matured as a pianist but that isn’t entirely a good thing – he is entirely in control here, and one of the great things about his earlier music is that it always sounds like he is about to lose the plot.

“The Earl”: Though this features about as prominent role for Hines’ piano as anything outside of “Harlem Lament” (it sounds like it was conceived the same way), it also features the fullest sound of the band yet. Maybe that’s the technology, or maybe his band got bigger (the liner notes are not reliable). A rather huge-sounding recording given how much of it is dedicated to Hines by himself. One of his best later recordings.

“Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues” is sort of what it sounds like: full blown boogie-woogie, though, because Hines’ band was a swing band, there are swing elements that punctuate the boogie-woogie piano, at first briefly and then they become more dominant. Out there, for sure.

This is both a valuable and scattershot collection. Hines’ solo performances rank among the greatest and most important in the history of jazz piano. However, some of these group performances come from times when Hines had already been eclipsed by some up and comers (or was just about to be). For me, the real treat would be to hear a complete collection of all his ‘20s solo sides.

Still worth your time, though. (But the performance notes are shit.)

8/10

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