John Hicks And Gust Tsilis At The Atheneum, La Jolla, California

John Hicks And Gust Tsilis At The Atheneum, La Jolla, California

Album and Performance Review

Jim Merod

10 September 2002

Pianist John Hicks and his partner, vibraphonist Gust Tsilis, were nearly thwarted from playing to a full house in the charming wood paneled library of The Atheneum in La Jolla since the highway carrying them to San Diego from Los Angeles was closed for seven hours. Harassed but undaunted, the duo dove right out of the gate into Hicks’ engaging “Yemenja” and, quick but true, blew the dust off their sleeves. Their long opening set took them from the Billy Strayhorn masterpiece, “Upper Manhattan Medical Group,” and on to Hicks’ reflective solo excursion through Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” and Ellington’s “What Am I Here For? … a question made less rhetorical by the pianist’s puckish comment that “we’ll just leave [the title] at that.”

Succinct philosophical quips lurked at the edges of John Hicks’ playing at nearly every point in his lyrical exchanges with Tsilis. Slowly, a symbiotic thread emerged: two players moving with a single motion. The Atheneum performance marked the first time the two had played together in concert. One imagines it will not be the only time for such collaboration since, despite the burden of their journey down an accident-clogged freeway, their musical sympathies are close and their execution revealed the promise of refinement seeking greater freedom.

Elise Woods added charm and nuance to the evening when she brought her alto flute to a careful reading of Hicks’ gorgeous “Naima’s Love Song” — a tune that deserves a permanent place in the jazz playbook. The melding of vibraphone and alto flute voicings made ample sense, giving Hicks’ lithe undercarriage room to dance across the landscape of his composition’s swarthy enchantment. 

The set’s rousing finale, Bud Powell’s “Crazeology,” showed off Tsilis’ playful up-tempo chops. So much probing musical meditation had worked its magic across the set that concluding with youthful be-bop roots seemed effortless, and welcome, an appropriate close to a joyful hour of artful provocation.

Music in the Key of Clark: Remembering Sonny Clark [High Note: HCD 7083]

John Hicks’ recorded output is large and growing larger. A virtual who’s who of jazz inhabits his discography — Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, Nick Brignola, George Adams, Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, Gary Bartz, Vincent Herring, Bobby Hutcherson, Ray Drummond, Cecil McBee, Walter Booker, Jr., George Mraz, Ron Carter, Grady Tate, Elvin Jones, and so on. You will find there, as well, two brilliant (and unusual) duo recordings with pianist colleagues Jay McShann and Kenny Barron. John Hicks has been there, done that, and continues on with flourishes and bright, sometimes subdued musical colors that underline a great deal of the best of the jazz tradition. 

Hicks’ trio recordings are numerous and a good handful of them are classic albums filled with special charisma and lyrical brio. Music in the Key of Clark — a tribute to an important but easily overlooked pianist — adds to the group of John Hicks’ albums that should be considered indispensable. 

Sonny Clark’s career as a low-keyed but driving pianist who recorded extensively (mostly for Blue Note in the late-’50s) was cut short by his death at thirty-one years of age. He was as ubiquitous and as venerated by fellow musicians as John Hicks is now. Clark was a quiet, deeply swinging pianist who raised the level of performances around him. Clark’s compositions are less well known than his role as an impeccable sideman on justly celebrated albums under the leadership of Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Clifford Jordan, Jackie McLean and others. Nonetheless, Clark’s Cool Struttin’ album [Blue Note CDP 7465132] has earned a nearly cult status among hardcore jazz followers.

This long deserved tribute session — that features one of Hicks’ working trios, with Dwayne Dolphin, bass, and Cecil Brooks III, drums — is divided between Clark and Hicks compositions. Unlike so many studio dates that pass through the motions, leaving a listener wondering why such uninspired playing was published, this March 2001 session (recorded by David Baker) sizzles and sometimes purrs with polished musical perfection.

Start anywhere and find yourself in the grasp of jazz power burnished to a seductive sheen. This is not lounge music; nor is it a go-for-broke jam session. Music in the Key of Clark is made for repeated hearings: subtle grooves, telepathic lyric and rhythmic interplay among three gifted players. 

Hit “Cable Car” and let it take you on a dreamlike ride. The sound is akin to the clatter of wheels over rattling tracks. Listening to it, I remember the Old Four trolley that once ferried riders from the west side of St. Louis, near Forest Park (not too far from Del Mar Avenue and The Barrel jazz club), out to the countryside. That ride was a gift reinforcing a small child’s joy in the exuberance of rickety-raw, jauntily- unconstrained bouncing motion. Hicks’ trio has it all just right.

Punch in “Sonny’s Mood”; Hicks’ remarkably lush touch beguiles you. Try “Minor Meeting”; the hip carriage of three musicians strolling with a single gait catches you up. Or hit “My Conception”; the elegance of the trio’s skating glide is suave with a delicacy and understated drive that propels foot-tapping ease.

It’s a wonder that John Hicks has not explored Sonny Clark’s compositions and musical spirit before this ripe, admirable album. Better now than never. Better this precisely relaxed trio than another that might be over-urgent. Nothing overdone occurs here. Music in the Key of Clark not only “remembers” Sonny Clark’s songbook. It recreates Clark’s habit of nudging music’s inner pulse toward just those calm complexities of force and feeling that make life whole.

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