Stamina, one of the essentials for any jazz. performer, is easy enough to achieve when the artist is young and possibly gifted. But staying power is far more elusive, especially in any more significant sense than merely managing to keep in the public eye (and even that has proved an impossible task for many musicians who undoubtedly were gifted, thanks to the merciless economic laws of the music business). But Earl Hines, having celebrated the 50th anniversary of the start of his recording career, has not only survived two periods of comparative neglect but continues to create still more new ideas and to develop, quite literally, more power to his elbows. For Hines, in his sixty-ninth year at the time, to play with such boundless energy and startling invention is indeed a tour de force.
The comparison is often made with Earl’s friend and contemporary Louis Armstrong, with whom he worked in Chicago in the late Twenties and again from 1948 to 1951 in the early days of the Armstrong All-Stars, and it is a comparison which is especially valid at the stylistic level. But it does ignore the inescapable fact that the trumpet requires strong facial muscles and unfailing lung power, while playing the piano (though certainly not to be underestimated as pure physical exercise) is accomplished mainly by precise control of the hands and forearms.
Thus even the slender frame of a Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith (born 1897) or a Eubie Blake (1883) still produced extraordinarily vital, hard-hitting music. Earl Hines, of course, belongs stylistically to the generation after these ragtime-influenced pianists and, at least since the day he tore into Weather Bird on that historic 1928 duet with Louis Armstrong, has been recognized as the most daring improviser of his generation.
It hardly seems necessary to underline the fact that all the music in this album is improvised, and yet how many pianists, faced with one of these standard songs, would not play a theme chorus of relatively monochrome approach (however individualistic in itself) and then proceed to a solo whose accompaniment was more or less predictable? With Hines, nothing is predictable or to be taken for granted, whether the theme, the harmonies or the rhythm.
"When Your Lover Has Gone," (incidentally one of those songs which would have never survived if Armstrong had not remodelled it in the first place) finds him taking liberties in all directions. The theme gets quite short shrift, the chord-sequence is bent at times to suit the direction of the improvisation and the rhythm, fairly understated at the outset and almost implying the presence of a guitar-bass-drums team, later break into a fast waltz before a brief excursion into stride piano.
"Mack The Knife" affords a particularly good opportunity to study the variety of Hines’s left-hand work–not only stride, but walking basses (both in single notes and tenths), passages of suspended time where the left hand suddenly becomes a second right hand, and of course the drum like accent which comes amongst and between everything else.
Another delight in this set is the disguised theme of "Say It Isn’t So" with its atmospheric ponderous chording and, in a later chorus, an amazing passage of polyrhythmic pyrotechnics which somehow fails to disturb the relaxed medium tempo. The deceptive minor introduction to "Indian Summer" which recurs at the very end also appears three-quarters of the way through, shortly after a series of three slides or glissandi–down and up the white notes, and then down the black keys of the piano.
Listen out, too, for the suggestions of half tempo in the middle of "I Never Knew," which not only tantalize with their implications but prepare one for the cutting of the tempo in the last two choruses, and for the brief references to the theme in the middle of "Lonesome Road," not as a basis for improvisation (cf. the pre-Armstrong generation) but rather as landmarks in a densely wooded landscape.
The essentially improvisatory nature of Hines’s music is borne out by the facy that all these pieces were recorded as first takes and, though one may feel a certain overfamiliarity with these songs in their natural state, and profess to know the pianist quite well, it would be best to follow Earl Hines’s quite magnificent example and take nothing for granted!