Hasaan Ibn Ali’s solo performances expand jazz history

Pianist and composer Hasaan Ibn Ali is an unduly elusive presence in jazz history. His first album, with a trio, was released in 1965; his second, with a quartet, recorded later that year, was only released in early 2021. Both showed him to be a distinctive and original musician, but what they offered was above all the sound of possibility, of unrealized potential. The new version of “Retrospect In Retirement Of Delay: The Solo Recordings” by Hasaan (Omnivore Recordings), which presents him in performances recorded privately from 1962 to 1965, reveals his depth, his overwhelming power, his powerful virtuosity. It does more than place him on the map of jazz history – it expands the map to include the vast expanse of his musical achievements.

Hasaan was something of a legend in Philadelphia, but played little elsewhere. His solo recordings were made by David Shrier and Alan Sukoenig, two passionate jazz undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania who had befriended him. He visited them at the university and allowed them to record him playing the piano in dorms and student union lounges as well as in Shrier’s apartment and in a New York apartment where Hasaan summoned Sukoenig and his tape recorder. These circumstances seem ripe for music of modest intimacy; instead, what Hasaan played is torrential. (The short-term sense of urgency is reflected in the astonishing fact that nine of the pieces, including the four longest, were all recorded on the same day, October 25, 1964, at three different venues.) ‘album performances emerge as contents under pressure, as fury of musical imagination that had accumulated in Hasaan for a long time, as if he knew he was playing on the biggest stage of all: the stage of the eternity.

Born in Philadelphia in 1931, and originally performing as William Langford, a modified version of his first name (his parents spelled the last name “Lankford”), Hasaan performed there in the late 1940s. and in the early fifties with the young musicians rising from the city, notably John Coltrane, four years his senior, who is said to have studied with Hasaan. (Later, Hasaan allegedly claimed that Coltrane stole his ideas.) In other words, as a teenager Hasaan was already an artist among artists and by his early twenties was a recognized innovator. His approach to music was so unusual that, despite the place of honor he won among the greats in town (including Philly Joe Jones, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath and brothers Bill and Kenny Barron), his opportunities professional and commercial were limited. Hasaan has lived his entire life in Philadelphia and played a large part of his performances, according to saxophonist Odean Pope, privately: “At night, after getting dressed, he would visit three or four houses where they had pianos. People would serve him coffee or cakes, give him a few cigarettes or maybe a few dollars every now and then. In the early sixties, at a time when his fellow musicians were already famous and already profusely recorded, Hasaan – in his thirties – was recorded by students with amateur material. (His debut album, “The Max Roach Trio featuring the Legendary Hasaan,” was recorded in December 1964; the long-released quartet album, “Metaphysics,” was also an Omnivore Recordings release.)

What is most miraculous about the preservation of Hasaan’s solo performances and the survival of the bands is the artistry displayed in the performances themselves. The new album’s astonishment begins with the very first notes of the first track, the standard “Falling In Love With Love”, which Hasaan begins with a playful tango-like bass riff that returns throughout like a big-band to one. hand. accompaniement. This percussive figure maintains a rhythmic base that prompts Hasaan to stand out with crystalline and flowery barrages of high notes in shifting shapes and meters that cascade, swirl and swarm in ever more daring and far-reaching harmonies. Hasaan had devised a so-called system a decade earlier whereby he used substitution chords that varied wildly while recognizable retaining the original frame of the composition. This is what Coltrane is believed to have gotten out of their time together, and the savage profusion of notes unleashed by Hasaan’s right hand, like a sky of shining stars scattered by the hilt, is indeed reminiscent of what critic Ira Gitler called “sound sheets.”

With tacit but manifest daring, Hasaan seems to be voluntarily claiming his place in jazz history, lifting the gauntlets thrown by the greats, playing a thirteen minute version of “Body and Soul”, of which Coleman Hawkins made the culminating solo. . of the swing era in 1939; a ten-minute version of “Cherokee”, the song that first made Charlie Parker famous and is identified with the birth of bebop; excerpts from Miles Davis’ repertoire (“On Green Dolphin Street” and “It Could Happen to You”); and “Off Minor” by Thelonious Monk. Hasaan presents “Body and Soul” with a new counter-melody of his own that helps him break the familiar tune in such a surprising way that, twenty seconds later, the performance is already historic. He transforms Rodgers and Hart’s “Lover” waltz into a fast-paced fifteen-minute game with a syncopation of its melody that becomes the dominant figure in his bassline as his right hand launches barrages of rapid-fire scintillations that subdivide them. measures. in infinitesimals. In a thirteen-minute talk on the harmonically complex ballad “It Could Happen to You,” Hasaan transforms clichés of melodramatic tremolos into a punchy, thunderous rumble; amidst thunderstorms shimmering with high notes, it returns to melody with a sudden stop-fragmentation-and-restart that is both breathtakingly dramatic and incredibly funny.

The outpouring of physical energy and the display of intellectual endurance in these prolonged performances are offset by the inexhaustible inventiveness and far-reaching inspiration of Hasaan. The succession within each song of so many figures with different shapes, different tones, sharp engravings and flamboyant characters suggests a musical imagination of seemingly endless variety, which is all the more astonishing for its blend of freedom without hindrance and meticulous attachment to the melodies and structures of the compositions themselves. Hasaan’s hands are almost faster than his ears – the astonishing speed of his playing is only balanced by the crystal-clear precision that brings out every note with a gemstone sparkle. The experience of listening to these twenty extended solos is relentless, emotionally overwhelming, almost vicariously exhausting in the experience of feeling a musician tap so deep into himself and release such powerful forces. (Surprisingly, an additional brief track features Hasaan singing one of his own compositions.)

It seems to me that it is no coincidence that Hasaan’s powerful musical self-portrait resembling a real-time fresco comes in the form of a solo piano. In his trio and quartet recordings, the accompaniment of bass and drums seems to inhibit him, to channel his solos into forms that would welcome the musicians’ interpretations (however splendid they may be) of the main part of the rhythm. and the harmony he generated for himself, copiously and ingeniously, with his two hands. His musical concept is presented as complete, mercurial, eruptive, not that of a chamber musician but that of a one-person orchestra. It provides more than the intimate image of a musical spirit at work; it conveys the galvanic sense of a heroically physical musical battle against time.

Hasaan’s career has gone from decrescendo to disaster. Discouraged by his truncated recording career, Sukoenig writes in his richly informative liner notes, Hasaan withdrew. He was living with his parents when their house caught fire, killing his mother, leaving his father disabled, consuming Hasaan’s compositions and leaving him mentally weakened. He was housed in a group home, was in drug treatment, had a devastating stroke, and died in 1980 at the age of 49. In a 1978 interview that Sukoenig quotes, Roach (died 2007) stated that he made recordings at Hasaan’s home when the pianist visited him: “I have hours of playing the piano solo, c ‘It’s incredible. Sukoenig says, however, that no other records, commercial or private, of Hasaan have surfaced. Either way, “Retrospect In Retirement Of Delay” proves Hasaan was not what could have been – he was, he was. is among the handful of greats.

Ada J. Kenney