John Hicks: Live at the Jazz Corner of the World, Jammin' Uptown & Mind Wine: The Music of John Hicks
Mickey Bass New York Powerhouse Ensemble
John Hicks Legacy Band
When pianist John Hicks passed away back in May of 2006, the jazz community lost one of its most treasured journeymen. After completing studies at Berklee and Juilliard, as well as a touring gig with singer Della Reese, the Atlanta-born Hicks arrived in New York where he almost immediately signed on as a major component of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Although he led many record dates throughout his prolific career, he will likely be best remembered as a a major building block inside ensembles led by stars with a little more name recognition such as Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard and Sonny Stitt. In fact Hicks continued to perform on the New York scene until just months before his passing, including a memorable engagement as part of the Curtis Fuller/Louis Hayes ensemble at Jazz Standard. That gig saw a musician who showed no signs that he planned on retiring any time soon.
Three new releases honor Hicks' storied legacy. Two of them present him in his familiar role as a sideman and the other pays tribute to him via an ensemble comprised of some of his closest friends and family.
Hicks performed as part of the Mickey Bass New York Powerhouse Ensemble on a 2001 Birdland date released as Live at the Jazz Corner of the World. Despite a few technical flaws, this live recording is the highlight of the albums discussed here. Along with the leader's bass, Craig Handy (tenor), Antonio Hart (alto) and Eric Allen (drums), Hicks stretches out on four lengthy tunes, the shortest running just under 17 minutes. Though the playing is consistently excellent throughout, the sound quality prevents the listener from enjoying the complete experience, as piano is the only instrument that seems to be properly mic'd. It's not as bad as those old Charlie Parker recordings where the other musicians are all but ignored, but the audio of the horn solos is about 50% lower than that of the rhythm section. So if you're looking for nothing more than a showcase for Hicks, it works in that regard. It's still a shame that the album's audio mix doesn't reflect the quality of playing.
Next up is Jammin' Uptown, a superb 1985 hard bop set led by drummer Alvin Queen. Queen and Hicks make up two parts of a sextet that also includes Manny Boyd (soprano), Terence Blanchard (trumpet), Robin Eubanks (trombone) and Ray Drummond (bass). With such top-notch performers on the record serving as mere sidemen, the musical results have no trouble exceeding all expectations. The group tackles seven selections, all of them penned by one of the players. Blanchard's "Europia" gets things off to an up-tempo start. Eubanks (brother of Tonight Show guitarist Kevin) offers a couple of standout numbers with the fiery "After Liberation" and the ballad "Resolution of Love". The group also takes a stab at Hicks' most well known composition "Mind Wine". The only member without a featured original song is Drummond. We can forgive him, however, since he also served as the producer on the date and the sound quality is outstanding throughout.
Finally we come to Mind Wine, a 2007 recording from the John Hicks Legacy Band, led by the late pianist's wife flutist Elise Wood-Hicks. She assembled an impressive sextet for the date, which pays tribute to the memory of the late pianist via interpretations of seven of his original works. Hicks' longtime friend Larry Willis honors the late musician's legacy with his work on piano. He's accompanied by Craig Handy (saxophones), Eddie Henderson (trumpet), Curtis Lundy (bass) and Steve Williams (drums), all of whom more than rise to this special occasion. The most moving aspect of the album arrives on the closing track: a sublime reading of Duke Ellington's "Single Petal of a Rose," a tune previously performed by husband and wife on Hicks' album of the same name. As it was on that album, it's performed here as a duet between piano and flute. The result is a hauntingly beautiful musical eulogy that will no doubt stir up all types of emotions for Hicks fans.
The death of John Hicks left a gaping hole in the jazz world, but his legacy will live on forever.
Tracks and Personnel
Live at the Jazz Corner of the World
Tracks: Europia; Jammin' Uptown; After Liberation; Mind Wine; Hear Me Drummin'; Resolution of Love: Hassan.
Personnel: Alvin Queen: drums; Manny Boyd: tenor, alto and soprano sax; John Hicks: piano; Terence Blanchard: trumpet; Robin Eubanks: trombone; Ray Drummond: bass.
Mind Wine: The Music of John Hicks
Tracks: Mind Wine; After the Morning; Blues in the Pocket; Heart to Heart; Yemenja; Naima's Love Song; Avotcja; Single Petal of a Rose.
Personnel: Elise Wood-Hicks: flute, alto flute; Craig Handy: soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone; Eddie Henderson: trumpet; Larry Willis: piano; Curtis Lundy: bass; Steve Williams: drums.