Vol. 1: Spirit
English pianist/organist and improvising composer Alexander Hawkins isn’t quite as well-known on these shores as he could be. His work tends to fall quite far from the European free improvisation mainstream, embracing bubbly lyricism, spiritual heft, and dedication to a diverse series of modern jazz threads (embracing Sun Ra, South Africa, and Charles Mingus equally). Though his discography is somewhat slim and includes only one official date as a leader, his youthful enthusiasm doesn’t get in the way of making work that is honest and mature.
One of his longstanding groups is the Convergence Quartet, which joins Hawkins and bassist Dominic Lash with American improvisers Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet and flugelhorn) and Harris Eisenstadt (percussion). Song/Dance is their second disc and first for the Portuguese Clean Feed label. Lash’s “Second” begins the disc, Hawkins in additive hunt and peck atop plastic rimshots and meaty pizzicato, anthemic and snaking as right hand repetition grabs hold of Bynum’s laconic, cottony pierce. Ultimately, it’s a funky and celebratory beginning, inverted backbeats shoving continual piano and brass reconstitution. Bynum’s phrases are lacy, short progressions that pay respect to Bill Dixon on “Baobabs,” set to an elegiac pace of drifting toms and Aeolian harp rustle. “Iris” starts life as a cornet cadenza, gulps and whines that become measured, Hawkins subsequently providing light deliberateness as Lash and Eisenstadt swirl and grab, the pianist closing with his own unaccompanied section along a Jaki Byard-Herman Blount axis.
Leroy Jenkins’ “Albert Ayler: His Life was Too Short” is highly reminiscent of “There is a Balm in Gilead,” airy refraction mixed with a hushed, lilting theme. The title composition works through multiple parts: a punchy drum-and-bugle corps, piercing metal and arco lines against a duskily creeping piano-drum base that soon becomes fractured accents. A Kenny Drew-inspired blues walk is the apex of Hawkins’ solo on the lush Eisenstadt-penned “The Pitts,” pinched brass waver stitching across the trio’s wooly canvas. Bynum skitters across the kwela theme of “Kudala,” sputtering call and flinty rises buoyed by bright, earthy township rhythms and Brotherhood-like melody.
Decoy is Hawkins’ organ-trio, although it’s a far cry from anything Freddie Roach or John Patton might have conjured even at their most exploratory. Spirit is the first part of a two-volume set, with follow-up The Deep released only on vinyl. Decoy is not a saxophone or guitar-driven group either, instead relying on John Edwards’ contrabass and Steve Noble’s percussion as throaty, glinting foils to Hawkins’ Hammond C3. The closest analog (and there are few) in organ jazz might be the 70s work of Larry Young, dense superimposition inspired by John Coltrane and with an obscure remainder of the groove buried in electric pulse. That is, at least, how Hawkins interprets it on the opening group improvisation, “Outside In,” rumbling keyboard mass occasionally popping out funky fragments, which are gradually subsumed in an all-stops-pulled murk, cymbal wash and throaty arco contributing to a pockmarked tone field. “Who’s Who” moves at a broken clip, elements of Ra and Jimmy Smith peppering a rollicking solo as Noble and Edwards count out a mighty, monolithic beat.
“Episode No. 69” ferrets out particulate rattle, upper-register key jabs in orbit with string harmonics and Noble’s heady rustle. Hawkins’ history with the church organ becomes clear in Gerhard Zacher-like long tones and tart plugged-in dissonance, falling away into hushed patter, cymbal floes and coiled strum before reemerging in density that falls just shy of power-play. The lengthy “Native Origins” deals with volumes in a tidal ebb and flow, heady masses that suddenly become a whisper, then returning in cubic plats and garish, upturned gesture almost entirely hinged upon Hawkins’ C3. Edwards and Noble trade support, fierce arco and Elvin-like triplet bash plugging at Hawkins’ greasy-wet shove and maddening, interwoven shouts. There isn’t any subtlety to the music on Spirit, tinny accents and gut projection on an equal footing with burbling, glitchy arpeggios and colorful swirls in a heaving but distinct coagulation. If you didn’t know music like this was possible from an organ-trio, Decoy will probably turn you on your ear.