Unfortunately or perhaps on second thought, fortunately, most jazz listeners remember Kenny Drew’s work throughout the 1950’s, and slightly beyond, when he recorded with most of the legendary innovators who helped define the nature of jazz in the second half of the twentieth century, including Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Joe Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Sonny Rollins, Sam Jones, Buddy Rich, Lester Young, Louis Hayes, Donald Byrd and Johnny Griffin. Indeed, Drew played on Rollins’ first album, as well as on Jackie McLean’s Jackie’s Bag, Art Farmer’s Farmer’s Market, Toots Thielemans’ Man Bites Harmonica and John Coltrane’s Blue Train. However, Drew continued an active jazz career in Europe after he moved to Paris in 1961 and then permanently to Copenhagen in 1964. He appeared to fade from jazz consciousness, except for those dedicated enthusiasts who sought his recordings on such labels as Steeple Chase and Soul Note. Expanding beyond his traditional 1950’s role as accompanist, Drew expanded his activities into orchestrations and composing, in addition to his long-running gig at the Jazzhus Montmartre with bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson.
Now, as part of its Copenhagen Series, Storyville Records has released a CD representing three phases of Drew’s work in Copenhagen as he apparently contentedly fulfilled his jazz career there until his death in 1993. The first four 1966 tracks of In Copenhagen: Kenny Drew consist of duo work with NHØP, who was only 19 at the time of the recording proving how advanced he was even at that age. On the opening track, "Everything I Love," not only does NHØP contribute his own edge-of-the-seat solo, but also he forcefully pushes the beat as Drew staggers it, gamely following Drew as he swings through several turnarounds before the ending. Even on Drew’s ballad tribute to his wife, "Ode to Mariann," the bassist assumes a major role in shaping the tune, anchoring the beat as Drew impressionistically splashes chord clusters over it. NHØP takes the first solo of "Willow Weep for Me" while Drew remains in the background, lobbing chords as the occasion warrants, and then, unexpectedly, the bassist takes even firmer command of the song as he cranks up the intensity and tempo.
The second third of the tracks, recorded as well by the Danish Broadcast Corporation, involves Drew’s solo performance in 1978, providing listeners with the opportunity to appreciate his technique and his ability to entrance an audience without a rhythm section. "Yesterdays" suggests Drew’s early interest in Art Tatum through his ability to alternate lightning-fast arpeggios and rising tremolos with sudden pauses and then stride rhythm. "Blues for Nils" borrows from early piano blues players with the broad tenths and then walking bass lines before Drew picks up speed and the resulting technical complexity before the cascading notes preceding the lightened ending. Even a standard like "Whisper Not" commences with a fanciful, rubato introduction that doesn’t suggest the song to follow. Once it does start, of course, Drew pounces onto the rising chords of the seventh and eighth measures for additional emphasis and contrast, as if to jar the listener to attention.
The last four tracks, from 1983, team Drew with another bassist, Bo Stief, during a live performance at the Café Grock next to Frederiksberg City Hall. Seventeen years after the first tracks were recorded, Drew remained forceful and imaginative. More important, he had started working with a bassist, technically astounding, who provided a more aggressive, higher pitched sound, especially on the closing number, Milt Jackson’s "Bluesology." The result of their collaboration establishes yet another side of Drew’s talent, his playing faster, his technique more jaw-dropping, his two-handed Art Tatum/Teddy Wilson/Bud Powell influences even more evident as he moves from relaxation to utmost excitement.
Rather than easing into a comfortable retirement in Copenhagen, Drew’s abilities deepened, by the evidence presented by In Copenhagen: Kenny Drew, and his talent for covering numerous jazz styles was akin to that of Jaki Byard’s. In Copenhagen: Kenny Drew should provide a reconsideration of the pianist’s work in Denmark during the 29 years that he contributed to the jazz scene there.