"No succeeding jazz tenor saxophonist can deny Hawkin’s impact on their instrument and their art.... the saxophone stands as the most popular of all wind instruments, and the one most associated with this music called jazz." -Bob Bernotas in the liner notes
It seems that ownership of the Prestige portfolio has changed hands again, which always means another chance for newcomers to own remastered classic jazz. The new Powers-That-Be have also included a bonus disc of related sides to sweeten the deal. All cynicism aside, this is a great opportunity to acquire musical masterpieces at a discount. The 10-Volume Prestige Profiles Series presents Miles Davis, The Red Garland Quintets, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, Kenny Burrell, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Coltrane, and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis.
Thankfully, these Prestige Profiles are not career overviews but rather a focused sampling of the artists' Prestige catalog only. In Coleman Hawkins' case, this period (1959 -1962) was brief but fertile. It would be impossible--or at least irreverent--to compile an exhaustive "best-of" spanning all of his diverse musical output from 5 decades on one disc. Even if there was such a thing, who could possibly absorb so much artistry in one sitting?
Coleman Hawkins (b.1904, d.1969) is the original tenor saxophone master. He possessed a gorgeous, bittersweet, hypnotic, full-bodied tone with the passion and expressiveness of a human voice. His mature lyricism deftly avoided over-sentimentalization. Hawkins was best known for his depth of feeling on ballads. On uptempo songs he demonstrated strength but never anger. By age 18, his talent was already so evident that Mamie Smith plucked him from a Kansas City theater. He aspired quickly to Fletcher Henderson's band, and played simultaneously in several other historic Midwestern bands. He relocated to Europe in the 1930s where he performed and recorded extensively. The Hawk returned to the States at the onset of World War II, and became one of the few "Elder Statesman" to successfully transition to bebop. These brilliant Prestige recordings from the late 50s and early 60s should dispel forever the fabrication that the Hawk had begun sounding old-fashioned or incapable of modern techniques. If he invented the tenor sax, it should also be noted he reinvented it several times over.
Hawkins played with Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli, and Duke Ellington; but he also played with Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and plenty in between. Many jazz fans view Coleman Hawkins as a bridge between the old and new, or perhaps he was actually above it all. His jazz conception was fluid. His unmistakable emotional expression always came through in his music, regardless of the stylistic or socio-cultural setting.
The first track, "I’m Beginning to See the Light" is one of the best. Trumpeter Joe Thomas and trombonist Vic Dickenson supply great solos, yet the Hawk’s supremacy remains intact. "Since I Fell For You" is a classic bluesy swing tune. On "I’ll Get By," Hawkins shows off his famous trills, turnarounds, and clever melodic restatements, all supported by Tommy Flanagan’s lively piano playing and Osie Johnson’s brush-work. Most of the compositions here are juke-box standards, Broadway tunes or traditional, but "Soul Blues" is all Coleman Hawkins. This and "Greensleeves" are both from the 1958 release Coleman Hawkins: Soul, famous for its intelligent interplay with Kenny Burrell’s guitar and Johnson’s intrinsic rhythm. "I’ll Never Be The Same" is a sexy shuffle, revealing beauty in understatement. "The Sweetest Sounds" is another classic swing number. The off-kilter intro is an album highlight. "I Want to Be Loved" documents Red Garland’s unmistakably tasteful and dynamic piano style. Ellington’s "In a Mellow Tone" starts out with Hawkins and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis blowing their tenor saxes in unison, but gradually turns into a dialogue and then a downright shouting match. Gus Johnson ushers you into this memorable exchange with a loose high-hat shuffle, and a young Ron Carter rounds it out with his killer walking bass lines. And if he couldn't get the Duke himself, Tommy Flanagan was the Hawk's obvious second call on a tune like this. "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" is a ballad of arresting beauty, and provides closure to the set. This slow tempo revealed Hawkins’ precise tone, breath control, vibrato, and imaginative self-restraint. Though advanced in years (mid 50s,) the Hawk's reputation as a ladies' man was clearly fueled by so many unabashed love songs.
The Prestige Profiles "Collectors’ Edition" Bonus Disc is also quite worthwhile. Though Hawkins only plays on one of the songs, there is definitely a tenor sax theme going here. "When Lights are Low" features inspired solos by Benny Carter, Ben Webster, and Barney Bigard. The aptly titled "Hittin’ the Jug" and "Chitlin’s" are also superb.
Recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder's work was pristine as always: proportionate levels, differentiation between instruments, unmatched realism, and pleasant ambiance. This collection will interest audio enthusiasts because the sessions overlapped Van Gelder's studio move from Hackensack to Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
The Prestige Profiles, Vol. 4 is highly recommended for anyone beginning to discover Coleman Hawkins or long-time fans who need to beef-up on his later years. Excellent jazz by any standard.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.