Known as a "musician's musician," Hicks enjoyed a forty-plus year career during which he performed with a who's who of jazz performers, without ever becoming a household name, however. (The mechanics of stardom are still a mystery to me, although the music industry executives have a lot to answer for. Suffice it to say that American Idol's Taylor Hicks' name came up first when I googled John Hicks!) In any case, Hicks was a consummate professional who worked most notably with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and the Betty Carter Trio, but also with blues legends Little Milton and Albert King and jazz greats Al Grey, Johnny Griffin, Pharaoh Sanders Kenny Dorham, Lou Donaldson, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Carmen McRae, Freddie Hubbard, Frank Foster, Roy Haynes, Sonny Stitt, Jon Hendricks, James Moody, David Murray, Arthur Blythe, fellow pianist Kenny Barron, Joshua Redman, Al Grey, Clark Terry, Ron Carter, Grady Tate, Charles Tolliver, Oliver Lake, Roy Hargrove, Gary Bartz, Bobby Watson, David Murray, David Newman, Hannibal Peterson, Walter Booker, Billy Bang, Sonny Fortune, Frank Wess, Louis Hayes, Buster Williams, George Mraz, Idris Muhammad, and Lester Bowie, to name just a few, as well as recording over 50 albums under his own name.
Talking with Hicks' widow, flutist Elise Wood, I learned that, under her care, compilation and tribute albums will be appearing in due course, including a live set from Birdland. Meanwhile, High Note has issued Hicks' last recording, which was made with one of his working groups, and if it had to be his memorial album it would work very well, as it includes all the main facets of his artistry: solo piano, piano trio, and a larger ensemble.
Like most pianists, John liked to work alone, or with a trio, but also enjoyed writing arrangements for a quintet or sextet, often, like the finest jazz composers, tailoring parts to specific musicians. In the past, these have included artists of the caliber of Bobby Watson and Vincent Herring; more recently he has been working with Javon Jackson and Elise, who has been a constant over several albums, adding her flute and alto flute where appropriate. Here the selections for solo piano include "One Peaceful Moment," "The Things We Did Last Summer," and "Sunset Blues," for trio "Once I Loved," while "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry" and "Hold It Down" add Jackson's tenor to create a quartet setting. The remaining tracks add Wood's flute to the ensemble sound, with her alto featured on "I Remember Clifford," and Ray Mantilla adds his percussion skills on several selections that remind us of Hicks' love of Latin music: "Sweet Love Of Mine," "Once I Loved," "Mambo Influenciado," and "Peanut Butter Two."
This is first-class playing from everyone, with a great range of feeling, from Hicks' lovely rubato ballad treatments to some crackling, straight-ahead, hard swing, to the infectious Latin segments. Jackson is a fine player who has listened to early Coltrane as well as to Joe Henderson. Lundy and Jones do the business throughout, and Hicks does what he does best--not only shining as a soloist but also, as an accompanist, making everyone else sound good.
When all is said and done, however, it is perhaps the final track that sums up John Hicks' roots and his passion as, alone at the piano, he plays the blues. As his swan song it could not be more fitting.