How 89-year-old Dick Hyman and 13-year-old Joey Alexander brought the house down at Jazz at Lincoln Center (along with five other brilliant pianists) – here’s my story, as published in DownBeat.com.
Can you call a 13-year-old a piano master? The question came to mind during last weekend’s season opener by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (known more simply as the JLCO). The show, entitled “Handful of Keys: A Century of Jazz Piano,” featured spectacular performances by 89-year-old piano master Dick Hyman and the astonishing Joey Alexander, now barely a teenager. It also included memorable performances by five other exceptionally talented pianists – Helen Sung, Myra Melford, Larry Willis, Isaiah J. Thompson, and the JLCO’s own Dan Nimmer – an embarrassment of riches.
Since the whole glorious history of jazz piano cannot fairly be assayed in a single evening, the concert was more of a grab-bag than a survey. The game plan seems to have been to allow the pianists to play some of their favorite music, with the result roughly representing many of the major styles of jazz piano.
Marsalis and company were celebrating the 29th season of the JLCO, which, since 2004, has performed its ambitious programs in the plush digs of the Rose Theater, part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s three-venue complex in the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle. During intermission, the sold-out crowd was invited to toast the anniversary with champagne in the recently renovated Atrium named for Ahmet Ertegun and his wife Mica. The new season will include centennial observances of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Buddy Rich, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Marsalis kicked off the evening with the Milwaukee-born Nimmer, introducing him as someone who “was born and lives to swing… We have embraced him and love him and we won’t let him go anywhere.” As he entered from stage right, the orchestra echoed those sentiments, greeting the boyish-looking 33-year-old with a standing ovation. Nimmer, choosing the upbeat “Temperance” from a 1960 album by one of his idols, Wynton Kelly, proceeded to emulate what he described as Kelly’s “happy feeling and driving swing.” Accompanied by a sparkling arrangement by JLCO trumpeter Marcus Printup that showcased the piano beautifully, Nimmer showed why he is one of today’s most versatile and under-appreciated pianists. It comes down to two words: great feel.
The next pianist, the preternaturally confident and proficient Isaiah J. Thompson, a Marsalis protégé, is only 19 and a sophomore in Julliard’s jazz studies program. He began with a fine homage to Monk, eloquently riffing on Monk’s off-kilter take on “Lulu’s Back in Town,” artfully arranged by trombonist Vincent Gardner. Afterwards, Marsalis observed, “He’s gonna get a good grade this semester.” On Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom” from the 1962 Night Train album, Thompson displayed a light touch and solid swing feeling that conjured the master.
The rising piano star Helen Sung followed, impressing with her physicality and polish at the keyboard and her stylistic range. She brought that whole-body approach to McCoy Tyner’s fascinating, rhythmically challenging “Four By Five,” in her own arrangement for the JLCO. The high-energy arrangement featured Victor Goines burning through an intense, Coltrane-ish tenor solo, and Ali Jackson, having a field day in one of his typically melodic drum solos. After that bracing excursion into modernism, Sung made a 180, with a beautifully nuanced, pleading blues piano solo on Percy Mayfield’s R&B classic “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” Played as a trio with drummer Jackson and bassist Carlos Henriquez, it felt like a warm bath.
NEA Jazz Master Dick Hyman, who must be tired of seeing his age in print, showed his ageless artistry in the first of his two appearances in the program. In a Benny Carter arrangement of “All of Me,” Hyman’s fleet, two-handed runs displayed undiminished skills and imagination. Marsalis and other band members seemed to hang on his every note.
The program’s second half began with the extraordinary Myra Melford, whose radiant, energetic presence and sense of humor belie her serious composing chops and a sheer physical domination of the piano that sometimes recalled Cecil Taylor. Of the seven pianists, Melford was the only one to perform her own composition; it was “The Strawberry,” from her acclaimed Snowy Egret album, in a daring, accomplished big band arrangement by saxophonist Ted Nash. After a gospel/bluesy intro, the piece segued into jaunty, Latin-inspired modernism that recalled Leonard Bernstein’s dance music in West Side Story. She followed up with a rhapsodic rendition of Andrew Hill’s “Images of Time.”
Journeyman pianist Larry Willis was greeted with the orchestra’s second standing ovation, in recognition of his long career as a musician’s musician. He continued the concert’s emphasis on the percussive side of the piano with another Monk tune, “Rhythm-A-Ning,” in a brilliant arrangement by saxophonist Sherman Irby that began with a glorious Ali Jackson drum solo, then showcased a dense, discordant, frenetic Willis solo and a wild trombone solo by Elliot Mason.
The stage was set for the evening’s most highly anticipated performance. Mr. Alexander may be diminutive, but he is like a stealth weapon. Introducing him, Marsalis proclaimed his genius, noting, “You will never hear another 13-year-old ever play on the progression he’s about to play.” The progression was that of “Very Early,” the first of two tunes written by or associated with Bill Evans. The idea that a pianist so young would embody the spirit of the great Evans was hard to wrap one’s head around, but he successfully evoked the master without sacrificing his own keen originality. In this, and a breathtaking version of “Who Can I Turn To?,” here at last was the celebration of elaborate and exquisite jazz harmony needed to round out the evening’s portrait of jazz piano history.
Perhaps the only finale that could credibly follow Alexander’s bravura performance was the return of the serene, Yoda-like Mr. Hyman, striding onstage with erect posture and a vigor that belied his 89 years. He proceeded, Samson-like, to destroy the place with James P. Johnson’s supremely challenging “Jingles.” In the finest rendition of a Johnson stride masterpiece that I ever expect to hear, he also made the 1930 masterwork sound like it had been written yesterday.