CD Review: Alexander Hawkins - Song Singular

Alexander Hawkins - Song Singular
(Babel Label BDV13120. CD Review by Adrian Pallant)

Immediately drawn to a familiar title, Take The A Train, I discover an intriguingly brash, agitated and break-neck solo piano interpretation of the Ellington (Strayhorn) classic which imaginatively and impressionistically evokes the raw steam energy and bustle of an era long since gone. It's a device which immediately grabs the listener's attention and offers an irresistible invitation to investigate further.

Directly following, in less hurried exploration, Distances Between Points appears to develop the A Train theme by subtly and repeatedly referencing (maybe subconsciously) one of its distinctive hooks. Whatever the intention, these two selections provide a 'window' into a fascinating 45-minute journey of extemporisation.

Indeed, Song Singular the first solo piano release from Alexander Hawkins is something of a revelation – a highly individual collection of ten free/avant-garde jazz works, each of which develop as improvisations from an initial compositional idea. The young British pianist is involved in a variety of ensembles (including his own, whose album Step Wide, Step Deep is released in tandem with this recording). But here, his challenge has been to pare down to the starkness of two piano hands whilst still considering an ensemble approach (including one piece, for interesting comparison, common to both albums).

Improvisation for the listener, as well as for the performer, is led by personal and artistic preference (the pianist suggests that, until this recording, all previous solo activity has been for his ears only). But, to whet curiosity, here are a few more pointers…

The rapidity of Hawkins' thought processes and co-ordination are staggering, given that these are creative outpourings. Joists, Distilled, for example, is Debussy at his most febrile, and yet, amongst the intense, thunderous runs, there is structure and sensitivity. Early Then M.A. is, by way of contrast, more open, more searching, and perhaps comparable to a Schnittke sonata – but, again the dazzling technique is so assured that this might easily have been rehearsed and performed many times previously; infused with luscious clusters and sparkling constellations, there is real beauty here. Bold, blustering and bluesy, Advice pulls and pushes its way through its endearing six-minute existence with those archetypal, flicked Deep South chords and occasionally bursting out into high roller-coaster passages (its ensemble counterpart is every bit as satisfying).

Hope Step the Lava Flow maintains an attractive, jaunty, jazz swing with a strong melodious right hand over (at times) a spidery Oscar Peterson feel in the left – four minutes which I selfishly wished had been eight. A lazy Gershwin-like drawl inhabits Stillness from 37,000 ft., whilst Unknown Baobabs (Seen in the Distance) initially floats loftily, but its rippling lower-register figure creates becomes increasingly swollen in texture – this whole piece is melodically strong and able to conjure expansive imagery, and yet there is space to breathe at the close).

These are my reactions and discoveries alone – the openness of Song Singular invites each listener to make their own.

One of Babel Label's 20th anniversary releases, the album is available from 24 February 2014 – with a solo piano performance at The Vortex, London, on 19 March.

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