You hear about heavy metal singers dying even before they’re dead. Jazz musicians, it usually takes a couple days. Hank Jones died on Sunday at age 91. I really loved his playing.
The NYT has a somewhat voyeuristic look into the 12′ x 12′ room where he holed himself up in his final months, practicing incessantly. It’s a surprising vision of where even the greats like Hank Jones end up.
Let us praise versions of “My Funny Valentine” that don’t make us squirm. Let us praise Lifetime Achievement Awards for those who truly deserve it. Let us praise 90-year-old pianists who continue to paint new scenes on the keys.
Let us praise Hank Jones.
Hank Jones opened a two-night stand at Yoshi’s in San Francisco tonight, and during an hour-and-a-half set displayed no loss of conception, creativity, nimbleness or humor even while entering his ninth decade. He defines the phrase “jazz treasure” without any self-importance. He opened his set with “Happy Birthday,” for cryin’ out loud.
I caught the 10 o’clock set, after impulsively driving down from Santa Rosa at the last minute to buy a single ticket. Jones has been on a lot of albums I adore—Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, John Coltrane’s Bags & Trane, Charlie Haden’s Steal Away, Roland Kirk’s We Free Kings, Chris Connor’s My Name is Chris—but it’s a piquant little collection of standards by his Great Jazz Trio that I’ve been listening to a lot lately. Someday My Prince Will Come isn’t out of this world, but it is a basic collection of standards played well. Sometimes that is all that’s needed.
Tonight, Jones offered a similar grace and simplicity. Check the setlist:
Lonely Moments – Mary Lou Williams
Quiet Lady – Thad Jones
Bluesette – Toots Thielmans
My Funny Valentine – Richard Rogers
Rhythm-a-Ning – Thelonious Monk
Blue Minor – Sonny Clark
Stella by Starlight – Victor Young
Six and Four – Oliver Nelson
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Joe Zawinul
Intimidation – Hank Jones
Blue Monk – Thelonious Monk
Each song followed the basic order. Intro, head, verse, piano solo, bass solo, drum solo, head, and out. John Clayton clearly relished playing with a different group (he’s Diana Krall’s right-hand man) and came correct with brilliant bass work that at times even had Jones in awe, while drummer Clayton Cameron danced around the drums with brushes that seemed to sing. Jones phrased skilled solos that could only come from a lifetime of playing combined with an impressively present acumen.
But it was Hank Jones’ humor that took the cake. He drew out the ending to “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” with three false endings, toying with the crowd, but when the next tune ended abruptly and no one clapped, he looked at the audience, curiously, and laughed, “That’s it.” During the verse of “Blue Monk” he threw in an extra discordant harmony to Monk’s already-discordant arrangement and then looked around as if to apprehend the musical trespasser—inside the piano, underneath the keyboard.
The dude is 90 and he’s still having fun. Thanks, Hank, for still being here.