Art Tatum had more outward flash, and Jelly Roll Morton certainly possessed more carny flair. But Earl Hines stood alone as the absolute champion of rhythm in jazz’s triumvirate of most important pianists. Never within the idiom has the instrument sounded quite as percussive as when Fatha was cutting loose, accenting off-beats, pitting silence against a sonorous, thunderous attack, and turning what was often an upright piano into a rhythm machine that could get a room full of people dancing, sans backing band.
The Hines discography, though, has been something of a mess for a while now. The classic sides with Louis Armstrong—modern jazz’s birthing moment, you might say—have always been easy to come by, ditto the material with Duke Ellington. But Earl Hines’s is a discography that has long been overheavy with albums from the final portion of his career. Having entered into semi-retirement in the early 1960s, after four-plus decades of vanguard music-making, Hines was “rediscovered,” much in the fashion of some of the great Delta bluesmen later in the decade. This, though, was odd in that Hines had never really gone away, or he had certainly not gone away for long. But the gist of this rediscovery was more like a repositing: Hines the working band pianist could now become Hines the concert pianist, so it was out with juke joints and speakeasies and in with White House galas and concert halls.
The net result, starting in 1964, was some 80 albums; at times, more than a dozen were cut per year. The 1960s rediscovery bug and new listeners who had never heard prime Hines were enough to assure critical and, so far as jazz goes, popular acclaim. With a few notable exceptions (the wonderful Plays Duke Ellington, for instance), though, the solo Hines LPs tended to get somewhat overrated. All the more so if you were familiar with the body of work he had created during the golden days of Babe Ruth through the middle of World War II.
Mosaic’s Classic Earl Hines Sessions 1928-1945—a whopping seven discs of invention on perpetual display—might as well be regarded as a godsend, righting as it does the aforementioned disproportionate emphasis in Hines’s discography while also giving us what may well be jazz piano’s signature set. You want alto sax, you go for a package of Charlie Parker’s Savoy and Dial Sides; for trumpet, a box of Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens will sort you out. For piano, you come here. Pronto.
Mostly, Hines fronts his orchestra—which is to say he drives on one of swing’s finest big bands, his piano often playing the role of conductor, insisting on new directions, teasing out others, and then, when enough of a sonic narrative has been established, launching into bubbling, leaping, chops-demanding solos that defy one expectation after another. Sometimes it feels as if, no matter how many times you listen to something like “Bubbling Over,” it is impossible to guess Hines’s next move. A course is suggested, one expects an accent to fall or a chord to resolve, but what follows in something like “Bubbling Over” is a torrent of notes that seem untethered to the music, even as those notes bolster the rhythmic drive of the entire band.
Hines had a knack for making some of his grandest statements in the interstices of sound where you would expect a tune to run along an agreed-upon course to the next bridge, or to the next player’s chorus. It’s as though the piano has become something extra-musical, a device for making music that challenges our conceptions of musicality itself. But lest anything get too heady, never let it be said that this isn’t just flat-out good fun, with “Bubbling Over” being Hines’s genial riposte to Jelly Roll Morton and his difficult “Finger Breaker.” And you can dance to it.
Hines viewed himself as an entirely workmanlike creature, however, stating at one point that he had no idea that the music he made with Louis Armstrong, for instance, was anything special. And there is very much a meat-and-potatoes groove to cuts like “Pianology” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” The latter, from 1941, features a neat allusion to ragtime before spinning off a stride lick or two and Hines concluding his extemporizations with snatches of bebop. (Indeed, “Child of a Disordered Brain,” present in two takes from 1940, has a little rhythmic filigree that is a dead ringer for the antiphonal lick of “Salt Peanuts.”)
Hines never dominates the proceedings, but there is never any doubt as to who is the singular player in these lineups. What always impresses is just how flat-out loud—punchy—Hines’s piano is, as if he had found a way to gussy-up his decibel level without coming across as abrasive or ostentatious. Hines may have ended his career as a rococo soloist, perched uncomfortably between notions of himself as a concert pianist and a rhythm-dispensing jazzman. But Count Basie and Sviatoslav Richter both could hunker down with some of the showstoppers spread throughout this box set and find common ground.
“Flang Doodle Swing,” “Father Steps In,” “Comin’ In Home,” “The Father Jumps,” and “The Earl” are the kinds of performances you cue up for any jazz piano neophyte and say, “Have a listen to this”—with an instant convert shortly to be staring back at you, mouth agape. But just as important, in terms of how we think of Hines, is the new thematic strain that emerges throughout the set: the notion of him as a percussive bluesman. Fast runs were always something of a Hines specialty, but a performance like “Windy City Jive,” from 1941, reveals a player perfectly at his ease in bluesier climes. One begins to hear an element of the blues in even the most volcanic solos, as if Hines hit a fast-forward button and turned one subset of jazz into another.
Colin Fleming is the author of Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories.