Alexander Hawkins Trio: Alexander Hawkins Trio
Alexander Hawkins Music

On his latest album (issued on his own newly established label), Alexander Hawkins (b. 1981) performs in a trio context, which at first blush might seem a rather conventional move from a self-taught pianist known for making daring choices in his music and the format by which it's presented. Last year, for example, the UK-based musician released the ensemble recording Step Wide, Step Deep, where he surrounded himself with guitarist Otto Fischer, violinist Dylan Bates, clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings, double bassist Neil Charles, and drummer Tom Skinner (concurrent with that release, Hawkins also issued Song Singular, his first solo piano recording). He also performs in The Convergence Quartet, which features cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, drummer Harris Eisenstadt, and double bassist Dominic Lash, and the three-piece Decoy (in which he plays Hammond organ), among others. The man is, in a word, versatile.

On Alexander Hawkins Trio, the pianist's joined by ensemble members Charles and Skinner on eight Hawkins originals that in high-wire fashion indulge his appetite for both free improvisation and compositional structure. Recorded in October 2014, the material was composed with the trio in mind, which, having come together in 2012, had only played a few sessions before entering the studio. Given Hawkins' bold playing style, it's surprising to learn that he's somewhat of a traditionalist when it comes to trio-related roles. In contrast to the approach associated with the renowned Bill Evans Trio (featuring Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian), which promoted the idea of equal status between instruments, Hawkins prefers that the bassist and drummer be more rhythmically focused than colourists. As great, technically speaking, as Charles and Skinner are, for Hawkins it's feel that comes first.

He cites as one of his favourite trio albums Money Jungle, the 1962 set featuring Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach, an interesting choice given that Hawkins' playing more suggests kinship with a figure such as Cecil Taylor than Ellington. So why did Hawkins decide to tackle the trio format when it's so heavy with precedent? While initially he shied away from the idea, the intrepid pianist decided to take it on as a potentially fruitful challenge: “I thought it might be interesting to go orthodox and find a way to make it innovative. I found I needed to think harder because of the smaller range of possibilities with only three musicians.” Issues of group dynamics become ever more pivotal when such a minimal number of musicians is involved. In the album's liner notes, Hawkins is quoted as saying, “[Skinner is] a great foil for me. I can get quite cerebral with the compositions and play with structural devices in the knowledge that he—and Neil—will be providing a counterweight.”

Led by the pianist's cubistic phrasemaking, “Song Singular-Owl (friendly)-Canon” begins in “Brilliant Corners” mode before Hawkins takes flight with a series of blues-inflected splashes that Skinner and Charles answer with a lumbering, cymbals-heavy pulse and arco bowing, respectively. The bassist's often the music's glue: in the opening “Sweet Duke,” for example, he's the anchor, and his walking lines similarly ground the ten-minute “Baobabs + SGrA*” (its title a reference to the exotic trees in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince). Elsewhere, “AHRA” features Hawkins in reflective solo mode during its first half before the others join him for a ballad-styled outro.

A number of the compositions were conceived as dedications: “40HB” to Convergence Quartet member Taylor Ho Bynum, “AHRA” written in memory of the under-recognized AACM saxophonist Maurice McIntyre (aka Kalaparusha Ahra Difda) following his 2013 death, and “Blue Notes for a Blue Note (Joy To You)” to Louis Moholo-Moholo. The pianist's thoughts on traditionalism notwithstanding, the playing on Alexander Hawkins Trio is anything but conservative. All three play with a freewheeling elasticity, and Skinner and Charles can often be heard shadowing Hawkins' every move. The opening section of “One Tree Found,” for instance, sees the three operating in unison like a multi-limbed entity before the pianist cuts the cord for a prototypically angular exploration, while the improv-styled “Perhaps 5 or 6 Different Colours” is as explorative.

May 2015