In June 2008, trombonist Steve Davis, pianist Hank Jones, and bassist Peter Washington recorded this poetic, interactive, impeccably executed, never-before-released recital, entitled Steve Davis Meets Hank Jones, Volume 1, scheduled for a November 24, 2023 release via Smoke Sessions Records. Jones, who had undergone quadruple bypass heart surgery at the end of 2006, was a month shy of 90. Not only is it one of Jones’ final sessions, but it’s one of the finest of his extraordinary career, as the two Boomers, whose cumulative ages circa 2008 did not match Jones’ four-score and ten, comport themselves not as acolytes, but assured peers and fellow practitioners inscribing their voices coequally upon the proceedings.
Jones’ advanced age and recently endured infirmities are indiscernible as the trio addresses choice cuts from jazz and American Songbooks, conducting erudite, swinging three-way conversations, along with three duos – “But Beautiful,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and “We’ll Be Together Again” – by Davis and grandmaster Jones.
“It was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life,” says Davis of his sixth Smoke Sessions release as a leader. “The music is filled with little choices, moments where you could go this way or that. Wherever I wanted to go, Hank was there, ready to give support, to take you somewhere. It was the essence of jazz – that thing that happens between us when we play and create and speak the language in real time. On a pre-date rehearsal he developed three different routes through one passage of a couple of measures. It was unbelievable to watch how much joy he was getting out of music, even at 89 years old.”
The idea gestated in the aftermath of Davis’s initial recording with Jones, a fall 2007 album titled Eloquence. “As I thanked him, he said, ‘Why, Stevie, we had so much fun, I think perhaps we ought to do it again.’ I said, ‘Twist my arm.’ My wanted it to be like Hank and Peter playing duo at Bradley’s (the legendary Greenwich Village piano saloon where Jones played regularly until the early 1990s), with me sitting in.”
Neither Davis nor Washington were strangers to interacting on a bandstand with the great masters of jazz expression. Both apprenticed with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers during the ’80s, and they played together on 7 dates by the collective group One for All (represented on Smoke Sessions with the 2016 release The Third Decade, their 16th), and on individual dates led by its component members Eric Alexander, David Hazeltine, Joe Farnsworth and Davis himself. Davis’s post-Messengers CV included five years with Jackie McLean, his mentor at Hartt School of Music, three years with Chick Corea’s Origin Band, a couple of decades with various Dizzy Gillespie all-star configurations, and – counting this epochal date – 21 albums as a leader, including five for Smoke Sessions.
Most visible these days alongside Kenny Washington in the Bill Charlap Trio, Washington famously spent the 1990s alongside Lewis Nash in the Tommy Flanagan Trio, and did dozens of dates with Jones during the decades preceding his own first recording with the maestro.
Famously the older brother of iconic trumpeter-composer-arranger Thad Jones and world historical drummer Elvin Jones, Hank Jones was himself a key signpost in the evolution of jazz vocabulary, admired by his peer group since he arrived in New York in 1944 for a gig with trumpeter-blues singer Hot Lips Page at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street. There he applied himself to absorbing bop avatars Bud Powell, Al Haig, and Thelonious Monk, who once invited Jones to his apartment after closing time and played for him, as Jones transcribed the notes, a new composition called “Monk’s Mood.” He was a first-caller on 52nd Street by 1946, when he began a long association with Coleman Hawkins, as well as jobs with Billy Eckstine, Andy Kirk, and John Kirby. Jones began touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic the following year, sharing piano duties with Oscar Peterson, who credits him as a seminal influence. He accompanied Ella Fitzgerald from 1948 to 1953, and spent the remainder of the ’50s freelancing, making definitive trio and solo albums for Savoy, and recording as a sideman with artists as diverse as Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Artie Shaw, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, Benny Goodman, and his younger brothers.
From 1959 to 1975, Jones was a staff pianist at CBS, playing on Captain Kangaroo, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and any other entity that required his services. He retired in 1975, and launched the final efflorescent phase of his career as a solo artist, which he conducted with unabated energy until the aforementioned involuntary hiatus.
“Hank embodied the history of jazz, and distilled it into his concept,” Davis says. “You hear him play stride piano, the blues, the American Songbook, swing, bebop. You hear the French Impressionists, Chopin. You hear what influenced pianists like Herbie Hancock or Bill Evans or McCoy Tyner, the pianists we regard as those who’ve led us into the future. Hank could go any way you want. He was so incredibly melodic and harmonically sophisticated, with a wonderful touch. He controlled everything he wanted to play. You can’t think of a time where Hank played something he didn’t mean.”
Jones described his approach in an article for Jazziz that ran around the time of this date: “Do what you think, play whatever you play. Make it understandable, but don’t sacrifice anything that is individualistic to your style. I consider myself a creative player. I like to play things I haven’t done before, paint musical pictures, so to speak. If you play somebody else’s musical ideas, how can you identify yourself? As you grow older, you try to develop a consciousness, an identity, so that when someone hears you, hopefully they can say, ‘Oh, that’s Hank Jones’ or whoever you happen to be.”