the frank hewitt quintet /
four hundred saturdays

1 Lullaby in Rhythm 14:54 (Goodman/Hirsch/Profit/Samson)
2 Blue Gardenia 14:22 (Russell/Keith)
3 Oblivion 13:25 (Powell)
4 Manteca 16:49 (Fuller/Gillespie/Gonzales)

Total time: 59:31


Frank Hewitt (piano), Chris Byars (tenor sax), Mike Mullins (alto sax), Ari Roland (bass), Jimmy Lovelace (drums); recorded 8/21/99 live at Smalls, NYC      
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"..a neglected master, a lyrical visionary of bebop piano...the music at times virtually levitates." [read full text here]
-- Nathan Dorward, Coda Magazine, Sept-Oct 2005


On this, the third volume of the recordings of the late jazz pianist Frank Hewitt, we begin the presentation of recordings made at Smalls. Those who are not yet familiar with the story of the late Frank Hewitt and his music will find additional biographical information in the notes to the first two volumes in this series, We Loved You (Smalls SRCD-0001), and Not Afraid To Live (Smalls SRCD-0007). Hewitt was a rare piano talent of the first order who was featured for more than eight years at Smalls. He was entirely neglected, sometimes willfully so, by disengaged producers and critics. In response we created Smalls Records as a platform for his music, and for the music of other artists like him. Sadly, Hewitt died unexpectedly in September 2002 as the first of his albums neared release. Now, in a somewhat bitter twist of irony, Hewitt has become increasingly lauded for his brilliance since the posthumous release of the first two volumes of his recordings. Fred Kaplan writes in The Absolute Sound (June-July 2005): “Frank Hewitt, who died three years ago at age 66, may have been the greatest unknown jazz pianist of our time.” Meanwhile, Tom Conrad, writing in Jazz Times (June 2005) poses the central conundrum: “So how could an artist of this importance -- who did not die young, retained his creative powers to the end and lived and worked his entire life in the jazz capital of the world -- remain so unknown in his lifetime?” This question resists being discharged with a mere hard luck story. That is no better than a platitude. From what I witnessed, as someone who was close to Hewitt and involved in his career, it is a story of a malignant, ongoing pathological legacy in the music business, one that shouldn’t be tolerated. With the release of each previously unheard volume of Hewitt’s recordings, I think the veracity of that claim will be increasingly felt.

Frank Hewitt performed at Smalls approximately one thousand times between 1994 and his death in September 2002. Out of these performances, there were over four hundred appearances of Hewitt’s weekly Saturday night quintet feature at Smalls. Technically, it was a Sunday morning gig, as the group hit the bandstand at 3am and often played until 5am. No matter the late hour. Smalls was usually packed to capacity at this time, the destination for a steady stream of musicians, hipsters, college students, late-night revelers, tourists and insomniacs. In among them were a number of serious devotees of Frank Hewitt’s piano absorbing every note. Pianists from around NY used to come by, including Harold Mabern, Ronnie Matthews, Walter Bishop Jr., Gil Coggins, Brad Mehldau, Larry Willis, and Cecil Taylor. Musically speaking, this was prime time. Here is recorded evidence of one of those four hundred-or-so Saturdays at Smalls. And it will give you an idea of what critics and producers who were urged to attend would have heard had they ever shown up, and all the more reason to wonder why they didn’t.

The core of the quintet was the Frank Hewitt trio, with Hewitt, Ari Roland, and Jimmy Lovelace in constant conjunction. Several notable horns appeared in the front line over time. The earliest quintet consisted of the trio plus Charles Davis on saxophone and Joe Magnarelli on trumpet. Often the talented, dusky-voiced singer Kimberly Gordon would join the group for two or three numbers at the end of a set. Chris Byars, William Ash, Zaid Nasser, and Mike Mullins would all appear with the group in subsequent years, with Byars and Ash appearing the most frequently.

It was a demanding gig. Choking cigarette smoke hung thick in the air. The boisterous and the otherwise un-hushed would sometimes drown out the music, leading to the occasional confrontation with those who came to hear Hewitt play. The unprepossessing Hewitt would emerge from the back, sit down at the piano, and embark without pause on an improvised overture. The crowds were not always so quick to follow, perhaps waiting for a cue of some sort. On this date, the presence of the recording equipment and an artful announcement by Chris Byars got the crowd to tune in.

Frank would almost never call his tunes on the bandstand. Often he would improvise a long introduction without knowing himself which tune he was going to end up introducing, waiting for the elements to converge--which they inevitably did. Thereupon, imminence would give way to urgency, and from note one on he would give it all he had. It was up to the players to identify the tune after the first couple of notes, and orchestrate their entry. It was a little like jumping onto a moving train--gracefully.

On live dates, Frank would often count tempos up over 400 beats per minute and sometimes even approaching 500, even on difficult tunes. One might of course marvel at the Olympian dexterity and stamina required for doing that, but that would be to miss the point entirely. Playing fast for him was a means for certain kinds of poetic expression. And it is to one’s everlasting amazement when one realizes that Hewitt was not just capable of playing at blinding speed, but that he was also capable of being brilliant and articulate at such speeds.

The four standards presented here constitute the complete performance from Saturday August 21st 1999, and they appear in the order in which they were played. Listen to how Hewitt lays down a thick carpet of chords as accompaniment throughout! The soloists run with it. Byars and Mullins were among only a handful of saxophonists that Hewitt chose to put in his band. Byars is a brilliant improviser and composer whose music carries tinges of a wry, slightly dark sense of humor. He has a rare command over extended harmonies, and a fleet imagination that delivers a continuous stream of inspired musical ideas. Mullins, another favorite saxophonist of Hewitt’s, is a master at employing simple melodic lines in sophisticated and subtle ways. This was a craft exemplified especially by Lester Young, whose playing carried an air of nonchalance on the surface that resonated so strongly because it rested on deeper intricacies.

Ari Roland was the one bass player Hewitt preferred, and the growing evidence of Roland’s work on record demonstrates why this is so. He has an extraordinary command of harmony and he can go wherever Hewitt wants to go on the spot. In his walking bass lines, his note choices are footfalls far off the beaten path, and they open up an extended musical territory to the soloist. His solos are wonderfully enigmatic as he ventures into unusual keys and delivers the notes you least expect.

Jimmy Lovelace, who died this past October 29th, 2004, deserves special honor. And this album is intended as a tribute to him and to his extraordinary talent as a drummer. We were fortunate that his gentle soul graced our lives for many years. His characteristic Buddha smile could light up the darkest room. His performance here shows everything that was great about him. He was especially attuned to the soloists and he came up with some of the hippest accents and fills heard anywhere. The deftly placed pop and the impeccable swing in the swish of the brush were some of his trademarks.

Hewitt’s solos here are four gems for posterity. No matter how many times I hear them, there is something new to be heard. He’s darkly playful on Lullaby in Rhythm, poignant on Blue Gardenia, dense and dizzying on Oblivion, and almost surrealistic on Manteca. As a musical experience, you can’t surpass it. And as evidence, you can’t deny it.

Luke Kaven
June 2005