the frank hewitt trio /
not afraid to live

1 Green Dolphin Street 6:46 (Kaper/Washington)
2 A Night in Tunisia 7:57 (Gillespie/Paparelli)
3 Just One of Those Things 9:41 (Porter)
4 The Nearness of You 8:39 (Carmichael/Washington)
5 Manteca 9:45 (Fuller/Gillespie/Gonzales)
6 What’s New? 6:47 (Burke/Haggart)
7 I’ll Remember April 8:54 (Raye/DePaul)
8 You Stepped Out of a Dream 9:15 (Brown/Kahn)

Total time: 67:45


Frank Hewitt (piano), Ari Roland (bass), Louis Hayes (drums); recorded 4/10/02 at The Studio, NYC  

"Frank Hewitt, who died three years ago at the age of 66, may have been the greatest unrecognized jazz pianist of our time." [read full text here]
-- Fred Kaplan, The Absolute Sound, June-July 2005


We convene again over the second volume of recordings of pianist Frank Hewitt. For listeners new to the series, Frank Hewitt was the featured artist at Smalls, appearing 2-3 times weekly over nine years, until his premature death in 2002 at age 66. He is increasingly argued to be the most overlooked pianist of his generation, debuting as a leader on recordings only posthumously (on We Loved You / Smalls Records SRCD-0001).

The failure of record labels and jazz critics to recognize Frank Hewitt in his own lifetime points out – more so than with any artist in recent memory – systemic malignancy in the jazz business and the major jazz press. My act of putting out Frank Hewitt’s recordings is a deliberate provocation, a challenge to this pathological legacy for the sake of artists now and in the future. In one part, it is an angry act, a response in part to specific injustices I witnessed during the years I knew Frank (which merit a more detailed exposition in a subsequent essay). But in the second part, it is an attempt to promote a dialectic, and ultimately, rehabilitation. Without a doubt, any writer who undertakes a review of these recordings is walking into a minefield.

In the six months since the release of Hewitt’s debut, his recordings have received a tremendous response from listeners, and from quite a number of fiercely independent writers and radio presenters--enough to prima facie establish Hewitt’s place in the history of the jazz piano. But this now serves as a further indictment of the major jazz press, which has been in most instances conspicuously silent or inattentive--as it was when he was alive. And in favor of what? Perhaps the pill is too bitter to swallow. Regardless, with all that’s been written, and with the release of this second volume, the case of Frank Hewitt--his music, and the legacy that he represents--will be that much harder to ignore.

In this volume, we move to Hewitt’s last studio session from April 10, 2002. This session features Frank with his preferred bassist, Ari Roland, and the great Louis Hayes on drums. As everyone knows, Lou is a sensitive cat with piquant rhythmic ideas and virtually unparalleled drive, and here he supplies a powerful energy source to the group.

As was his custom, Frank did not call his tunes, preferring to set the program spontaneously. I suspect that the presence of Louis Hayes inclined Frank to bring out tunes such as Manteca, A Night in Tunisia, and I’ll Remember April on the spot. He digs in and plays all out. The interplay between Hewitt and Roland as evinced by this varied material is of a rare sort, full of both rhythmic and harmonic tricks. For example, listen to I’ll Remember April. At about 4:42 in, just where the listener expects Hewitt to hit a climax, he suddenly and purposely lays out right there instead for almost four bars, leaving Ari to nail it--which he does. And on Manteca, Frank hits the climax of a brilliant solo on the bridge (beginning at about 3:27 in) that is underscored by a surprising, dark pedal tone from Ari, making for a damned subtle and twisty climax with special impact.

The title for this record comes from a remark Frank made during a break in the session. Over tea, Ari Roland recounted reading of the belief in eastern astrology that, given a full chart, one could forecast the exact day and time of a person’s death. Ari asked Frank whether he’d want to know. Frank mused for a moment on what kind of mood he’d have to be in to receive the news, then looked up and said “I’m not afraid to die. But I’m not afraid to live either. Some people are afraid to live.”

This says a lot about Frank in my view. For Frank to play as he played was a bold act, especially so in contrast to how most others play today. Considering the beauty of his music, this claim may strike some as surprising at first. To appreciate this, one needs to reflect on the number and magnitude of the forces that are arrayed against such artists, and on how tightly the game is sewn-up. So many young players today are complacent slaves to fashion who are either quick to adopt simplified pop-jazz styles favored by big record labels, or laboring under artistic pretense. By contrast, Frank was artistically uncompromising. His playing challenged even the most experienced listeners and critics, who invariably underestimated him the first few times they heard him. Living in the stripped-out walk-in refrigerator in the back of Smalls for much of his last few years, he paid dearly to defend his way of playing--and by implication all that he would say musically--against ignorance. His life gave meaning to the idea that jazz is a way of living that exemplifies freedom of thought and expression in a way that is deeply tied to political, social, and economic issues.

Luke Kaven
August, 2004