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Jazz Review

Pianist Hank Jones Makes the Ivories Dance

April 30, 1999|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Subtlety," "sophistication" and "craftsmanship" are not words that always come to mind in reference to jazz performances. But it was impossible to avoid them while listening to veteran pianist Hank Jones' opening night appearance at Catalina Bar & Grill Tuesday.

Jones, who will be 81 in July, has been a pianists' pianist for decades, admired for the ease with which he can slip into the essential musical realities of bebop, balladry and straight-ahead swing. As comfortable with a group, a big band or as a solo artist, he was in his trio manifestation Tuesday at the start of a weeklong run.

And that is, in some respects, the best way to hear him, especially when--as in this set--he performs his artful translations of such Great American Songbook material as "Willow Weep for Me" and "Speak Low." Like all fine pianists, Jones has a consummate feeling for touch, for generating an exceptional array of tone and color from the keyboard. On the slower tunes, his timbral sensitivity resulted in harmonies in which every note--despite the chordal lushness--rang with an individual voice. On faster numbers, such as the up-tempo Charlie Parker tune "Au Privave," Jones' bop lines moved through the blues chords with a unique combination of rhythmic persistence and infectious melodiousness.

Although he was working with two talented musical partners--bassist George Mraz and drummer Dennis Mackrel--the support they provided was uneven. Mraz is an extraordinary technician, capable of generating streams of notes, but his bass amp was cranked up to the point of obtrusiveness, too often countering, instead of balancing, Jones' playing. Mackrel, on the other hand, sounded lackadaisical, playing with the right kind of minimalist approach, but with far too little rhythmic energy.

The trio's interaction should improve after the usual perils of opening night. But the real show here, in any case, is the rare opportunity to hear Hank Jones, for five decades one of the wonders of jazz piano playing.

*

* The Hank Jones Trio at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $25 cover tonight, Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m.; $20 cover tonight, Saturday at 10:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9 p.m. Two drink minimum.

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