Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, Crazy Rhythm (1937).
Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, Crazy Rhythm (1961).
Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, Honeysuckle Rose (1937).
Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, Honeysuckle Rose (1961).

One day in springtime, in Paris, 1937, two expatriate American saxophone players met to immortalize an afternoon. Coleman Hawkins had left the U.S. in 1934, sailing to the U.K. to play in the Jack Hylton Orchestra and then touring the Continent for years, using The Hague as a base of operations; Benny Carter had sailed to Paris in 1935 and had been jumping around Europe in the years since.

The French jazz fanatics Hugues PanassiƩ and Charles Delaunay (son of the painter) had organized a session in which Hawkins and Carter would play with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. The latter four had been jamming in after-hours sessions at the Pigalle club Swing Time; one musician recalled the players battling one night for supremacy, running through a pop tune called "I Won't Dance" over and over again, endlessly changing keys, until only Carter and Reinhardt were left standing. "Benny played in almost every key with typical relaxation, but Django was indifferent to the key. He played just as well in any key without once making a mistake. He was truly unbeatable." (from Michael Dregni's Django.)

For the recording session, Carter's arrangement called for four saxophones (two tenors, two altos) and four rhythm players, and the result was a legend as soon as the last note was played, if not before (PanassiƩ always regretted that the first thing Hawkins played when he arrived at the session--a duet with Grappelli on "Honeysuckle Rose"--wasn't recorded, as he claimed it was a masterpiece). "Honeysuckle Rose" features a Hawkins solo that presages his track-long improvisation on "Body and Soul" two years later--like a happy conversation, it ranges widely and offers a new insight just when you think it's run its course. Reinhardt (who's fairly subdued on this track) gets two chances to interject, and Carter uses his eight bars to perform a miniature.

"Crazy Rhythm" finds the Europeans raising the ante. Andre Ekyan and Alix Combelle lead off the solos, and though they were in utter awe of the Americans, they hold their ground--Combelle, in particular, has a nice gritty sound further invigorated by Reinhardt's rhythm playing. Carter, the third soloist, is fleet and dazzling.

And then Hawkins closes it out. Hawkins had been coasting a bit in Europe--he was so superior to most of the local players that he had grown accustomed to being the star presence on the bandstand, and few had noticed when he offered an uninspired solo. Now he actually had competition. After the first take of "Crazy Rhythm," Carter had even called him out! "'Man, that ain't the way it should go', [Carter said] as if to make Hawkins realize he'd have to get down to it," Combelle recalled years later. (Details from John Chilton's Song of the Hawk.)

So Hawkins opens with some clipped riffs that he soon broadens into longer, elaborate phrases; he continues to expand, growing in speed and power, until he enters his second chorus (someone in the room yelps in encouragement) and then he just bores in, offering an impasto of dazzling rhythms and half-heard melodies. The cut-off, when the group hastily resumes the original theme, seems like a crime against art.

She says, "You can't repeat the past." I say, "You can't? What do you mean, you can't? Of course you can."

Bob Dylan, "Summer Days."

Decades passed, wars erupted and were wearily ended, empires fell, new countries were cobbled together. A-bombs and television debuted. The two expatriates had long ago come home, and one autumn day in New York, in 1961, they reunited in the studio. Once again, Hawkins and Carter; once again, "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Crazy Rhythm"; once again, four saxes and four rhythm players.

Is it folly to chase after your youth? Perhaps. Hawkins, while he's still in strong form at age 57, can't quite match the highs of his 1937 performance. But there are some improvements to be found: in the '37 recordings, the bassist was almost non-existent, but here Jimmy Garrison offers some fleet, buoyant bass lines that add a new dimension to the piece.

The '61 "Honeysuckle Rose" finds Hawkins jumping in defiantly--it begins with Charlie Rouse and then the young Phil Woods, but when Hawkins begins, he's loud, blustering and still commanding attention. But he's upstaged by Carter. In the '61 "Crazy Rhythm," however, Hawkins goes first, sparring and wheeling around, as if to defy the fates, or at least his collaborators.

The 1937 tracks were recorded on 28 April in Paris, with Ekyan on alto sax, Combelle on tenor, Eugene d'Hellemmes (b) and Tommy Benford (d). On Swing Sessions Vol. 1.

The 1961 tracks were recorded on 13 November and feature Woods and Rouse on sax (tenor and alto, respectively); John Collins has the thankless task of trying to match Reinhardt on guitar; Dick Katz's piano subs for Grappelli's violin; and the veterans Garrison (b) and Jo Jones (d) provide the bedrock. On Carter's Impulse LP Further Definitions.

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