All About Hope
Faith, Hope and Charity. A toothsome threesome. Two into three won't go, so you won't find Elmo trying to overreach himself. Jazz history is, thankfully, a history still in the making, and while there's still a chance of rescuing a reputation from the embers of corporate reissue packages, I'll fire up my one-legged laptop and throw in a two-fisted salvo in honour of Elmo Hope.
Every so often an unjustly forgotten figure from jazz's illustrious past turns up in decaying living conditions, without a CD player to their name, nor a needle and turntable for that matter. If you look closely, you might find one in a town square somewhere, blowing an unsuspecting impromptu audience reminders of a personal history steeped in legend. There's Dupree Bolton, a West Coast cat who could blow aureoles of helter-skelter trumpet on his horn. He's featured on Harold Land's The Fox, released on Lester Koenig's Contemporary label, and I can't ignore his fidgety mustang figures. Or look up Henry Grimes in the directories, and the obituaries reveal an overhasty chronicle of his death. He turns up in a seedy LA hotel room in this month's Wire, trying to figure out what happened to the players he lined up with in the 60's, the Ayler's, Cherry's and Izenzon's of that outer world of heliocentric jazz orbiters.
Back to Hope. Hope against Hope. Like a lot of stories from that period, it's a depressingly familiar scenario. Summoning up short fix pay-packets, short periods of recording activity, followed by longer ones procuring your next engagement. In his early days, he played with Monk and Bud Powell, earning his colours in hand to hand repartee with the up-and-coming greats. His story reads like a variation on the Herbie Nichols fable, with as much grainy black and white footage as you can imagine, scuffed up and playing in jerky stop-start motion at the wrong speed. Thankfully, he still has his defenders, in the likes of Roswell Rudd and Archie Shepp. On Rudd and Shepp's recent reunion live record in New York, they played Shepp's tribute composition, 'Hope 2', doing their bit to keep the memory of Hope alive.
Life begins at the Hope. His regular partners included Harold Land and Art Blakey early on, and Philly Joe Jones from first to last. Jones saw active combat with Miles during his great first quintet period and was reputed to play his drums louder than any of his rivals. The recordings up for repeat listening here feature him at his most boisterous. I don't know where the microphones were placed on these sessions, but they pick up the man's dexterity with a set of sticks on tautly stretched skins. They must have been made of a rare type of elephant skin bought from a street trader in Nepal, as he produces one hell of a kick, and is prepared to dispatch all unbelievers with a flick of the wrist. There's also John Ore, one of Monk's henchmen, on bass, with an intuitive set of responses to his leader. Ore's there on Monk's live recordings in Paris in 1961, beefing up the voltage of the evening, and summoning Monk to greater heights on his showboating runs through 'Hackensack' and 'I Love Paris' before the adoring French audience.
The recordings I've been turning to again are an epitaph of sorts to the man, assembled as they are under the title The Final Sessions. Those sorts of claims are usually a way of applying closure, the final touch to a well-rounded career, or an attempt to beef up a discography. This falls firmly in the latter category: file alongside Eric Dolphy's Last Date. Precious notes salvaged before the fire. How many jazz players had any idea they were playing on a 'final' session? This is no last will and testament, as the discs give evidence of an incandescent talent at the height of his powers. Benny Green called jazz the reluctant art. It says a lot for the kind of insights generated in adversity by musicians accustomed to playing against something (the establishment, The Man, an asinine cocktail set audience, a rickety instrument.) Elmo Hope shows us the way to the watershed- falling back on undimmed perseverance, if anything he seems to be on the verge of a breakthrough. Discovering new powers, tapping into some Faculty X, as Colin Wilson might have put it after one of his visionary peak experiences. These recordings are prime time all out high caffeine grind. Without a starbuck in sight.
Issued for posterity on the Evidence label, this two-disc set shows that their loyalty stretches beyond the mainstay of the label, Le Sun Ra. Of course, there's a royal Ra connection in the fact Hope played a gig at Riker's Island prison with Ra's right hand man John Gilmore in his last years. Some occasion that must have been- as prison recordings go, they must rank up there with Johnny Cash's and, of course, Art Pepper's The Trip, inspired by his long-term spell in a penitentiary.
The first disc is the one that will stay glued to your laser, with Elmo giving us his candid readings of Cole Porter's 'I Love You' and the Gillespiana of 'A Night in Tunisia.' Heart pinned on the sleeve, shirt and tie in which he's photographed. If you want music to pick you up, rub against apathy, and yell out "I'm alive Daddy-O!", 0-60 with the lion's roar of a Bugatti engine, this is where to start. Philly Joe is his usual indomitable self here, given space to stretch out and remind us he's the Sugar Ray of his instrument. Elmo doesn't waste any time setting out his stall, and plunges into effusive bursts of staccato phrasing. The rest of the session profiles Elmo in a deeper mood, indulging in reflection on the world and its woes perhaps. He winds the pace right down, without skimping on the intensity, on 'Stellations', 'Pam' and 'Elmo's Blues.' Stellations is a memorable phrase, a sprinkling of stars, a hoe-down in the moonlight, chugging along in its rich vein of cosmic speculation. 'Elmo's Blues' takes us further down there- again, over ten minutes of propulsive playing. The sort of thing Charles Aznavour would have drawn inspiration from in the film of David Goodis's Shoot the Piano Player, on the run and embroiled in a murky underworld plot.
Hope is Hip. Adrenaline is recompense enough when you're as fleet of finger as Hope. He shows you the gutter, but then reminds you it's all a matter of perspective. Two takes here of his own tune, 'Low Tide,' intensify the impression of a life lived on the margins. Take two is subtitled 'Bird's View,' as in Bird Parker of course, but also the lofty sense impressions of someone who has known the lowest water-mark and can linger above it all. I'd love to have heard him run through this non-stop flight live- imagine the lightest parts of Horace Silver or Junior Mance at their most dextrous, and you'll get an impression of the life-enhancing rapid sparks urging him on. This track alone should have earned him cult status, easily surpassing any of the cheap ecstasies of Keith Jarrett or Bill Evans. Whoever applied the fader here curtailed something sublime, unless the reel-to-reel tape ran out prematurely.
The second disc is a treat for Hope-watchers out there, with forgotten and incomplete takes to help boost the cult of Hope. Bird had his Ornithology, Gillespie devoted a lifetime to studying Anthropology, and Hope, hope is a statement of intent, let's call it Reflexology. He's fully charged on the remaining tracks, including the wonderful 'Toothsome Threesome' of course. A title to kill for, it says all you need to know about the trio format. The trio as a rare thing, pick it too soon and it will crumble in your hands. Ayler, Hampton Hawes, Monk, Cecil Taylor, all explored the format's riches. The players here had the eye and the ear adjusted to micro-proportions. Also here is 'Something For Kenny,' trading under the alternate title of 'If I Could, I Would.' Who the mysterious Kenny was remains a mystery. Kenny Dorham perhaps? Kenny's OK, and he had the kudos to produce a string of albums for Blue Note, but he sacrificed some of the enigma to achieve those ends. Elmo allows himself a wry smile at his soul brother's fortune. If he could, he would, but meantime, here's a knockout sock on your glass jaw. A kicker conspiracy of mine, borne out I feel by the next track's title 'Punch That.' I'm still working on the other mystery title, 'Vi-Ann.' Another coded reference, to French jazz obsessive and all-round scourge of the establishment, Boris Vian I'd venture. Vian spent a lifetime refining his take on nihilistic entropy, a crash and burn Céline in permanent meltdown. Canongate have reissued his journey to the corners of noir, as I Spit on Your Graves. All the while, most of Woolrich's dark madness and everything by William Lindsay Gresham languish long out of print, but that's a different story. For the moment, Elmo's brand of jelly roll is enough to be going on with. You could be posted to the fringes of Siberia, enduring a real winter, but this is music of real uplift, toothsome and as hard-boiled as it needs to be.
© 2002 Marino Guida