Song Singular (Babel Label)

Alexander Hawkins

Released February 24, 2014

The Guardian 10 Best Jazz Albums of 2014




Song Singular is a significant milestone in the ever-expanding discography of young British pianist, Alexander Hawkins – his very first solo piano album.
Following in the footsteps of such classic solo recordings as Sun Ra’s Monorails and Satellites, Cecil Taylor’s Praxis, and Art Tatum’s Piano Starts Here, Hawkins presents an excursion into the possibilities of unadorned, unaccompanied piano.
Though the pieces on Song Singular resound with a sense of unpredictability and freedom, not one is a free improvisation. Rather, each performance takes a strong compositional idea as a springboard to extemporisation – with stunning results.
Across these ten tracks, Hawkins draws on the same incisive compositional acumen he’s deployed in Convergence Quartet and with his own Ensemble, here laid bare in the white hot glare of solo performance. Describing his approach to Song Singular, Hawkins told Jazzwise:
“I haven’t necessarily thought of over-arching structures but more harmonic or gestural ideas as compositional things. Most of my writing as a leader to date has been for a medium sized ensemble: lots of the compositional tricks that I take from Anthony Braxton or, say, Charles Ives – the happy chaos of having lots of things going on at once – when you’re really forced to pare it down, to understand where your language is coming from, where you’ve only got two hands to deal with stuff, those options aren’t there so much. So it was really interesting thinking about how I could translate something compositional onto the solo framework.”
Pieces like ‘The Way We Dance It Here’ and ‘Joists Distilled’ pay clear homage to the percussive melodramas of Cecil Taylor – full of balletic leaps, low tonal clusters and garrulous interrogations, while on ‘Hope Step The Lava Flow’, Hawkins tips his hat to the more explicitly melodic jazz of Art Tatum, with sly motifs coyly surfacing at oblique, unexpected angles. Elsewhere, two other giants of the keyboard – Duke Ellington and Sun Ra – loom large, with a delightfully splashing and playful rendition of ‘Take the “A” Train’ that reprises the freewheeling mood and style of Ra’s version on the Live at Montreux album.
With Song Singular, Alexander Hawkins stakes his claim not just as youthful heir to these iconic figures, but as a key 21st stylist in the art of solo piano.

Track Listing:

1. The Way We Dance It Here 05:24

2. Early Then, M.A. 06:19

3. Joists, Distilled 03:49

4. Stillness From 37,000 ft. 05:06

5. Two Dormant, One Active 05:40

6. Hope Step The Lava Flow 03:52

7. Take The A Train 02:57

8. Distances Between Points 04:06

9. Advice 06:19

10. Unknown Baobabs (seen in the distance) 04:29


Alexander Hawkins: piano


The adventurous, young in-demand Oxford-based pianist seems to enjoy the diverse challenges of integrating composition and improvisation in various-sized ensembles. He’s worked in duo with drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, has his own trio, as well as being a member of the Hammond-based Sun Ra influenced group Decoy (with Joe McPhee). He is co-leader of Convergence quartet and his own sextet’s excellent recent CD is Step Wide Step Deep. A continued mentorship with Moholo-Moholo in his quartet as well as the ethio-jazz leader Mulatu Astatke’s large ensemble looks to have contributed to an invaluable stage in his development as an artist who’s self-taught. For this companion piece (released earlier this year) to the aforementioned Step Wide Step Deep, Hawkins steps up to the solo piano stool for the first time on recording – although he’s already been impressing in this capacity on international as well as domestic ‘live’ stages. The opener ‘The Way We Dance it Here’ sees Hawkins’ post-Cecil Taylor torrents of crunching percussive piano tempered by melody lines (faintly echoing the likes of Gershwin as well as Tatum) that float to the top like a fish surfacing in choppy waters. ‘Early Then, M.A.’ zooms in further on 20th century French impressionistic influences with nods to both Debussy and Messiaen. Hawkins changes tone effectively breaking off from a texturally dense performance to play with an infectious Tristanoish, gentle swing on an alt. bebop piece titled ‘Hope Step the Lava Flow’, and a Monk-like down-home blues ‘Unknown Baobabs (Seen in the Distance)’. Even in his quieter moments, Hawkins’ work is always characterised by a simmering harmonic and rhythmic tension. The latter track seems to emerge from the previous, a take on Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Take the A Train’, (the only non-original) where familiar fragments of the tune leap out of Hawkins’ churning piano runs.

Selwyn Harris (Jazzwise)