Alexander Hawkins Ensemble Step Wide, Step Deep (Babe; BDV 13124)
Alexander Hawkins Song Singular (Babe; BDV 13120)
Alexander Hawkins and Louis Moholo-Moholo Keep Your Heart Straight (Ogun LC 3519)
WHEN you listen to the strikingly powerful duet album, Keep Your Heart Straight between the veteran South Africa drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and the young English pianist Alexander Hawkins, it is as if there are two drummers drumming, so much has Moholo-Moholo’s pounding and subtle brilliance woven into Hawkins’s music over their years of playing together as a touring duo and in the drummer’s larger band.
Hawkins was born in Oxford in 1981, grew up in a musical family learning both piano and organ and his relentless musical energy has made him a part of many jazz formations including the Convergence Quartet, Decoy (a trio with bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble), the co-operative group Barkingside and South African reedman Ntshuks Binga’s band, Qwati.
But with his own ensemble, he takes yet another venture, teaming up with violinist Dylan Bates, guitarist Otto Fischer, bassist Neil Charles, drummer Tom Skinner and the surging Barbados-bred saxophonist playing clarinet and bass clarinet, Shabaka Hutchings. They come together on the album Step Wide, Step Deep.
The opener is subtitled Space of Time Danced Thru and Hutchings is immediately off with a cascading clarinet next to some furious Hawkins comping. Fischer’s solo guitar effervesces and gives way to Bates’s sawing violin, before striking into solo mode again with Skinner’s pounding skins and Hawkins’s harpsichord notes all around him.
Forgiven Only Words Once is a free-sounding piece which segues into Listen/Glow with the excitation of birdsong from Hutchings’s clarinet and strident, percussive piano from Hawkins.
Bates’s filigreeing violin gives a gentle, reassuring texture to Advice, with Hawkins’s repetitive riff right below him, while the closing track, Assemble/Melancholy includes three minutes of silence between its two parts, the second growing gradually into a long, impressionistic free lament with an overweening sense of sadness and Bates’s violin especially poignant.
A few months before Step Wide, Step Deep in April 2012, Hawkins had recorded his first solo album Song Singular, with a sleeve note expressing his deep gratitude for the work of Ellington, Sun Ra and their “orchestral approach” to the piano.
All the compositions except one are by Hawkins whose artistry resonates throughout, as if his piano were filled with a host of comrade musicians and he were the veteran organising and leading them.
Listen to the assurance and power of, for example, Early Them MA or the hard struck sonic patterns of Joists, Distilled or Two Dormant, One Active and then on to Billy Strayhorn’s Ellingtonian opus, Take the A Train where he creates another locomotive strength all of his own.
Moholo-Moholo shares his long and epic lifetime of drum glory with Hawkins all the way through Keep Your Heart Straight, with Cape Town and Oxford forging an unlikely partnership with four decades between them.
The apartheid years before Moholo-Moholo’s exile with the Blue Notes in 1965 meant that he knew all about the Heavy Manners of the South African police and the 14 minutes of the opening track extend that experience to an empathetic Hawkins who matches the African passion of his partner’s drums with a profound keyboard solidarity of sound.
Hear Our Hearts is another immensely potent track, and you can hear them too, beyond skin, beyond category, in the very heart’s blood of two humans’ hands and drumsticks.
There is the edge of melody too in If I Should Lose You or in Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss with the astonishing complexity of Moholo-Moholo’s drums, and in the joyous Catch You on The Rebound, the playfulness, humour and sheer audacity of two generations of freedom-loving music finds a true expression.