The Teacher and the Doctor
What's it like to listen to a piano solo by musician John Hicks? "Taking a five-minute compressed course in piano history," once said a writer for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. While one is more likely to hear something closer to Duke Ellington than to Chopin when he plays, the depiction is apt since Hicks, one of the jazz world's eminent keyboard men, is also a teacher. But those not lucky enough to sit in his classroom are still guaranteed countless lessons by attending his many live shows or picking up one of his more than 30 recordings that boast both standards and his own carefully thought-out compositions. That's where tastefully rendered bits of blues, gospel, free jazz, bebop, even a little boogie-woogie may all flow freely, alternately lush and spare.
The astounding dexterity that the Atlanta-born, St. Louis-raised Hicks displays stems from a musical education that began with his mother and his church choir director, stretched to stints with bar bands and blues outfits, and continued with formal schooling at Missouri's Lincoln University and Boston's Berklee College of Music. Brief turns with drummer Art Blakey's stellar Jazz Messengers, exacting vocalist Betty Carter, and the well-regarded Woody Herman big band would further hone his chops and augment his vast repertoire. Long lauded for his musical flexibility, Hicks is also noted for sounding like none other than John Hicks. Whether performing as a sideman in small ensembles or as a leader in his own trio, quartet, or quintet, the polished and powerful player can transform the piano into an instrument of understatement or glee -- mustering melancholy from the keys at one moment, summoning a chipper mood immediately after.
That protean nature is also readily apparent in the life and art of jazz trumpet great Eddie Henderson, with whom Hicks will share the stage this Tuesday at the Van Dyke Café. Trained as a medical doctor, the Howard University graduate opted instead for music, directly influenced in his youth by top talents -- Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis -- who paid visits to his showbiz-heavy household. Spending his schooltime summers blowing his horn alongside masters such as saxophonist John Handy and drummer Philly Joe Jones eventually led him to join the Herbie Hancock Sextet, also known as the Mwandishi Band, in the early Seventies. The energy, agility, and Davis-influenced fusion playing he contributed for three years with the Hancock group assured him further explorations in fusion via two solo albums on the Capricorn label. Following a brief gig with Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Henderson retreated to the West Coast, practicing medicine part-time in a San Francisco clinic.
In the early Nineties Henderson moved to New York, trading in his physician's bag for a trumpet case and devoting himself to the stage full-time. As he explained to the International Herald Tribune a few years ago, "I'm not just a doctor. I'm an individual. I want to express me, myself." Post-M.D., Henderson adopted a decidedly more straight-ahead style of playing, veering from enchanting moments of restraint and intimacy to impenetrable instances of detachment and intellectualism. He played on records with pianist Kenny Barron and saxophonist Billy Harper, and in the mid-Nineties began putting out his own albums featuring more than a few of his own compositions. His latest, Oasis, is a desert-themed collection offering original tunes such as the staccato "Sandstorm" and the cautiously hopeful title track, plus the oft-recorded Hancock song "Cantaloupe Island," albeit represented rather robotically. Still the disc leaves no doubt: The doctor is in.
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