Coleman Hawkins never stood still creatively. No matter what recording date the tenor saxophonist was on, you hear a slightly different artist each time. To be sure, Hawkins' gruff attack and take-charge sound are always present and unmistakable. But if you listen carefully, you'll hear his phrasing shift depending on the year and musicians on the date. Hawk also was one of the few swing-era superstars who made the shift to bebop in the mid-1940s, jumping back to swing in the 1950s and flirting with free jazz and pop in the 1960s. Hawk even recorded a credible bossa nova album, Desafinado, in 1962.
Johnny "Rabbit" Hodges, by contrast, was an Ellingtonian. Where Hawkins spent much of his career as an in-demand free agent, alto saxophonist Hodges was an Ellington band lifer. In fact, Duke's band would sound significantly different without Hodges' sweet, slurring saxophone rising up over the reed section or the lock he put on solos.
In 1949 and 1950, at the heights of their respective careers, Hawkins and Hodges each recorded sessions separately for the French Vogue label. Each musician headed up his own orchestra, with Hawkins' group comprised mostly of superb French musicians and Hodges' orchestra made up of mostly Ellington band members plus Raymond Fol on piano. Hodges was touring Europe with Duke at the time of the date.
Hawkins felt particularly comfortable in Europe, notes Gunther Schuller in The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945. The absence of racial prejudice and the less competitive atmosphere of the jazz scene there freed Hawk to play a bit more expressively and experimentally. In Paris, Hawk didn't have to watch his back or worry about being challenged by young guns.
Nevertheless, Hawk's Vogue date in December 1949 is plenty intense, with the tenor giant hopping between swing and bop styles. He's joined by Nat Peck (trombone), Hubert Fol (alto sax), Jean Pierre Mengeon (piano), Pierre Michelot (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums).
On It's Only a Paper Moon, a mid-tempo swinger, Hawk fires off a jaunty solo. Sih-Sah is a haunting ballad written by Hawkins and James Moody, who also was in Paris at the time. Here we witness twin personalities: The Hawkins who tears into a song with double-time runs and the sensitive Hawkins who just as easily caresses a song's melody. Bean's Talking Again is a bop blues written by Hawkins and drummer Clarke, and here you get a clear feel for the red-meat sound of Hawkins' tenor in 1949. Bah-U-Bah is a rare Tadd Dameron-Hawkins collaboration that to the best of my knowledge was recorded just this once.
Hawkins had played I Surrender Dear many times by 1949. On the Vogue date, we have yet another interpretation of the ballad. Pianist Ronnell Bright, who recorded with Hawkins, told me recently that the tenor saxophonist often was cornered in clubs by fans who would ask him to play songs he had turned into hits. Hawkins would happily oblige but when confronted afterward by the same fans asking why he didn't play it like he did on his record, Hawk would nonchalantly ask the fans why they'd expect him to do that. "If you want to hear that version, listen to the record," Hawk would say. "This is a new one."
Hawkins' recording session for Vogue finishes with Sophisticated Lady, and the Ellington number gets an unusual treatment. Hawk sounds almost as if he's delivering a Hodges-inspired interpretation but on the tenor sax. You also learn here just how superb Pierre Michelot was. Dig his bass work here up against the challenge of Hawkins' greased-lightning sound.
Johnny Hodges' sessions for Vogue were spread over three different dates in April and June of 1950. The band was made up of touring Ellington band members Harold "Shorty" Baker (trumpet), Quentin Jackson (trombone), Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet), Don Byas (tenor sax), Wendell Marshall (bass) and Sonny Greer (drums), with Raymond Fol (Hubert's brother) on piano. Five of the tracks feature strong work by Byas.
Free from Duke, Hodges heads up a band that takes a stab at bop and jump boogie. We hear Hodges and Hamilton [pictured] on clarinet joined at the hip on one of the prettiest versions of Time on My Hands. Hamilton's clarinet work throughout reminds you how beautifully this sideman played and what an unsung hero he truly is. Perdido is a fairly robust, mid-tempo reading with a fine solo by Quentin Jackson and Shorty Baker.
Sweet Lorraine is a perfect standard for Hodges to work through, and his smooth lines pay tribute to Nat King Cole's hit trio vocal of 1940. Shorty Baker has a superb solo here, showing off the roundness of his sound. The last two tracks, Bean Bag Boogie and Hop, Skip and Jump, are straightforward jump-boogie blues tunes.
Hawkins and Hodges would go on to record plenty of masterpieces after these. But the Vogue dates were transitional and personal recordings. For Hawkins, the session let him return to the swing tradition after years as a States-side bopper. For Hodges, he was able to cut loose and toy with bop and r&b before returning to the Ellington book.
JazzWax tracks: The Vogue sessions are available on two CDs: Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges: The Complete 1949-1950 Vogue Master Takes here and Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins: The Vogue Recordings here. Both contain the same tracks. I own the former set and can vouch for the remastering, which is fabulous.