Sometimes you wind up with the greatest albums by accident. A couple of weeks ago I purchased a batch of Helen Merrill CDs online. When they arrived, I began listening to them, one after the next. Three tracks into the fourth CD, I suddenly realized Helen wasn't singing (hey, I go into a zone when I'm writing). Puzzled, I reached for the jewel case. The cover of the Gitanes release said, Helen Merrill Presents: Sir Roland Hanna Plays the Music of Alec Wilder. How odd, I thought, I didn't order this album. [Photo of Sir Roland Hanna by John Abbott]
When I went online to check my order, I saw that the album I was supposed to have received was Helen Merrill Presents: Al Haig Plays the Music of Jerome Kern. Just as I reached to remove the CD from my player and return it, Hanna began playing Wilder's Ellen. That's when I realized that fate had dealt me an enormous blessing. The more I listened to this solo piano album, the more I realized how extraordinary it is. What makes this story even crazier is that the CD appears to be impossible to find for less than a queen's ransom. How a rare CD could have wound up in my package is beyond me. I never argue with good fortune.
Helen sings on just one track, and beautifully. That track is The Sounds Around the House, with lyrics by Johnny Mandel. Helen's primary role on this glorious 1978 album was as producer, which means she was the one who made the session happen, was in the engineer's booth and arranged the order. Back in the 1970s, while living in Japan, Helen forged relationships with labels there. When she returned to New York, she produced solo albums for Tommy Flanagan, Haig and Hanna.
I haven't spent much time over the years listening to Roland Hanna. I never had anything against his playing. I just never had a chance to listen to him broken out from the various groups and bands he played with. The biggest surprise for me about this Alec Wilder tribute is how spectacular and tasteful Hanna was as a pianist and how underrated he remains as a dominant soloist.
Hanna recorded many solo efforts over his 70-year career, including Sir Elf (1973), Informal Solo (1974), Piano Soliloquy (1979) and Duke Ellington Piano Solos (1990). Thanks to Helen's good taste and a nutty warehouse mistake, I now know just how extraordinary Hanna was.
Roland Hanna was born in 1932 and started out studying classical piano in his home town of Detroit. In the early 1950s he studied at both the Eastman School of Music and Juilliard. His first recording was in 1956, as part of the Seldon Powell Sextet. He recorded with Benny Goodman's small groups and orchestra in 1958, with Charles Mingus and Kenny Burrell, and led his first trio sessions that year, including Easy to Love, featuring Ben Tucker on bass and Roy Burns on drums.
Hanna joined Sarah Vaughan in 1961, and the following year recorded with Lionel Hampton. He backed singers Al Hibbler in 1964 (Early One Morning) and Ruth Brown in 1965 (Ruth Brown '65). Small group and big band sessions followed, and in 1966 he began an eight-year stretch with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. His first Solid State recording with the band was Presenting Joe Williams.
In the 1970s, Hanna recorded with Sonny Stitt on Mr. Bojangles (1973) and Never Can Say Goodbye (1974). He also is on Jim Hall's Concierto (1975). Hanna continued to record into the 1980s and 1990s. He died in 2002 of a viral infection of the heart.
The "Sir" part of Hanna's name came from an honorary knighthood bestowed on him in 1969 by a grateful President William Tubman of Liberia. Hanna received the honorific after giving a tour of concerts for charity to help young African students. (Gee, state-backed jazz recognition: man, those were the days!)
This Alec Wilder album came at the height of Hanna's all-too-brief career. Off-beat Wilder gems include You're Free, Blackberry Winter and Remember My Child. There also are a couple of mainstays, like I'll Be Around and It's So Peaceful in the Country, which is fabulous. As Hanna says in Leonard Feather's liner notes: "It's a beautiful piece, and I tried to broaden it to the best of my ability because the theme is too fine to be treated as just an ordinary song."
The one Helen sings, The Sounds Around the House, is absolutely gorgeous. Hanna and Helen made beautiful music together. I wish they had recorded more. For now, however, I'm just grateful for what I have—and for warehouse mistakes.
JazzWax tracks: When I first realized I hadn't ordered Roland Hanna Plays Alec Wilder, I couldn't recall which retailer I bought it from. So I went on the web to see who was selling it. That's when I discovered the CD wasn't available anywhere for a reasonable dollar amount. (Go here to see the prices.) So I checked all of my past orders and identified the benevolent, addled retailer. Which was fine with me, considering how rare this thing is.
And instantly in demand. After I raved about the disc to my friend John Q. Walker two nights ago, he emailed to let me know that he had rushed onto eBay and snapped it up as an LP.
If you're interested, my advice is to wait until Sunday. By then, numerous JazzWax readers are likely to have tracked down the CD at various little-known sites and passed along the information to me, which I'll share then during my weekly roundup.
For now, if you want to hear Hanna in fine solo form, go to iTunes and download Solo. The album was originally called Informal Solo, recorded in Annecy, France in 1974 for the European Hi-Fly label. Or sample Duke Ellington Piano Solos. and Tributaries: Reflections on Tommy Flanagan, recorded just five months before Hanna's his death.
JazzWax clip: I couldn't find video clips of Sir Roland Hanna playing solo piano. But I did find this one with Ruth Brown and Linda Hopkins with just Hanna on piano. It will give you a feel for his strong yet engaging style: