Pianist Al Haig is most often thought of as a bebop boilermaker—laboring shoulder-to-shoulder with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the '40s with terrifying dexterity and rock-solid feel for the new music. But Haig also had a tender, romantic side in his later recordings and his solo work is still hair-raising.
One of his finest late-period albums is Al Haig Plays the Music of Jerome Kern. Recorded in 1978, the date featured Haig on solo piano or accompanied on some tracks by bassist Jamil Nasser. Hey, who needs drums when you're Al Haig? Singer Helen Merrill was featured on only one track with Haig—delivering a breathy and wonderfully geometric rendition of They Didn't Believe Me.
This is Haig at his finest—big, broad, cocky, take-charge and lush. In addition to his superlative pedal tones and grand voicings, Haig hits the keys with locomotive force and deploys the most sterling, rolling improvised runs without ever losing the darling quality of Kern's compositions.
Recorded four years away from his death in 1982, this session was his second-to-last studio date. Which is a shame, since he should have been recorded daily at this point given his level of artistic maturity and significance. But the late '70s and early '80s weren't exactly proud years for jazz appreciation. Only a handful of U.S. labels recognized that geniuses were still among us. In fact, this album originally was recorded in New York for Japan's Trio label and produced by Helen.
As we know from Grange Rutan's Death of a Bebop Wife, Haig wasn't the nicest guy in the world. He was acquitted in 1969 of killing his third wife—though in her book, Grange (Haig's second wife) challenged his claim that the victim had died of a fall. Grange detailed Haig's long history of wife-battering and spousal abuse, and she conducted dozens of interviews.
I never met Haig and didn't know him. But I'd like to think that deep down, there was a corner of this guy that was tender and gorgeous—even if he was a marital monster. The evidence is in his recordings.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Al Haig Plays the Music of Jerome Kern here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Al Haig with bassist Jamil Nasser playing The Way You Look Tonight. Nearly eight minutes of bliss. Dig the command and boldness of both artists. And catch Haig's lingering ending...