Bix Beiderbecke was born in 1903, which would make him over 105 years old had he lived. His greatness was known to a relatively few people during his lifetime, mostly among fellow musicians and a few other people who were lucky enough to have heard him in person. His recording output was not huge, but enough that it has supported what is a cottage industry of reissues and tributes which, in retrospect, seem endless in number.
Being invited to review yet another Bix tribute tends to make this writer wonder what else can be said about this man and his music. But learning who the performer is makes all the difference. Dick Hyman's name attached to any musical project offers bona fides beyond reproach. He has taken an idea -- that of honoring Bix's music through his own instrument of choice, the solo piano. I do not recall if this has been previously attempted, except for a few recordings of the four impressionistic pieces published as the Modern Suite for Piano, and innumerable interpretations of the most popular, "In a Mist."
For me, the idea has worked. It is not only a tribute to the great cornetist, but it is an important milepost in Hyman's own output. The latter is so huge and in so many contexts that one begins to understand why critics have shied away from giving him his just due in the historic picture of piano jazz. Both Hyman and Johnny Guarnieri, for example, present formidable credentials, but their supreme versatility and their abilities to capture and demonstrate the styles of other distinguished pianists, while being stylists in their own right, seem to confuse the learned ones, who fall back on the weak dismissal of both men as "unoriginal" or "gifted copyists."
Let me not belabor the point. If you have not sat close to Dick Hyman as he works out a series of keyboard ideas prior to an actual live performance, you have something to look forward to. I wish I had been sitting at his side while he worked out the designs of these pieces. The disc begins with the title tune, "Thinking About Bix."
A jaunty, lyrical theme opens the work, recalling carefree days of Bix's youth in Davenport, Ia., when the cornetist began feeling his musical oats. The theme, reprised, dissolves into a more introspective section containing minor overtones suggestive of Bix's own growing musical maturity. One cannot shut out thoughts of Eastwood Lane, whose impressionistic compositions Bix so admired. The original theme is revisited, and the approaching end of the track is signaled by Hyman in a quote of Bix's famous coda to "I'm Coming, Virginia."
In "Singin' The Blues" Hyman follows the original order of solos, beginning with Frank Trumbauer's C-melody chorus which (as the pianist notes and I've heard elsewhere) was apparently as well-regarded in its day by other musicians as the Bix solo which followed. A tune dating back to the ODJB, "Ostrich Walk," emerges in Dick Hyman's hands as a splendid solo as pianistic as, say, any of Jelly Roll's classics. This is so fitting in the case of Bix, whose second instrument was, of course, the piano. The pianist involves himself (and us) in mood-setting before slipping into the chorus of "I'm Coming, Virginia." The introduction is redolent of leafy lanes and the scent of magnolia, part of our world that, however fleetingly, reminds us of what once was.
Many of our famous jazz pianists have recorded those four Bix compositions so fortuitously put on paper by arranger Bill Challis, without whom we might never have heard them. The first of these heard on this disc, "Candlelights," is to these ears the most aptly titled, and to these ears, equally valuable with the more well-known "In a Mist." One can easily drift into thoughts of a lazy river and soft splashes of a paddle as Hyman provides a wandering and satisfying introduction to "In The Dark," the second of the four Bix compositions here. One wonders what Bix's thoughts might have been as he first developed this piece. Hyman leaves no doubt that he understands.
"Lonely Melody," one of the classic Bix-Whiteman recordings, departs from much of the original 78 RPM version, while preserving Bix's own notes. Dare we suggest the river again as we note Hyman's treatment as contra-punting? Perhaps not.