Pianist Dick Hyman, a many-colored chameleon

hyman-3It takes an exceptional chameleon to be able to master every piano style of consequence in jazz history.  There have been some good comprehensive players; the late Dr. Billy Taylor comes to mind.  But it takes an extraordinary artist to be able to accurately interpret the work of great pianists in their own respective vernaculars, and to do so with discreet originality.  Such can be counted on the fingers of one thumb, and his name is Dick Hyman.

 As the jazz repertory movement got going in the 1970s, transcribed solos from recordings became a kind of fool’s gold to retro-minded musicians.  Hyman wasn’t content with slavish reiteration; he imagined Bix Beiderbecke playing Gershwin, resurrected obscure novelty stylists like Zez Confrey, and took the sublime “A Child is Born” by Thad Jones in a different style on every chorus.

AfterHours_DickJazzNYCEmblematic of his prodigious talents is a project that only Hyman could take on: he recorded a five-CD collection of the history of the music through its piano innovators and stylists, A Century of Jazz Piano (Arbors, 2009).  So conversant is Hyman with the work of James P. Johnson, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano and others that he can indulge in playful features like reimagining Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady’ in waltz variations.  He’s faithful to the well-oiled verve of Fats Waller’s quick and daunting “Handful of Keys,” but when he plays the stop-time breaks, the ascending figures unfold like a beautiful flower.

UCLA’s Friends of Jazz presents Hyman on Friday in its occasional salon series, at the Fowler Museum’s Lenart Auditorium.  He’ll play solo piano and probably answer questions from a local pianist of note.

Hyman’s soundtrack work includes musical direction on some of the best Woody Allen movies.  It must have elicited wry irony when Hyman was tasked with playing everything from Rachmaninoff to accompanying Al Jolson’s “Sittin’ On Top of the World” for Zelig.  Just as Allen’s character turns up at momentous historic junctures, Dick Hyman is a pianist for all times.

Illustration: PJ Loughran, Columbia Magazine

Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.

Dick Hyman solo piano | Friends of Jazz @ UCLA | Fowler Museum | Nov 15

 

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