Jutta Hipp is not a name that means much to most jazz fans. A talented German pianist, she seems to have had a very short enigmatic career, a moment or two of fame and then she was gone. And so it is something of a surprise to see a collection of her music newly released in the Jazzhaus series of archival Südwestrundfunk recordings, a series that has so far included the work of the likes of Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderley, and Thelonious Monk. No mean company and Jutta Hipp just doesn’t seem to fit.
Born in Leipzig in 1925, she studied classical piano as a child before beginning an art degree. During the war, she became acquainted with many of the shining lights of the German jazz scene—the Mangelsdorff brothers, Joki Freund, Atila Zoller, Hans Koller—and began playing with them. By the ’50s, she came to the attention of the famed jazz musicologist Leonard Feather, who, impressed with her playing and perhaps her good looks, encouraged her to try her luck in America. In 1955 she left for New York. She was signed by Blue Note records and produced three albums in eight months. In 1956, she played at the Newport Jazz Festival and recorded what most critics consider her best work with Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims. And then as quickly as her star rose, it set just as quickly. She and Feather fell out and disappeared from the jazz scene entirely. She died in 2003, something of a recluse.
The Jazzhaus album, The German Recordings 1952-1955 features music, both live and studio recording, broadcast over four different sessions with a varied cast of collaborating musicians. It is a collection that illustrates the best of her playing as well as some of her quirkier moments. Her take on some classic tunes is unique and very surprising at times. Songs like “Blues After Hours” which opens the album and Erroll Garner’s “Erroll’s Bounce” are treated more or less traditionally, but then you get her almost dirge-like treatment of “Stompin’ At the Savoy,” which is either creatively innovative or bravely misguided.
You can hear her classical training in songs like “What’s New” and “These Foolish Things,” where she is joined by Albert Mangelsdorff on trombone and Hans Koller on tenor sax. Indeed the tunes from these two 1953 sessions are the highlights of the album. There is a dynamic version of a Mangelsforff original, “Sound-Koller” and a thoughtful variation on “Come Back to Sorrento.” And no one can miss with the classic “Moonlight in Vermont.”
Jutta Hipp’s playing has been called erratic, and there are times when you have to wonder about her decisions, but in general she is a pianist that deserved better than she got. When she was good, she was very, very…well, you know the rest.