Back many more years than I would care to remember, I took a college music appreciation course called “Piano Literature of the Romantic Period.” Neither a pianist myself, nor even particularly knowledgeable about music in general, I thought it was time to learn something about the music written for an instrument I loved to listen to. The course turned out to be a comprehensive introduction to some of the most thrilling music ever written, some of it for piano and orchestra, most for solo piano. There is something about the solo piano in the hands of a skilled artist playing the works of master composers that can paint emotional colors like no other instrument. Think of Rubenstein playing Chopin, or Lang Lang playing Beethoven.
If this is true for the classical piano, it is no less true for the jazz piano, where the artist is as much a creator as he is a performer. Sir Roland Hanna is just such an artist. Let me begin by acknowledging my ignorance. I had no knowledge of Hanna, until one day an album of his arrived as they say “over the transom.” Once I had listened, it was clear I had been missing a truly exceptional talent. Colors From a Giant’s Kit is a collection of 14 solo tracks recorded by Hanna before his death in 2003. While Hanna may not have the achieved the same kind of public acclaim as some of the more noted jazz pianists—the Keith Jarretts, the Oscar Petersons, the Monks—a little research makes it clear that he is what is known in the trade as a musician’s musician. He played with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and Benny Goodman’s band among others. He accompanied singers like Sarah Vaughn and Al Hibbler. He composed works for the piano and orchestra and has soloed with some of the major classical orchestras in the country. This was a pianist that deserved a lot more attention.
The album is a diverse mix that shows the range of Hanna’s musical interests. There’s a nice little traditional blues and a modernist take on the old time rag in his own composition, “20th Century Rag.” He takes “Cherokee,” the swing classic made famous by Charlie Barnet, and first turns it into a romantic ballad before making clear he can swing it as well. He jams his way through jazz standards like “Robbin’s Nest,” “In a Mellow Tone,” and a richly evocative version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” There is an almost impressionistic take on Coltrane’s “Naima.” Then there are his own compositions such as the title track, an upbeat romp. “Natalie Rosanne” is a sweet ballad, while “A Story Often Told But Seldom Heard” is an eight minute tone poem with echoes of classical modernism.
In a way, this combination may be the most compelling thing about both Hanna’s playing and his composing. His work reverberates with echoes of the classics from a variety of traditions. Throughout the album you hear the influences of not only “Piano Literature of the Romantic Period,” not only of Liszt and Rachmaninoff, but Satie and Gershwin and many others. He takes these influences and mixes them with Scott Joplin and Duke Ellington and he produces something all his own. As some of the more experimental voices in modern jazz go, he may be a little tame. He may be a little too traditional. But for anyone who finds themselves thrilled with that Romantic piano music, Sir Roland Hanna (the Sir, according to Wikipedia, is an honorary title bestowed on him by the president of Liberia) is someone you will want to get acquainted with, and Colors From a Giant’s Kit is a good place to start.