Hyman Exalts Duke Ellington at St. Peter’s Concert in NYC


Newly annointed NEA Jazz Master Dick Hyman.

(Photo: Bob Haggart Jr.)

A freshly anointed 2017 NEA Jazz Master, the veteran pianist Dick Hyman gave a lunchtime recital at Saint Peter’s Church on June 15, bringing his music to New York City’s worshipful home of jazz.

A native New Yorker, Hyman recently celebrated his 89th birthday. The NEA accolade is a richly deserved award for such a dedicated, long-serving artist. He’s never been a jazz superstar, but Hyman has built up a reputation as a dedicated and masterful exponent of vintage traditions. For those listeners who specialize in early jazz chestnuts, he’s long been a major figure.

Although more active as an organist and Moog synthesizer player in the 1960s, Hyman ultimately concentrated on the piano, along with his composing and arranging activities.

Many movie fans will know him as a regular music director for Woody Allen’s soundtracks. Hyman also launched the long-running Jazz In July series at the 92nd Street Y on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. His touring schedule is impressively filled for the next few months.

Hyman had elected to dedicate this one-hour set to the music of Duke Ellington. Glancing at his watch on several occasions, he made the effort to include as many of these masterpieces as time would allow.

It’s worth noting that Hyman’s interpretations were invariably much longer than the original recordings. Though they savored most aspects of Ellington’s enduring themes, they often produced the feel of a mini-suite investigation.

Hyman’s curated set also revealed some less familiar jewels. His delicate touch was evident from the start, negotiating a gentle form of stride, full of blooming constructions and fingered with impeccable detail. His soft trinkles on “Sophisticated Lady” possessed a slight reserve and well-behaved jauntiness, creating a waltzing motion and buoyant flutter.

Hyman also showed his hearty side, splaying his long fingers wide and striking repeated chords. These were heavily elaborated soon afterwards.

On “The Gal From Joe’s”—which hinted at “Saint James Infirmary Blues” and “42nd Street”—Hyman delivered a sturdily rolling bass line, making single-digit strikes with his right hand. His well-thumbed, yellowed scores also included “Drop Me Off In Harlem,” “Come Sunday” and “Jubilee Stomp.”

Hyman offered erudite observations between each number, clearly and concisely explaining every tune’s origin.

There was no old-aged dithering here: Hyman is as sharp as a 30-year-old. Perhaps his readings of these pieces were closer to how a live show by the Ellington orchestra would have stretched out the material well beyond its 78-r.p.m. incarnations.

Hyman was free to make a narrative journey, unraveling the melodies, changing pace, creating thoughtful spaces and tightening up the bright clusters.

Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” had a dreamy transparency that was closer to a classical vocabulary, but “C Jam Blues” switched the mood back to the brisk striding for which Hyman is best known. A high-end glossiness prevailed, generated by chirping figures in the right-hand extremity of the keys, but a diaphanous glitter returned for “The Clothed Woman,” which slowly developed momentum.

This episodic piece ended up with an abstract closing section. Most unusually, Hyman climaxed the set with a unique interpretation of “Caravan.” Heard in solo piano form (it is mostly heard as a driving full-band percussion showcase), this song made for an enlightening experience. Hyman may have only had an hour, but this limited time was filled with magnificent playing and inspired interpretations.

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