“The funny thing about music is that there’s no real generational difference,” laughs pianist Hank Jones, 87. “It’s all in how you think and handle the material that you’re working with. It’s really a matter of how you’re going to relate to the music, not so much the age factor. We’re all on the same page musically.”
Speaking from his home in upstate New York, the elder jazz statesman sounds positively giddy as he talks about the positive nature of creating music, collaborating, and exchanging ideas on stage.
The oldest of three great jazz brothers — his siblings are drummer Elvin Jones (who passed away just over a year ago) and cornetist and jazz composer Thad Jones (who died in 1986) — Jones quietly led his own career in music through his young days in Detroit and Buffalo to his busy professional career in N.Y.C. in the house band at the Jazz at the Philharmonic and on stage and with such greats as Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Sara Vaughan, Gene Krupa, Ella Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman.
Jones played with the CBS orchestra from 1959 to 1976 but remained active in the jazz world. In the late ’70s, he played piano in the Broadway musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, and he recorded with a unit called The Great Jazz Trio, which featured a rotation of great rhythm players.
Influenced by the first wave of great Detroit pianists (including Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, and “Sir Roland” Hanna), along with Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, Jones’ early style was open to bebop, Latin, and other emerging variations and his accessible playing was flexible enough to fit into many genres. His versatility as a pianist gradually became one of his most important attributes. He soon realized that a great musician could move in and out of any situation.
“One key is adaptability,” says Jones. “You adapt to whatever style you have to deal with and you don’t lock yourself in to any certain thing. Flexibility is very important … to be able to play any style, any time. If you do that, of course, it doesn’t matter who you play with. I try to maintain that flexibility.
“It’s second nature for me to adapt to whatever situation that I’m in,” he adds. “There are many different types of playing situations; hardly any are the same. If you can play in many styles, you’re more valuable as a musician. There will always be innovations and variations of styles and, perhaps, new styles themselves,” says Jones of his lengthy list of musical endeavors. “I think in the long run, things really settled into a pattern. Change always takes place over time, as it has with jazz. Hopefully, most jazz will always be played in some recognizable musical form. Improvisation is a vital part of it because when you improvise, in a sense, you’re creating music and creating a variation … something that didn’t exist before.”
His most recent album, For My Father (Justin Time), is in the trio setting, with bassist George Mraz and drummer Dennis Mackrel. It includes some new compositions as well as renditions of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” and “Prelude to a Kiss,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Johnny Come Lately,” and Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.”
In recent years, Jones worked mostly with various trios and quartets, both in the studio and on stage. The current version of the Hank Jones Trio features two young musicians from the Juilliard School of Music — drummer Marion Felder and bassist Ivan Taylor.
Jones is particularly excited to return to Charleston this week for his third Spoleto Festival USA appearance.
“I enjoy the trio format because you have almost unlimited freedom,” he says. “It’s almost like playing solo — although when you’re playing solo, you don’t have the support of the bass and drums — but you provide your own support. Marion and Ivan are excellent players — really brilliant and far beyond their years,” beams Jones. “They’re young, but they have the expertise of musicians twice their age. They think how I do and I think how they do. It’s very reminiscent of guys who’ve been playing for years and years.”
Anyone who would like to know more about how Jones does it (and has done it for a half-century) can hear from the man himself during his “Conversation With” on Tues. May 30 at 5 p.m. at the Avery Research Center (125 Bull St.)
HANK JONES TRIO • Spoleto Festival USA’s Wachovia Jazz Series • $25-$40 • May 29 at 7 p.m. • 1 hour 30 min • Sottile Theatre, 44 George St. • 579-3100