Alexander Hawkins/Tomeka Reid – Shards and Constellations
(Intakt Records CD344. CD review by Fiona Mactaggart)
The vivid memory of a white-robed Cecil Taylor darting crab-style across a concert hall stage and then delivering a quite astonishing solo piano set appeared in this listener’s mind on first hearing this sparkling new album from English pianist and organist Alexander Hawkins.
Of the various albums Hawkins has been involved in as leader or side-man, his 2014 album Step Wide, Step Deep is perhaps the best known. To date Hawkins has collaborated with many esteemed names in jazz and improvising music, Mulatu Astatke and Joe McPhee to mention only two. This album however would seem to be the first that he and US cellist Tomeka Reid have recorded together, and such is the quality of the evocatively titled Shards and Constellations, one hopes it may be the beginning of a long association.
Though born in Washington DC, Reid has been involved for many years with the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and with influential free jazz musicians such as flautist Nicole Mitchell and drummer Mike Reed. (Interestingly the latter founded, in the windy city, the avant-garde and free jazz ‘Constellation Jazz Club’.) Clearly Reid’s musical foundations and current jazz discourse segue with Hawkins’ and their collaboration makes perfect sense.
The album consists of ten tracks. Besides eight free pieces are two homages to elders of free jazz: Muhal Richard Abram’s Peace On You and Leroy Jenkins’ Albert Ayler (His Life Was Too Short). The latter piece is peaceful and almost pastoral, whilst the former is lush and loud, with shivering arco cello and waves of piano evolving into almost Oscar Peterson-like decorativeness. The emotional depth is breathtaking.
The rest of the album is co-created by the duo and to this listener’s ears sounds improvised, though given Hawkins’ professed interest in the relationship between composed and improvised music, it’s hard to be completely sure about this. What is plain is the depth of communion between the two musicians. There is a feeling of confidence shown perhaps especially by Hawkins, with Reid showing an impressive expertise in extended techniques.
The title track Shards and Constellations, a beautiful brouhaha, packs a great deal into its just under 4 minutes length. Opening skittering arco cello gives way to drips of piano notes which, gradually emboldening, sound ever more Cecil Taylorian.
The music is predominantly abstract and textural, with flashes of lyricism before diving back into creative depths. Using neither excessive volume nor frequent dissonance this is not an exhausting, ear-bleed kind of free jazz, but rather an attractive, intelligent and constantly searching gestalt which respectfully takes the elders’ sounds to new places.
The final track Is Becomes If opens tentatively then with extended cello and piano technique develops some interesting African-sounding rhythms. The icing on the cake is the fine mixing and mastering by Alex Bonney. Detailed liner notes are provided by Anthony Davis.
Shards and Constellations would be the perfect soundtrack for a thoughtful, slightly unnerving film. At times austere most of the time it zips through multiple ideas. A pleasure to listen to, this album will stand up to repeated listening. One imagines that Cecil Taylor himself would be delighted.
Fiona Mactaggart lives in Edinburgh, plays drums and writes about music on Scottish Jazz Space.
Shards and Constellations was released on 17 April 2020 and is available on CD and digital.