Solo Piano Recordings Emerge from Rediscovered Philly Pianist Hassan Ibn Ali on ‘Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

We wrote about the legendary Philadelphia pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali on these pages last March, covering one of the most important never-released-until-now albums of this year 2021 which is stock full of them. That was the acclaimed quartet album Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album. Now the same team that delivered that release – Alan Sukoenig, Lewis Porter, and Grammy winners producer Cheryl Pawelski and engineer Michael Graves have issued a 2-CD, 21-track collection of originals and standards from the pianist entitled Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings via Omnivore Recordings. As with most of their releases of this type, the enclosed booklet is rich with essays and photographs – essays by Sukoenig, Porter, and pianist Matthew Shipp and unseen photographs from Sukoenig. A 4-LP vinyl version is due in 2022.

This makes only the third recording of the pianist described by local saxophone legend Odean Pope as “the most advanced player ever to develop in Philadelphia.”  Hasaan had practiced intensively with John Coltrane in the early ‘50s and is thought by Pope and others to have been the influence behind Coltrane’s so-called sheets of sound as well as the harmonic approach that underlay Coltrane’s breakthrough Giant Steps, and, with Earl Bostic, one of the two role models behind Coltrane’s strict work ethic. The only other recording is Atlantic’s 1965 The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan, which stunned the jazz world and led to the aforementioned lost album referenced above. 

This one, being unreleased until now, has a story too. Alan Sukoenig and saxophonist David Shrier were students at the University of Pennsylvania in 1962, when Shrier told Sukoenig about this amazing pianist he had just heard a club. It wasn’t long before the three became friends and over the next three years, Shrier and Sukoenig captured the pianist on tape, playing standards and a few originals. Engineer Graves restored and mastered the tapes heard in this collection, tapes that reveal a poetic, imaginative, hard-to-pin-down style. Given that most of the fare here is standards, it makes it easier to compare Hasaan to other pianists, but his advanced use of harmonics and rhythms makes those comparisons challenging to explain.

Reference points for Hasaan’s style like somewhere between Elmo Hope, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk but he mashes those styles into his own. He never really sounds like another version of any of them. He certainly leans more toward the percussive, angular approach than to anything approaching “smooth.” Listening to Bill Evans, or in more modern terms, Kenny Barron or Bill Charlap address ballads is a completely different experience. Hasaan favors surprise over finesse, virtuosity and intellect over warmth, but his command of the keys is as formidable as any. We have long applauded Monk for his unpredictability, but we can certainly ascribe the same to Hasaan. Of the 21 tracks, 14 are his interpretations of standards and seven are originals. Take the familiar standards such as “Yesterdays,” “Body and Soul,” “On Green Dolphin Street” and “They Say It’s Wonderful” from Disc One alone and you’ll hear improvisational rapid runs, inventive chords, and dynamic flourishes unlike any that you’ve heard from other pianists. That’s just a start. 

Consider that Sukoenig has been listening to these recordings for 55 years and still walks away amazed. You’ll be stunned and owe it to yourself to listen.

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