The Oxford-based pianist Alexander Hawkins has forged a strong personal voice out of the more demanding and aesthetically austere practices of contemporary jazz piano. He began his first half solo set with a crashing full-pedal rumble that brought to mind the iconoclastic jazz avant-gardist Cecil Taylor, and later delivered an elliptic take on the dense harmonies and walking bass lines of cool-school icon Lennie Tristano. There were shimmering, soft pedal glissandi and single notes resonating into silence, references to gospel and a brilliant deconstruction of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” that merely hinted at the theme until the original intro was thumped out for a final statement.
But Hawkins’s growing reputation is based on more than being a technically advanced practitioner of free-jazz piano whose percussive bent has garnered him an impressive list of credits with the avant-garde elite. It is equally based on his grasp of compositional structure and the classy ensembles that he leads.
This performance, based on his well-received first solo piano CD Song Singular, also had an impressive sense of form. Partly, this was because Hawkins played the themes in the same order as the CD – it began with the twin-motif contrasts of “The Way We Dance it Here” and ended with the haunting mid-register tremolos and melodic clarity of “Unknown Baobabs (Seen in the Distance)”. But, more substantially, each piece is so rigorously constructed that it is hard to determine where composition ends and improvisation begins. It brings order to chaos, and makes demanding music more accessible.
The second half presented the Wolfram Trio, young Norwegian improvisers who didn’t stray far from established free-jazz practices. Fredrik Luhr Dietrichson on acoustic bass and Jan Martin Gismervik on drums were a springy rhythm section with a good sound and a strong sense of pulse but alto saxophonist Halvor Meling’s bleeps, squeaks and breaths seemed out of sorts and somewhat disconnected. The best moments were the periodic duets between bass and drums, when bowed bass resonated, plucked notes hovered and cymbals pinged and hissed.