It seems premature, if not downright presumptuous, to add the sobriquet “legendary” to an artist’s name on his debut album — especially when the artist in question is an unknown pianist from Philadelphia sharing the marquee with a bona fide legend such as Max Roach.
But the legend of Hasaan Ibn Ali, whose debut (and, until recently, only) album was released as The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hassan
, has grown considerably over the decades, if largely in the shadows. For the most part, that legend stemmed from Ibn Ali’s seeming disappearance; how does a pianist with such a singular voice burst onto the scene with such brilliance and promise, never to be heard from again?
Earlier this year, that question was examined once again with the release of Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album
, Ibn Ali’s long-shelved follow-up recorded in 1965 with saxophonist (and lifelong champion) Odean Pope, bassist Art Davis and drummer Kalil Madi. The discovery of the tapes, believed lost in a 1978 warehouse fire, proved revelatory, supporting the assessment of Ibn Ali as a profound eccentric tracing a divergent path from the idiosyncratic genius of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.
Now, Ibn Ali’s discography has doubled in size yet again, with still more previously unheard music by the elusive pianist. Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings
(Omnivore) collects two CDs worth of Ibn Ali alone at the piano, captured throughout the early 1960s by a pair of students at the University of Pennsylvania.
“My mother gave me this recorder at my graduation in the spring of ’63,” recalls Alan Sukoenig, who co-produced both recent releases with pianist and historian Lewis Porter and Omnivore’s Cheryl Pawelski. “So I was always looking for an opportunity to use this new toy.”
Sukoenig met Ibn Ali through his friend and fellow student, the late saxophonist David “DB” Shrier, who’d sung the praises of this local pianist who he described as “a logical extension of Monk with technique like Bud Powell.” Shrier had begun taping Ibn Ali at a pair of locations on Penn’s campus, and Sukoenig soon followed suit. The recordings continued briefly after Sukoenig moved to New York, but their relationship faded as life intervened and the pianist continued to struggle with drug addiction and incarceration, both of which contributed to his disappearance from the stage and studio; he died in 1980.
“I feel a deep regret that I didn’t keep up my friendship with Hasaan,” Sukoenig laments over the phone from his New York apartment. “In a sense, I’m trying to make up for that by promoting his music. But in another sense, how could I not with music like that?”
Sukoenig’s dedication to Ibn Ali’s music is understandable upon listening to these stunning recordings. The informal setting finds the pianist in a vastly different mode from the two studio recordings, not only on his own compositions but, for the first time on record, playing standards. His take on Great American Songbook entries such as “On Green Dolphin Street” and “How Deep Is the Ocean” is fascinating, combining dizzying technique and esoteric, probing exploration.
Among the highlights are a jaw-dropping 13-minute rendition of “Body and Soul,” wringing myriad variations from the familiar theme, and an even longer take on the Rodgers and Hart classic “Lover” that continually expands into kaleidoscopically dense, utterly baroque ornamentation.
With Monk a constant point of comparison, it’s especially enlightening to hear Ibn Ali’s version of “Off Minor,” on which he blunts the composer’s sharp angles into a bold, fractured sound that approaches the abstract power of Cecil Taylor. No wonder it appeals to a modernist like Matthew Shipp, whose liner notes acclaim, “I have never, ever seen a pianist make a Monk tune bend to his or her will to this degree and so naturally.”
These intimate recordings add immeasurably to Ibn Ali’s legacy and allow Sukoenig to finally share music that he’s long treasured in private.
“I’ve been listening to this music for over half a century, and it’s grown and grown on me,” he says. “Hasaan’s passion as an improviser has always struck me as going way beyond what one is used to hearing. His rich, seemingly boundless imagination, tinged here and there with his unique humor, has moved me whenever I’ve listened to these recordings, and, over the years, has become for me even more meaningful.” — Shaun Brady