Listening to pianist extraordinaire Frank Hewitt’s Four Hundred Saturdays is both a sad and a joyous event. The joy is present front and center in the music, recorded live at Smalls in New York City on August 21, 1999. The sadness is due to the fact that both Hewitt and the drummer, Jimmy Lovelace, have both since passed - Hewitt in September 2002 and Lovelace in October 2004. So all we have left of them is a few handfuls of recordings, such as this one. But what gems they are - living legacies to two superb musicians that have been under-appreciated for far too long.
Some have referred to Hewitt as "the greatest jazz pianist you’ve never heard." A fixture on the New York jazz scene since the mid-fifties, Hewitt has played with many of the best of the best - John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Cecil Payne amongst them. With a style that is part Thelonious Monk and part Bud Powell, Hewitt is the pianist that other great pianists would often come to watch, spellbound. As stated in the liner notes, Hewitt "would often count tempos up over 400 beats per minute and sometimes even approaching 500, even on difficult tunes," and "It is to one’s everlasting amazement when one realizes that Hewitt was not just capable of playing at blinding speed, but that he was also capable of being brilliant and articulate at such speeds."
On this recording the tempos are not nearly that frantic, but the brilliance is there in every single note. Hewitt was a regular at Smalls, having played there every Saturday night for the eight years leading up to his death. It was a place that he was very comfortable playing, and that’s evident in the music here. One of the things that makes this such fun to listen to is that, great as it is, it doesn’t sound overly rehearsed. Indeed, Hewitt almost never told the band what tune he was going to play next. Instead, he would improvise a long introduction as he decided what the next tune would be, and once he did, the rest of the band had to figure out within a couple of notes what it was and how to jump into it. That mystery - that flying-by-the-seat of your pants excitement - is all over this music. Joining Hewitt and drummer Lovelace on this recording are two of Hewitt’s favorite saxophone players - Chris Byars on tenor sax and Mike Mullins on alto. The great Ari Roland rounds out the quintet on bass (and contributes some amazing bow work!).
There are only four tunes on this album, all standards, and each at least 13 minutes long. They all serve as perfect vehicles to give flight to the magnificently soaring solos that each musician contributes. It’s interesting to note the difference in approach between Hewitt and the saxophonists. Hewitt tends to play more on top of the beat, while Byars and Mullins seem to prefer being just a tad bit behind it, which makes for a great contrast in sound. One thing that they all have in common, including Roland, is the ability to weave their lines both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the changes. That makes for playing that is full of surprises. Sometimes they play notes that shouldn’t work but that somehow do. It’s a testament to their collective musical genius.
However, none of this would have been possible without the expert hand of producer and engineer Luke Kaven. The quality of this recording is simply fantastic. I’ve never been to Smalls, but I imagine it to be a somewhat small club, and small rooms are always the most difficult to record live, what with the close acoustics, chatter, clinking glasses and other assorted problems. And recording the instruments clearly is one thing, but getting a good balance is quite another. Achieving great balance live, even in grand halls, is usually easier said than done. But Kaven has done a remarkable job here. This CD couldn’t have sounded better if it had been recorded in the best studio in the country. This is a great memorial to two amazing musicians that never got their due praise but that will, nonetheless, be sorely missed.