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Arts Desk
Every week on the air there's a special focus on one particular jazz album. Check them all out here!

Jazz Album of the Week: Demystifying an enigmatic Philadelphia jazz legend from the '60s—one archival release at a time

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For almost 60 years, the only recording on which Hasaan Ibn Ali’s piano playing could be heard was 1964’s The Max Roach Trio Featuring The Legendary Hasaan, an album for which Hasaan—one of the most enigmatic figures in all of Philadelphia jazz lore—did not receive top billing even though he wrote all the music.

Let that sink in. One album, the anecdotes and attestations of an aging group of musicians, and a whole lot of “what ifs.” That. Was. It.

Then, this past April, something remarkable: the release of Metaphysics, the long-thought destroyed studio session Hasaan led for Atlantic Records in 1965. I won’t reproduce the fascinating story of how that album came to be lost and found—read all about it here— but, suffice it to say, it was a big enough story that NPR and the New York Times joined us in thoroughly covering its release.

Now there’s more. Retrospect in Retirement of Delay is more than just a seemingly nonsensical album title and a rhythmically pleasurable phrase to say; it’s two discs and 21 tracks of Hasaan like we’ve never heard him before.

Unlike Metaphysics, where a Hasaan-led quartet features the recorded debut of a 26-year-old Odean Pope and presents as something strikingly similar to the Monk/Coltrane collaborations, this latest batch of never-before-heard Hasaan is all solo piano. And, consisting of mostly Hasaanic interpretations of standards, we’re given the clearest, most accessible picture yet of Hasaan’s improvisational instincts.

This ought to help the jazz historians make better sense of him.

“Hearing him play standards allows one, for the first time, to compare him to other pianists,” writes Dr. Lewis Porter, a jazz pianist, author, educator, and music historian whose interpretations of never-before-heard Hasaan compositions are featured on WRTI’s NPR Live Sessions page.

“It’s clear that Hasaan belongs in the top rank of jazz pianists. The music is mind-boggling!”-Dr. Lewis Porter

And it’s music we wouldn’t have but for the efforts of producer Alan Sukoenig and his old college buddy, the late saxophonist Dave Shrier. The two, as University of Pennsylvania undergrads in the early-to-mid 1960s, struck up an unlikely friendship with Hasaan after Shrier heard him at a club one night, was blown away, and asked permission to record him.

Over the next three years, Shrier and Sukoenig would record Hasaan several times, usually in the lounges of Penn dorms or in Houston Hall, Penn’s student union. Curious students were welcome to come and go as they pleased, and several tracks—“On Green Dolphin Street,” “Prose Poem,” “Sweet and Lovely,” “True Train,” and Hasaan’s “Untitled Ballad”— give the listener a glimpse beyond Hasaan’s musicality into his actual personality.

“We included some conversation to give a sense of Hasaan the person,” explains Porter, a co-producer here along with Sukoenig and Cheryl Pawelski, in Retrospect’s extensive liner notes.

But even more amusing than dialogue between the professorial Hasaan and the occasional student passerby who’s become momentarily ensnared in his recitation is the often jocular dynamic between Hasaan and Sukoenig and Shrier. At one point, after Hasaan concludes a sprawling, almost symphonic version of “Sweet and Lovely,” Shrier makes a joke about the room they’re in being needed for a P.T.A meeting, at which point, without missing a beat, Hasaan quips, “Tell all the children to go to bed.”

At another point, Sukoenig asks Hasaan to play “Off My Back Jack,” one of his original compositions. And when Hasaan momentarily forgets how it goes, Suknoenig reminds him. Sukoenig and Shrier are fans, sure. But they’re more than that; they’re advocates. Which would have been especially meaningful to an artist who so often must have felt misunderstood.

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Alan Sukoenig/Omnivore Recordings
Hasaan Ibn Ali

And as for how these tapes came to be, it’s pure love-of-the-game type stuff—music lovers who had the good fortune to stumble upon something curious, combustible, and scarce and the good sense to hit record.

What you’ll hear on Retrospect is totally organic, unrehearsed and unscripted, recorded on a portable Norelco tape recorder Sukoenig’s mother had given him as a graduation gift. Altogether, Sukoenig and Shrier captured a little over three hours of solo piano. This collection—the type of musical artifact that is truly one of one—contains the best from those sessions.

As a sucker for standards, my personal favorites are Hasaan’s takes on tunes from the Great American Songbook. His treatment of Rodgers and Hart’s “Falling in Love with Love” is about as straight-ahead as Hasaan arrangements get, an accessible introduction for the uninitiated.

Elsewhere, “Cherokee” and “On Green Dolphin Street” are like great bagels serving as dependable delivery systems for two novel spreads of cream cheese; “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “How Deep is the Ocean” somehow seem to replicate the experience of watching a black and white documentary on Irving Berlin under the influence of medical-grade pyschedelics; and, at over 13 minutes, the version of Van Heusen and Burke’s “It Could Happen to You” isn’t just the longest cut here, it may very well constitute the most polished and coherent offering on the record. This one alone is worth whatever Omnivore records is charging for the entire double-CD; it’s a triumph.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned “Sweet and Lovely,” like Monk’s, is littered with digressions and parentheticals and funhouse mirror approaches to melody, harmony, rhythm, and narrative. Hasaan seems to be constantly testing himself to see how far afield he can go without losing the thread. Miraculously, he never does irretrievably lose himself in the labyrinth of his own machinations.

Perceptible within those machinations is a manic, exhaustive, almost obsessive quality. It’s as though he feels that if he doesn’t share all his ideas with you at once, he might combust on the spot or, worse, you may never hear them. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s tough to fault Hasaan for giving license to those anxieties.

What’s most clear is that Hasaan had a very certain idea of how he wanted to evolve as a musician and what he wanted to sound like. It’s a mindset analogous to that possessed by Norm MacDonald, the late comedian who had a very clear idea of what he found funny; if that didn’t comport to what the audience found funny…well, that was on them.

Nowhere is the strength of this artistic will more apparent than on Monk’s “Off Minor.” By no means a complete deconstruction, there’s no doubt Hasaan appropriates the essence of Monk’s composition. But he’s also tailored it to his own aesthetic specifications.

“It almost has the feel of something Hasaan might have written himself,” writes noted jazz pianist and Wilmington, Del. native Matthew Shipp in the album’s liner notes. “Only because it falls so in line with his sound.

“I have never, ever seen a pianist make a Monk tune bend to his or her will to this degree and so naturally.”

Retrospect in Retirement of Delay appears at first glance to be a nonsense title, a fun jumble of words to say and nothing more. But, upon further examination, it makes perfect sense under these circumstances. For nearly 60 years, not a single piece of previously unreleased music featuring Hasaan Ibn Ali; over the past seven months, three full CDs worth. In retrospect, it’s fair to declare that long delay officially retired.