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A new album sheds light on the abiding mystery of Hasaan Ibn Ali

Pianist and composer Hasaan Ibn Ali.
Alan Sukoenig
Pianist and composer Hasaan Ibn Ali.

For more than a half century, the Philadelphia pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali existed largely as a tantalizing mystery. His reputation was built on a single release, 1965’s The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan, which granted top billing to Roach, the iconic drummer, but afforded “legend” status to an unknown artist making a bracing debut.

The sobriquet turned out to be prophetic — albeit more in the sense of an elusive cryptid, glimpsed once and spun into folklore, than in establishing Hasaan among the music’s exalted names. He vanished following the album’s release, seemingly never to be heard from again, leaving behind this single, striking statement, curious and unique enough to keep his name alive, but ultimately posing one of jazz’s great unanswered questions.

That changed in 2021, when news arrived of the discovery of Hasaan’s never-released follow-up, finally released as Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album. Two more troves of unheard recordings have followed in its wake: Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings later the same year, and Reaching for the Stars: Trios / Duos / Solos, which arrives this Friday on Omnivore Recordings.

Hasaan Ibn Ali proved to be the rare case in which removing the shroud of mystery proved revelatory rather than disappointing. The pianist — born William Henry Lankford, Jr. on May 6, 1931 — had a singular voice whose bristling melodies careen in unexpected directions, tracing a puzzling architecture. His enigmatic approach echoes the jagged spirit of Thelonious Monk while anticipating the cosmic circularity of Matthew Shipp. Hasaan’s chords form like storm clouds crackling with energy, dense with a dark portent that infuses the atmosphere around them.

Metaphysics is the only one of these releases intended as a “proper” album. Hasaan returned to the studio less than a year after recording his debut, this time leading a quartet with saxophonist Odean Pope, bassist Art Davis and drummer Kalil Madi. Shortly afterwards, Hasaan was incarcerated for narcotics possession and Atlantic shelved the tapes. The masters were lost in a 1978 warehouse fire, presumably erasing the music from history. Hasaan himself continued to struggle with mental and physical health problems, exacerbated when he lost his parents to a house fire, until his death in 1980.

Then in 2017, pianist and jazz historian Lewis Porter investigated rumors of a surviving tape copy in the Warner archives, and at long last the music was released. Metaphysics was hailed as a true discovery, with coverage in the New York Times, NPR and elsewhere; in a review for Jazzwise, the veteran English critic Brian Priestley pronounced it “definitely one to keep, and not just for its obscurity.”

Larry Fink

The inclusion of Pope, then 26 and making his recording debut, makes for a more muscular, roiling set than the trio album. The two musicians met as neighbors in North Philadelphia, and Pope has continued to cite Hasaan’s formative influence throughout the intervening decades. He elevates the pianist to a guru-like status, not only for himself but for many of the innovative musicians who have emerged from the city.

“For every three notes that came out of the Philadelphia musicians who went on to make a name for themselves – Trane, Lee Morgan, Reggie Workman, Jimmy Garrison – one of those notes would be Hasaan's, because he had so much information and everybody was so energetic and enthusiastic about this obscure, short-lived genius.”

We have a pair of lesser-known disciples to thank for the two further volumes of music that followed. Saxophonists Alan Sukoenig and David “DB” Shrier were students at the University of Pennsylvania when they encountered Hasaan, and both went on to record him in informal settings on and off campus during the early ‘60s. Retrospect in Retirement of Delay consisted almost entirely of their tapes, imperfect but fascinating. Included were lengthy variations on the standards “Body and Soul” and “On Green Dolphin Street” — ornamenting, exploring and abstracting the familiar melodies with near-cubist shifts of perspective.

A similar approach highlights the new Reaching for the Stars, in the form of a dazzling, almost 13-minute rendition of “After You’ve Gone” that ricochets through the music’s history with breakneck velocity and kaleidoscopic variations. In his liner notes, pianist Ethan Iverson exults: “Never before have I heard a hitherto unknown track and thought, ‘Maybe this will recalibrate the history books.’”

Reaching for the Stars also places Hasaan in league with another longtime Philly jazz mystery, the late Henry Grimes. The bassist worked with free-jazz pioneers like Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler in the ‘60s but disappeared for more than three decades, reemerging in the new millennium and enjoying a thrilling career resurgence until his death in 2020. They mesh wonderfully together, with Madi once again on drums (though largely buried in these rough recordings). Grimes provides a thunderous foundation for Hasaan’s furious cascades on originals like “Dinka Street” and “Pay Not Play Not.”

The remainder of the recording features a duo with Hasaan and the vocalist Muriel Gilliam, who released one album, A Fresh Viewpoint, as Muriel Winston for the Strata-East label in 1974. For the most part she sings the standards straight as Hasaan twists and mutates them underneath her; the standout comes with a funhouse-mirror “Embraceable You,” where Gilliam counters the pianist’s blocky, fragmented accompaniment with slow motion contortions of the lyric.

The rediscovery of so much new and spellbinding music is welcome, even as it leaves open the question of what might have resulted had Hasaan continued to evolve. In a 2020 essay for New Music USA, Matthew Shipp included him in a group that he christened “Black Mystery School Pianists” — an iconoclastic host that runs from Monk through Herbie Nichols, Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill and Sun Ra, among others. Hasaan may forever remain the most mysterious of them all, but his phantom innovations, refracted through influences both direct and indirect, continue to resonate in the voices of modern seekers.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.