Unless you’re a serious jazz wonk or an avid auditor of Philadelphia’s jazz history, you’re probably not that familiar with a pianist named Hasaan Ibn Ali. The fact that he was known by his musician peers as the Legendary Hasaan both belies this relative obscurity and clarifies the esteem in which he was held for a near-maniacal work ethic and a musicality thought to be ahead of its time.
For years it’s been thought that Hasaan only recorded one commercially released album, 1964’s The Max Roach Trio Featuring The Legendary Hasaan. About Hasaan’s musical legacy, some things were known and one very big thing had remained unknown. Among jazz cognoscenti, that he recorded a second album with Atlantic Records in 1965 was well known; it was also well known that the album’s release was shelved when, shortly after recording, Hasaan was arrested and jailed briefly for drug possession, making him unavailable to promote the record publicly as the label had wanted. And, again, it was well known that 13 years later, in 1978, a warehouse fire destroyed that recording session’s master tapes.
Though there were hopes and accompanying rumors that a copy of that unreleased Atlantic session existed somewhere, there was no proof. And that lone recording—on which Max Roach is given top billing but Hasaan is credited with writing all the music—was long thought to be the last recorded evidence of the mysterious, mythologized Hasaan (pronounced HAH-sn).
Enter Alan Sukoenig, a close friend of the late Hasaan who’d written the liner notes for the Max Roach Trio album, and Dr. Lewis Porter, an actively performing and recording jazz pianist, founder of the master’s program in jazz history at Rutgers University’s Newark campus, and author of one of the most respected biographies of John Coltrane. Combining networks and know-how, they unearthed the long-whispered-about jazz artifact in 2017.
“In my response [to an inquiring email from Porter], I raised the matter of the long-standing rumor,” Sukoenig writes in the liner notes of Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album, one of the longest-awaited sophomore releases in jazz history, which nearly six decades after its recording, has been recovered, remastered, and is finally ready for commercial release.
“Porter recalled an old friend, Patrick Milligan [a co-producer here], who, years before, was at Rhino Records and worked alongside [former Philly radio personality] Joel Dorn on the Rhino/Atlantic Jazz catalog releases. He urged me to contact Milligan, and he in turn immediately contacted two friends of his with access to the Warner tape library [note: Atlantic Records became a subsidiary of Warner Music Group in the late ’60s].
“And the rumor was quickly confirmed. The tape copy, apparently made between 1971 and 1977, had been sitting there for as long as 46 years.”
A Tragic Figure who Travelled in Rarefied Company
Hasaan’s personality—even among a group, like jazz musicians, celebrated for its stylish non-conformity—was considered eccentric, and his playing, with its unexpected chord progressions, will, for many, be an acquired taste. Though it will be more quickly acquired if you appreciate Monk. And, joined here by tenor saxophonist and Philly legend Odean Pope, the listening and learning curve will be a bit more level if you’re familiar with the recordings Monk made with John Coltrane in the late ’50s.
Hasaan presents with an essence that’s unmistakably Monk-like, with a musicality that’s both maniacally studied and precociously curious; he’s a pianist who takes his playfulness with dissonance very seriously.
“When Alan [Sukoenig] first heard about Hasaan,” Porter told me, “it was from a musician friend of his who said, ‘There’s a piano player who…sounds like the next development of Monk but with Bud Powell’s technique.’ So there definitely is a Monk sound to [Hasaan’s playing].”
Still, Porter cautions against thinking of Hasaan as a straight-line derivation of Monk.
“There are a number of piano players who seem to come from Monk,” he added, “but sometimes their styles are more…pastiche. Somehow, Hasaan comes from Monk, and yet, he doesn’t sound like a Monk imitator. He really got it together to make a very coherent musical vision.”
For Pope’s part, there are definite elements of his style that bring the Coltrane of those Monk sessions to mind. Take the opener, “Atlantic Ones,” a tune that presents with the rhythmic assertiveness of a Mingus blues-based cut. The Trane influence in Pope’s playing here is real and worth noting. The sound is like Trane’s— if Trane had gargled with steel wool before putting mouth to horn; it’s more intentionally abrasive, with an astringent quality that works so well as a foil to the playfulness of Hasaan’s right-hand freelancing.
“It’s the sound—[Odean] is his own person, but he definitely related to the world of Coltrane; he’s in that planet, as was the late [saxophonist] Bill Barron,” said Porter. “All these guys were in Philadelphia, they all knew each other, and, not coincidentally, they all knew Hasaan and played with him on various occasions.”
“Of course, Odean is the closest to, like, a Hasaan protégé.”
That Pope’s playing should communicate Coltrane influence is no surprise, given this music’s ancestry. Here, on Metaphysics, we hear a 26-year-old Odean Pope making his recording debut. During the decade that preceded the session, Pope studied, intensively, with Hasaan. And Hasaan, just a few years earlier—most likely during the years of 1949 to 1953, according to Porter, the Coltrane biographer— had been one of a handful of Philly-based musicians to have a material impact on Trane’s evolution.
“When it comes to Trane, he had a lot of influences; he was into everything,” said Porter, cautious about overstating the Hasaan-Coltrane relationship without minimizing it. “But, I would say that Hasaan was definitely one of his influences. [In 1949], he was in this quartet with Hasaan [drummer] Philly Joe Jones, and [bassist] Percy Heath, and Dan Morganstern, the famous jazz historian, told me he heard a 15-minute tape of Bill Barron, Coltrane, and Hasaan made in 1953.
“The fact that there was such a tape definitely shows that between ’49 and ’53, even if that’s the only time period that Trane was hanging out with Hasaan—that’s four years right there.”
The Hasaan/Odean partnership here really brings to mind collaborations between Monk and Trane on tunes like “El Hasaan” and “Epitome,” but you realize it’s not just a product of your own wish fulfillment apparatus when you get to “True Train.” On what may be the warmest tune on the record, Pope is really something special; you can really hear that decade that Hasaan and Odean spent practicing together. There’s a certain quality of begging and pleading in Pope’s playing; there’s also a fatalist one, of resignation to an inevitable bleakness.
After Atlantic shelved the original iteration of this recording in 1965, Hasaan’s life and career never rebounded. He never recorded again and stopped showing up to the clubs, where, as a younger musician, his sometimes outrageous behavior gave birth to a quirky brand: The Legendary Haasan.
“If someone wasn’t playing well,” Pope is quoted as saying in the liner notes, “[Hassan] would come right out and say, ‘Man, I think you ought to study some more.’” He’d hop on stage during another band’s gig and push the pianist aside if he felt the guy wasn’t doing the music justice, or even if he just felt particularly inspired by the music.
Hasaan died in 1981, and in the years since, with just the one album and all the stories, it seems he’s existed more as urban legend and outsize myth than fully realized artist with a very formidable, very real legacy.
The music presented here, along with the research-backed testimony of Sukoenig and Porter, demystifies the unique pianist a bit while lending credence to much of the legend, especially those parts relating to his musicianship.
Hasaan’s Unique Musicality
Part of what earned Hasaan the awe of his peers was the way he balanced fluency of the known musical universe with inventiveness that sought to expand the boundaries of that universe. His approach to both “Viceroy” and “Metaphysics” perfectly illustrates this. Both are grounded in the chord changes to well-known tunes; the former is based on the changes to “Mean to Me,” a standard perhaps best known by Billie Holiday and Lester Young’s rendition, and the melody to the latter overlays the changes to Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.” Except that, true to his style, Hasaan doesn’t play the changes straight; there are sections of each tune where the relationship between Hasaan’s unconventional chord substitutions and the originals are pretty attenuated.
Porter, who’s contributed a video of himself playing Hasaan’s “Never Too Late Fate” to WRTI’s NPR Live Sessions page, explained to me that this is what makes interpreting Hasaan’s compositions particularly challenging.
“The music is challenging,” said Porter, “but it’s not because there are a million notes to play. It’s because as you play through the piece, there are unexpected chords and unexpected notes, as well. So it’s really just about getting into his world and saying, ‘Alright, you know what, I wouldn’t have thought of that chord, or of putting that note with that chord, but it works.’”
Yet, even though the signal dims in sections of his pieces, Hasaan’s antennae never quite lose touch with mission control; his compositions are like satellites that orbit around the dark side of the moon only to, surprisingly, re-appear on radar after you’re sure they’ve been irretrievably lost to the forever of deep-space.
It was more than just pith, then, that Philly Joe Jones was trying to explain when, as he’s quoted in the liner notes, he characterized Hasaan’s playing as “almost avant-garde, but correct.” Case in point: right around the four-minute mark on “Metaphysics,” Pope lays out and Hasaan, who’s spent the last full minute freelancing somewhere around Neptune, returns to this side of the Kuiper belt. The strength of bassist Art Davis’s melodicism facilitates this re-entry, and though Hasaan never quite gets to a point where he’s playing it straight, you can discern the genetic link between Bird’s changes and Hasaan’s.
And then there’s Pope. Listening to his playing on “Metaphysics,” it’s clear this is no tyro’s debut. For as much as the circumstances call for celebrating Hasaan and a musicality that, conceptually, has come to be regarded by many of the greatest names in Philadelphia’s jazz history—from Philly Joe and Jymie Merritt to Duck Bailey, Benny Golson, and even Pope himself—as ahead of its time, it might be argued that on a pragmatic level Metaphysics is, above all else, Odean Pope’s coming out party.