The pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali's lone album arrives, 56 years later

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The pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali's lone album arrives, 56 years later
The pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali. The Philadelphia musician’s only album as a bandleader was long thought lost in a fire — now his legacy could undergo a reassessment. Larry Fink via The New York Times.

by Dave Cantor

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Hasaan Ibn Ali worked in an ensemble led by Max Roach and was credited as “the Legendary Hasaan” on one of the groundbreaking drummer’s mid-'60s releases. But the pianist didn’t release an album as a bandleader during his lifetime — and in fact, only ever appeared on that one studio album — making him more of a jazz-world footnote than a household name.

Now his legacy could undergo a reassessment. Ibn Ali did helm an ensemble in the studio in 1965, and the resulting album, long presumed destroyed in a fire, will be released on Friday as “Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album.”

The saxophonist Odean Pope, who played on the record, said Ibn Ali’s talents have long been overlooked.

“He can play the most complex piece, like a ‘Cherokee,’ or the most beautiful composition like, ‘Embraceable You,’ and play those tunes extremely good,” Pope said of his mentor, who died in 1981. “Sometimes, he would play a ballad and tears would be coming down my cheeks.”

Ibn Ali, who was born William Henry Lankford Jr. in 1931, evolved from a tradition-minded performer in the late ’40s after assimilating the bop advancements of pianist Elmo Hope, who along with Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk is credited with helping reimagine the keyboard. And through living-room sessions at his North Philadelphia home, as well as at sporadic club gigs, Ibn Ali helped guide performers amid early, exploratory periods of their careers, like saxophonist John Coltrane and bassist Reggie Workman.

A regular on the rich Philadelphia jazz scene, Ibn Ali was known for his adventurous playing as much as his sometimes-difficult demeanor. While Pope recalled the pianist as an empathetic and thoughtful teacher, Ibn Ali was said to have booted lesser players off the bandstand mid-performance. He also was renowned for a particular fashion idiosyncrasy: If he had to wear a tie at some gigs, it would hang only about halfway down his torso.

Ibn Ali cut “Metaphysics” the same year Roach released “The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan,” which featured seven compositions by the pianist. Atlantic, which released the Roach album, was impressed enough to sponsor a quartet session for Ibn Ali.

For the sessions, the pianist enlisted Pope, bassist Art Davis and drummer Kalil Madi, and the ensemble holed up in a New York hotel, working to grasp the bandleader’s new compositions. Sessions for the album started Aug. 23 and concluded on Sept. 7. But according to Alan Sukoenig’s liner notes for “Metaphysics,” following Ibn Ali’s incarceration on drug charges, Atlantic executives shelved the album, believing they wouldn’t be able to rely on the pianist to promote his work.

Master tapes from the sessions were thought destroyed in a 1978 fire at an Atlantic warehouse in New Jersey. But a previously made recording from the reference acetates survived and was located in the Warner Tape Library late in 2017 through connections of the archival release’s associate producer, the jazz pianist and retired educator Lewis Porter.

Until this point, Ibn Ali has been seen as an idiomatic performer and composer, though perhaps not a consequential or definitive figure of the genre. But artists as diverse as pianist Brian Marsella and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz have covered his compositions, and the avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp included him among a cohort of individualistic performers in a recently published essay titled “Black Mystery School Pianists.”

“It’s an attitude, a code, a stance, a way of holding yourself against the jazz tradition,” Shipp said in an interview, explaining the qualities that defined such players.

During the 1950s and ’60s, Ibn Ali was stretching for something new, Shipp said, adding that he was a precursor to ideas and sounds that today would be associated with the avant-garde.

The release of “Metaphysics” serves to fill in an unknown bit of history. It also ramps up the total number of available tunes recorded by Ibn Ali from seven to 14; three cuts on the upcoming disc were captured in alternate takes and tacked on to the end of the album.

The ballad “Richard May Love Give Powell” is a tribute to bop pianist Bud Powell that features Pope playing fairly conventionally. But on pieces like “Atlantic Ones,” “Viceroy” (Ibn Ali’s cigarette of choice) and “Epitome,” the band pushes itself into more experimental territory, toying with melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas that coincided with the ascendance of the experimental wing of the genre.

“After I had a chance to really start absorbing it, I was like, ‘OK, I hear it. I hear him searching and finding his voice,” said J. Michael Harrison, an educator and host of “The Bridge,” a long-running jazz program on Philadelphia’s WRTI, about the 26-year-old Pope’s playing on “Metaphysics.” “He had a lot of territory to travel through. But what I know today as Odean, I heard it start to seep through.”

Following his experiences with the “Metaphysics” sessions, Ibn Ali remained in Philadelphia and largely eschewed public performances. After a 1972 fire destroyed his parents’ Philadelphia house, where he spent his adult life, the pianist lived out his final years at a convalescent home. Pope, who helped arrange his funeral, said poetry had supplanted the piano as Ibn Ali’s main mode of expression there.

Even if the pianist’s myth rests on just a handful of published songs and memories of other performances and impromptu sessions from the early ’60s, his whispered artistic largess continues to pervade Philadelphia’s jazz scene.

“Hasaan was like the whole town’s university. He’d explored and done so many things,” Pope said. “There should be a plaque, like at [Coltrane’s] house. I think he should be remembered as one of the great forerunners of our times.”

2021 The New York Times Company

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