Alexander Hawkins Credit: Edu Hawkins

Back in the 60s England was a crucial force in the development of improvised music. A raft of distinctive players reared on American jazz diverged from a stylistic path to forge the genuinely nonidiomatic approach of free improvisation. The legacy, influence, and importance of folks like Derek Bailey, John Stevens, Tony Oxley, and Evan Parker, among others, remains undiminished half a century after they first emerged. The UK has continued to boast a formidable jazz and improvised music scene with loads of talented players coming along year after year, but for much of the 80s and 90s those folks lacked a lasting vision. Too many jazz musicians got caught up in rather shallow trends like acid jazz, making music that now sounds horribly dated, facile, and stale. In recent years, however, things have improved dramatically. And few current practitioners are as exciting, deep, and committed as the Oxford pianist Alexander Hawkins, a musician whose easy versatility has given him loads of opportunities.

Hawkins has been a regular collaborator of the Ethiopian keyboardist Mulatu Astatke and a trusted sideman for the brilliant South African percussionist Louis Moholo-Moholo. He plays Hammond organ in the exploratory trio Decoy with bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble, and he leads a fascinating nonet that toggles between abstraction and order as naturally as we draw breath. Hawkins is a complete musician with an abiding respect for the past and a hunger for exploring new paths. Earlier this year another collective he’s involved with, the trans-Atlantic Convergence Quartet, dropped its latest album Owl Jacket (No Business). The band—which includes trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum, drummer Harris Eisenstadt, and bassist Dominic Lash—has never sounded more quietly confident, couching its seeking within warm, rolling tunes—none more attractive than traditional themes from Ghana and Gambia arranged for the quartet by Eisenstadt. You can hear one of them, the Ghanaian tune “Dogbe Wa No Lo,” below. Elsewhere the other quartet members contribute pieces, but it’s the way the ensemble coheres after years together that really impresses me here. They stick with the forms of the compositions, honoring the strong melodies within each one, while pushing against those melodic lines with fiery improvisation. That’s especially true of Hawkins.

As good as the Convergence Quartet is, however, it’s Hawkins’s debut trio effort that has really knocked me out. Joined by bassist Neil Charles and drummer Tom Skinner—both active participants on the UK scene in groups like Zed-U and Sons of Kemet—he serves up eight knotty originals that reflect an abiding love of dyed-in-the-wool piano individualists: Duke Ellington (it’s hard not to be reminded regularly of the turbulent beauty of his classic Money Jungle album with Max Roach and Charles Mingus), Herbie Nichols, Elmo Hope, and Cecil Taylor. Hawkins and his cohorts take the music far out here and there—the thrilling glassy clusters the pianist drops across the wonderfully jagged motion of the rhythm section on “Perhaps 5 or 6 Different Colours” is exhilarating and energetic, but never at the sake of propulsion or clarity. More often they work expertly within the shapes of the leader’s infectious compositions. The trio possesses a genuine connection, one that allows each player to push, prod, stretch, and, at times, creatively sabotage the proceedings. Such activity throws nobody off; they instead react with quicksilver grace to every act of spontaneity. Below you can listen to a typically bracing piece called “One Tree Found.”

Today’s playlist:

Various artists, Archives de la Musique Arabe—Vol. 1 (Ocora)
Ray Barretto, Indestructible (Fania)
Terry Riley, Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band All Night Flight: SUNY Buffalo, New York, 22 March 1968 (Elision Fields)
Cem Karaca, Nem Kaldi? (Pharaway Sounds)
Jaleel Shaw, The Soundtrack of Things to Come (Changu)