By the time he recorded The Hawk Flies High in 1957, Coleman Hawkins had already been playing music professionally for over 35 years. Hawkins made his reputation as the first great tenor saxophonist, essentially validating the instrument as a jazz horn, and was an important figure in swing, big band, and bebop. Not content to fade into irrelevancy like many other swing and big band players, by the ‘50s he was still holding his own against young players. His style and improvisational ability was so versatile, that he managed to transcend trends. During his 40-plus year career, he recorded and toured with such jazz legends as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Duke Ellington. His improvising skill was legendary, having considerable influence on younger players such as Rollins and Coltrane. Despite his relative late age at the time of recording, Hawk, as he was commonly known, was still hip to the avant-garde, and even surrounded himself with some younger players to be his sidemen.
The Hawk Flies High is the kind of jazz classic that students are required to study in college. Filled with memorable melodies, exciting interplay, and furious solos, there is no doubt that this was a landmark jazz album. For its 50th anniversary, Riverside has thankfully revived this classic record with a much needed re-mastering, providing a greater balance between the players. Most of the songs on the record were recent compositions, some of which were written by the band members themselves, though “Laura,” an old standard, is included towards the center of the six-track album. Tunes such as “Juicy Fruit” and “Blue Lights,” demonstrate how Hawkins’ brilliant powers as an improviser could hold up to more modern material. “Philly” Joe Jones lays down the solid drumming to anchor the sometimes wandering musical leads, and Oscar Pettiford’s bass lines provide a dynamic counterpoint to the brass.
Hawkins allows each of the players ample opportunities to show their stuff. Barry Galbraith’s guitar solo in “Blue Lights” stands out, and is a bit unusual for a combo recording in 1957. Trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, on one of the strangest moments of the record, manages to hold one note on his trumpet for nearly a minute in his own composition, “Juicy Fruit,” while Hank Jones bangs away on his piano, and the rest of band comes around to a mellow resolution. Particularly on the 11-minute long song, one might think the solos would be overkill, but the pace never drags however, and each musician can hold his own. While flirting with such oddities, the record is remarkably consistent in quality, and balances ballads with up-tempo jams.
Those already acquainted with The Hawk Flies High will appreciate the increased clarity brought to these tunes by the remastering. Truly an important record, one can here the influence of Hawkins on so many other saxophonists whose reputations are more well known outside of jazz circles. Hawk offers one of the finest records of the era, a swing influenced, bebop record that still sounds fresh over half a century later.