At first glance, Hank Jones and George Jones seem to represent polar musical proclivities.
Hailing from one of jazz’s most distinguished families, Hank Jones was a supremely versatile and elegant jazz pianist, a consummate professional and prolific studio artist who recorded with a panoply of jazz giants, from Charlie Parker to Miles Davis to Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon. George Jones was the greatest male vocalist in post-World War II country music, a deeply troubled alcoholic whose recordings seemed to offer running commentary on his travails.
Both men left expansive legacies, and two concerts this weekend offer different but equally compelling takes on how musicians honor the artists from whom they draw creative sustenance. On Friday, Oakland pianist Debbie Poryes celebrates the release of her radiant new album Loving Hank (OA2 Records) at the California Jazz Conservatory with veteran bassist Peter Barshay, drummer David Rokeach, and special guest Sam Priven, the 22-year-old Albany-raised alto saxophonist.
Also on Friday, the East Bay country music combo Crying Time presents a program of songs indelibly link to George Jones at the Ivy Room with an array of guests, including Maurice Tani, Laura Benitez, Elliott Randall, Val Esway, Danny Allen, the Loretta Lynch Trio, and pedal steel legend Bobby Black, who first played with Jones in the early 1950s when the singer was an unknown marine stationed in San Jose.
For Poryes, celebrating Hank Jones is a way to honor a musician who made an art out of elevating every musical situation without calling particular attention to himself. She composed the album’s title track, “Loving Hank,” in the days after his death in 2010 at the age of 91.
“I see Hank Jones as representative of a group of pianists who played with incredible modesty and subtly and beauty of touch, including Ellis Larkins and Tommy Flanagan,” says Poryes, who’s been a mainstay on the Bay Area jazz scene since returning from a long, fruitful residence in Amsterdam in 1990. She also plays Piedmont Piano in Oakland on Oct. 22 with her trio and special guest Erik Jekabson on trumpet.
“You never hear Hank banging,” she says. “Every note is very intended and clear. There’s an interview with Terry Gross where she asks him, ‘Do you ever think ahead? And he says ‘I’m always thinking several measures ahead.’ He had an intelligence I really connect to, with no ego involved. And you felt his admiration for the players who came before. You can hear Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Nat Cole.”
A longtime faculty member at the California Jazz Conservatory who also teaches privately, Poryes has released a number of albums focusing on her beautifully crafted original compositions. On Loving Hank she alternates between thoughtful arrangements of pop songs (Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”), bebop anthems (Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation”) and standards (Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York”) with lyrically charged originals like the halting and disarmingly funky ballad “Phrases of the Moon.”
With the title track, a harmonically spacious piece inspired by Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” Poryes says she “tried to write a melody that anticipated the main theme, a melody that lays over this pretty basic vamp in six. I wanted to write something that Hank would like. One of the great things about him is that he was game to keep growing and trying new things.”
If Poryes was attracted to Hank Jones by his sublime musicality, Crying Time drummer Tim Rowe found his way to George Jones via a quest for depravity. A jazz drummer in New York City, he wasn’t looking to take a walk on the wild side himself, but after reading alto saxophonist Art Pepper’s harrowing autobiography Straight Life he went looking for another musician’s searing first-person account of dissipation.
“I was thinking, who else is this insane?” Rowe recalls. “I found George Jones’ I Lived To Tell It All just looking for a lurid biography. Here’s a guy in depths of human misery, and Rolling Stone is saying he’s the greatest country singer ever. I had to check him out.”
His interest in Jones, who died in 2013 at the age of 81, grew into an abiding passion. Doing graduate work at Cal in 2001 he started “looking for a way to use what I learned as a working musician in my studies,” Rowe says. “I was working in geography department with Allan Pred, a towering figure, and he asked ‘What do you want to write about?’ I decided to take my favorite performers and look at how the music industry expanded and his career expanded with it. My master’s thesis was on how George Jones was shaped by changes in the industry.”
Jones became fodder for another growing industry after his 1969 marriage to Tammy Wynette, whose massive hit “Stand By Your Man” (which she co-wrote with Billy Sherrill) came out the year before. While Jones’s singing was more sophisticated than ever, he was in terrible shape “and all the songs are seen as a continuation of the autobiography,” Rowe says.
“He’s in love with a good woman. He’s alone and he’s drinking. The fact is George hadn’t writen a song since the 1950s. The image is being constructed after the fact. Tammy wants to be a big star, to be on the cover of magazines. George was not suited for that. He was not interested in the trappings of success. The more he had the worse he reacted to it.”
A visual artist and working musician, Rowe is a founding member of Crying Time, which also features North Oakland vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Jill Rogers, her younger Berkeley-based brother Peter Garellick on bass and vocal harmonies, Myles Boisen on guitar, lap steel and vocals, and fiddler Tony Marcus. The idea for the George Jones celebration came up after a June birthday tribute to Waylon Jennings at the Ivy Room with a house band and various singers.
Friday’s show explores songs “really stamped by George Jones’s take on them,” tracking his career chronologically over two sets, Rowe says. “We got the best local singers to cover 1955-2013. Elliot Randall is doing earlier honkytonk things. Maurice Tani is singing more of the melodious ballads. Loretta Lynch is coming in and doing some classic Nashville harmonies.”
In a creative coup, they lined up Bobby Black, the pedal steel master whose career encompasses country music legends Hank Williams and Jim Reeves, country-rock pioneers Commander Cody and New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Western swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel and Lost Weekend. He first met Jones in the early 1950’s when he was known as “the singing marine,” and then played on Jones’s first recording session in 1956. “We thought he might want to participate and he’s very excited,” Rowe says. “He brought some songs he wants to do.”
Born in the southeastern Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte and based in Wellington, New Zealand, vocalist Alda Rezende makes her Berkeley debut Saturday at Bras Arte. A gifted song stylist versed in bossa nova, Brazilian jazz and soul-infused samba, Rezende is joined by Rio-born guitarist Ricardo Peixoto, Brian Rice on hand percussion, and Grupo Falso Baiano’s Zack Pitt-Smith on reeds.