My main fear before beginning to listen was that Hanky Panky would be too rinky dink. Full admission, I've never been a fan of Art Themen although I have seen him play live, a concert lost in the mists of time that I puzzlingly didn't enjoy and didn't want to review. But I blame myself for the lack of appreciation that time. I am however a fan of the pianist here, the often luxuriantly sideburned Gareth Williams, and like his latest record Short Stories a whole deal - his best in many years maybe even best of all in a long and distinguished career. Dave Green (80) boyhood pal of the late Charlie Watts is of course a UK jazz legend, best known as a stalwart Dave Holland-calibre mainstreamer because he is largely a highly focused idiom player and there is nothing wrong with that. Drummer Dave Barry is unfamiliar to me. A few seconds in to opening track 'The Night Has A Thousand Eyes' he comes across like Steve Brown which is no bad thing especially if you know Brown's work with Scott Hamilton and more to the point because this style of music, with its reliance on classic bop language and a certain customised but pertinent light swing, needs that Brownian aesthetic that rises up tantalisingly from the kit at the service of the horn player.
An album that takes its time but isn't at all tedious. Tune selections are really thoughtful and covering Joe Henderson's 'Black Narcissus' that goes back to 1969's Power To The People (that had Herbie on Fender Rhodes, Ron Carter on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums) drew me in to the hearth of the matter to bask in the reflection of its flickering flames most of all both on the Themen version and going back to the Henderson.
The Dexter Gordon title track (found on Blue Note album Clubhouse put out in 1979 but recorded 14 years earlier) in Themen's rendering has more of an 'Alfie'-like jauntiness than the creamier Gordon version and is the outlier. But it does not sound like the Sonny Rollins classic at all and yet shares something in common artistically. And we delve into deep dreamsville certainly in the Ellingtonia of 'Prelude to a Kiss', and thoughts of Newk, i.e. Rollins, again on 'Without a Song'. To me Rollins' version on The Bridge is the best of all and Themen's take is knowing and true.
The inclusion of Bronisław Kaper's 'Invitation' which first appeared in the 1952 Gottfried Reinhardt directed film of the same name is always welcome. My inital fear mentioned at the beginning was unwarranted. You can't pre-judge a record even when thoughts of past familiarity of an artist's work sometimes intrude. Not clunky rinky-dink by any means and while a mainstreamer's-mainstream record, so we're talking über-connoisseur territory for anyone into the style that needs time, love, deep empathy, feeling for its charms and study to really benefit from its art especially because it is not the sound at all of 2022, Hanky Panky is largely attuned to a 1950s-era meaningfulness even when the material in question jumps ahead to the 60s. For sure, Themen, who, like Green is in his eighties, is playing extremely well and you get chorus after chorus of knowing bop-based explorations that always inspire but more to the point breathe and grow the more you quite understandably choose to care to sail on with the best wind possible behind you to surf the glittering ocean deep and wide and journey into its rewarding sound. SG
updated on 15/07/22 with 'The Night Has A Thousand Eyes' track added
Art Themen, top left, and Dave Barry. Photo: Trio
Out on 29 July