An elderly man and woman strolled up La Jolla's Wall Street last Thursday evening and stopped outside the Atheneum Library. "What's everybody lining up for?" The man asked. "Is there a run on library books?"
"It's a jazz concert. Harry Pickens's Trio is playing."
"All you people are lining up for jazz?" the man asked.
"Yes," we told him. "And it's sold out."
The bewildered couple walked away shaking their heads. Either they were out of touch or from out of town because the Atheneum Library has developed a reputation for hosting top jazz acts since July 1989.
The featured artists tend to be the kind of high-end post-bop virtuosi whose past collaborations have been with the most legendary jazz personalities, and whose recordings tend to be on the Blue Note label. Pianist Harry Pickens is typical on all counts. And no less distinguished are his bass player Marshall Hawkins, his drummer Harold Mason, nor vocalist Yve Evans.
Standing six feet nine inches tall, Pickens appeared a remarkably gaunt figure and when he sat at the library's grand piano he seemed to lean back an implausible distance for his long hands to comfortably reach the keys. Pickens opened most of the familiar standards with long deft introductory improvisations. Leaning way back on the stool, he his back made a concave profile while his face showed a look of unabashed ecstasy. Hawkins and Mason with the good-natured demeanor of close friends colluding in some practical joke, watched over the pianist's shoulder as if they too were waiting for a clue what the tune was before joining in.
After world-class renditions of five numbers, including "If I Were A Bell," "Might As Well Be Spring" and "Body And soul" Pickens introduced Yve Evans, a wholesomely flirty little ball of a woman with a mouth like a satchel and eyes that can convey either humor or sex directly to the back row of the audience with an honest immediacy. She sang a spell-binding "Squeeze Me" before she turned to address those seated behind her in the library's rotunda, or "the cheap seats" as she called them, and joked, "You have a broader view of things," before breathing new life into "Got The World On A String."
The Atheneum's Dan Atkinson had selected the current series of performers out of a short list of those resident in La Jolla. Pickens has actually moved to Louisville, Kentucky since then. But the audience remembered him warmly from the inaugural concert at the Atheneum ten years ago. After closing the first half of the evening with "It's You Or No-one" Pickens asked the audience, "How many of you heard me play here ten years ago?" A dozen raised their hands. Then Pickens said, "It's amazing. We haven't aged a bit. Have we?"
"I just love the Atheneum," Pickens said. He recalled the occasion when he had asked an Atheneum audience to give him a theme, and a woman stood up and sang him 16 bars from a Mozart aria. "I remember playing half a dozen variations on it," he said.
All three instrumentalists are distinguished teachers of jazz at prestigious institutions such as Idyllwild Arts Academy where Marshall Hawkins has been head of the jazz department since 1985. Pickens teaches students of all ages at the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Camps. However, the didactic impulse tended to be balanced with liberal doses of mischief. To honor Hawkins's birthday, Pickens laced the "Happy Birthday" theme into more than one improvisation. After the trio played "Blue Monk," Pickens confided that many bad puns and in-jokes were being made in their musical language.
When Evans returned to the bandstand she sang "When I Fall In Love" with a tenderness that seemed to move the whole audience. Her exposure to influences such as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Rosemary Clooney has done no harm to her ability to phrase each line of a familiar song in a fresh way. Her "What A Wonderful World" might have wrung a smile from the most jaundiced skeptic.
After the trio attempted to end the evening with the theme from the film "Black Orpheus" a standing ovation forced Pickens to stay on and play a slow and gentle encore of "Killing Me Softly."
Pickens confided that health problems have made this a challenging year, but he said he is back on track. The only opportunity La Jolla jazz fans get to hear the Harry Pickens Trio will be on August 22 when they play Lime Leaf Grill before appearing August 28 and 29 at the Idyllwild Jazz Festival.