Pianist Hank Jones comes from one of jazz's most illustrious families. Younger brothers Elvin and Thad were iconic figures -- the former the influential drummer perhaps best known for his work with John Coltrane, the latter for superb accomplishments as a trumpeter and composer. Hank, now 89, has been less visible than either sibling, perhaps because his artistry has always been so soft-spoken, understated, elegant and versatile.
All those qualities were on display Tuesday at UCLA's Fowler Museum in his performance with bassist John Clayton and drummer Joe La Barbera. He announced at the start that he was going to play standards, a wise decision. Jones' illustrious career has taken him through gigs with the likes of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Ella Fitzgerald -- all of which provided virtual seminars in the mastery of the Great American Songbook.
He began with a coolly swaggering, mid-tempo reading of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?," spinning off bits of musical paraphrase, tossing in quotes from other songs, always in touch with the melody.
Other selections -- "Star Eyes," "Autumn Leaves," "But Beautiful" and "Stella by Starlight" -- embraced the gamut of tunes jazz artists love to play. Jones' capacity to extract subtly variable tones from the piano combined with dancing rhythms and articulate melody-making to find new life in the familiar themes.
Clayton and La Barbera played their familiar supportive roles. There were some less than optimal renditions, but it was rewarding under any circumstances to hear a veteran artist such as Jones still in command.
Another aspect of his powers surfaced when Italian jazz singer Roberta Gambarini briefly joined the trio. Jones has always been an extraordinary accompanist, and his backing was just right for the versatile Gambarini's display of lush balladry on "Skylark" and buoyant scat singing on "Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'."