John Hicks, George Mraz, and Idris Muhammad first came together in 1995 on an Archie Shepp recording date that Todd Barkan was producing for the Japanese label Venus. "John and George had worked together," says Barkan, "but George and Idris had not. It was magic! A telepathy, balance, and cohesiveness that I rarely hear."
Thus was born the Keystone Trio. Barkan went on to produce the group’s sublime first disc, Heart Beats,which was released by Milestone last year, and together with the trio conceived of their new CD, Newklear Music: The Songs of Sonny Rollins. It’s the first recording ever to focus on the compositions of the great tenor saxophonist.
The Rollins repertoire includes "Airegin," perhaps Sonny’s most widely covered composition (first recorded by Miles Davis on his 1954 Prestige date Bags’ Groove),and two other early works recorded by Rollins for Prestige: "Silk ’n’ Satin" (Sonny Rollins Quintet, 1954)and "Kids Know" (Rollins Plays for Bird, 1956). The other songs are of more recent vintage: "Wynton" and "Tell Me You Love Me" (from Sunny Days, Starry Nights, 1984), "O.T.Y.O.G." (Dancing in the Dark,1988), "Here’s to the People" (Here’s to the People,1991), and "Times Slimes" (Old Flames,1993).
John Hicks’s ballad, "Love Note for Sonny," closes this heartfelt-and eye-opening-musical tribute. "I think for some people this music has been a revelation," Hicks observed. Newklear Music serves to acknowledge Sonny Rollins’s stature as a composer and to showcase the swinging, simply masterful performances of the Keystone Trio.
Pianist John Hicks (b. 1941) is "one of the best-equipped players on the scene," writes Jazziz, "bearing one of the tenderest touches." He played road gigs with Little Milton, Albert King, Al Grey, Johnny Griffin, and Pharaoh Sanders before leaving St. Louis for New York in 1963. After working with Kenny Dorham and Lucky Thompson, Hicks joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (1964-66) and contributed several compositions to the band’s book. His productive stints with Betty Carter (1966-68, 1975-80) and the Woody Herman Big Band (1968-70) helped launch Hicks’s career as an artist in his own right.
In the intervening years, Hicks has recorded for the Theresa, Landmark, and Japanese DIW labels, and formed his own trio, sextet, and big band. A favored recording associate of such forward-leaning saxophonists as David Murray, Ricky Ford, Arthur Blythe, and Pharoah Sanders, Hicks has also recorded a solo recital for Concord (Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, vol. 7), a live duet album with pianist Kenny Barron for Candid (Rhythm-a-ning), two early-Nineties trio dates for RCA/Novus (Friends Old and New and Power Trio), and in various settings with Joshua Redman, Gary Bartz, Elise Wood, Clark Terry, Roy Hargrove, and Ron Carter, among others.
John Hicks shares his art through teaching engagements at a number of institutions, including the jazz programs at New York University and the New School for Social Research. He tours regularly, both nationally and internationally, with ever increasing demand in both Europe and Asia.
George Mraz (b. 1944) has long been considered one of the most valuable players in modern jazz. Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, Bill Evans, Hank Jones, and Joe Henderson are just a few of the giants who have kept the Czech-born bassist fully occupied since his move to the United States in 1968.
At that time, Mraz was admitted as a scholarship student to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he was based until moving to New York in 1975. His bass virtuosity has been heard in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra; in a group with Peter Donald and John Abercrombie; in the New York Jazz Quartet; and alongside Jimmy Rowles, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Pepper Adams, Roland Hanna, Art Pepper, Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, and others. Hank Jones has stated that "there is no greater jazz bassist in the world today than George Mraz."
Through the 1980s, Mraz was in constant demand in a variety of challenging musical settings. He returned to Prague in 1991 to record his long-awaited debut as a leader, the appropriately titled Catching Up. Mraz has since signed with Milestone and released two highly regarded albums, both produced by Todd Barkan: Jazz (1995) and My Foolish Heart (1996). He and Barkan have completed work on a summer 1997 release, Bottom Lines, which features the compositions of bassists including Charles Mingus, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, and Mraz himself.
The bassist plans to tour this fall with his own quartet, featuring saxophonist Rich Perry.
Idris Muhammad (b. 1939) is one of the essential drummers in American music. The rhythmic inventions of the New Orleans-born Muhammad have been the primary pulse of both soul and rock music for the past three and a half decades, and have had a lasting impact on jazz.
Muhammad was busy on the R&B circuit through the mid-Sixties, recording and/or touring with such artists as Sam Cooke, Larry Williams, Jerry Butler, and Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. After moving to New York in 1965 with the intention of getting into jazz drumming full time, he joined Lou Donaldson’s group. Idris’s highly syncopated funk grooves made a huge impression in the jazz world, as Donaldson’s recordings were among those setting the rhythmic tone for the soul-jazz style of the late Sixties (the same style rechristened "acid jazz" two decades later).
Idris was soon the drummer of choice for soul-jazz sessions by Harold Mabern, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Charles Earland, and others who prized his ability to play straight-ahead swing as well as he did locked-in funk. Muhammad also recorded two albums under his own name for Prestige, Black Rhythm Revolution and Peace and Rhythm,recently reissued in Prestige’s Legends of Acid Jazz series.
For the last decade, Idris and his vocalist wife Sakinah have lived in Austria. During the past couple of years, however, the drummer has been dividing his time between Europe and New York, recording and touring with John Scofield, Ahmad Jamal, George Coleman, and Randy Brecker, to name just a few.