It took 55 years, but Hasaan Ibn Ali’s moment has finally arrived.
In 1966, the Philadelphia jazz pianist was poised at the beginning of what should have been a brilliant career. The year before, Ibn Ali had made his recording debut on an album whose title reflected his reputation and mystique: The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan.
Ibn Ali, whom jazz bassist Jymie Merritt called “one of the geniuses of our time,” had also recorded his first session as a leader in New York, bringing along a promising young saxophonist from Philadelphia named Odean Pope.
But his coming-out party never happened. Back home in Philadelphia, Ibn Ali was arrested for drug possession and incarcerated in Holmesburg Prison. With the artist unable to promote the album, Atlantic put it aside and never released it.
In 1978, the master tapes were destroyed in a fire at a storage facility in Long Branch, N.J. And two years later, Ibn Ali was dead at age 49. An earlier stroke had left him unable to play.
He never found an audience equal to his talents, until now. Omnivore Records has just released Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album, resurrecting the thoroughly modern-sounding music of the artist who played with John Coltrane in the 1950s and whom photographer Larry Fink called “the Prokofiev of jazz.”
“I’m so grateful that he’s finally getting the recognition,” said Pope of Ibn Ali. “Because he deserves all of it, and even more. If there is such a thing as a genius in music, Hasaan was it.”
Metaphysics showcases Pope’s robust sax as well as Ibn Ali’s dazzling piano work, with a percussive touch that has drawn comparisons to Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner.
“Hasaan had great technique, he was a profound thinker, and he had concepts and ideas that nobody else was playing,” says Pope. “But he could also play a ballad like ‘Embraceable You’ and tears would come out of your eyes.’”
“We all know Philadelphia is a great jazz town,” says Lewis Porter, the pianist and historian who is associate producer of Metaphysics. “But it’s also a distinctive jazz town, and one of the things that makes it so distinct is that musicians there were into exploring advanced music theory concepts. And Hasaan was definitely deep into that.”
At the urging of Alan Sukoenig, a lifelong Ibn Ali fan, Porter searched for a tape of the Metaphysics session rumored to exist. Sukoenig, now a retired computer programmer living in New York, had been a student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s when he first met Ibn Ali. He’s an executive producer of the new Metaphysics release and wrote the liner notes.
It turned out the rumored tape did exist. A quarter-inch tape made from an acetate of the original master was found in a Los Angeles warehouse in 2017 by producer Patrick Milligan.
“The tape was in terrible shape,” says Sukoenig, but the session — including the Coltrane tribute “True Train” and “Richard May Love Give Powell,” a nod to pianist Bud Powell — has now been restored by Grammy-winning engineer Michael Graves.
In the vibrant Philadelphia of the 1950s and 1960s — “There were so many great musicians because there were so many clubs to play, all over North Philly,” Pope says — Ibn Ali was known for the originality of his playing and his personality.
He was born William Henry Lankford Jr. in 1931, though he was initially billed as William Langford. He’s listed under that name in a 1949 ad in the Philadelphia Afro-American, a Black newspaper of the time, for a gig at the Ridge Point Cafe with “Philly Joe” Jones and Jimmy Oliver.
Pope was 16 when he first encountered him. Pope had been practicing in his North Philly basement. He heard a knock, and at the door, “I saw this real well-dressed guy with a short tie” — a trademark look — “and I said to myself, ‘This is a mysterious person.’ ”
Ibn Ali had heard Pope’s sax and suggested they practice together in Ibn Ali’s North Gratz Street home. They began the next morning.
The pianist’s father, a retired cook, brought the musicians breakfast at 9. They would practice until lunch when they would take a break “and play a few games of chess,” Pope recalls.
They’d then play until dinner, when Ibn Ali’s mother came home. “She was a domestic worker, and she’d bring him two packs of Viceroy cigarettes every day.” (The blazing, experimental “Viceroy” is a Metaphysics highlight.)
A jazz musician’s jazz musician
“My impression of Hasaan is that he was so obsessed with music that it didn’t even occur to him to do anything to make his career happen,” says Porter.
Nonetheless, those in the know, knew. In a 2008 interview, drummer Donald “Duck” Bailey said, “And who was Monk’s idol? Hasaan Ibn Ali. Nobody knows that!”
It’s presumed that Tyner was speaking about Ibn Ali when he said: “There is a piano player in Philly who probably may never leave; however, his talents and directions had a great influence on my playing,” in the notes to 1973′s Extensions.
Ibn Ali would sometimes jump on stage “and literally push [other players] off the piano,” Porter says. Steve Kuhn told Porter of playing with Coltrane in New York: “He felt a push on his shoulder, and when he looked to his side, it was Hasaan taking over.”
Pope saw it happen at places like the Woodbine Club in North Philly, where musicians began jamming at 3 a.m. on Sundays. “It was rude in a sense, but musicians had so much respect for him that they would get up and let him play. Nobody else would have been able to do that.”
‘A logical extension of Monk’
Sukoenig first heard about Ibn Ali from a friend, Dave Shrier, in 1962. “He said he had just heard an incredible pianist who sounded like a logical extension of Monk with technique like Bud Powell.” Later, while practicing his tenor sax in the student union at Houston Hall on campus, Sukoenig heard a piano through a vent in the wall. It was Ibn Ali, playing in the auditorium downstairs.
In 1963, his mother gave Sukoenig a portable tape recorder as a graduation gift, and he used it to record Ibn Ali playing solo. He and Porter hope to release that music on Omnivore as well. It showcases the pianist playing standards.
He and other Ibn Ali aficionados are thrilled that, four decades after his death, Metaphysics is shining light on the musician who, as Pope puts it, “created so many things that he didn’t get credit for.”
“Hasaan has always been a Philadelphia legend,” says Porter, “but I feel that this album has really broken through that. Now there’s an international buzz about him.”
Sukoenig is equally gratified, but not sure the attention would have mattered much to Ibn Ali. “We wanted to do it in his memory, to bring him to his rightful place,” he says. “But Hasaan wasn’t particularly concerned about that kind of thing. He was concerned about playing the piano, all the time.”