When asked what he found special about a recently discovered 85-year-old, piano-playing resident of a Buffalo, New York retirement home, the champion of the hitherto unkown musician (Boyd Dunlop, the older brother of drummer Frankie Dunlop) replied that he was moved most by Boyd's sense of "fearlessness," which only an older musician would possess, a "musical bravery" that allowed him to play what he felt without any need to worry about listeners' (or other musicians') reactions. A similar quality is in evidence on this recording, but the fearlessness is of a different, quieter order. Hank Jones and Charlie Haden exhibit such courage in: 1. their selection of a repertory of "common" hymns and spirituals and 2. their minimalist, practically "devout" fidelity to the material.
On hymns such as "The Old Rugged Cross" and "Blessed Assurance" the pianist seems to take the utmost care not to be guilty of "jazzing up" the melody or of substituting more modern, "hipper" chords and voicings. The formula is usually: A. straightforward, reverential playing of the song the first time through followed by B. minimal improvisation the 2nd time around. Sometimes the formula is varied, with Haden taking the melodic lead, as on "Down By the Riverside," and occasionally either instrumentalist will play a mainstream, "swinging" improvisation on tunes like "Give Me That Old Time Religion." But such moments are necessarily abbreviated by the requirements of the song, and when Jones deems it inappropriate to risk a "boppish" phrase, he comes close to outlining the chords by arpeggiating them rather than using them as departure points for anything adventurous.
In some respects it's a daring approach in its very simplicity. While some reviews have compared the recording to the pair's previous "Steal Away" or to Haden's "Rambling Boy," other predecessors spring readily to mind, especially tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons' "Preachin'," consisting of Jug's playing hymns to the accompaniment of his church organist. Cyrus Chestnut also made the approach work on his version of "Sweet Hour of Prayer" but with more "modern" harmonies than any of those employed on "Come Sunday."
This isn't a piano-with-bass-accompaniment album but, as might be expected, a joint project with both men joining their "voices" in performing this familiar material, while remaining open to the discovery of yet deeper registers of meaning in these time-tested hymns and spirituals. If there's one hymn that this reviewer (as a piano-playing P.K) wishes the duo had included (partly because the melodies of "Nearer My God to Thee" and "Deep River," both played in Eb, are sufficiently alike to make one or the other expendable), it's the infectious, unforgettable "In the Garden" ("Oh, He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am his own"). On the other hand, the performance of the final Duke Ellington anthem, "Come Sunday," is at once so compelling and accessible that a listener can't help but wonder why it's not found in any Christian--or more ecumenical--collection of spiritual favorites. (Has anyone seen it in such a context, or even a communal songbook?)
In his last years it's apparent that Hank went to the "sustain pedal" more frequently as a means of compensating for any diminishing strength in his touch (even playing triple pianissimo can require exceptional control). But the more one listens to these ostensibly transparent performances, the more one becomes conscious of some of the pianist's unique additions--especially his employment of lower octaves and bass notes that would seem gratuitous with the presence of Haden. In each instance, his thoughtful additions advance the cause of the song rather than that of the performer or performance, making the hidden power of these spiritual prayers, invocations, and songs of thanksgiving suddenly surprise us regardless of how often we've sung them. But such moments also serve as reminders that with certain musicians it's a mistake to take as much as a single note for granted. Certainly neither Hank Jones nor Charlie Haden does.